Father Robert Sirico: Power Broker on the Rise

News & Politics

Father Robert Sirico and his Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are on a roll. Sirico, who has been operating below the radar of the mainstream media for more than a decade, is definitely moving on up. Late last year, more than 400 people gathered at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan to celebrate the Institute's 10th anniversary. Who is Father Robert Sirico and why are so many conservatives saying such nice things about him?

During the last 18 months, Father Sirico advised President George W. Bush on "charitable choice" and the future of welfare reform; responded to a call from the Vatican and edited a book delineating the Catholic Church's teachings on social justice issues; launched a right-wing religious environmental coalition; sponsored a conference on globalization at the Vatican; and published op-ed pieces in numerous U.S. dailies. Topping it off, Acton Institute advisory board member Father Avery Dulles, son of former secretary of state John Foster Dulles and nephew of former CIA head Allen Dulles, was designated a Cardinal by the Vatican.

Moving from left to right

Father Sirico has a colorful though rarely publicized background that includes a 1970s stint as a "roll-em-on-the-floor Pentecostal boy preacher, who was packing 1,500 people into a Seattle theater every week," says Jerry Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Project Tocsin. Sirico moved to Los Angeles, joining the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, and later served as executive director of what is now the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Sirico later termed this his "soft Marxist" period.

After embracing libertarianism, he turned to the Catholic Church. "I heard homilies preached that inevitably insulted business people," Sirico says, and he was determined to turn that around.

In 1990, Father Sirico founded Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Acton Institute. Named for historian and social philosopher Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, known as Lord Acton. The Institute's mission is to "promote a free and virtuous society, characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles."

In the mid-nineties, the Acton Institute, then little known outside of conservative circles played a significant role during the welfare reform debate by establishing its National Welfare Reform Initiative in 1995. A strong supporter of welfare reform, Father Sirico argued in congressional testimony for greater restrictions on welfare recipients and was an early advocate of moving social welfare programs into the hands of faith-based organizations.

According to The Right Guide, published by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Economics America, Inc., in 1997, 94 percent of the Acton Institute's $1.8 million budget came from contributions and grants from foundations, businesses and individuals. Major donors included the $100,000 from the Scaife Family Foundation, $50,000 from the Richard and Helen deVos Foundation, $50,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation and $40,000 from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation.

Revising the Church's social agenda

While many criticisms can be justly lodged against the Catholic Church, one thing is clear. It has been invaluable in its provision of services to the poor. Many priests and nuns were on the front lines with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement. Even President Bush recognized, in his recent speech at Notre Dame University, the charitable work of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Now, along comes Father Sirico with a strategy for subverting the progressive aspects of Catholic teachings on economic issues. He converts the Church's advocacy on behalf of the poor, promoted by John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, into a paean for the free market.

Since he disagrees with many of the social teachings of the Church, the news of his editing project for the Vatican was particularly chilling. According to the conservative National Catholic Register, Father Sirico was assigned to "sift out the most important passages from the social teachings of the popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II." The finished work, "The Social Agenda: A Collection of Magisterial Texts," a 225-page book containing nearly 370 quotations from some 75 Church documents, was released at the Vatican in April 2000. For Father Sirico, the central theme of the papal social encyclicals is "the principle of subsidiarity." This means that wherever possible responsibilities should be "handled at a lower organizational level" (read less government regulation and intervention). Sirico also emphasizes "the right to private property," aligning the Church's teachings with his own free market philosophy.

Professor Anthony Basile, in the September 1998 issue of Culture Wars, accuses Father Sirico of "portray[ing] poverty as the fault of the poor individual, and not due to social injustices," a fundamental departure from Catholicism. Basile sees the creation of the Institute's Center for Economic Personalism as facilitating the melding of ideology and practice to "indoctrinate all [its] seminarians and theology students along these ideological lines."

Religious right targets the environment

In time for Earth Day 2000, the Acton Institute helped launch the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), an organization aiming to inject conservative religious tenets into the environmental debate. Father Sirico believes that "environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not to preserve nature's beauty, but to restrict human enterprise that is essential to a more humane existence for people."

The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship, the organization's founding document, was the first major pronouncement on environmental issues by a coalition of ultraconservative religious groups. The Declaration prioritizes the needs of humans over nature, advocates the unleashing of free market forces to resolve environmental problems and denounces the environmental movement for embracing faulty science and a gloom-and-doom approach.

Signers of the Declaration include such right-wing ringleaders as Focus on the Family president Dr. James Dobson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, Prison Fellowship Ministries' head Charles Colson, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of Toward Tradition and Father Sirico. ICES' advisory committee contains Dr. D. James Kennedy of the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries, a controversial anti-gay leader and an outspoken denier of separation of church and state. Kennedy said that "if ever an issue needed sound Biblical Doctrine brought to bear upon it, it's the environment, and [ICES] accomplishes this." President Bush's "compassionate conservatism" guru Dr. Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism and history at the University of Texas, Austin, is also on board.

ICES's website maintains that its "network of religious, academic and community leaders" will provide a "credible alternative to liberal environmental advocacy for people in congregations, schools, government, and the religious and secular media."

In late November 2000, Father Sirico added globalization to his portfolio. Acton, along with the Pontifical Council for the Family, sponsored a Vatican City conference examining "the impact of globalization on the family." The conference was also an important development in the ongoing conversation between evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, as major players like Father Richard John Neuhaus, Dr. Dobson, Charles Colson, Rep. Chris Smith, (R-N.J.), and Catholic scholar Michael Novak were in attendance. At his late December meeting with Bush, Father Sirico remarked that "tackling the problem of poverty will require that persons of different religions, races, backgrounds and political persuasions, come together around a common agenda." Father Sirico's agenda mirrors the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who, in the chapter on Welfare in Heritage's "Issues 2000: The Candidates Briefing Book" emphasizes "marriage and responsible fatherhood," "educational choice" including charter schools, vouchers and tuition tax credits, and "empowering faith-based private charities through charitable tax credits and other reforms."

Father Robert Sirico's work at the Acton Institute covers a broad spectrum of hot button issues from reinterpreting Catholic social doctrine and the creation of a right-wing religious-based environmental organization, to advocacy for charitable choice and a reduction in government programs. His star is on the rise.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland-based freelance writer covering the Religious Right and related conservative issues and movements.

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