The Catholic Faith or Libertarianism: Pick One

Dave Brat is the latest Catholic to rise to political power by claiming libertarian bona fides. But libertarianism and Catholicism are incompatible.

Dave Brat shocked the political world last week with his upset win over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. People are still asking: Who is Dave Brat?

On some key policy questions, it appears he isn’t even really sure. What we do know is that the Tea Party and libertarian-backed candidate received a $500,000 fellowship to spread the gospel of Ayn Rand to college students. Brat is also Catholic. This raises an issue that is becoming increasingly important in the Catholic world: the fundamental incompatibility of not just Randianism and Catholicism, but, more broadly, libertarianism and the Catholic faith.

Libertarianism is an ideology that cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Unfortunately, it has a relatively wide appeal in our society, including among some who identify as Catholic. But the very foundations of libertarianism directly and unavoidably conflict with the principles of Catholic moral and social thought.

Libertarianism is inseparable from individualism, self-interest, and autonomy. Property rights are sacrosanct. Government is viewed as a necessary evil and a constant threat to liberty. And the market is turned into an idol.

Conversely, Catholics are called to recognize themselves as persons who only reach their full development in community — or, better yet, communities, as we exist in crosscutting communities from our families to the global community. Catholics believe that real freedom is found through communion with God and others. Our desire for love, joy, and communion leads us to choose solidarity over autonomy.

For Catholics, government has a positive role to play. It exists to foster conditions that allow each person to reach their full emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual potential as human persons. National governments have the responsibility to create these conditions for their citizens, but they are also responsible for promoting the global common good — solidarity transcends national borders. The foundation of this understanding of government is the dignity of the human person, which is universal, giving all people equal worth as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

The closer you compare libertarianism and Catholicism, the more their differences stand out. The Church stands for a living wage, but libertarians oppose raising the minimum wage (which is nowhere near a living wage). The Church believes that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right, but libertarians oppose all realistic means of achieving universal healthcare. The Church demands that we protect God’s creation, while libertarians strongly oppose strengthening environmental laws and regulations. The Church seeks to protect the lives of unborn children, but a majority of libertarians oppose efforts that would offer greater protection to unborn life. The Church wants to defend those at the twilight of their lives, but libertarians favor the legalization of euthanasia. The Church recognizes the evil of illicit drug use; libertarians push for drug legalization. The Church embraces subsidiarity and the role of intermediary institutions such as unions; libertarians push laws to undermine and dismantle unions. The Church favors the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and efforts to promote development to alleviate poverty around the world, but libertarians favor an isolationist foreign policy centered around American interests.

On issue after issue, the contrast between the two worldviews is stark.

Prior to Dave Brat’s primary win, commentators were asking, “Is the Tea Party dead?” His victory shows the enduring influence of Tea Party politics and the libertarian impulse. As Rand Paul gears up for a likely 2016 presidential run, this issue will not recede. It is not confined to a fringe group of hardcore libertarian ideologues; it is at the center of American politics. Social libertarianism will be a powerful force in the Democratic primaries, while economic libertarianism will likely draw support from the strongest Republican candidates.

How should Catholics respond? By committing to an affirmative agenda that reflects a commitment to human dignity and the common good. But also, by firmly, consistently, and relentlessly opposing the malevolent impact of libertarianism in American politics.

 

 

Robert Christian
Written by
  • Martin Hughes

    According to several reports, Brat is only loosely a Catholic and retains his family’s affection for Calvinism. He is now a bit reluctant affiliate himself with the Tea Party. From my distant perspective in the UK – I strongly support our system of universal healthcare – he still looks like one of the more interesting, less machine-driven US politicians. Not that I can quite see how his theology supports his economics. I must say that I think that the Catholic Church has been one of history’s strongest supporters of the institution of private property and I don’t entirely understand how the more state-interventionist stuff is rationalised.

    • Michael Bindner

      His issue was immigration, but even his constituents did not really care about that as much as the fact that Cantor forgot that all politics is local. If he could not find time to meet with his district and city Republican committees (so that he would never face someone running for District chair who was not one of his people), then he deserved to lose – regardless of the issues or the Tea Party.

