Category Archives: Catholic Libertarians

Father Robert Spitzer on Liberty

Thanks to JSB Morse at The Libertarian Catholic website for noting last week’s EWTN broadcast program of “Father Spitzer’s Universe.” Father Robert Spitzer S.J. is a brilliant Catholic author on the spiritual life, theology and the scientific evidence for a transcendent God. He is also President of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith.

The video below picks up halfway through the program as Fr. Spitzer explains the work of Spanish Scholastic writer Francisco Suárez who set out the modern basis for natural rights theory, later influencing Hugo Grotius, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

Father Spitzer goes far in laying the groundwork upon which Catholic libertarianism is based:

  • The right to self-governance
  • An unjust law is no law at all
  • Initiating harm to another without cause (aggression) is unjust
  • Limits of democratic rule
  • Right to private property.

Begin watching at the 30 minutes mark:

 

Father Cummings and the Loyalty Oath

From the days of the apostles, Christians have often found themselves opposing unjust laws of government with this response: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Today, the state often demands more than the Christian conscience can give. Ninety years ago, Catholics battled to the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, for the right to educate their children in parochial schools.

So it has always been.

It was the summer of 1865. The American civil war was over and the radical reconstructionists held the state of Missouri tightly. A new state constitution, the “Drake” or “carpetbagger” constitution, was forced on the citizens, narrowly passing by a margin created by the “yes” votes of the occupying Union soldiers. The purpose was to punish and remove from public view those who had favored the southern cause in the newly-ended war. The new constitution required a loyalty oath to the United States in which the oath-taker swore that he was loyal to the Union during the war.

Giving aid and comfort to the enemy and avoiding the draft were cited as disqualifiers, but the oath went much further. Anyone who had ever made a mere suggestion of sympathy with those engaged in the rebellion were considered disloyal. An example of such disloyalty was seen in a man who had brought his dying confederate brother home for burial. No one was allowed to vote without swearing the oath.

Missouri made it a crime for any officeholder, lawyer, teacher, corporation director/manager or member of the clergy to practice their profession after September 2, 1865, unless they had taken the oath. Missouri Gov. Fletcher took a hard line on enforcement, suggesting that the state penitentiary at Jefferson City be enlarged to accommodate all the clergymen and teachers who refused to take the oath. [Donald Rau, “Three Cheers for Father Cummings,” 1977 Yearbook, Supreme Court Historical Society. See a copy of the oath below.]

Archbishop of St. Louis, Peter Kenrick, viewed the oath as an infringement of religious liberty and determined to resist. Believing the oath to be unconstitutional, he instructed the priests of the state not to take the oath, saying “The next thing we know, they will be dictating what we shall preach.” Rau, “Three Cheers.”

On September 3, 1865, Father John Cummings, the young pastor of St Joseph Catholic Church in Louisiana, Missouri said his regular Sunday mass and preached from the pulpit. He had not taken the oath. The next morning a grand jury–convened under Judge Thomas Fagg–indicted Father Cummings for preaching the Gospel. A contemporary account takes up the story:

[A] Radical Sheriff, one Wm. Pennix (give all their names to infamy), once a strong pro-slavery man, arrested Father Cummings and lodged him in jail, consigning him to the ‘felon’s cell’ and the association ot thieves. Said one of the felons to the priest as he entered the cell, “What are you put in here for?’ ‘For preaching the Gospel,’ replied the priest. ‘Good,’ said the man, ‘I am in here for stealing horses.”

The arrest and imprisonment of Mr. Cummings produced vast excitement. Men and women crowded around the jail, and the commotion was so great that the Judge and his men were anxious to bail him out, but he would not be bailed out. Then they were anxious that he should run off, and gave him a chance to do so, but even this poor boon he declined, preferring to remain in jail. In a few days Archbishop Kenrick, of St. Louis, sent up and had him bailed.

~ W.M. Leftwich, Martyrdom in Missouri, 1870

Soon after, Father Cummings appeared before the court. He pled guilty to preaching without taking the oath, but complained that the law was wrong. Fagg accepted the plea and readied to sentence the priest. The proceedings were surprisingly halted, however, because a solidly pro-union lawyer and U.S. Senator from Missouri, John Henderson, happened to be in the courtroom that day on other business. Henderson rose and objected, pointing out that Father Cummings had actually pled “not guilty” since he claimed the law was invalid. The court had to agree and allowed withdrawal of the guilty plea. A bench trial was held and Judge Fagg convicted the priest, sentenced him to pay a $500 fine and to be held in jail until it was paid.

