the imaginative conservative logo

dialogueDialogue or Dissent?

For those who pay attention to such things, for the last couple of weeks there has been quite some consternation on the internet regarding the compatibility of Catholic social doctrine with libertarianism. Cued by Pope Francis and his pivot to emphasizing issues of poverty and economic marginalization, voices within the Catholic Church have taken to strongly distinguishing Catholic social teaching from libertarian principles, particularly but not exclusively within the economic arena.

It is not unheard of for libertarian ideas to be a sign of contradiction for many who identify as conservative. Both Richard M. Weaver and Russell Kirk, for example, disagreed on whether libertarianism could be successfully allied with conservatism in the broader political area. As Mr. Kirk went through life, his views on libertarianism became sharply more critical, culminating in an essay he wrote on the incompatibility of libertarianism and conservatism titled, with no holds barred, Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries. That said, while tensions still exist between more dogmatic libertarians and traditional conservatives, libertarians and conservatives have generally been, if not friendly, at least more or less respectful of one another and Catholic thinkers have found homes in both camps.

The recent statements by Pope Francis and other members of the Catholic hierarchy thus occur in a context where Catholics of a conservative or libertarian disposition have already been engaged in a discussion regarding the compatibility of libertarian ideas with other, more traditional political, economic and ethical commitments. Now, however, the stakes in the discussion about libertarianism have risen significantly, particularly for those libertarians and conservatives with libertarian inclinations who are also practicing members of the Catholic Church. Are such folk now to be classified as dissenters (in varying degrees) from Church teaching? Or can space be made for such folk within the intellectual life of the Church, perhaps as a sign of the creative tension that can exist within Catholic thought? Can the insights of libertarian thinkers actually help those who function within the framework of Catholic social teaching to more completely understand key aspects of that teaching? In answering these questions, I propose that a better path forward at this point is not condemnation but critical dialogue. Rather than casting out libertarians or putting libertarian ideas on some kind of revised and updated Index of Forbidden Books, a greater appreciation by Catholic scholars and religious leaders of the libertarian critique of governmental invention is a more fruitful approach. More fruitful both in acknowledging those aspects of the libertarian approach that are prudentially correct, and in helping Catholic social teaching to remain grounded in the totality of the faith’s patrimony when it comes to resolving questions of social need and governmental power.

Before exploring this approach in more detail, a bit of disclaimer is in order. I am not a libertarian. If forced to state my political approach, I would identify most with the kind of conservatism expressed by Russell Kirk. I am also a practicing Catholic, thought hardly an exemplary one. However, regardless of my own commitments, I believe that Catholicism and libertarianism have much to learn from each other. Just as Catholicism has absorbed insights from other systems of thought (Aristotle, for example), it may be that libertarianism can offer certain insights to Catholicism to help that faith better understand aspects of its own social teaching that are in peril of being overlooked, just as Catholicism can contribute a depth and richness of insight to libertarianism about the necessary relationship between freedom and virtue, justice and choice. The point of such a dialogue is not to convert, but to inform, and to allow creative tension to allow new insights to come forth, insights that draw on the depth of the Church’s teaching about human community and interaction while also taking into account the significant intellectual power demonstrated by many libertarian critiques of government action. In two areas in particular libertarian critiques of government power can help restore aspects of Catholic social thought that have been overlooked or downplayed in much of the recent conversation about the application of Catholic principles to economic and political issues. The following is intended to be a sketch of some avenues of inquiry that might be pursued as part of this critical dialogue.

Subsidiarity

One beneficial result of a Catholic appreciation of libertarian ideas could be a recovery or at least greater appreciation of certain aspects of Catholic social thought that risk being eclipsed by recent papal approaches to Catholic social teaching, approaches that tend to mask a more restrained vision of government power present within the Catholic tradition. One such aspect is the idea of subsidiarity. As Stratford Caldecott explains in his book on Catholic social theory, Not as the World Gives, Catholic social thought is oriented towards the common good of society, and sees the realization of that common good through three primary mechanisms: solidarity, subsidiarity, and sustainability. Pope Francis has focused a good deal of his attention as Pontiff in discussing solidarity and sustainability, as did his predecessor Benedict XVI. Solidarity and sustainability are crucial aspects of Catholic social teaching and are the two most responsible for Catholicism having a positive view of the role of government in the life of a community. Subsidiarity, however, is an operative principle that helps guide how the government functions within a given society. As the answer to Question 403 in the official Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,

The principle of subsidiarity states that a community of a higher order should not assume the task belong to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need.

