The 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, which “creates 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.