It was to be another day of surprises for the Radicals. Much to their chagrin, Father Cummings refused to pay his fine or to post bond for an appeal, and refused to permit anyone else to pay his fine for him. The reaction of Father Cummings’ parishioners at Louisiana must have added considerably to the discomfort of the Radicals. They refused to accept the imprisonment of their pastor without protest. “Father Cummins’ [sic] parishioners came up from Louisiana, and camping about the dungeon of their beloved shepherd, were in much the same frame of mind as the children of Israel when they set down and wept by the rivers of Babylon.”

~ Rau, “Three Cheers for Father Cummings.”

The Catholic priest remained imprisoned in the Pike County Jail at Bowling Green for more than two years, while his conviction was affirmed by a Missouri Supreme court (just fifteen years after its decision in the Dred Scott case). With the support of Archbishop Kenrick and the assistence of nationally respected lawyers, Cummings finally won his freedom in the Supreme Court of the United States. In addition to denouncing the odiousness of all loyalty oaths, the court noted that other countries at least limit their loyalty oaths to contemporaneous conduct, but here “the oath is directed not merely against overt and visible acts of hostility to the government, but is intended to reach words, desires, and sympathies, also. And, in the third place, it allows no distinction between acts springing from malignant enmity and acts which may have been prompted by charity, or affection, or relationship….” Cummings v. State of Missouri, 71 U.S. 277 (1866).

The Court found the law to be an unconstitutional ex post facto law enacted to punish past conduct that was not a crime at the time. The Court also held the law to be an unconstitutional “bill of attainder” which is any legislative act which inflicts punishment without a trial. Father Cummings was then released and resumed his duties.

Other priests and ministers had also been convicted under the law and some of those also imprisoned for a time.

Missouri’s second-most famous Supreme court litigant died young, just ten years after his famous defiance of the state. Father Cummings is buried at St. Louis, Missouri in Calvary Cemetery, just 500 yards from Missouri’s most famous litigant, Dred Scott.


Loyalty oath of Wm C. Wilson, State of Missouri, County of St. Louis, page one, August 25, 1865. Dexter P. Tiffany Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, Missouri. B67/F2

Free City Podcast Interview

FreeCitiesPodcastFree Cities Podcast focuses on real life examples of decentralization and market alternatives to problems.

Anthony Caprio and I discussed why Romans chapter 13 is not the blanket support for the state that many Christians believe; What about theft and greed in a free society? and might a stateless society offer better options for living a moral life?

Download or listen to the show here:

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A question for non-libertarian Catholics

Catholic LibertarianWhen there is a problem or issue to resolve, should we prefer voluntary solutions over coercive solutions? I promise to come back to this question, but first a few things . . .

Any discussion of Catholics and libertarianism on the internet will always attract some troll who drops in just long enough to conclude that “Catholicism and libertarianism are incompatible.” A few of these folks will stick around to complain that Catholics can’t be libertarian because . . .

  • libertarians are selfish individualists
  • libertarians are libertines
  • libertarians dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church
  • libertarians cannot see Christ in others
  • libertarians are pro-abortion

While such statements surely apply to some libertarians, these criticisms have nothing to do with libertarianism in itself.

Doing evil that good may come of it

In Romans 3:8, St. Paul tells us that the ends do not justify the means: one must not do evil so that good may come of it. Likewise Pope Saint John Paul II teaches this principle in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor:

Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused.

Don’t tread on your neighbor

The golden rule famously tells us to do unto others what we would have them do unto ourselves; and we are told in Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”

In libertarianism, there is but a single rule. It is called the non-aggression principle: that no one may initiate physical force against another. Unless one trespasses against the person or property of another, they must be left in peace. We call this freedom. It is not just a moral imperative; man’s freedom also serves a spiritual purpose.

Freedom: Hothouse of sin or prerequisite for virtue?

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained this about earthly freedom:

Take the quality of freedom away from anyone, and it is no more possible for him to be virtuous than it is for the blade of grass which he treads beneath his feet to be virtuous. Take freedom away from life, and there would be no more reason to honor the fortitude of martyrs than there would be to honor the flames which kindle their faggots. Is it therefore any impeachment of God that he chose not to reign over an empire of chemicals?