Subsidiarity calls for political and legal authority to be diffused throughout a society, rather than concentrated. When law and government are needed, they should operate at the level closest to the problem that needs to be addressed. Ideally, most problems will be resolved by social actors outside the government: families, friends, community associations, businesses, churches and other religious institutions, and the like. In other words, mediating institutions that help to foster justice, order and virtue without the heavy hand of government intruding unless necessary. Subsidiarity, to quote Mr. Caldecott, “involves the devolution of human freedom and responsibility to the lowest and most local level compatible with the common good.”

openhandsSubsidiarity has tended to get lost in the discussion of Catholic social teaching that has been sparked by the remarkably productive pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis. Yet, as the quotation above from the Compendium shows, subsidiarity remains part of Catholic social teaching and it is a topic of discussion not only among writers of Catholic commitment but also among writers from other religious traditions. Dialogue with libertarians might help Catholics revive this crucial operative principle in Catholic social thought. How so? Libertarianism itself is not a single political theory, rather is an approach that views government power with skepticism, whether that power is exercised by the state in economic matters or in matters of personal conduct. Looking askance at both the regulatory state and an expansive criminal code, libertarianism’s guiding principle can be described as the “do no harm” principle. So long as somebody’s conduct is not a direct threat to the safety or well-being of another, it should be permitted as an expression of individuality and personal freedom. While that kind of expansive understanding of individual freedom is broader than that generally proposed by Catholic social teaching, such an approach can help Catholics to better appreciate and apply the principle of subsidiarity by placing at the center of any discussion of government power the question that a broadly-informed libertarian consistently asks: should the government act, and at what level, or would the solution to whatever problem government proposes to solve be better left in the hands of private actors and/or mediating institutions?

Such an approach might seem somewhat foreign to the bulk of Catholic social thought; but it is not an alien concept. No less a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas proposed something similar to the “do no harm” principle in his Summa Theologicae. In Question 96, Article II, Thomas addresses whether human law should seek to suppress all human vices. His reply (from the translation of the fathers of the English Dominican Provence) is worth quoting in full:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.

Thomas here is not proposing a libertarian theory. He does not look at the question of law’s scope from the perspective of individual freedom, but rather from the viewpoint of the law’s effectiveness as a method of fostering order in the community. However, Thomas does share a key insight with libertarianism broadly understood: human law is limited in its effectiveness as a means to perfect human beings. For Thomas, this means that the law should seek to restrain not all vice but rather from those vices that are most harmful, and which result “to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.” While the orientation of his approach is different, Thomas shares with the general libertarian disposition an appreciation for the limited utility of the law to make people perfect or to solve every problem. Better for the law to focus on restraining human action that results in harm to others, and harms of a particularly egregious sort: “murder, theft and such like.”

An Appreciation of the Free Market and Avenues for Its Reform

Pope Francis has gotten a great deal of attention for his powerful and striking criticisms of the corruption of much of what passes for “capitalism” today. Taking his duty to speak of the marginalized and exploited in an increasingly totalistic global marketplace, Francis has decried the reductionism of modern consumerism, a reductionism that exalts the strong while it places decreased value on the weak: the poor, the old, the young, the sick, the outcast, the unborn, and the migrant. Pope Francis challenges us all to look at a global system that increasingly awards the wealthy with greater wealth as hundreds of millions continue to languish in poverty so profound as to constitute not simply a lack of material amenities but a degradation that insults the fundamental dignity of the human person. For drawing attention to this reality, Francis deserves high praise.

