Is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism? According to Fordham University theologian Michael Peppard, the “definitive answer” is No. See Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. See John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. See Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Vertiate. See Francis I’s Evangelii Gaudium.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis returns to the defining theme of his papacy: the priority of the person. Human beings have an essential value and nature. They can’t be reduced to economic objects or to the sum of their desires. “We do not live better,” he says, “when we flee, hide, refuse to share, stop giving and lock ourselves up in our own comforts. Such a life is nothing less than slow suicide.”The pope contends that individualism can dull us to the requirements of justice, and that prosperity can be a prison. In making this case, Francis is demonstrating that Christian faith is not an ideology; it stands in judgment of all ideologies, including the ones we justify in the name of freedom.
But in the absence of certain social conditions — the rule of law, equal opportunity, effective public administration — capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.As my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. points out, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere naturally has a more skeptical take on globalization. He empathizes with the marginalized: exploited migrants, bonded laborers, people in sexual slavery. This is the dark side of markets — the sale of life and dignity. And Francis vividly warns against the “globalization of indifference.”
Those surprised that Catholic social thought is incompatible with libertarianism haven’t been paying attention — for decades. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI said the same. And all warned of the danger when a mode of economic exchange becomes a mind-set. Absent a moral commitment to human dignity, justice and compassion, capitalism is conducive to materialism, individualism and selfishness. It is a system that depends on virtues it does not create.