“Virtue in its concrete order is possible only in those spheres in which it is possible to be vicious. Man can be a saint only in a world in which it is possible to be a devil.

~Through the Year with Fulton Sheen, Servant Books, 1985 pp 110-111.

Libertarians understand that freedom is a double-edged sword. The dilemma is that freedom is indispensable and yet opens the door to all kinds of evil. Freedom enabled Satan to rebel against God. Adam and Eve in the garden abused their freedom and brought death into the world. The same freedom is granted to each of us. Since the beginning, God has decreed our freedom, all the while knowing the danger–and seeing the suffering to come–decided that the game is worth the candle. See “Why God is more libertarian than we are.

Thomas Aquinas & libertarians on victimless crimes

Catholic libertarianLibertarians agree that no one should be permitted to commit violence against others, but we may use necessary force to protect persons and property. The protection of persons or property is a legitimate act, whether done by individuals or by the community. Libertarians agree: we must keep the peace.

We do question, however, the use of force against anyone who has not threatened or harmed another. Saint Thomas Aquinas recognized a distinction between acts that harm others and those are commonly referred to as vices or “victimless” crimes. He wrote:

[H]uman 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.

St. Thomas argued the wisdom of such a live-and-let-live philosophy, and acknowledged that to go further would cause more harm than good. See more here. It is a good rule, but the modern world knows no such limits when it comes to the one institution which claims a monopoly on the right to initiate violence against others. That institution is the state.

The Church and Government

Once upon a time, the ancient Israelites were lead by the “judges.” The judges did not have many duties. They led the army in times of war and people came to them to settle disputes. The nations around Israel had kings, so the Israelites begged for a king. God explained how bad life would be under a king. They said “We don’t care. Give us a king,” So God gave them a king. And that king was pretty bad. Most of their later kings were even worse. It seemed that people were not ready to give up bossing and being bossed around.

The Church has lived with the state since Roman times. Christian teachings often mention the state, urging it to justice. But the Church does not demand particular solutions to societal and economic problems. Neither does the Church proclaim any particular form of governance, but only that it provide for the common good, i.e peace and security, protection of individual rights and the general prosperity of society. See “Does the Bible approve of violent government?”

The role of the State: both the real and the ideal

When the Church does suggest solutions to problems, the state will often figure prominently in those solutions. The Church can hardly do otherwise considering that the state is everywhere. Today, it is more massive and controlling than anytime in history. Even so, the Church’s social encyclicals are not shy in confronting the state where it encroaches on human rights, especially in its teachings on subsidiarity (the principle that governance should always be at the lowest possible level of society).

Even recognizing limits to state power, the encyclicals also charge the state with a responsibility to promote social justice and protect people’s rights. This is no more or less than the protection of the common good. At times the social encyclicals suggest certain initiatives by the state which–putting it mildly–seem beyond the competency of the state. Proposals to regulate voluntary and honest economic activity come to mind.

Certainly the state fulfills a just purpose when it protects us from those who would harm us. It only makes sense that when someone is hitting me over the head, I could use the help of someone who also specializes in hitting people. The state–whose only tool is violence–may have the resources to solve my problem. The trouble is, when we ask the state to do more than keep the peace and protect fundamental rights, we ask too much. This is because only a wise state, one with integrity and perfect knowledge could fulfill such a mandate as the Church urges upon it. That state has never existed.

Instead, we have governments run by the most corrupt of men, the best of which are thieves and the worst, tyrants. They wage unjust war almost continuously and use it to expand their powers. Violence is the essence of the state. See more here.

The Question: Should we have a preferential option for non-violence?

The Catholic libertarian asks this question of his fellow Catholics: When the community has a problem to solve or has a worthy goal to reach, would you be willing find a voluntary solution in place of a coercive solution? Would the Church object to this “preferential option” for non-violence? Many Catholics call on governments–when dealing with other governments–to find peaceful solutions, using violence only as last resort. If non-violence is preferable in dealing with nations, even hostile nations, how much more should coercion be avoided in dealing with our own neighbors here at home.

As Catholic libertarians, we propose voluntary, non-coercive solutions. We will argue that charity, mutual aid and lifting barriers to honest work are better solutions to poverty than the welfare state. We are going to suggest that drug abuse is a social problem, a mental health and spiritual problem, but not a criminal one. We will contend that any armed forces must be limited to self-defense, rather than messing around in other countries’ business, replacing strongman dictators with jihadist leaders.