Looking at how to reduce global poverty, one of the strongest engines for lifting the poor out of the desperate poverty is the application of free market principles in the economic sphere. Where entrepreneurship, private property and the rule of law have been embraced, millions and millions have rising out of poverty through the virtues of hard work and service to one’s fellow human beings. The libertarian focus on economic activity rather than governmental activism can help provide a stronger appreciation for the merits of business activity as both a vocation and as a means for elevating those most economically marginalized within a community. And here again, a respectful hearing of libertarian ideas might help Catholics appreciation aspects of their own tradition that have sometimes been overlooked in discussions about Church teaching and the free market. As the Argentine economist Alejandro A. Chaufen noted in his book Faith and Liberty, free market ideas have an extensive history in the economic thought of the late scholastic period, particularly Spanish scholars working in 16th and 17th century Salamanca. Free market concepts are not alien to Catholic thinking, they have flourished not simply in the past but also in the present, through the writings of Michael Novak, George Weigel and others.

On the issue of reform, libertarians have been some of the most vociferous opponents of partnerships between big government and big business. Much of the corruption that Pope Francis condemns is the result of just such partnerships — collusions where big business and big government work together to prevent proper competition by erecting barriers to entry for smaller business, through increased regulatory burdens or taxation regimes or the provisioning of complex corporate welfare schemes. The libertarian critique of such “crony capitalism” is one from which Catholics of a non-libertarian approach could learn quite a bit. In matters of economic regulation, many of the distortions found within the marketplace are not themselves products of the free market but rather are the consequences of governmental intervention to aid favored players or ameliorate the consequences of poor economic outcomes by private businesses. Incorporating such insights into its critique of the failures of the globalized economic system, the leadership of the Catholic Church might find that not only is their critique more accurate, they may find themselves with a new set of allies to work with in advocating for needed reform of the capitalist system.

Vatican IIThe kind of collusion between big government and big business denounced within libertarian theory can also serve as a helpful reminder to Catholics that governmental power regarding the regulation of business or economic matters is subject to the temptation of misuse. This is becoming increasing the case when one looks at government attempts to extend its authority over areas of autonomy for religious groups and individual believers. Since Vatican II, the Church has been a strong advocate for freedom of conscience in matters of religious faith and practice. However, in the modern world, lines between occupational activities and personal faith have become increasingly difficult to draw. The more the government intervenes to regulate businesses, the greater the danger that such regulation will impinge on the ability of religious believers, Catholic or otherwise, to live out their faith in a key aspect of their daily lives: the workplace. Business is no less a field where conscience is in play, and the workplace is no less a place where the individual’s conscience should be able to act without overly intrusive government regulation. This appears to be a truth that is increasingly on the radar of the Church’s leadership, especially here in the United States where the hierarchy has been confronted with the Obama administration’s decision to impose the HHS contraception mandate on Catholic educational and social service institutions. The libertarian critique of government efforts to regulate and control private enterprise can serve as a helpful source of insight for Catholic leaders and scholars concerned to preserve the legitimate autonomy of businesses and organizations that seek to operate in light of religious principle within the economic system.

Conclusion

There is space within Catholicism to take libertarian arguments seriously, not to agree with them in every instance, but to look at them as a helpful perspective and corrective approach to understanding the dangers of government overreach at the expense of individual initiative and responsibility. By so doing, thinkers who work within the framework of Catholic social teaching can both better understand the libertarian critique of government power as well as aspects of Catholic social thought that have been eclipsed in recent decades. Just as Catholicism had nothing to fear from Aristotle or the Greek philosophers, it has nothing to fear from Friedrich Hayek and other libertarian thinkers and from the true if incomplete insights that they bring to questions involving the use of government power.

Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
17 replies to this post
  1. You raise lots of good questions and are convincing in your answers to them. I too am not a libertarian, and I am Catholic, though I don’t necessarily follow Church positions on things outside of faith. I have my own head on my shoulders and have my own education and experience. If the Catholic Church had a stellar record in economics and policy, foreign and domestic, throughout history I would be more inclined to be obediant. But it has made mistakes. Here’s where I’ve evolved to on Libertarianism, especially over the course of the last two years. In an age where faith based principles are going to be attacked by the secualr society at large, then it would be prudent to accept a libertarian approach to social policy. Government reflects the values of a society, and so if the government is secular, and even anti-religious, then it will impose its will on all, including those that dissent from the secualr values. This Obamacare is a perfect example. The Church has for ages endorsed government healthcare and low in behold when it finally arrives it forces the church to accept paying for abortions and contraceptives. What did the Church expect? Catholic social policy? As to economics, I’ve just about given up on Pope Francis. If he doesn’t believe in prosperity, and that prosperity ultimately enriches everyone, then all I can say is that he’s insignificant to the economics debates. I am willing to support Libertarian economics with qualifications. We have to maintain a safety net for the under privilidge and and provide ladders of opportunity. But other than that, the more people keep from the fruits of their labor, the better.

