Sunday, August 21, 2005

Against "Straw Man" Tactics -- A Response to Thomas Storck and Stephen Hand

David from La Nouvelle Theologie alerted me to an article on TCRNews by Thomas Storck, provocatively titled Fr. Sirico's New Gospel. Thomas Storck was a contributor to the now-defunct Caelum et Terra and is a contributing editor to The New Oxford Review and Traditional Catholic Reflections & Reports ( -- the latter two have, as of late, fallen into the unfortunate habit of launching "straw man" attacks against all those with whom they disagree (usually lumped together under the label "neocon"). This recent article by Storck is no exception.

It begins:

Fr. Robert Sirico is a priest who runs an organization called the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is dedicated to spreading the philosopy, so often condemned by the Church, of classical liberalism. Part of this classical liberal outlook is whole-hearted support for a largely unfettered free market. Just lately Fr. Sirico has taken a turn in praise of the rich, from whom he receives many donations. He writes, "As much as some might not like the rich, or as much as they might find them distasteful as a class, the rich are society's benefactors" (President's Message Acton Notes, July 2005). Such saluatary teaching! It is a shame that our Lord, and the inspired writers of Holy Scripture seemed to think otherwise about the rich. But, for fun, let's put Fr. Sirico's characterization of the rich, as "society's benefactors," into some passages of Scripture to see how they sound. Let's begin with our Lord . . .

The first paragraph alone gives one a sense of the rest of the article. Storck posts various scriptural criticisims of the wealthy (or, perhaps more specifically, the temptation to be wealthy as an obstacle to salvation -- Matthew 19:23-24; Luke 1:53; 6:24, 18:22-23; I Timothy 6:6-9; James 5:1-4). Apparently Storck is no stranger to the typically Protestant method of scriptural proof-texting, placing himself solely in the right and Fr. Sirico at odds with Jesus, from which he arrives at the following conclusion:

Doubtless Fr. Sirico and his followers will claim that things have changed since the time of our Lord. Under capitalism men no longer exploit their fellow men, rather one becomes rich by seeing some unmet need and selling us something that fills that need. Well, at least by persuading us that we have some unmet need and that only their product will meet that need. And of course, always at a just price and never with any exploitation of their employees. The fact that factories keep moving to places where the wages are lower and lower, from the American "rust belt" to the American South, then to Mexico and Central America, to India and China, wherever wages are lower and worker protections fewer - none of this of course means that the wages of their laborers were "kept back by fraud" nor that their cries will ever reach "the ears of the Lord of hosts." Of course not! Fr. Sirico himself assures them that they are "society's benefactors."

But the real difficulty lies deeper. Either Jesus Christ is God the Son, the Eternal Logos or he is not. If he is, then what he has said, about riches or about anything else, applies not only to the time when he was on this earth, but to all times. Arguments based on changes that are said to have taken place in economics cannot negate the Gospel, any more than arguments based on changes said to have taken place in our knowledge of sociology can negate the teaching of Gospel on marriage or the family. Thus Fr. Sirico becomes the herald of a new Gospel, the friendly American Gospel of wealth and comfort. But recall some other words of the Apostle Paul: "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:3).

The blog Caelum Et Terra has already taken note of Storck's article, finding his tactic very clever. (If that's the case, they might get a kick out of any number of Protestant apologists who can bend and twist scripture to their will). There's already a good discussion going on between commentators, but I'd like to take a moment to respond to Storck's charges myself.

Let's start with the beginning, noting that Storck cites ONE SENTENCE from Fr. Acton. If we go to the source [July 2005 Acton Notes], we can find the full paragraph from which it was conveniently excerpted:

As much as some might not like the rich, or as much as they might find them distasteful as a class, the rich are society’s benefactors. They provide the capital base on which new investments are made and financed. They provide support for the arts, education, and charity. They fuel the luxury-goods industry—the most innovative market sector—with the result that these products (the Internet or wireless technology, for example) eventually become affordable and available to all.

One wonders if there is anything in that paragraph with which readers of this blog would honestly disagree.

For example, on my coffee table is a pile of books from a public library that probably wouldn't be around if not for the continued financial support of the wealthy.