As a moral issue, no Catholic–no Christian of any stripe, for that matter–should choose violence when a voluntary solution is available. This does not makes us libertines, nor make us selfish individualists. We do not dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church. We are pro-life. We see Christ in our brother and we accept this personal challenge from the letter of St. James:

If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?

Those are marching orders for every Christian, but the modern state makes it easy to ignore our personal duty, and so we dismiss the needy saying: “Go to the government, be warmed and filled.”

What remains of “love your neighbor” in that?

Catholic libertarians favor a genuine charity that springs from love instead of coercion. Such charity puts the whole golden rule into action. First, as a guide to what we ought to do for our neighbor; and then as a caution as to what we must not do, for this is not a measure we apply to others. We apply it to ourselves.

It is time for Catholics, and every Christian, to consider libertarianism, the most just system in a fallen world and the only political philosophy that takes love for our neighbor, human dignity and free will seriously.

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Freedom Toons – Catholic and Libertarian

Seamus Coughlin is a Catholic libertarian cartoonist. Below is his video, “What Libertarians Actually Believe: Stereotypes.” For more from this talented guy, head over to his website, Freedom Toons.

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Something for my conservative Catholic friends

Anarcho-Ichthus-favSome of us Catholic libertarians come from a conservative political background. We understand the dilemma to which Catholic Republicans have become accustomed in recent decades. It seems like the choice is between electing either 1) lying Republicans who quickly disappoint or 2) lying Democrats whose very promises are an affront.

Confession1With that in mind, I invite you to check out, this article by my friend Mark Cavaliere: “Confession of a Catholic Libertarian.” Mark is the administrator of the Catholic Libertarians Facebook page.

Mark’s road will be very familiar to many. For all who are beginning to doubt whether the right guys are ever going to get control of the mess that the government has become, read Mark’s Confession and then look into liberty. Find out how Catholic it really is.

To begin exploring Catholicism and Liberty, go to Getting Started: Catholicism and libertarianism

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Libertarian Jesus

When St. Paul Tweaked the Emperor’s Nose

Christian statists like to drag out St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans to demonstrate that disobedience to government is not an option:

st paul“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.”  Rom. 13:1-4

Some laws must be disobeyed

Long recognized, however, are certain exceptions to this “always obey the government” rule. While St. Paul here equates obedience with “doing what is good,” no one argues that governments have ever confined their conduct to what is good. We find the famous standoff recorded in the Acts of the Apostles where St. Peter and the apostles defy the rulers saying: “We must obey God rather than men.” Acts 5:29. Numerous other approving recitations of civil disobedience occur in both the Old and New Testaments.

Some must always (and everywhere) be obeyed

So first of all, we must disobey some laws, but even the government gets many laws right. This second sort of law are those that seek to prevent or correct harm to others; such prohibitions would have to be obeyed in any society.

Unjust Nanny-state Laws

Finally, alongside the protective laws (which must be obeyed) and the laws which command us to do evil (which must be disobeyed) we still have that great morass of laws designed either 1) to steal from us; or 2) punish us unless we conduct our own lives according to the ruler’s demands.

It may well be wise to obey this third sort of law (if only out of self-defense), but as to any Christian moral obligation to obey, a closer look at St Paul’s epistle to the Romans suggests another layer to the analysis and raises the question as what duty—if any—is owed to the authorities:

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Rom.13:6-7.

How much honor is due?

The rulers might read this passage as satisfying homage, but the subversive undercurrent of this verse is barely beneath the surface for any objective reader. Indeed, justice might cry out that no taxes are due; that the bloody hands of the ruler merit no respect; and his thefts deserve not honor but punishment. Only a fool feels honored at having been wished “all the respect he is due.” St. Paul’s words are reminiscent of Bilbo’s speech at his birthday party:

I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

It’s hard to make out whether he is insulting or paying a compliment.

As with so much of scripture, the writings of St. Paul are rich with multiple levels of meaning. It turns out that the stern apostle possessed a perilous sense of humor, quite capable of lampooning the king.

Nero runs his race

In the year 66 A.D., the Emperor Nero left Rome to compete in the Olympic games and make a concert tour of Greece. At Olympia, he competed in the four-horse chariot race. The historian Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, reported that Nero drove his chariot with at least 10 horses. The emperor was thrown from his chariot during the race and had to be picked up and put back at the reins.

The emperor was unable to remain in his seat and gave up the race before the finish. Since he was the emperor, the judges crowned him the winner anyway. Nero generously declared the whole province a free country and gave the judges large sums of money.