    • And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. -Luke 4:4.

      I would certainly agree that economic prosperity is a relative good. But it is but one good amongst many others and, after necessities have been supplied, far from the most important. This is a position maintained by both the traditional Christian and traditional conservative. Indeed, Russell Kirk was wont to suggest that those who saw in the standard of living the overwhelming end of politics and society were close to Marxist materialism in many respects.

      On the article itself, I don’t really see what libertarians bring to the traditional Christian or conservative. We are already sceptical of overzealous government interference. Libertarians might make some technical points to bolster our understanding of the effects of government interference – like Hayek’s work on dispersed knowledge – but that is about it. And they bring dangers too. They tend to have an ideological notion of freedom, which goes too far in its belief in autonomy and choice, neglecting the tensions of order and freedom, individuality and society. They tend to be atomists – or neglectful of the importance of what Robert Nisbet called intermediate associations, like family or local community. And libertarians are often not very decentralist or localist. This is especially true in economics, but it is also true in politics (although the two are related). There are many libertarians whose concern is just abstract individual liberty and not subsidiarity and decentralism: they’re happy with a centralised, libertarian government (in Australia a lot of libertarians wish to get rid of the state governments).

      • Wessexman, I agree with a good deal of what you say. I stipulated I am not a libertarian. Really, no one is ever going to get to run the economy 100% the way they want. To think that your type of conservatism or my type (which is supply side with what George W. Bush called Comapssionate Conservatism) or libertarian economics or progressive economcs or whatever is day dreaming. Here Obama had full control of Congress for two years and all he did was nudge the income tax rate a few percent. (However, he did regulate to an exorbitant amount.) My point being is that we’re fighting for a few percent in one direction or another. I can live with a few percent in the libertarian direction; I can live with a few percent in your direction. I cannot stomach any more in the progressive direction. I would prefer a 100% in my direction. 😉 But we live in a Republic with factions that wind up sharing power and sharing policy. It’s not clean, but it’s the best we can do.

        What Libertarians – if they live up to what they stand for – bring is a way for people of faith to live their lives unhindered from secular pressure. Is it the best approach? No. But look at how we Catholics (me included) were whining when the HSS mandate was forced upon us. Luckily we had a Conservative Supreme Court. If we don’t get the Presidency in the next election we will not have a Conservative Supreme Court in a few years thereafter.

        • Well, only my first paragraph was a direct response to your post. What I was objecting to in your post (and in our previous discussion) was the idea that economic prosperity or the standard of living – here meaning the proliferation of consumer goods, increased economic growth, and the like – must be the highest priority, or one of the highest priorities, for us, individually and collectively. To me that is just not any kind of meaningful conservatism.

          I certainly don’t say we should avoid the important place of economics, and a well functioning, efficient economy, in society. But surely it is a strange sort of conservatism that has economics as its defining concern; therefore, I don’t understand your criticism of the Pope as irrelevant simply because he seems to criticise this materialist position.

          I’m English, by the way.

          • Ah, Wesswexman, yes I guessed you were English. Thomas Hardy country if I remember correctly. I guess Britain is not technically a Republic, but it still has representative legislators where no faction usually has enough power to impose complete will. I think in the US system we have even more checks and balances to power, and so we never went through a socialistic period as your country did post WWII. Still it strikes me as rare that a faction could so dominate even in your country.

            As to our discussion on distributism, I didn’t want to hijack the other thread. I made my points but the author of the piece should have the privilege of having his ideas stand. Your point of prosperity not being everything is noted. However, what we don’t know is how much of a regression distributism would actually have. You seem to have the perception that it’s a small regression, and therefore the benefits that you mention are worth the reduction in standard of living. My intuition tells me it’s a significant reduction, especially as it compounds over time. So the question you should ask yourself is, at what point isn’t it worth it? If you had to roll back standard of living fifty years would it be worth it? One hundred years? For the Amish, rolling it back to agrarian life is worth it, though a good deal leave that life when they come of age.

