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.

Catholic libertarian

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.

Catholic Libertarianism — Getting started

Featured

Resources for the Catholic who wants to learn about liberty and libertarianism, the most just system in a fallen world and the only political philosophy that takes human dignity and free will seriously. First, a quick overview at Liberty.me by Mark Cavaliere: “Catholic libertarians? How is that even a thing??”  Then drill on down through these links:

Without Liberty, there is no virtue and no charity

Abortion and the Right to Life

Taxation and the State

Why not every sin should made a crime

Economics and Catholic Social Teaching

So, if the world is already going to hell in a hand-basket, wouldn’t a freer, voluntary society simply make it even harder to live a virtuous life and harder to raise a family in an way that pleases God and makes saints?

MYOB-Cookie

Join your Catholic libertarian friends at the Facebook Catholic Libertarians community.