  • Brian E. Klunk

    Bob, do we know for sure that Brat has been received into full communion with the Church? I’m not sure he fits as the latest case a libertarian Catholic. He certainly isn’t a case of one arguing that CST is compatible with libertarianism, unless there are Calvinist sources of CST with which I am unfamiliar.

  • LogicusPrime

    “Libertarianism is inseparable from individualism, self-interest, and autonomy.”

    Libertarians believe that all people are an end unto themselves and not a means to an end for anyone else. And to the degree that people have free will, yes, they are autonomous. The Catholic Church apparently agrees. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states

    “God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.”

    And

    “Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.”

    Sounds like the Catholic Church believes that people are autonomous individuals, too.

    “Property rights are sacrosanct.”

    One of the Ten Commandments prohibits stealing. I don’t see any wiggle room there. Libertarians are in agreement with the Bible here. What’s your objection?

    “Government is viewed as a necessary evil and a constant threat to liberty.”

    That view is validated by history. Governments have overwhelmingly suppressed liberty through war and oppression.

    “And the market is turned into an idol.”

    The market is not an idol, but simply the process of the interaction of people seeking to improve their situation through voluntary exchange. Those who oppose people being free to order their own lives as they see fit created the idol in order to demonize it.

    “Conversely, Catholics are called to recognize themselves as persons who only reach their full development in community — or, better yet, communities, as we exist in crosscutting communities from our families to the global community. Catholics believe that real freedom is found through communion with God and others. Our desire for love, joy, and communion leads us to choose solidarity over autonomy.”

    To claim that libertarianism is opposed to community is a severe misrepresentation. Community occurs when people come together voluntarily in common interest. Community arises spontaneously from shared goals. If people are forced together it can hardly be called community. Without liberty, community is impossible.

    “For Catholics, government has a positive role to play. It exists to foster conditions that allow each person to reach their full emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual potential as human persons.”

    The Catholic view of government is a triumph of hope over experience. Throughout history government has done more to prevent people from reaching their potential than anything else. Governments wage war and oppress their people, as mentioned above. A government created Auschwitz. A government created the gulags. A government created the Cultural Revolution. A government imprisoned Japanese people simply for the crime of being Japanese. A government created the Great Purge.

    Libertarians believe that people are more likely to reach their full potential if they are left free to pursue it on their own terms.

    “National governments have the responsibility to create these conditions for their citizens, but they are also responsible for promoting the global common good — solidarity transcends national borders.”

    Yes, the common good. Good luck coming up with a common definition of the common good. Until there is such a definition we should drop the talk of a common good because until then we have no idea whether we’re talking about the same thing.

    “The foundation of this understanding of government is the dignity of the human person, which is universal, giving all people equal worth as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.”

    That’s funny coming from an adherent to a religion that discriminates against half of humanity. And government more often denies the dignity of the human person by creating laws that fail to account for the uniqueness of each person by forcing limited choices on everyone.

    “The closer you compare libertarianism and Catholicism, the more their differences stand out. The Church stands for a living wage, but libertarians oppose raising the minimum wage (which is nowhere near a living wage).”

    The Catholic Church can support a living wage, but if a person’s work isn’t worth that wage he won’t get hired. Which is better, a lower-paying job or unemployment? The leadership of the Catholic Church is extremely ignorant of economics. That ignorance often leads to positions that would harm those it wishes to help.

    “The Church believes that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right, but libertarians oppose all realistic means of achieving universal healthcare.”

    This is going to be way too long as it is to discuss the concept of rights. Let’s just say that libertarians have a completely different concept of rights than the Catholic Church.

    “The Church demands that we protect God’s creation, while libertarians strongly oppose strengthening environmental laws and regulations.”

    Freer societies have a much better track record with the environment. Libertarian proposals, if fully implemented, would have the effect of improving the environment. But you’ve probably never researched those.

