Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation this week. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.
What does it mean to be a human person? The debate between Catholicism and libertarianism, which took center stage in Catholic circles over the summer, is not primarily about economics or politics. It is about anthropology. Catholicism and libertarianism have incompatible views of the human person. Perhaps the most important divergence between these two worldviews is in this very basic theological claim: I do not create myself, I do not call myself into existence, and I always exist in relationship to other people and to God.
Human freedom is crucial, but it is not reducible to negative liberty. In "Charity in Truth," Pope Benedict XVI explained that true freedom "is not an intoxication with total autonomy, but a response to the call of being, beginning with our own personal being." Freedom to love, freedom for human flourishing, freedom for community, and freedom for God all shape the Catholic understanding of freedom. Far from reducing the importance of freedom, this deeper and broader approach elevates freedom and, with it, our responsibility before God.
This understanding of freedom begins with the recognition that human persons are fundamentally and inescapably relational. On some level, nearly everyone agrees that human beings are social and that we need other people to survive. However, Catholicism doesn't see community and the government as merely necessary for survival or necessary evils to mitigate conflict. Human society is a good that should be valued. Human persons are created in the image of God, and God is Trinity. What does it mean to say that to be made imago dei must be to be made imago trinitatis? It means that we can only live fully human lives together and that we are called to live more fully as the image of God in the world. Thus, we end up where libertarianism cannot: Our humanity, as in the image of God, is not only a matter of creation but also places a claim on us.
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For libertarian philosophy, the starting point is that human beings are autonomous individuals who are most human when they are making choices. The only legitimate constraint is the requirement to respect the liberty of others. Autonomy and negative liberty -- the absence of external impediments -- dominate their understanding of freedom. In many ways, their anthropology begins with the idealization of a Robinson Crusoe-like figure and posits a humanity that only enters into relationships, commitments and responsibilities of one's own choosing (completely forgetting that Robinson Crusoe was a fully grown, educated English gentleman when he was stranded). From this anthropology, economic libertarians develop the concept of the rational economic man, which defines rationality based upon self-interested choice. Am I really irrational every time I consider someone else in making a decision? Is selfishness really a virtue, as Ayn Rand argues?
This anthropology lays the foundation for their view of politics. Thus we see libertarians and figures like Ayn Rand argue for the complete separation of state and the market. She genuinely believed (and Alan Greenspan with her) that a community of autonomous individuals pursuing their own self-interests would self-regulate and be harmonious. Friedrich Hayek perceived any attempts at social justice and substantive equality of opportunity as moving toward totalitarianism or fascism. The irreconcilable divergence between libertarianism and Catholicism, which we see in their views of government and social justice, is really a disagreement about what it means to be human.
In a speech at Georgetown, U2 frontman Bono challenged students that "when you truly accept that those in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you in God's eyes or even just in your own eyes, then your life is forever changed, you see something that you cannot unsee." The image of God places a claim upon us that goes well beyond simply not harming or impeding others. We are morally required to promote the flourishing of others. Pope Paul VI explained, "There can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity."
To understand what Pope Francis says on poverty, inequality and exclusion, you have to first understand this deep unity of the one human family, of our belonging to each other and our standing together before God. This is the foundation of Pope Francis' key insights. The threat of libertarianism is not primarily political; it is theological. Libertarianism creates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.
St. John XXIII's "Peace on Earth" offers a comprehensive account of what is demanded in terms of upholding human dignity and the flourishing community. It is a basic list of human rights. The concerns are always both personal and structural, as Catholic social thought recognizes that "human freedom is often crippled when a man falls into extreme poverty." Human freedom is crippled by extreme poverty whether arbitrary obstacles exist or not. Freedom is not just about removing obstacles but providing the positive conditions for human flourishing within which true freedom can be exercised.
My humanity is bound up in yours. This is concrete, not abstract. In a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome, Pope Francis addressed the refugees: "To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It's almost a dirty word for them. But it's our Word!"
This is the very heart of Christianity: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, God becoming human. Solidarity is our word rooted in the radical identification of Jesus with the poor, the marginalized, and the excluded in Matthew 25. The dignity of the person is inextricably tied to the common good. The Christian understanding of the person recognizes, as Martin Luther King Jr. poetically preached, that "I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made." This is the gift, challenge and duty of the one human family. For Catholicism, this is who we are, and this is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism.
[Meghan Clark is an assistant professor of moral theology at St. John's University. She is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies and a writer for Millennial.]
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