Interview: Rev. Robert Sirico
Support a Catholic Speaker Month is coming to a close. I am very fortunate to have Rev. Robert Sirico answer a few questions about his life, work, and human flourishing. I was eager to hear from Rev. Sirico especially in the midst of an election year and with the economy being a large piece of the discussion.
I would also like to thank Brandon Vogt for putting together such a great list of Catholic speakers.
JQ Tomanek: Can you briefly introduce yourself? How long have you been Catholic? Do you have any siblings? If there is ever a chance to visit Grand Rapids, where is the best place to dine? “Sirico” that is Czech right?
Reverend Sirico: Not enough consonants…! I am an Italian-American guy from a working class neighborhood who abandoned the practice of my faith from 13 years old until about 27 (long story – read the book). There were four Sirico kids in the household, I am the youngest. You may know that my brother is an actor who is best known for having played a gangster on HBO’s The Sopranos.
Grand Rapids is a great city with tons of great attractions; maybe even a Czech restaurant somewhere.
JQ Tomanek: Who is your favorite non-living Catholic author?
Reverend Sirico: Other than all the theologians and historians, I would say as a former English major, to my taste it is a draw between Flannery O’Connor and G.K. Chesterton. But for the sheer beauty of his prose, John Henry Newman’s, The Apologia.
JQ Tomanek: How long have you been a priest in the Catholic Church? What would you recommend to young adults that are discerning a call to serve Christ in the vocation of Holy Orders or religious life?
Reverend Sirico: I was ordained in 1989 and I would suggest that anyone young person thinking about a vocation to find a happy priest or nun and read some spiritual classics like St. Augustine’s Confessions. Worked for me and I was no easy case.
JQ Tomanek: In other interviews, you speak of the Acton Institute. What is this institute? What is origin of the name? What is the mission of this institute?
Reverend Sirico: When I was in seminary I grew frustrated hearing homilies preached or taking courses that inevitably insulted business people, and to my mind, mis-conceived the argument. I knew this was a serious error both theologically and pastorally. Theologically, because of the moral bankruptcy of socialism as an ideology. But pastorally because it alienated good people who were working and attempting to participate in the Christian mission.
In 1990 I decided to do something about this so I cofounded, along with Kris Alan Mauren, a research and educational institution that would promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. We named it the Acton Institute after the English historian, politician, and writer Lord Acton.
Lord Acton realized that economic freedom is essential to creating an environment in which religious freedom can flourish. But he also knew that the market can function only when people behave morally. So faith and freedom must go hand in hand. As he put it, “Liberty is the condition which makes it easy for conscience to govern”.
JQ Tomanek: One event that I have heard great stuff about is Acton University. Can you give us some information on what it involves? Who might be interested in it? How many attend?
Reverend Sirico: Acton University is really an exciting and intellectually stimulating time. It is a four-day conference that is structured like an actual university and held every summer in which participants explore the intellectual foundations of a free society. A distinguished, international faculty of economists, theologians, philosophers, and thinkers guide sessions on a variety of topics, ranging from Christian anthropology to medieval economics. This year we had over 800 people attend. It is amazingly diverse with people coming from many religious traditions and geographic locations.
The conference is open to undergraduate and graduate students, non-profit professionals, pastors, professors, business people, and anyone interested in deepening their understanding of the integration of sound economics, rigorous philosophy, and the Judeo-Christian faith.
JQ Tomanek: I have heard you mention the idea of “human flourishing.” What does this entail? What does it have to do with liberty?
Reverend Sirico: Human flourishing is the holistic unfolding of what God designs people to be. It means having the liberty to creatively and productively exercise our God-given gifts and skills in an integrated way that contributes both to the welfare of other people and to the glory of God.
Of course while I believe a free economy in a free society is conducive to human flourishing, much more is needed than mere freedom. Human flourishing requires objective standards of right and wrong which are embedded in nature, that is, virtue—the virtues revealed to us through reason and which receive confirmation through Revelation.
JQ Tomanek: Back in the day, holiness was misinterpreted as a cleric or religious life thing. How can a lay Catholic practice their faith? What are some ways to sanctify our work as lay Catholics? Is “ora et labora” just a monk thing?
Reverend Sirico: Yes, religious people are often tempted to become so “heavenly minded they are no earthly good” – as someone once said.
Ora et labora—prayer and work—should be a motto for all Christians, and the monks intended that to be the case. We need to respect the concrete reality of the world in which people spend most of their time: the “mundane” existence whereby people earn sufficient resources to support their families and fulfill their vocation to steward the earth. It is important that as Catholics we clearly communicate that work has great dignity and eternal significance. The Incarnation of the Lord was not so much Christ coming to earth as though he were an alien of some kind, but that he came through human agency (of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and worked in a carpenter’s shop.