    “The Church wants to defend those at the twilight of their lives, but libertarians favor the legalization of euthanasia.”

    Libertarians believe that people are the master of their own lives, as does the Catholic Church as stated above. They believe that that includes the ability to decide when to end it, but that’s different from euthanasia.

    “The Church recognizes the evil of illicit drug use; libertarians push for drug legalization.”

    If drugs are legalized, their use won’t be illicit so the Catholic Church shouldn’t have any problem there, right? Or did you mean something else?

    “The Church embraces subsidiarity and the role of intermediary institutions such as unions; libertarians push laws to undermine and dismantle unions.”

    Libertarian philosophy is completely consistent with voluntary associations like unions. What it is opposed to is government interference in the negotiations between employers and unions to the benefit of either party. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, apparently prefers that the government use its threat of force to coerce employers.

    “The Church favors the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and efforts to promote development to alleviate poverty around the world,”

    The free markets advocated by libertarians and the accompanying capitalism have lifted more people out of poverty than all the governments of the world or the Catholic Church.

    “but libertarians favor an isolationist foreign policy centered around American interests.”

    This is nonsensical. How can a country with an isolationist foreign policy advance American interests if it doesn’t interact with other countries?

    The libertarian position on foreign policy is not isolationist, but non-interventionist. It envisions a non-confrontational United States as an equal among nations that does not favor some over others.

    “On issue after issue, the contrast between the two worldviews is stark.”

    Yes, it is, and not to Catholicism’s benefit. The Catholic worldview is full of contradictions that render it incoherent.

    “Prior to Dave Brat’s primary win, commentators were asking, “Is the Tea Party dead?” His victory shows the enduring influence of Tea Party politics and the libertarian impulse. As Rand Paul gears up for a likely 2016 presidential run, this issue will not recede. It is not confined to a fringe group of hardcore libertarian ideologues; it is at the center of American politics. Social libertarianism will be a powerful force in the Democratic primaries, while economic libertarianism will likely draw support from the strongest Republican candidates.”

    Be careful painting David Brat as representative of libertarianism. His view of homosexuality is much more Catholic than libertarian, although his cure is rather more extreme.

    And while libertarians and more mainstream political organizations may have similar views in some areas, even in those areas there are significant differences. The Tea Party holds many non-libertarian positions on a broad range of issues. Republicans, by and large, have pro-business positions that are far from libertarian. In the social sphere Democrats have many policies that they believe should be mandatory that are in direct conflict with libertarianism.

    “How should Catholics respond? By committing to an affirmative agenda that reflects a commitment to human dignity and the common good.”

    Libertarian philosophy is fully committed to human dignity, it just has a different view of how it is achieved.

    “But also, by firmly, consistently, and relentlessly opposing the malevolent impact of libertarianism in American politics.”

    Funny, libertarians tend to feel the same about Catholicism.

    • Silly

      Except the common good?

      • LogicusPrime

        “Except the common good? ‘Personal property is sacroscant’? When asked ‘What is the greatest commandment?’. Are we talking God created mankind or god created individual economic units?”

        Did you actually read my comment and the original post? Did you realize that “Personal property is sacrosanct” isn’t my statement, but a quote from the original post? AllI did was note that the Bible and libertarian philosophy do seem to be in agreement.

        As for the Great Commandment, there’s nothing in libertarian philosophy that conflicts with it.

        I briefly explained why I suggested dropping discussion of the common good, but since you have questions I’ll elaborate. The “common good” is a myth. It’s a phrase people use to justify their preferences but also one they have a hard time defining. When pressed, they might define it as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” But that just kicks the can down the road a bit.

        How do you define the greatest good? How do you determine the greatest number? Would a little less good for a greater number be better? Does the benefit to one group of people exceed the harm done to another group? And who will make these decisions? How will you know if it’s working the way you think it should? How will you know that you’re not harming the people mean to help? Good luck with that.

  • BlueMoney

    Catholicism, then, is STATISM. (Statism being the opposite of libertarianism.) I’ll buy that.
    One more reason I’d dig up a dead body and eat it, before I’d convert to Catholicism!