This humiliation would have been fresh news when the buffoonish emperor returned to Rome and soon afterward had the apostle Paul beheaded. Could there be a connection between Nero’s race and a letter St Paul penned from a prison cell in Rome? The apostle wrote this in his last letter to his young friend Timothy,:

An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. . . . [T]he time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.  2 Tim. 2:5, 4:6-8.

Nero the athlete had also competed, but he never finished the race. Nero did not compete according to the rules, yet was awarded the crown. Can there be any doubt that St Paul combined his bittersweet farewell to Timothy with a joke at Nero’s expense? If Nero was due respect simply for being the emperor–as Romans 13 is so often read–then St. Paul failed to follow his own rule. It is something to ponder when we consider one’s duty to any ruler or government.

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Read the related post: “Does the Bible Approve of Violent Government” here.

How can a pro-life Catholic be a libertarian?

Catholic Libertarians  XmasMore and more, American Catholics are coming to understand the essential compatibility between Catholicism and libertarianism. The great virtue of libertarianism is the respect it accords one’s neighbor.

As we are told in the book of Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike,” a command we recognize as a corollary to the Golden rule. This makes libertarianism the one political philosophy that truly takes human dignity and free will seriously.

At the same time, some Catholics see the liberty movement as a threat to both the Church and society. Until recently, opposition to libertarianism in both Catholic and secular media has been sporadic, but now we are seeing a rising protest. Last June, there was the much publicized conference touting “The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism,” most of it springing from a Catholic left perspective. Certainly most of the noise seems to be coming from the left or redistribution side of the fence.

A recent article at Crux by Robert G. Christian, however, comes from a fresh direction. In If you are pro-life, you can’t be a libertarian,” he writes:

“We believe that every single human being has a fundamental right to life. This human right is innate and immutable. Directly and intentionally taking an innocent life is always immoral and indefensible.”

That is solid Church teaching that any Catholic must accept, but the article quickly moves onto shaky ground. As critics of libertarianism inevitably do, the article starts in by mischaracterizing libertarians as something most of us are not:

“Libertarianism is centered on a commitment to the autonomy of the individual and removing impediments to the individual’s freedom of action.”

“A good way to strengthen the pro-choice side is by framing the debate around autonomy, individual choice, and self-interest.”

The coming arguments could all follow smoothly except that most libertarians, especially Catholic libertarians, would never frame the debate around “autonomy, individual choice and self-interest.”

It is true that libertarianism respects free will and would allow freedom of action so long as it does not harm other people, but individualism is not its essence. The bottom line of libertarianism is the nonaggression principle–which simply stated–means that one may not initiate physical force against another. That’s it. Period.

biil&joeThe Church teaches love of neighbor as a core belief. The Catholic libertarian embraces that duty without reservation. Indeed, he believes more strongly in such duties because he knows those duties are his own, not the job of some distant government that has nothing of its own to offer and gives only what it has first stolen.

The article’s main theme is that the pro-life movement must use every tool possible to protect life:

“If the pro-life movement wants to succeed, it should embrace a comprehensive approach to abortion that recognizes the full range of duties that individual people, intermediary institutions, and the government have in supporting pregnant women, strengthening families, and protecting lives.”

While Mr. Christian may be surprised by this, pro-life libertarians would agree with everything in that paragraph, including the role of some “government” or other institution in protecting the public from harm. Since prohibiting abortion and punishing it are preventive and responsive force (not an initiation of force), no libertarian who believed an unborn child has a right to life would have a problem with such laws.

This is not to argue that libertarianism resolves the pro-choice/pro-life conflict, but neither does our current system. There is no disputing that the U.S. Government alone is the sole entity preventing the prohibition of abortion in many U.S. states, including my own. On this issue, the United States is an enemy of life and there is little prospect of overcoming it.

Even so, the article decries libertarian “anti-government rhetoric.” Mr.Christian views government as a pro-life ally, if only we can gain control of it. This is a fool’s errand. We should ask if such help seems imminent. Better progress might be made by getting the police state boots off our necks. There is a certain irony in the argument that an incorrigibly aggressive state is an essential tool for fixing the problem of violence against the most helpless.

It may be true that if the state were truly determined to end abortion, then a completely totalitarian state would be most effective in sniffing out more abortions: watching everyone minutely, and punishing everyone most vigorously. Most people, however, would find the good done by such a police state far would be outweighed by the evils it fostered.

