Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tragedy of American Compassion


By Marvin Olasky
(Regnery Gateway: Washington, D.C., 1992); 299 p.p., hardback. $21.95.
Reviewed by Robert A. Sirico, CSP
July 22, 1992

No doubt you have had the experience of being stopped on the street by a somewhat inebriated panhandler. Whether or not you reached into your pocket and pulled out a dollar, perhaps the thought went through your mind, as it has through mine, "Maybe I'm not really doing this guy a favor by providing him with more money to buy cheap wine."

If you've experienced this sense of ambivalence in the face either of the panhandler, or the welfare system as a whole, and if you felt guilty about it, Marvin Olasky's book is for you.

The Tragedy of American Compassion is an excellent study of this frequently misunderstood topic, and will, one hopes, dispel the politically correct miasma in which so many well-intended people dwell with regard to assistance to those economically indigent. This book is particularly timely in light of the aftermath of the King verdict and the search for an appropriate social response.

Professor Olasky is not merely musing on these matters from some safe ivory tower. In 1990 he put on some old clothes and a cap and left his suburban home to roam the streets of Washington, D.C., and take a firsthand look at what the life of the poor and homeless is really like.

What he found concerned him, and prompted him to study the history of the compassion industry in the United States. His basic discovery was that the problem of poverty was much less a problem of getting material assistance to those in need, as much as it was a problem of establishing a human bonding, what he calls "affiliation," which in turn provides role models and incentives for those who want to find a way out of economic deprivation.

Dr. Olasky, a professor of  journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, provides us with a  readable yet thoroughly documented survey of the way in which poverty has been dealt with in  American history. His research demonstrates that the current dilemma is not fundamentally different from what we have confronted in our past, and his work ought to provide contemporary policy planners with a road map of the pitfalls to avoid.

As Dr. Olasky sees it, the failure of the welfare state lies in the subtle yet definite shift in an understanding of what compassion is.

True compassion, he reminds us, means to "suffer with" another. The bureaucratization of compassion, on the other hand, has reduced its meaning to "giving to" another, and Dr. Olasky concludes that this political compassion constitutes "the substitution of depersonalized dependence for true compassion." These differing definitions produce differing approaches to poverty, with differing effectiveness in ameliorating it.

Mr. Olasky documents the consequences of politicized compassion:

  • With the rise in governmental welfare programs comes a decline in individual giving to the usually more cost-effective, private charities;
  • Public assistance makes poor Americans more dependent, as more than 40% of  the poor themselves report;
  • The shift from seeing welfare programs as temporary charitable assistance for the "worthy poor" to seeing these programs as "entitlements" and "rights" has resulted in a permanent and ever-expanding pool of  applicants. 
  • With an increase in governmental programs for single mothers comes a decreased sense of marital obligation and the erosion of  the institution of marriage and the family.

Early in his work, Mr. Olasky explodes the myth that the United States awaited the New Deal to introduce well-funded and effective poverty fighting programs. By unearthing newspaper accounts, diaries, board minutes, and financial records, Mr. Olasky is able to reconstruct the fascinating history of agencies (mostly religious) that offered material assistance, as well as friendship, guidance, and spiritual support to unwed mothers, alcoholics, widows, orphans. immigrants, and a host of others in need, thereby touching the deeper human need represented by poverty.

I have two criticisms of this otherwise splendid work. The first is the recurring blemish of Mr. Olasky's use of the phrase "points of light." Perhaps if this phrase, poetic as it is, were not so closely associated with President Bush, whose administration, at least in part, appears enamored of the very welfare state so masterfully laid to waste in this particular text, it would not be so distracting.

My second criticism is somewhat more serious and has to do with what I consider a very dangerous recommendation made in the closing chapter of the book. Knowing that it is frequently the very religious inspiration of private charitable agencies that enables them to minister with authentic compassion to those in need, Dr. Olasky argues that such charities ought to be able to receive government grants without anti-religious strings attached.

This line of reasoning, however, overlooks the fact that the negative impact of governmentally funded programs is not solely due to their lack of spiritual orientation although this is certainly a major factor. The problem is deeper.

In addition to their secular bias, the very nature of tax-supported bureaucracies, with their lack of direct, non-political accountability to their funding source (i.e., the taxpayer),  results in a set of economic disincentives to actually get people out of poverty, as the whole of Mr. Olasky's book demonstrates. The last thing in the world we need is to set that deleterious dynamic into motion within the only institutions proven capable of attacking the very root of poverty.

The Tragedy of American Compassion demonstrates how bad charity drives out good charity and how the problem with current welfare policy is not that it is too lavish but that it is too stingy in what it offers to the poor.  It should be made required reading for anyone in the compassion business. For some, this may indeed be a mortification to see the received wisdom of the welfare establishment so cogently challenged.

Yet, this will be no more painful a penance than the unintended misery resulting from not meditating on and applying the truths of human nature Professor Olasky so finely retrieves and elucidates.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims
by Robert A. Sirico
March 13, 1990

The story behind the story of the crushing defeat of the Sandinistas is as interesting as the upset itself. Why has this democratic victory surprised so many in the U.S., notably in the religious community?

The answer lies in part in the religious press, which all too frequently towed the Sandinista line imported by liberal pilgrims who had gone to Managua for confirmation of their faith in the revolution. Turn to the classified section of most U.S. religious periodicals. You will find evidence of a cottage industry dedicated to sending North Americans to Central America to see for themselves the degree of support for the revolution.

The pages of the National Catholic Reporter provide a good example. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian who writes frequently for the Reporter, returned from Nicaruaga breathless at the “riot of political liberty” she observed there (Feb. 23). “No need to worry about the names or ideas being overheard,” she reported. The Nicaraguans interviewed by the pollsters clearly didn’t share this opinion. Neither did the bishop I spend an evening with in Managua in January. As we sat talking in his rectory, he literally looked over his shoulder before mildly criticizing the government.

Based on this and other discussions I had during my stay in Nicaragua, it was no surprise to me that the Sandinistas were routed. When I returned to the U.S. I publicly predicted that if the elections were free and secret, as it appears they would be, the Sandinistas would be turned out because they did not enjoy general support. When I stated this at a meeting of people interested in Central America, some other veterans of Nicaraguan field trips disagreed. My contention was that they were na├»ve, if well-intentioned, pilgrims who went supporting the revolution, and failed to notice that somewhere along the line it had been co-opted. They replied that they were sure they had “been in touch with the people.” That was on Feb. 14.

This grand hypothesis was slain by one ugly little fact: the events of Feb. 25. To understand the depth of voters’ rejection of the Sandinistas is not enough to say that Violetta Chamorro received 55% of the vote. One must add to this number the 5% who voted for minor candidates and put on top of that an additional 10% or so for those who voted with their feet by leaving the country before the election and who were not allowed to vote by absentee ballot. Consider also that, given the context of the fear that distorted the polls, of the 40% who did vote for the Sandinistas, a portion of that number could be considered soft, especially where people worked for the government.

This all amounts to an overwhelming rejection. Yet everyone was so surprised: the media, the pollsters, the religious community and the Sandinistas.

Even the U.S. administration, days before the election, began to prepare for a Sandinista victory. An awkward question thus arises: If the administration seriously thought the Sandinistas were popular enough to survive a free vote, why did it maintain trade sanctions and support the Contras?

Conservatives too have set themselves up for criticism. While supporting an economic embargo against Nicaragua in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on the government for a more open and free society, they also opposed sanctions against South Africa arguing (correctly, I believe) that an economic embargo would hurt the very people it is designed to help.

It is true that the Contra war and the economic boycott harmed the Nicaraguan economy. Unfortunately this allows the Sandinistas to excuse their mismanagement of the economy and obscure the fundamental reason for their rejection. Nicaraguans rejected them for the same reason Eastern Europeans rejected communist regimes: The Sandinistas socialized the economy, systematically drove out enterprise, and curtailed civil liberties. They created a hostile environment for the only mechanism known to produce wealth: the free market. This did not harm just big landowning oligarchs whose holdings were questionable even from a capitalistic frame of reference. Small-businessmen, professionals, and a host of would-be entrepreneurs were driven out as well.

The healing of Nicaragua is only just commencing. Much must be done to create a climate of liberty and stability. One hopes that this will be done without control from outside powers. It is clear, however, that these war-torn, noble and hospitable people have, like their Eastern European counterparts, taken the first fledging steps in this direction.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Video: ‘Fighting Poverty: We’ve Been Doing it All Wrong’


Yahoo! Finance’s Stock Analyst, Kevin Chupka, recently interviewed Rev. Robert Sirico about the “Cure for Income Inequality” and the work of PovertyCure. Chupka begins by stating that “close to half the planet lives on less than $2 dollars a day” and that an alarming number of Americans are living below the poverty line. He then states that despite all the good intentions, decades of charitable giving hasn’t done much to end this problem. Chupka and Sirico discuss PovertyCure’s mission to “challenge the status quo and champion the creative potential of the human person;” looking for ways to engage the poorest of the poor in trade rather than simply giving them money and hoping for the best.
Read ‘Fighting poverty: We’ve been doing it all wrong.’ at Yahoo! Finance.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sainthood Will Seal Two Pope's Places in History

On April 27, the Christian world will change. The largest Christian denomination on earth, the Catholic Church, will commit itself irrevocably to the legacy of two men who helped to reform it — Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II — by proclaiming them saints.

John XXIII was the man who stunned his advisers by summoning the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of bishops from around the world with the mission of re-proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, stripped of historical accretions that tied the church to the dead world of 19th-century monarchies out of fear of revolutions.

At the heart of that council was the Church’s embrace of religious liberty for all believers of every faith — a life-and-death issue to the hundreds of millions of Christians then imprisoned by communism.

One of the architects of that council was a bishop who lived in the captive nation of Poland, Karol Wotyjla. He would go on, of course, to serve as Pope John Paul II and play a key role in dismantling the Soviet empire and bringing religious freedom to half a continent.

Now their roles as prophetic preachers of the Gospel will be sealed in the eyes of history by their successor, Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has been pope just over one year, and one interesting way to look at each of these men is to observe the commentaries on the first year of each pontificate and observe how remarkably similar the reactions are: They were all unlikely men who came to a papal conclave planning to vote for another man, thinking they would soon return to their respective dioceses; two of the three from outside Italy and each, in his own way, winning the hearts of the people immediately by a sense that he would be his own person, personable, accessible, and close to the people.

Will Francis change the church in as profound a way as the men whom he recognizes this week? Only time will tell, but it seems to me unlikely. There are few remaining "inessential" issues where the church really does need to catch up with the times. Maybe a few more bishops will sell their palaces and go live among the people. No doubt the views of the vast and growing church in the developing world will find more of a voice in papal statements on economics and politics, counterbalancing the perspectives of older but shrinking churches in places like Germany and Italy.

But on the core issues that exercise the secular media, the church’s insistence on faithfulness to human dignity, marital fidelity, and the sanctity of life, nothing will change, because it cannot.

No pope has the authority to revoke or revise the moral law that is "written on the human heart." His role is simply to proclaim it. And in a world that desperately wishes not to listen, that’s a hard enough job.

All Christians should wish Pope Francis well, as a voice that speaks out against the fallenness of our hearts and the shallowness of our culture, pointing our eyes ever backward to the words and deeds of an itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

This article originally appeared on Newsmax.com.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rev. Sirico on President Obama’s Meeting with Pope Francis

In this short talk, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, co-founder and president of the Acton Institute, offers some general observations about the recent meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican.  Rev. Sirico also reflects on the differences in philosophy that make a Presidential/Papal alliance, such as what occurred during the time of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, unlikely.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pope Francis, without the politics

Pope Francis has captured the imagination of many people over the last year-plus -- not all of them Catholics. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP/Getty Images
In 2005 I was invited to Rome by the BBC to provide commentary for the events surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent conclave that would elect Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI. On the day the cardinals entered the conclave, I was on camera with the veteran BBC correspondent Brian Hanrahan (who died in 2010) and who seemed incredulous that the College of Cardinals might elect Ratzinger who had just given a memorable homily to the cardinals in which he decried the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Could so narrow-minded a man, I was in effect asked, become pope?

I argued that Ratzinger was well-known to each of the cardinals and that, he more than any other, had the best chance of being elected. I allowed, however, that perhaps “a friendlier version” of Ratzinger could be elected, and speculated that perhaps this might be “Bergoglio of Argentina.” I was about eight years off.
So, on a rainy March evening in Rome last year, finding myself unexpectedly once again present for a conclave, I was familiar with the man who would walk on to the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Nonetheless, this pope of many firsts (the first to take the name Francis, the first Jesuit, the first from the Americas) was ready with a number of surprises of his own. For those of us who follow the papacy, Pope Francis provides a constant stream of material for reflection.

For commentators accustomed over the past 30 years of explaining the meaning of dense theological and philosophical magisterial texts which were the norm prior to this pontificate, the simplicity and spontaneity of Pope Francis’ style can be confusing and somewhat deceptive.

Whereas his predecessor had largely taught in very precise words and nuanced argument, Francis speaks boldly through effective and moving gestures. One tender and manifestly genuine embrace of a deformed man is worth an entire encyclical on love. And in the age of the Internet, it is more instantly accessible to millions of people.

It is no surprise that the man who took as his model and name the model of il poverello of Assisi would place the poor as a central concern of his pontificate: their dignity, their rights and their sustenance. Yet, the spontaneous gestures and the impromptu manner in which they are displayed ought not to beguile us into thinking this pope is offering a superficial dichotomy between left and right; between capitalism and socialism. To think that any pope, but especially this pope, is animated in his concern for the poor and vulnerable by a particular political ideology is to miss him completely.

While renouncing the notion that the market alone is sufficient to meet all human needs, Francis is also prepared to denounce a “welfare mentality” that creates a dependency on the part of the poor and reduces the Church to the role of being just another bureaucratic NGO. The complexity of his thought surprises some, on both the Right (some of whom worry, needlessly, that he is a liberation theologian) and the Left (who are already using his words to foment a political “Francis Revolution” in his name). Such tendencies reveal a rather anemic understanding of this man but also of Catholicism, which has historically been comfortable balancing the tensions of apparent paradoxes (Divine/human; Virgin/Mother; etc.). It is too facile a temptation to collapse 2,000 years of tradition, commentary and lived experience into four or five politically-correct hot button sound bites that are the priority, not of the Church, but of propagandists with an agenda.

If one wants to understand Francis’ thinking about the poor, it would be good to look objectively at his much talked about, but little-read Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” It soon becomes apparent that much of this Exhortation is an extension of a keen insight that Jorge Bergoglio had when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires:

We cannot respond with truth to the challenge of eradicating exclusion and poverty if the poor continue to be objects, targets of the action of the state and other organizations in a paternalistic and aid-based sense, instead of subjects, where the state and society create social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and allow them to be builders of their own destiny.

As one who has promoted a free economy as a normative way to assisting people out of poverty, I find two innovative challenges in these words which could go a long way to depoliticizing the debate about wealth and poverty.

Imagine if all of those presently engaged in the debate on these matters began to ask questions such as, “What excludes the poor from the process of prosperity?” or “What would a society look like that no longer considers the poor as objects of paternalistic aid but rather as potential shapers of their own destiny?”
The particular details of policy prescriptions are not the heart and soul of Francis’ incredible attraction on the part of people throughout the world. It is not his political motivation that moves us as we witness his embrace by — and of — frail human life.

In a monumental and unanticipated way Pope Francis is changing the tired conversations of the past and inviting us to engage in a process of healing so desperately needed in our world today. Almost single-handedly he is changing the way in which people view Catholicism, not by changing Catholicism, but by retrieving many of its own treasured traditions and putting them out front.

His strategy comes from his view of the Church and it is not secret. It is simple, and he stated himself clearly. He sees the Church as a field hospital after a battle.

“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” he said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.”
Heal the wounds, yes. And then awaken society to the greatest resource of all: the human person. That is the path out of poverty.

This post originally appeared in The Detroit News. 


Monday, December 16, 2013

Rev. Sirico Comments on ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ and the Economic Views of Pope Francis

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, co-founder and president of the Acton Institute, offers some general observations about the new “Apostolic Exhortation” published Nov. 26 by Pope Francis. Specifically, Rev. Sirico addresses the economic content of the work, titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel) and poses some questions for further reflection.