Fr. Robert Sirico

Fr. Robert Sirico

March 23, 2015
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS

North America is at a "perilous point in history," if it loses a sense of shared moral consensus, says Father Robert Sirico.

The co-founder of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty said society's moral roots form the foundation for who we are as well as the basis of civil society.

"Are we simply living off the illusion of the past?" he asked at a March 7 session of the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.

SOLID FOUNDATION

Sirico urged a return to the roots, to the "foundations of our society that is based on human dignity."

Human dignity, human solidarity are roots that will contribute to making society not "merely free but virtuous as well," he stressed.

Sirico recalled growing up in Brooklyn 50 years ago, when the shared moral consensus was much stronger than today.

He would join a group of about eight boys, playing stickball on the street, designating manholes and parked cars as bases for a game similar to baseball, only using sticks and a softball.

Mrs. Rabinowitz would sit on her stoop, or porch, "watching the activity."

She was the self-appointed, bossy, nosey lady in the neighbourhood who would chime in whenever the play got too rough. "Robin, I'm going to tell your mother!" she would yell.

"This would calm everything down," Sirico said.

There were Mrs. Rabinowitzes all over society keeping an eye on things "for good reason," he said. They helped "hold society together," because they knew the local children and they were respected because "they'd tell our mother."

This moral consensus transcended religious differences, he said. It was shared by new Chinese immigrants in his neighbourhood, as well as among the Catholics and Jews living there.

Sirico used the example of Mrs. Rabinowitz to show how societies can be governed by moral consensus without "intrusive, distant and frequently misinformed bureaucracies."

This shared anthropological sense of human dignity was "an expression of vibrant social reality," that grew out of family, traditional social norms and religious ties, but they "exceeded religious bonds," creating an "existential bond," he said.

SUBSIDIARY ROLE

In this vision of society, government has its role, but that role is subsidiary, he said.

Government was never seen as "taking over" culture or society, therefore not all issues "had to be debated in the halls" of government, he said.

This mix of common sense, neighbourly concern and knowledge of one's neighbours did have some problems with social prejudices and was "rough and uneven at times," Sirico acknowledged.

But for the most part it was "pliable, flexible and cooperative," he said. Mrs. Rabinowitz "was restricting our behaviour but not because she was threatening us with arrest."