One activity I enjoy doing on occasion is visiting an art or history museum that is maintained in part by wealthy "patrons of the arts."

The discoveries of science and medicine and technology that have helped rid the world of disease, lengthened humanity's lifespan, and facilitated the growth of human civilization have no doubt been assisted by the backing of wealthy philanthropists.

Right now, I'm typing this post on a computer that probably wouldn't exist today were it not for "rich benefactors." I use a Mac, and some might recall that Steve Jobs / Steve Wozniak started out in the Job's family garage prior to securing venture capital to become Apple Computer. You bet I'm grateful for the "rich benefactor" who decided to give them a helping hand).

Storck goes on to gripe: "Under capitalism men no longer exploit their fellow men, rather one becomes rich by seeing some unmet need and selling us something that fills that need. Well, at least by persuading us that we have some unmet need and that only their product will meet that need. And of course, always at a just price and never with any exploitation of their employees."

I presume Thomas Storck and Stephen Hand type their manifestos against the rich on similar computers, and would concede as to the usefulness. Surely they don't "need" them -- computers don't exactly constitute the "staples of survival" for you or I. Nor do telephones for that matter. But I'm thankful that I have one, and the blessings it has brought me in the form of communication with friends and family. I'm presently watching a movie on the early life of Pope John Paul II on television -- film and television both being superflous forms of entertainment, and by no means material "needs." What's the point of this? -- While it is correct to recognize that which we truly need in life from our "wants," it would be misleading to denounce the economic process for providing us such material comforts and the pleasures we enjoy in life.

But this is not so say that the free market (or what John Paul II cautiously praised as the "business economy" or "market economy") is subject to exploitation, corruption, and the promotion of decadent consumerism. The market, like all other human endeavors, is only as good as we make it. Does Fr. Sirico condone exploitation of employees? Storck gives nary a mention of the Whig-Thomist emphasis that our conduct of business must be informed by moral virtue or their agreement with JPII's worthy criticisms of the defects of capitalism. But if to support the free market automatically makes one a supporter of wage-slavery (as the Zwicks labeled Cardinal Dulles), one might as well lump John Paul II in the same boat, as I've demonstrated in my last post.

I do not believe in demonizing the rich or in reifying the wealthy a butt for scorn, derision and condemnation. That Thomas Storck engages in this tactic in forming a criticism of Fr. Sirico is disappointing and I would hope better from him. As for Fr. Sirico, we can gather what his true opinion is on "the rich" by asking him that very question -- or so did in a May 1, 2000 interview (Can a Camel Pass through the Eye of a Needle?):

ZENIT: There are those who think that one must be poor and oppressed to be saved and that wealth is synonymous with perdition.

FR. SIRICO: It is neither poverty nor wealth that saves a person. Only God's grace saves. St. Augustine said that it was not poverty that saved Lazarus, but his humility. It is not wealth that gives us God's blessing, but our moral conduct. Catholic tradition has always tried to distinguish between the opportunities and temptations that come with wealth. It has never canonized the poor "a priori" or demonized the rich, although it has called all, rich and poor alike, to commit their life to responsibility, generosity and sanctity.

* * *

It's come to my attention that this is not the first time Thomas Storck has engaged in such spurious criticism of Fr. Sirico. See his article "Can Economic Justice be Achieved Without Law? (New Oxford Review October 2000). The article is available on NOR's website for a fee. Here is Fr. Sirico's response, in which he rebutes Storck's attempt "to extrapolate from an excerpt a whole worldview to which [he] does not ascribe" -- a familiar strategy that is employed by Stephen Hand ( and the Zwicks (Houston Catholic Worker).

From Fr. Sirico's response to Thomas Storck we can get a better sense of where he stands with respect to the issues:

I write in reply to an article in the October issue, “Can Economic Justice Be Achieved Without Law?” by Thomas Storck.

Mr. Storck criticizes the following statement of mine: “The way to have people make better choices is not to coerce their economic decision-making, but to inform their personal morality.” Unfortunately, Storck extrapolates from this excerpt an entire worldview to which he assumes I ascribe, including the idea that economic activity is an end in itself. Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I have claimed again and again that this is not the case. Economics is important but not total; it can provide truth about man, but not the whole truth; it is a necessary part of human existence, but it is not sufficient for human thriving.