            What it comes to is a personal decision. I advocate sound economic policy, but I don’t let economics rule my life. I provide for my family, but I could seek higher paying jobs and work longer hours. To those that decides to work long hours and take financial risks, God bless them. They are propping up our economy so that we all benefit in some fashion.

  2. Observing, Sir, that you are a man of the law, let me suggest an interesting– perhaps even lucrative– line of research for your consideration: agricultural land tenure in post-colonial developing countries (eg northeast Africa). If you impartially consider all data and points of view on that data in accordance with Catholic teaching, then, as an honest and rational man, you will either change your mind about libertarianism, or else– and why not?– develop it well beyond the usual agitprop into a reality-based tool of cultural analysis that solves a real problem. The choice is yours– a 5 minute appearance on Strossel someday, or a beautiful coffee plantation in the Ngong Hills? I know you’ll make the right choice (and dedicate a particularly lucrative grove to the financial support of The Imaginative Conservative 😉

    Ama Deum et fac quod vis.

  3. Hayek eventually concluded that societies need religion to survive. However the hardcore libertarians who deny compulsion and promote anarchy have, as Dr Kirk said, no room among conservatives – and that includes thoughtful Catholics. While the pope and the clergy are woefully ignorant of how societies generate wealth, we don’t really need libertarians to explain it.

  4. I’m not aware that any libertarian “Promotes anarchy”. Certainly they do not promote getting rid of laws against theft, assault, murder, etc.

  5. It’s sad that there isn’t a discussion going on in this comments section, because this article certainly warrants further discussion.

  6. Libertarianism and Christianity can go together well. The Catholic Church is just another example of a few people (popes, etc.) getting hold of institutional power and wealth and presuming to dictate to everyone else. I doubt it can survive in an increasingly libertarian world. Frankly, I hope not.

  7. As an open letter to Francis, the original post is quite clear. But for this forum, it does not directly address the reasons for conservative suspicion of libertarianism. And although hyperbolic comments may run afoul of cherished definitions,* we know what these comments mean by what they say. Nor to Catholic theologians, does the OP address the sense that a human solidarity stronger than libertarianism can stomach is, not a bug, but indeed the most central feature of Catholicism: humanity is the image of God, and the assumption of human nature by God is the means of salvation. What pope is going to replace that with a fable about contracts between estranged beings in some secular, mythical state of nature? Nor does it explore the daily disasters of weak states, failed states, and post-colonial states– and their dysfunctional markets– in comparison with which a global religion has to find the scruples that libertarians have about decently functional states can sound rather silly, agitated about flouridation in a world where most lack clean water. These thoughts are not fair criticisms of Mark DeForrest’s OP which is reasonable on its own terms; they probably do explain the disappointing discussion here.

    We might get back to his serious point by asking– (a) how is it that Catholicism recognizes subsidiarity as a criterion of social structure in the first place?; (b) what would wisely strengthen that recognition of subsidiarity short of libertarianism?; (c) what Catholic good can “libertarianism” do that such a better developed “subsidiarity” cannot do? My guess above is that a global account of how libertarian theory can support the emergence of healthier states and markets in the darker corners of the earth would win more respect for the position, at least from a church with responsibilities around a world where too little stable legitimate civil authority is more often the problem than too much of it. I am agnostic about libertarianism can in fact deliver such a result, but if Mark DeForrest is confident about this he could find the effort profitable.

    __________________________

    * Speaking of libertarianism, might this website post a glossary of definitions so that authors do not over and again define the same philosophical terms? “When we correctly define ‘tomato,’ not as a vegetable, but as a fruit, we understand for the first time, the true, the quintessential nature of the pizza tradition, lacking which nobody really knows how to stick a slice in the mouth and bite…” One could, as a fundraiser, auction off each year the right to prescribe the first definition of each such term. Few people care very much about these definitions, but those who do seem to be crazy, which means that lucrative bidding wars would be inevitable. In the first year, the first definition of “Socialism” alone should fetch at least $10,000. And auction prices tend to rise over time, which would be important should runaway inflation finally break out. In this way, those determined to tell others how to speak their mother tongue as though they own the language could at least say that, for the year, they actually do.

