In a recent debate, two Catholic commentators disagreed over how large a role government should play in exercising society's responsibility to assist the impoverished.

Father Robert Sirico, a priest of the Grand Rapids diocese and co-founder of the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank, said government should be kept small. He also stated that free markets – capitalist economies free from government interventions – will be strong enough to naturally care for the poor.

The Jan. 28 debate between Fr. Sirico and Michael Sean Winters, a writer with the National Catholic Reporter, occurred on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

It was hosted by The Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, an arm of the university's parish which aims to "promote the Catholic intellectual tradition."

During his remarks, Winters countered that a "robust social welfare program," run by a government representing "our collective moral action," is needed to correct the dangers posed by the unregulated competition of a free market.

Ahead of the debate, however, Fr. Sirico told CNA that "proper moral formation" can help the free market to adequately care for the poor.

"That people act in ways where they have a sense of common decency, and are allowed to see the full effects of their decisions. That will tutor people on how what they do affects others. Moreover...we shouldn't have the kind of interventions of government, and charities, that empower immorality, that subsidize vice."

He added that modern welfare systems, and "even some of our Catholic charities...reduce the human person to a mere material object."

By focusing solely on material needs and neglecting love, solidarity, and the call to a moral life, Fr. Sirico believes that charitable acts can actually harm society and the poor.

The priest said during the debate that with the "overarching ethical orientation" a capitalist economy needs, it can provide for the needs of the poor. No solution, he said, will "get around the necessity of morally transforming society."

He maintained that the free market is "morally neutral" and that the human actors in the market must bring good morals to it.

In his comments, Winters countered Fr. Sirico's argument by saying that free markets actually do carry a value system with them.

"The market does demand a certain value structure," he stated. He pointed out that if one business owner pays his employees a living wage "because it's the Christian thing to do" and his competitor does not, "the market is not going to reward you for your generosity."

Winters said that "the point is, we have an economic system that creates disincentives to act in a Christian manner – it is not morally neutral," as Fr. Sirico had said.

Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical "Quadragesimo anno" offered criticisms of both capitalist and communist economies, and spoke strongly against unregulated capitalism. The pontiff suggested that "unlimited freedom of struggle among competitors" rewards those "who give least heed to their conscience."

Fr. Sirico said that "my approach doesn't fall under the condemnation of Pius XI" because "I am arguing against that kind of idea." He said that he is not defending laissez-faire capitalism.

For all their disagreements, the debaters were able to find common ground. Both uphold the right to private property and want Christianity to inform people's decision-making.

Winters just believes this will be done better through government intervention in the economy, and Fr. Sirico would leave it up to individual choice.

In interviews before the debate, Fr. Sirico and Winters were both dismissive of distributism as an alternative to capitalism. Developed in large part by the English Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton, distributism upholds the right to private property but seeks to spread the ownership of capital more widely, through promotion of small and employee-owned businesses.

While he believes distributism "is one of the legitimate approaches to an economy," Fr. Sirico also thinks there are problems with it, calling it more of a "moral, aesthetic critique of forms of crass capitalism" than "an economic system."

And Winters expressed having "a hard time seeing how we get from here, to any of the distributivist proposals I'm familiar with."

That afternoon, Winters said he looked forward to the evening's debate because "it's really vital that Catholics engage each other...because there are tensions on both sides of the political ledger that are quite willing to divide the Church to achieve political ambitions."

"All of us, we have to discover again how to have internal conversations, because the Church cannot be divided."

He said he was thankful for the "incredibly vibrant campus ministry" at the University of Colorado for organizing the debate and providing an atmosphere of charitable disagreement.

"What is absolute, what is non-negotiable, and intrinsic, is the obligation to help the poor," Winters stated during the debate.

"But there is room for disagreement about how we can achieve that. And that discussion has to be conducted with charity so we can learn from each other."