JQ Tomanek: I think Ignitum Today, only after Acton PowerBlog of course, (don’t worry Ignitum Today readers, I really think you are the brightest) has the best and brightest readers, which means we like to learn. If I wanted to understand economics, where should I start? What are some good resources?
Reverend Sirico: Three good books to start with are Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded, by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg (the only one of the three with a solid theological orientation); Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, and the classic and easy to read, Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. Each of these books are excellent, accessible introductions to thinking about economics, but as I say, Gregg’s connects the theological dots in the argument. The website of the Acton Institute also has a wide-range of resources available.
JQ Tomanek: In some of my research for Catholic Social Teaching, I found a document called “The Social Agenda.” Can you explain what this document is?
Reverend Sirico: The Social Agenda resulted from conversations I had with the Cardinal who was then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (whose cause for canonization has begun in Rome). It was in preparation for the eventual promulgation of the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine and in effect began as a working document to aid in the preparation of the Compendium.
One frequently hears discussions about “Catholic social teaching” yet many people—including many Catholics—are unclear on what that means. In order to give people easy access to a selection of the themes of roots of Catholic Social Thought, I compiled, in collaboration with some colleagues, a collection of the central statements made on the topic by the Roman Pontiffs. The selections range from a variety of texts, including papal encyclicals, apostolic letters, and Conciliar documents, on matters relating to politics, economics, and culture. It is published by the Vatican and the entire collection can be accessed in several languages at www.thesocialagenda.org
JQ Tomanek: In the recent past, you have written a book regarding free economy or a business market called “Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy”. Below is an interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN about the book and current events. What are the top three ideas that you would like the reader to remember about the book?
Reverend Sirico: While I hope there are more than three “top ideas” in my book, which was published in May, here are three things to think about.
First, that an authentic anthropology is critical to living in society. The admonition given over the Temple at Delphi is applicable today, “Know Thyself”. Only once we have a clear understanding of who we are as human persons, can we realize that our authentic needs—and aspirations—entail something much larger than the material, which in turn enables us to integrate these legitimate material needs into a more comprehensive, richer view of life.
Second, that being active participants in a free economy does not necessarily, and ought not to entail consumerism. Consumerism is the muddled idea that only in having more can we be more. Consumerism is wrong not because material things are wrong. It’s wrong because it worships what is beneath us.
Third, that economics at its most fundamental level is not about money; it’s about human action. How we answer the big questions—Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is man?—has an enormous impact on every facet of our lives, including how we work and buy and sell, and how we believe such activities should be directed—on economics, in other words.
JQ Tomanek: Many Catholic universities offer MBA’s and graduate level economic studies. Do you recommend any particular programs here in America or abroad?
Reverend Sirico: The Catholic University of America – my alma mater! – is producing some very good programs in business, economics, and more recently, entrepreneurship. The latter is being overseen by my good friend Andreas Widmer, author of a great book, “The Pope and the CEO.” Strangely enough, a lot of MBA programs don’t take entrepreneurship seriously. I am happy to say that the business and economics programs at CUA do. A second place worth looking at carefully is the Mendoza School of Business at the University of Notre Dame. They take the idea of business as a vocation and make it central to the programs they produce. Lastly, I would consider the Opus School of Business at the University of St Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul. They have made a solid effort to integrate sound Catholic social teaching into some very instructive programs in business. Professors such as Robert G. Kennedy (author of a very good monograph published by Acton called “The Good that Business Does”) and Michael Naughton have produced some very good literature on the moral dimension of business in a market economy.
Abroad, the IESE Business School located in Barcelona and which is part of the University of Navarre is consistently ranked as among the very best business schools in the world. They have great programs and excellent professors who integrate Christian anthropology and natural law into their work in a way that is seamless.
JQ Tomanek: Ok, a difficult last question. Gucci or Allen Edmonds? I know that must be a very hard question. Are you going to choose a brand based on your heritage with a country of origin the same as Rome or the company across your pond in Port Washington?
Reverend Sirico: Honestly, I have never owned anything by Gucci, but you almost cannot wear out a pair of Allen Edmonds.
I would like to thank Rev. Robert Sirico for his generosity of time. You can follow him on Twitter @robertsirico and his Facebook page. Please visit Acton Institute online, it has a wealth of information. With nearly a quater million “Likes”, here is their facebook page. Their twitter handle is @ActonInstitute.