  8. 1) The picture from Atlas Shrugged illustrating this article is somewhat misplaced. Objectivism is not libertarianism, a point Ayn Rand made over and over. Objectivism is, like Catholicism, an attempt at a universal comprehension of Man, his place in the universe, his Natural end and his cosmic significance. Libertarianism is merely a theory of praxeology. Objectivism and Catholicism both define reason in universal terms, libertarianism (see chapter 4 of Mises’ Human Action) defines reason as merely a subjective, variable mode of perception that allows Man to collect data and act on it in pursuit of subjective ends. Thus, for Objectivists and Catholics, we can say “he is being unreasonable”. A libertarian will say “he is acting in accordande with an alternative definition of rationality, albeit the results of the action are subject to the laws of economics, or more generally scarcity.” Catholics and Objectivists are, of course, at odds as to the existence of God. Libertarianism does not concern itself with the existence of God. Objectivism and Libertarianism are both more coherent, yet subsequently more limited. Catholicism is more incoherent, and subsequently unlimited in its grasp of human nature. Catholicism is also bolder, because it dares to leave open all questions, rather than pronouncing them closed (Objectivism) or conveniently outside of the realm of its concerns (libertarianism).

    2) I still maintain Pope Francis is being misunderstood by the American Right. Just recently, he said about the source of corruption in politics (il Messagero, 1 week ago):

    “A corrupt man does not have friends around him, only useful idiots – partners.” Pope Francis continued: “Such great evil grows in times of epocal change. We are now going through not so much an epocal change as a change of epocs. A transformation of the culture is taking place and in this phase, such phenomenon (corruption) takes place. The transformation of the epoc feeds moral decadence, not only in politics, but also in areas like finance and social life…it is hard to remain honest in politics, not because such is the nature of politics, but because during a change of epocs there are stronger pressures towards a kind of moral adriftness” (my really bad translation from Polish)

    Libertarians would likely retort with a variation of Public Choice theory. Catholicism would retort that it is not a defect of the rational faculty in Mankind that prevents him from making good use of sound economic theory in setting government policy, but rather it is his Fallen nature that makes such a thing impossible. This Fallen nature is also what motivates the unscrupulous collusion between Big Business and Big Government.

    This is why people in power in the West, independent of their label, are no longer using their power to pursue any ends beyond their immediate gratification at a very base level, while those of both Left and Right who are motivated by ideas about the common good are marginalized. The enemy is not a well intentioned liberal equiped with faulty ideas, the enemy is a low, stupid man who derives pleasure from being a bully, exercising power and enriching himself without any thought of anything beyond his immediate interest. Such are those engaged in political rule and those being ruled (how many recipients of government largess think of themselves as citizens with duties? They are merely petents with rights). Such are also the captains of the Financial Industry.

    Notice that Ayn Rand’s Hero Enterpreneurs REFUSE government aid because they understand it as an invitation to corruption. Yet our present Business Class act less like Hank Rearden and more like the Money Changers in the Temple. The sin of the Money Changers is not that they change money, but that they do not view the Temple as Sacred. They believe that Money Changing should take place where ever it can profit them, and given how many people are often at the Temple, they conclude the Temple is a great place for business. They do not understand that the Temple serves a different purpose. Our Modern Money Changers likewise do not respect the sacred nature of republican or broadly defined public institutions as serving the common good, rather than merely being another avenue for personal gain. Here, of course, FDR was right when he announced that with the New Deal, the Money Changers had been cast from the Temple.

    It must be noted that this phenomena, immoral to a Catholic and an Objectivist likewise, is merely the logical result of human action and the laws of economics for a libertarian. This is not to blame libertarianism, but to note its limits. Libertarianism, like the study of physiology or anatomy, merely tells us how a system operates, but is silent as to how it ought to operate, or how to address the root cause of its’ corruption, which as Pope Francis says, lies in a moral “drifting” due to cultural change.

