Catholicism and Libertarianism

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.

Peppard argues that “it has taken Pope Francis’s singular history, style, and gift for communication to break through the noise of American-style capitalism….” Even “compassionate conservative” and evangelical Michael Gerson of The Washington Post seems convinced.
Here is a taste of Peppard’s post at dotCommonweal:
Now listen to how the architect of “compassionate conservatism” relays Francis’s exhortation:
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.
On the one hand, one might be concerned that Gerson is over-spiritualizing the concrete message of Francis about justice. Is he going to make this into an individualized version that focuses on charity only? To the contrary, he writes:
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.”
Here Gerson emphasizes the “dark side of markets” and the necessary “social conditions” for capitalism to work virtuously. Most importantly, he goes on to tell the truth about the Catholic position on these matters:
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.

2 thoughts on “Catholicism and Libertarianism

  1. To wit:

    December 09, 2013
    Why is this basic principle of Catholic social teaching praised more than it is practiced?
    James Kalb

    Subsidiarity is a basic principle of Catholic social teaching. Like other such principles, it is praised more than practiced, because it is at cross purposes with the outlook that now governs our public life.
    It springs from concern for man in all his dimensions. Each of us participates in the human nature that is common to all. Each of us also has his own will and destiny, and knows who he is through a social identity that includes local and particular connections. So we are at once universal, individual, and socially situated, and become what we are through active participation in a complex of networks and institutions.

    Concern with that aspect of human life puts Catholic social teaching at odds with the understandings of social life now dominant, which take equality and efficiency as their concern, and consequently want to reduce society to a sort of machine run from the top down for simple purposes. Such understandings make man less than he is, and end up treating him at bottom as an employee, voter, and consumer: someone who holds a position in a system of production and distribution designed and run by other people, periodically registers his assent to that system and how it is governed, and otherwise is free to amuse himself however he wants, as long as he doesn’t interfere with other people or the smooth operation of the system.

    Dissent from that vision puts Catholic social teaching at cross purposes with every other political ideal now prominent. Catholic teaching wants man to be an effective participant in his world, so it wants the center of gravity of social life to be within his reach. For that reason it insists, in the face of the modern tendency toward the industrialization of social relations, on making the business of society as local as reasonably possible. It therefore asserts the principle of subsidiarity, which insists that lower-level groups such as families and local communities are not tools in the hands of higher-ups but have their own life and integrity that must be respected.

    Subsidiarity rejects all forms of tyranny…


  2. The argument depends on definitions of capitalism and libertarianism–an “anti-liberalism” that's entirely comfortable with the poor dying in the streets, tough luck.

    The former indeed happens in the third world, the latter more a creature of adolescent Ayn Rand ideologizing.

    Gerson: But in the absence of certain social conditions — the rule of law, equal opportunity, effective public administration — capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.

    See there are few if any capitalists or libertarians who embrace this necessary leg of Francis' stool, the whole thing is is rather a snipe hunt.

    The tragedy of the third world is precisely in the lack of those things.

    [This is not to say that Catholic social science is wrong in its “subsidiarism,” the need for caring community. But that cannot be achieved merely by fiat of central government, in fact central government in its impersonalness is often the enemy of community.

    Those on the left who want to make political hay of this would be wise to familiarize themselves with the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, which necessitates decentralization wherever possible, and the proper understanding of “distributivism,” which is charged with providing equal opportunity more than equal results.

    To read the Church's positions without a familiarity with the underlying principles is an invitation to use these papal statements as a Rorschach test. And since this is not a case of faith or morals where he's deemed infallible, this may apply even to the pope. His message seems apt for his native Argentina, but I'm uncertain of its universal applicability.


Comments are closed.