  • Michael Bindner

    There is more than one kind of libertarianism. The Libertarian Party has its kind – and one of the bitterest debates in it is about abortion – the Paulistas (whether they are LP or GOP are definitely pro life). As far as drugs – it depends. that is a legal issue, not a canonical one. Some drugs are worse than others and on both abortion and drugs the question is not health or right and wrong but whether the government can do more harm than good in probiting either. Experience shows the answer is a resounding no. While some Libertarians and many Theologians are about arguing points from deduction – most of us sane folks – who may be both look at real world experience when deciding how to proceed.

    There are right wing libertarians who are primarily economic libertarians. Many equate taxation with theft because it includes the possiblity of state violence. In reality, being jailed for not paying taxes or filing them is rare, but many obsess on it. There are left libertarians too, many being social libertarians who want the government to leave people alone on drugs, sex (especially banning gay marraige – although some have recently said marriage itself should be banned – but that is just PC directed at the Church) etc. Finally, there are libertarian socialists (the first libertarians – and probably the last) who can defintely work with the Church as a governmental alternative in many areas – especially education (and the Church is lax in doing adult education high schools and votech schools), health (lets expand CHA), correcttions (as in expanding CHA some more to do mental health care) and possibly even administering retirement annuities to the spouses of workers and retirees who have died. This can all be done with the Church being paid in lieu of taxes being paid. So, yes, the Church and libertarians can actually work together quite nicely.

  • Bartolome Casas

    (1) Libertarian conservatives in the Republican Party who are also Catholics use and promote the theory of “Non-Negotiables” to mis-lead Catholics into believing that the entirety of Catholic Social Doctrine can be dismissed with a wave of hand, and that one is a good Catholic as long as one claims to favor the laws to discourage or criminalize abortion and euthanasia, It is a sly maneuver, reminiscent of President Polk’s sly maneuvers to justify his invasion, occupation and annexation of Northern Mexico. Of that war of aggression, the deception-abhorring Abraham Lincoln, in a speech in the House of Representatives said, “….this [U.S. President James K. Polk's statements on his invasion of Mexico],—issue and evidence—is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception…. this open attempt [by President Polk] to prove, by telling the truth, what he could not prove by telling the whole truth….This strange omission, it does seem to me, could not have occurred but by design. My way of living leads me to be about the courts of justice; and there, I have sometimes seen a good lawyer, struggling for his client’s neck, in a desparate case, employing every artifice to work round, befog, and cover up, with many words, some point arising in the case, which he dared not admit, and yet could not deny…. what I more than suspect already, that he [President Polk] is deeply conscious of being in the wrong—that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him….” (Jan. 12, 1848)

    (2) But by far the larger problem is the “laissez faire” approach the popes and bishops have had regarding doctrinal adherence since the Vatican II Council. The popes and bishops could fix all this instantaneously by declaring that anyone publicly promoting Pro-Abortions Rights Doctrines may not receive the sacraments of the Church, and anyone publicly promoting the many Libertarians Doctrines that are irreconcilable with the Social Moral Doctrine of the Church may not receive the sacraments of the Church. Boom. Instantly, everything would be clarified. Everyone would have to make a choice. Submit to ALMIGHTY GOD, or be among the rebels (a “confederate,” so to speak) against the Kingdom of God. As it is, these opinion pieces, such as this one on which I am writing this comment, have no effect. Those who already agree enjoy them, but no one is converted, since they can simply read a book by Robert Sirico (a Catholic priest) or a column by George Weigel (a Catholic writer employed by a libertarian think tank) and be reassured that it is acceptable or even necessary for Catholics to reject many doctrines of the Social Moral Doctrine of the Church, and to reject the many supposedly ignorant statements made by that the pope from South America. Until the popes and bishops cease this “laissez faire” approach to doctrinal adherence, nothing will get any better. They are like the shepherds of Israel that the Old Testament prophets excoriated so severely for allowing the Chosen People to fall into idolatry of liberty, laxity, and hedonism.