As I have already detailed, Fr. Sirico of the Acton Institute has an essay well worth reading up at Patheos. In my last blog I challenged the way he framed the discussion because he (intentionally?) leads the reader to think that the harshest criticism and guilt by association with regard to Rand is coming from the Left. Here I want to highlight the graciousness of Fr. Sirico’s interpretation of Rand with how he has chosen to judge President Obama.
In his piece at Patheos, Fr. Sirico says the following:
Given the interest in the writings of Ayn Rand in the years since her death, and the intensification of that interest in the present American political climate brought to a head with the release of the first part of the Atlas Shrugged film trilogy, it is sorely disappointing to read and hear such hyperbolic and personal critiques of the woman and her thought.
What Sirico seems to be saying is that because Rand is an important public figure, and because her ideas are currently getting a hearing by large numbers of our fellow citizens, she deserves to be read and interpreted in nuanced ways, ways that do not reduce her views to slogans or demean her personhood. This is precisely the kind of charitable service to public discourse that I think priests can provide. They can help remind us of the human dignity in each person, they can help us appreciate the kernels of wisdom in people that we might disagree with, and they can help to elevate our debates over the Common Good. My problem is not so much with the message, but with the sad inconsistency of the messenger.
What am I getting at? Well, if you have not followed Fr. Sirico closely you are probably unaware of the fact that he has been one of President Obama’s least charitable critics. He has given the full weight of his standing as a Catholic priest to denounce Obama in exceedingly personal ways, ways that call into question Obama’s relationship to God and that cast his actions in the worst possible light.
OBAMA AT NOTRE DAME
When in 2009 Notre Dame chose to invite President Obama to give a commencement address and receive an honorary doctorate Father Sirico legitimized the most extreme anti-Obama elements in the Catholic Right with an open letter to the President of Notre Dame. Included in that letter were these words:
I feel compelled to write to you as a brother priest to express my own dismay at this decision which I see as dangerous for Notre Dame, for the Church, for this country, and frankly Father, for your own soul…And you may rest assured that I will make this sentiment known from my pulpit and in other public outlets as the occasions present themselves…It pains me to write this letter to you. I ask that you go before the Blessed Sacrament and look into your soul – the soul of priest – and reverse this decision before more scandal is brought to the Church.
OBAMA AT GEORGETOWN
That same year President Obama visited another Catholic university, Georgetown. In order to accommodate certain camera angles during his speech there, come religious symbols were covered. The White House explained the matter this way “Decisions made about the backdrop for the speech were made to have a consistent background of American flags, which is standard for many presidential events.” During the president’s speech, television cameras included religious symbols above the president and in the room that the president spoke in reporters noted 36 different religious symbols uncovered. Any charitable interpretation would have been satisfied that neither Georgetown University nor President Obama was intending to disrespect Jesus Christ or the Catholic Church by having the immediate backdrop for the president be consistent with the layout for presidential appearances. But this was not a moment for Fr. Sirico to show the kind of charitable interpretation that he is now urging us to take towards Ayn Rand. This was a moment for Fr. Sirico to assume the worst. He immediately took to the airways and to the internet to declare that President Obama was “capitalizing on a cultural shift” within Catholicism and maybe even “deliberately trying to divide Catholics”. He accused the leadership of Georgetown of being Catholics who are “embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who observe fast days, don't approve of abortion, think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, and hold conservative views on the other hot-button issues that Catholics in public life frequently get asked about by reporters.” He was quick to frame the entire incident as one of faithfulness to God versus capitulation to a Catholic-dividing president, asking “if the Georgetown episode doesn't reflect an identity crisis -- the religious family that was once the Church's leading defender blots out their name (Jesuit) and their historic inspiration (Jesus) -- then what does?”
As these two incidents show, Fr. Sirico was from the earliest stages of Obama’s presidency eager to cast the president in the worst possible light. He was quick to describe every interaction the president had with Catholic institutions in apocalyptic terms. His lack of civility was brazen and his animating spirit was critical. The concern over McCarthyism and hyperbole and personal attacks so evident in his defense of Rand was nowhere to be found.