Acton Notes, from which Storck draws his inference of my views, is a brief, popularly oriented monthly newsletter sent to donors and supporters of the Acton Institute. Anyone truly interested in gaining a robust, complete, and properly nuanced view of my positions and those of the Institute would do well to read at least a portion of the many monographs, scholarly articles, and other written materials that have been produced by the Institute over the past 10 years, especially our journal Markets and Morality (most of which is available at

In the quotation Storck cites, I was simply attempting to make the point about the kind of non-coercive truth the Church proposes to the world that is outlined by John Paul II. In reference to the imposition of the true and good on others in the name of ideology, the Pope says, “Christian truth is not of this kind…the Church’s method is always that of respect for freedom” (Centesimus Annus [CA], n. 46). The model here, as Dignitatis Humanae (DH) points out, is Christ: “For He bore witness to the truth but refused to use force to impose it on those who spoke out against it” (DH, n. 11).

Contrary to the implication of the article, I am in full agreement with the traditional Christian understanding of freedom as being in necessary relation with the truth. John Paul II is especially good on this point: The notion of freedom exercised in relation to truth has been a resounding theme of his pontificate. To believe that freedom is not the equivalent of license, however, is not necessarily to fall back on the power of the state as the normative enforcer of morality. To say, for instance, that a person commits sin and distorts his freedom by gossiping about his friend is not to say that there must be laws against every sort of gossip in order for people to be truly free (even if well-considered laws against slander and libel might be justified). The law is not always the most effective or the most appropriate instrument for bringing about the recognition of truth and the commitment to live according to it. In other words, the law — like economics — is a means, not an end.

Storck misrepresents my statement as implying that the law is irrelevant to morality and the economy. The principle of subsidiarity clearly permits certain limited interventions when necessary, but warns that “such supplementary interventions, which are justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom” (CA, n. 48).

It would appear that a key difference between Storck and myself is that Storck believes that Church social teaching has specified exactly where, when, and how the government must intervene in society, while I believe that the Church has promulgated principles of social teaching, which are to be applied by people in the time and circumstances in which they find themselves. The exact extent and nature of government legislation on economic questions is a prudential question on which faithful Catholics may disagree. It is not a static dogma: “When it comes to reducing these teachings to action,” the Blessed Pope John XXIII wrote in reference to social teaching, “it sometimes happens that even sincere Catholic men have differing views” (Mater et Magistra, n. 238). Storck, contrary to John XXIII, seems to think that anyone who disagrees with him on whether or not the state should intervene in a particular case (again, one Catholic principle among many is that the state may and should intervene in some cases) cannot be at the same time a sincere and faithful Catholic.

The Church’s social teaching, the current Holy Father has emphasized, is a branch of moral theology — it is not economic theory, it is not social science, it does not answer technical questions concerning how effective a specific policy is or what are the best means to achieve a desired end. A corollary to this point is that the Church does not propose or endorse any economic system. “The Church has no models to present,” John Paul II insists, “models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political, and cultural aspects…” (CA, n. 43). Again, “The Church’s social doctrine is not a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions less radically opposed to one another; rather, it constitutes a category of its own” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 41).

It should be clear by now that the Church is not in the business of proposing specific economic plans, policies, or systems. She articulates the principles that ought to guide workers, businesspeople, politicians, and others participating in the economy. It is the task of those acting in the economic sphere to determine just how these timeless and indispensable principles apply in specific settings and circumstances. And on those applications, even “sincere Catholic men” can have different views.

One part of the mission of the Acton Institute is to educate the religious community on the merits of a scientific approach to economics and the exciting possibilities inherent in the project of unifying sound economic theory with transcendent truth. In this, we are following the principle that “the more men and women of science engage in rigorous research to penetrate the laws of the universe, the more insistent becomes the question of meaning and purpose, the more pressing the demand for contemplative reflection which cannot help but lead to a profound appreciation of the sense of man’s transcendence over the world, and of God over man” (John Paul II, Address to the International Conference on Space Research, Jan. 11, 1997).

Fr. Sirico's words speak for themselves. So too, I think, the tactic of deceptive quoting and false imputation by Thomas Storck.