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Two Catholic Heavyweights Debate The Value And Limits Of The Free Market


Just west of Grand Central Station in New York City is a line of prestigious clubs associated with our country’s old, elite colleges. On a rainy Tuesday night, the Princeton Club of New York held a debate hosted by The King’s College between two of the foremost Catholic thinkers in America. R.R. Reno, editor of First Things magazine, and Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute, squared off over the question of whether free markets promote human flourishing.

The Princeton club isn’t quite what one expects. It doesn’t have a dark, wood-paneled, overstuffed armchair décor, where Bertie Wooster and Gussie Fink-Nottle might be throwing rolls at each other. Rather, it looks like a high-end Danish hotel from the 1990s. The more modern atmosphere was apropos of a very modern discussion about the roles of the Catholic Church and Catholics under the current political and economic environments.

The Two Men Open Their Remarks

In his opening remarks, Reno painted an almost Trumpian and dystopic picture of a world in which global oligarchies, from multinational corporations to non-governmental organizations, are eroding traditional Christian culture. Later in the debate he said he was cautiously pessimistic about the idea that government can change that, and it’s the best chance.

Some of his proposals included higher taxes on corporations, the wealthy, and Internet companies, as well as a return to Sabbath laws. In the place of super-powerful global market players, he wants more government assistance for small or midsize companies, arguing convincingly that such enterprises create a greater feeling of solidarity in society.

While Reno focused on macroeconomic and political trends, Sirico focused on a microcosm of society, in his case a parish. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, and sounds like it. But his parish is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he arrived six years ago. When he arrived he found it moribund, far removed from the glory days of the early twentieth century, when Polish workers donated their pennies to fund the beautiful church.

Likewise the parish school, with only 68 kids, was what he called “quasi-Catholic.” He described attending a seventh-grade dance in what he called a nightclub setting, complete with young girls in slinky dresses. Sirico changed the school dramatically, instituting daily Mass, firing teachers who were uncomfortable with theology, and ending the state-sponsored lunch in favor of parish solutions. The school now has 310 students and the parish is thriving.

If Humans Are Corrupt, How Should We Distribute Power?

As the debate moved on, a lot of agreement emerged about the ills of society and what a healthier spiritual society would look like. But for Reno, using the power of government, not only to protect spirituality but to economically to make space for it, is necessary. Here Reno got back to the idea of supersized international organizations that have no deference to the nation-state. The problem with this, he argued, is that the nation-state is the primary way in which the poor hold the rich accountable in a democratic society.

Here, Sirico pivoted slightly by saying free markets are not intrinsically good—after all, slavery represents a market. Indeed, he said, like any human freedom, free markets can lead to bad, even evil decisions. But when we curtail freedom by creating bureaucracies that coerce us, those very bureaucracies are just as prone, if not more prone, to dismantling spiritual life and traditional morality.

In closing, Reno looked back to 1989 and the fall of communism as the beginning of a new journey for the United States and the world. While he admits the global capitalism we embarked upon then has met some of its goals, he argues it is now in crisis. That’s not because it’s failing and people are starving, but because political support for it in the West is evaporating. People feel disconnected from the mechanisms of power and, in his words, “We must save global capitalism from its own excesses.”

Sirico’s closing remarks, perhaps unsurprisingly, felt much more like a sermon. He began by talking about creation, of humans and the conditions of scarcity, which give rise to work and eventually markets. This he called the anthropological root of the question. For him, the central aspect of work and markets is freedom.

He sees his biggest disagreement with Reno as over what constitutes the most important current threat to human freedom. He almost seemed to be accusing his opponent of a Fukuyamian fallacy about the complete victory of global capitalism. He is more afraid of the potential political abuse of systems meant to curtail economic freedom than of the often pernicious tendencies of economic freedom itself.

Important Questions for This Time

At a time when many Catholics are troubled by the political and economic ideas of a next-generation pope with a Twitter account, these questions and arguments are of extraordinary importance. Both Reno and Sirico laid out strong arguments for their own sides. One is captivated by hearing the other describe the powerful mission God gives every individual. But one also feels unease at a global system of power the former describes that at best cares not for spiritual and human flourishing, and at worst disdains it.

Debates are not generally about compromise, but winning. I have no idea who won this debate. Frankly, “Do free markets promote human flourishing” is a squishy enough proposition that possibly no clear winner was possible. What is possible, after listening to the important concerns of both of these esteemed Catholic men, is to understand that we need action both globally and in our parishes.

My inclination is to focus more energy on that local, parish level. The results are clearer, easier to calculate, and accrue faster. If every Catholic in America dedicated one hour a week, or one more hour a week, to parish work, the results would likely dwarf any program any government could ever cook up in committee. But to ignore the very real problem Reno describes, the declining faith in political and economic institutions, comes with its own pitfalls.

Wherever one lands, it is right and just to be grateful that two such thoughtful men are working to address these problems and concerns with affability, wit, and eloquence.