    Catholics are therefore concerned with the Culture. Case in point: Health Care. It is one thing to argue about whether or not government should play a role, it is quite another to proclaim that killing babies in the womb has anything to do with Healthcare. And whether or not Healthcare is private or public, the culture which equates “Healthcare” with eugenics and unlimited abortion is going down a dangerous path because Health Care is about saving and preserving life, not finding ways to end it. Thus, Catholics are more concerned with this cultural decay in the definition of Healthcare. If they advocated government provision of Health Care, it was out of a care for life, and yes – it is shocking that the medical profession suddenly counts eugenics as Health Care.

    Ultimately, however, Objectivism, being rather narrow and compiled from Aristotle and Nietzsche, does not address the complexity of the human problem as well as Catholicism which is older, broader and more in depth. Libertarianism, likewise, is far more narrow. It is the narrowness of both Objectivism and Libertarianism which contributes to the narrowness of the conservative political idea whenever conservatism allows itself to be locked away in Objectivism and Libertarianism, thus locked out of several thousand years of human history and human thought. Catholicism, like all religions, risks this kind of narrowing as well, in the form of thoughtless dogma, but there is little doubt that it is alive and for those willing to mine, it offers greater wealth – in political teaching as well. This is also why Russell Kirk will overshadow Rothbard and Rand as a relevent thinker, even though – or perhaps because – he was not a systematic thinker.

    In our time, the greatest contribution to Catholic political philosophy has come from Pope Benedict XVI. Almost all of his works are implicit or explicit meditations on political science. For a good starting point, I suggest his Munich paper from 2004 “The Pre-political Moral Foundations of a Free
    State”.

    I also recomend noting how often and in what contexts Pope Benedict speaks of Freedom as the ultimate goal of Christian teaching. I have yet to read books by Francis, but one of these days will get around to it. Still, Catholicism is centuries worth of thought and action.

  9. Mark, you bring up a very important issue, one that the Church has been grappling with at least since Rerum Novarum, and was at the heart of the so-called “fusionist” compromise in the Conservative Movement (when there was a movement) in the late 60s and 70s. My old friend Eric Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn used to insist that Austrian Catholic noblemen intellectuals invented classical liberalism, the one true forerunner of the best of contemporary libertarian thought. While most people assume that the “fusionist” position was possible only because traditionalists (overwhelmingly Catholics) and libertarians both hated communism, that is not completely true. The Catholic Church has always been a strong proponent of private property, and classical liberals (at least those who are Christians) have long favored the primacy of “intermediate institutions,” which correspond nicely to the principle of subsidiarity. My friend and colleague Gary Wolfram, a Catholic and a libertarian (of a somewhat cranky sort), once said to me that the market is so powerful, so utterly magnificent in creating wealth, that it must be restrained by the deep faith of Catholics. Otherwise its power will overwhelm us. That alone should be enough to urge cooperation. And if anti-communism allowed us to cooperate in days gone by, we should do well to remember now that extreme environmentalism is a quasi-religion likely to produce yet another ideological fantasy as destructive as the older ones. Russell Kirk, by the way, was among many other things a curmudgeonly individualist. The “chirping sectaries” he disliked were ideologues, and the common ground of all realcons (as I like to call us) is our refusal ever, ever to immanentize the eschaton.

  10. Manny,

    I’ll reply here, for ease.

    I’m still think the talk of retrogression implies some sort of linear, technological progression that man must, or should be, pursuing. I don’t see how such an attitude – that it is an important priority for society to pursue ever increasing technological progress – can stop short of technophile utopianism and transhumanism (I think these must end in something like what C.S Lewis described in his The Abolition of Man and Space Trilogy). At some point we have to say that either man should be seeking perfection on earth through technology and material goods, or he must realise that the standard of living and material prosperity is deeply relative and insignificant compared to the permanent things – first and foremost faith, but also family, community, arts and culture, nature, and so on. Personally, as long as distributism does not cause starvation or a significant increase in mortality rates – and I see no reason it would – then that is good enough for me.

    That said, distributism should be pursued gradually and cautiously and non-ideologically, so as to avoid large social disruption. In fact, it is possible, and it would likely be an improvement on contemporary state-capitalism, that a government simply adds some distributist friendly goals and policies, whilst not advancing a full-scale distributist agenda.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: