Priest rubbishes welfare system

By Simon Collins

An American theologian who advised US President George W. Bush on welfare reform is in New Zealand with an uncompromising message - that welfare leads to "moral decay".

Father Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest who heads a Michigan think-tank to integrate Christianity with free-market principles, spent the weekend at a retreat organised by Auckland's Maxim Institute.

He is also speaking to Business Roundtable members against policies to restrain climate change, arguing that they harm the poor.

He was one of a group of religious leaders who advised Mr Bush on how to achieve what the president called "compassionate conservatism".

But he opposes Mr Bush's "faith-based initiative" to fund religious social services, arguing that contracting imposes bureaucratic regulations on the churches and restricts their ability to proselytise.

"Some of the highest rates of sobriety in drug addiction come from some kind of religious encounter," he said. "When you say you can do the rehab but you can't do the Gospel, you are cutting your nose off to spite your face."

Father Sirico, 57, is a controversial figure who has moved from the left to the far right.

In the 1970s he was director of the Los Angeles Gay Community Centre and was a minister in a church that blessed same-sex marriages.

But he later returned to his original Catholic faith and says that he now accepts that homosexuality is a sin.

"Thirty years ago I was involved with the political left - the gay movement, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement," he said.

"Someone gave me some books, and over an extended period of time I have had two conversions. One was an economic/political conversion, and the second was a reconversion to my Catholic faith."

He now believes that the welfare state has failed to lift the poor out of poverty by creating a perverse incentive for people to stay on benefits, failing to help them overcome whatever obstacles are keeping them out of work, and neglecting the spiritual help that people need alongside money.

"The current welfare system is about politics and bureaucracy and takes over people's lives based on one-size-fits-all," he said. "But the problems of poverty are very individual, very nuanced. There are times when people need very direct charity, and other times when they need an infinite amount of patience. The bureaucratic mentality is not suited to this."

He believes that "direct charity" is best done by people motivated by spiritual beliefs who are prepared to make personal sacrifices, be creative and innovative and "think outside the box".

He advocates giving businesses and individuals the right to pay a portion of what would otherwise be their taxes directly to the charities of their choice, provided that the charities are recognised to be serving the poor. This would also have the economic advantage of keeping taxes low to encourage investment and economic growth.

"We need to reform the culture for people to take responsibility for their neighbours," he said.

"The problem with welfare societies is that when you have people relinquishing moral responsibility, you have moral decay as well. There is no guarantee that if you have a prosperous economy you are going to have a morally responsible society, but I think there is a greater chance than if you have the kind of weakening of the moral fabric that took place in the Soviet Union."

* Robert Sirico

A liberal gay activist in the 70s.

Converted to Catholicism and the market economy in the 1980s.

Founded Acton Institute in 1990 to "integrate Judaeo-Christian truths with free-market principles".

Helped to launch "Cornwall Declaration" in 2000, putting individual freedom ahead of "government-initiated management of the environment".

Advised George W. Bush on welfare reform in 2000.

In NZ with the Maxim Institute and Business Roundtable.

* www.acton.org
* www.cornwallalliance.org

- NZ Herald

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