The reality, however, is that our police state does not prohibit abortion and—adding insult to injury—it uses its power to protect and fund abortion; and makes all of us partners in its crimes.

Most Catholic libertarians agree that abortion must be outlawed, just as any crime against an innocent human being—whether it be murder, rape or assault—must also be outlawed. Admittedly, criminalization will have only limited effectiveness. The way that decentralized communities would deal with the offense of abortion will undoubtedly vary, but the practice must not be permitted.

The higher priority, however, must be the task of changing minds to value the life of both mother and child. A voluntary society—one that respects others and removes barriers to adoption—is our best hope.

At the beginning of this post, I noted that most criticism of Catholic libertarians has come from the Catholic economic left who fear libertarianism would hinder the growth of the welfare state. I gave Mr. Christian credit for taking a different tack in the war on Catholic libertarians—not because there is any conflict in being both pro-life and libertarian—but because I appreciate pro-life allies of every stripe.

Even so, he eventually reverts to a pitch for the welfare state (“economic justice”) as necessary for reducing abortion. He calls the free market a “grave threat to unborn life” and argues:

“Only by fixing and strengthening the social safety net, supporting pregnant women to ensure their needs are met, developing pro-family policies, and increasing economic opportunity and mobility for those living in poverty can we minimize abortion. This demands robust government action, something that cannot be reconciled with libertarianism.”

We libertarians gladly join in a call for government action. We propose that government repeal the thousands of state-created impediments to human flourishing, each of which separates people from good jobs, independent housing and the ability to create their own businesses. See “Catholic Libertarians in the Critics Den, A Response.”  These are the sorts of changes that foster human dignity.

There is good reason to doubt the ability of an aggression-based government to protect those who have no voice. Only a society based on respect for life and freedom can protect the unborn, for such respect comes from an impulse that is both Catholic and libertarian: Love your neighbor as yourself. Never do to others what you would not want done to you.

To succeed in this, we need only to recognize Jesus in everyone we meet, even if they are not yet born.

Catholic libertarians in the Critics Den, a response

BeFunky_Grunge_9The National Catholic Reporter online is pressing its war on the growing movement of Catholic libertarians with an article entitled, “Solidarity is our word: My humanity is bound up in yours.” The writer is Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology, who also delivered a talk at the June 3, 2014 conference at Catholic University in Washington DC: “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.”

The theme of Clark’s article is that “Catholicism and libertarianism have incompatible views of the human person” and that libertarians have a warped view of human nature. She charges that libertarians are radical individualists who see themselves as Robinson Crusoe on his island, accountable to nobody. She writes that libertarians deny this 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.” This is a mistaken view of Christian libertarians, as we will see.

The Nature of Freedom

Libertarians of every stripe understand freedom to mean that no one may initiate force against another. It means that each of us must permit our neighbors to make their own choices as it affects their own lives. As we are told in the book of Tobit 4:15: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.” The corollary is the Golden Rule itself: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

According to Clark, libertarians do not really understand freedom. Clark writes that personal autonomy–the right to live one’s life without interference–dominates a libertarian’s understanding of freedom, thereby missing the meaning of true freedom.

Clark references Pope Benedict XVI who calls all people to this true freedom. This higher freedom is more than the simple right to make our own choices in this life; it is the freedom to do what is right. This higher freedom is what enables the selfish person to love his neighbor; enables the gluttonous, the lustful, the greedy and the envious to moderate their appetites. After all, one who is a slave only to his own vices, is still a slave. He is not truly free. We get it.

We should distinguish, however, between natural freedom of action (which is imperfect) and true freedom (which is perfect). The higher freedom is freedom from fault and unhappiness, freedom from what Christians call sin.

The existence of this higher, spiritual freedom in no way negates the existence of the our natural freedom of action which makes up the core of libertarianism. Despite Clark’s assertions, natural freedom is also an essential component of what makes us human and it goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The libertarian philosophy concerns itself with what St. Thomas Aquinas called “natural liberty, which is freedom from coercion.” It encompasses all the choices we make in this life, whether good or bad. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes: “It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.” In His wisdom, God permits it.

As God permits this natural freedom, so must we. Natural freedom is a given in this life. We are told not to judge others. We are cautioned not to be busybodies (a contemptible bunch that St. Peter classes with thieves, murderers and other criminals 1 Pet. 4:15). There is a purpose in allowing the exercise of free will.

As Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained:

“Take the quality of freedom away from anyone, and it is no more possible for him to be virtuous than it is for the blade of grass which he treads beneath his feet to be virtuous. Take freedom away from life, and there would be no more reason to honor the fortitude of martyrs than there would be to honor the flames which kindle their faggots. Is it therefore any impeachment of God that he chose not to reign over an empire of chemicals?

“Virtue in its concrete order is possible only in those spheres in which it is possible to be vicious. Man can be a saint only in a world in which it is possible to be a devil.

~Through the Year with Fulton Sheen, Servant Books, 1985 pp 110-111.

Unless we are to be a race of robots, free will and room for exercising it seems a necessary condition for making virtuous people, the kind of people capable of exercising that true freedom. While many libertarians may not know this higher freedom, a Catholic libertarian will likely understand both natural freedom and the true freedom; and aspire to both. Ms Clark’s mistake is in denying the importance of natural freedom, which turns out to be a rung on the ladder to true freedom.

Libertarianism: Selfish individualism or Respect for our Neighbor?

Clark also misses the mark in characterizing libertarians as selfish individualists. How her conclusion necessarily flows from libertarianism is a mystery. No Catholic Christian could embrace such a philosophy. Nevertheless, Clark paints all libertarians in the mold of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko, who lived only for himself and taught that “greed is good.” Clark asks:

“Am I really irrational every time I consider someone else in making a decision? Is selfishness really a virtue, as Ayn Rand argues?”

One who aspires to demonstrate the incompatibility of Catholicism and libertarianism ought to begin with core libertarian principles. This a simple task because there is only one. It is the non-aggression principle: that no one may initiate physical force against another. While this is a moral principle, it is not a comprehensive moral code, so critics should not view libertarianism as a monolith of belief.

There is a great gulf between the teachings of an atheist like Ayn Rand and the understanding of a Catholic libertarian. Clark and other Catholic commentators would do well to examine how a Catholic Christian applies the non-aggression principle to a life of faith.

Catholic libertarians are not isolated individualists. We are not libertines. We do not dissent from the doctrines or moral teachings of the Church. We are not pro-choice on abortion. We would not permit the starvation of children. We believe in the golden rule.

Social Justice = Welfare State?

After Clark faults the Catholic Christian libertarian understanding of freedom, she comes to her real target: libertarian resistance to a welfare-state style of social justice. Returning to her theme, she writes that this resistance to the compulsory welfare state “is really a disagreement about what it means to be human.” Such an audacious accusation! One could counter that zeal for initiating violence is hardly what separates us from the animals. Indeed, it makes us more like them.

Clark goes on to quote U2 frontman Bono, numerous popes, the scriptures, and Martin Luther King, Jr., each citing undeniable truths about our solidarity with our fellow man; truths taught by Jesus himself:

  • That we see our neighbors as ourselves, and as brothers and sisters; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, especially those in the greatest need

Clark makes a good case that each of us has a moral duty to our fellow man. Any Christian libertarian will also recognize this duty, even while rejecting the use of violence to compel others to do the same.

It is this libertarian rejection of state violence, Clark insists, whichcreates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.” Does anyone sense an irony in exalting state-compelled welfare above the Christian spirit of voluntary charity?

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta , or a servant like Dorothy Day counsels us to visit the sick and feed the poor, she is not asking us to write our congressman:

“If your brother is hungry you feed him. You don’t meet him at the door and say ‘Go be thou filled, wait for a few weeks and go get a welfare check.’ You set him down. Feed him . . . . It’s far easier to see Christ in your brother when you are sitting down and sharing soup with him.”

~ Dorothy Day interviewed on “Christopher Closeup” recorded 10/20/1971.

Of course she is quoting the letter of James, where we read,

“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?”

The modern state makes it even easier for us to ignore the needy, for we can always dismiss them, saying: “Go to the government, be warmed and filled.” There is nothing of loving your neighbor in that.

Catholic libertarians favor a genuine charity that springs from love instead of coercion. Such charity puts the whole golden rule into action. First as a guide to what we ought to do for our neighbor; and then as a caution as to what we must not do. It is not a measure we apply to others. It is not an excuse to mind our neighbor’s business.

It is time for Catholics, and every Christian, to consider libertarianism, the most just system in a fallen world and the only political philosophy that takes love for our neighbor, human dignity and free will seriously.