The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last year, I debated Father Robert Sirico, Founder of the Acton Institute. During the debate, Fr. Sirico suggested that while I might be a heretic on other grounds, my economic views may be wrong, but they were not, indeed could not be, heretical.

Strictly speaking, economic ideas are not the stuff of heresy. But, it is also the case that our Catholic doctrinal beliefs yield a particular Christian anthropology, an understanding of the human person, and that understanding must shape our economic views. There are political, economic and legal systems of thought that do, or do not, cohere with Catholic anthropology. That is why we call the social doctrine of the Church a doctrine. The Church’s long history of statements about economics and political and culture are, at their core, doctrinal.

Gaudium et spes #22 is the foundation stone for our post-conciliar understanding of Catholic anthropology:

The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come,(20) namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. It is not surprising, then, that in Him all the aforementioned truths find their root and attain their crown.

This passage was the conciliar text most cited by St. Pope John Paul II in his many authoritative writings. It is the hermeneutical key to understanding the Church’s social doctrine. And, as Professor David Schindler has convincingly argued, this hermeneutical key locks the door on any kind of laissez-faire economics of the kind peddled by the Acton Institute.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in so many ways, but nowhere more so than in his consistent, accessible, repeated application of the social doctrine of the Church to the current reality of the world. For him, this is clearly and foremost a pastoral concern, but as I have consistently argued in these pages, on this and other matters, the Church’s pastoral concerns are, and must be, seen through a theological lens. What we believe about Jesus Christ must shape what we believe about humankind. Christ is all the Church has to bring to discussions of human import, and He is enough, He is the answer to all the problems that beset the human race, He is the measure by which we judge our lives and our thoughts and our systems.

So, it is unsurprising that libertarians, including those associated with the Acton Institute, have been quick to punch a hole in Pope Francis’ balloon whenever he speaks about economics. The most appalling critique is the meme that poor Pope Francis is a benighted Argentine, incapable of recognizing the virtues of capitalism because of his experience. In the first place, insofar as capitalism is now a global system – and recall that the libertarians tend to be great champions of globalization – Pope Francis’ experience of it is as valid as anyone else’s. But, more alarmingly, I do not recall any of my conservative or libertarian friends objecting to anything that came from the mouth or pen of St. Pope John Paul II because he was a Pole, or raising the concern that a doctrinal statement by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI must be dismissed, or minimized, or so heavily contextualized as to be dismissed, because of the narrow vision he brought with him from Bavaria. There is a condescension at work in the critiques of Pope Francis that is new and it is wrong and it has no place within a conversation among Catholics.

Next week, Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, where I am a visiting fellow, will be hosting an important conference entitled: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” We have assembled a top-flight group of scholars, from across the ideological spectrum, to examine the ways libertarian ideas do, and do not, cohere with Catholic belief in the areas of economics, politics and culture. The keynote address will be delivered by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga with a response from Bishop Blase Cupich. Cardinal Rodriguez, in addition to being the longtime Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and a past president of CELAM, is the chairman of the Council of Cardinals that advises Pope Francis on the universal governance of the Church and the reform of the Roman curia. Bishop Cupich has one of the finest minds in the American hierarchy. It should be a fascinating day and when the video is posted at the IPRCS website, I will be sure to link to it.

This conference comes at a time when Acton and groups like it are trying to carve out a place of influence for themselves within the Church. And, their influence is not negligible. Two years ago, at the annual USCCB plenary, Bishop Boyea of Lansing suggested that Acton become an official consultant to the USCCB. Acton recently held a conference in Rome. They fly in bishops from around the world to attend their events at their home base in Michigan. They are trying to make the case that American capitalism is a thing so different from the crony capitalism found in much of the global south, we need to defend our U.S. brand of capitalism in Catholic terms. Setting aside the fact that there is plenty of cronyism in U.S. capitalism, I think that Acton is really a very dangerous organization insofar as their attempts to justify laissez-faire capitalism undermine the very foundations of Catholic social doctrine. When Fr. Sirico says that the market is “morally neutral,” and that it depends on the values that are brought to it, his ideas necessarily result in a hyper-individualized understanding of the moral import of the economy that does not do justice to the economic injustices wrought by the system, nor to the Catholic theology that critiques it.

We Americans have long believed ourselves to be exceptional. But, the Holy See has long believed that no national exceptionalism should run counter to the core doctrinal understandings of the Catholic faith. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued the apostolic letter Testem benevolentiae which condemned the heresy of “Americanism.” The history of that letter is complicated, and many Americans blamed the bias against Americanism on French misunderstandings of the American situation. There was a particularly fervent and influential French cleric, the Abbe Maignen, whose book “Le Pere Hecker: est-il un saint?” questioned various American ways of viewing society and religious life that apparently spawned the debate in Rome that led to the condemnation from Leo. It was a fascinating moment in the life of the Church. Cardinal James Gibbons and Archbishop John Ireland considered Americanism a “phantom heresy” because no one believed the propositions that had been condemned.

There is no doubt that Fr. Sirico and his friends at the Acton Institute do believe that their libertarian economic ideas are consistent with Catholic social doctrine. Fr. Sirico even went so far as to suggest that Ayn Rand’s hero John Galt was a Christ-figure. Their economic ideas bleed into the culture, celebrating a view of human freedom that has more in common with Locke than Luke, with von Mises than von Ketteler, pushing the central Catholic virtue of solidarity to the side and replacing it with the golden calf of “the laws of the market.” They warn about “collectivism” as if President Obama was out relocating kulaks. They sniff at efforts to ameliorate human poverty as “dirigiste.” They may not intend it, but their writings and their conferences are undermining Catholic social doctrine and it behooves the authorities in the Catholic Church to take note and, potentially, take action. In this free country of ours, every man and woman is free to believe whatever he or she wishes, but a Catholic is called to think with the Church, not with the Austrian school of economics. Next week’s conference will explore the degree to which libertarian ideas can be baptized. Spoiler alert: They can’t. And, it is time for Catholics to admit as much.     

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