“Catholic libertarians? How is that even a thing??”
“Catholic libertarians? How is that even a thing??”
Yeah, we get that a lot.
Not only from other libertarians, but from other Catholics as well. The standard response from some other libertarians frequently goes exactly as you may already be expecting:
Are you kidding me? Doesn’t the Catholic Church have a long ugly history of itself being an oppressive government? The Pope is a dictator! Vatican City is still one of the last true monarchies! It is a religion, that is also a government… that has its own country… with its own flag. They teach Christ’s kingship over the entire earth! The Pope condemns social liberties, women’s rights, sexual freedom, [insert countless other prohibitions here], while also advocating for “world unity”, “one faith”, central banks, social doctrines, and.. and… the Crusades!? The Inquisition!? New World Order! C’mon!
So we’ve heard. On the flip side, I’m pretty familiar with the responses from many Catholics as well, primarily because I once espoused many of them myself:
Are you kidding me? Don’t libertarians support abortion, gay marriage and recreational drug use? Aren’t they greedy ultra-capitalists who don’t care about the poor? Some of them are even… anarchists! We can’t have total hedonism, we need law and order, like in the Church. We need the State to ensure that our morals and values are protected and enforced. We must respect temporal authority, and we have a moral obligation to pay taxes; you know, “Render unto Caesar…” Besides, the Church teaches distributism, which is incompatible with capitalism and free markets.
Don’t worry; over time, I hope to eventually write at length here at Catholic.Liberty.me addressing these and other concerns from all sides, and possibly include articles from colleagues and other contributors as well. This, however, is just my long-overdue (yet perhaps well-timed) introduction. Although I haven’t had time to be an active participant in Liberty.me thus far, I’m absolutely thrilled to be a founding member.
Now then… We assert that not only are Catholicism and libertarianism completely—and beautifully—compatible, but that Catholicism itself is essentially libertarian. I do, however, completely understand the perceived conflict on both sides. Why is there perceived conflict? Libertarians are rather keenly aware that politicians, pundits, journalists and even historians are usually more than eager to ignore, downplay, misrepresent and blame the free market at any given opportunity. Case in point, just ask the average American to define capitalism and listen to them describe almost the exact opposite. Likewise, Catholics will contend that these often-mutual antagonists do the exact same thing to Catholicism. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said:
There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.
I would say the same idea applies to true libertarianism as well. Furthermore, I suggest also that if you want to seek out truth, simply look first towards what is vilified and attacked the most in mainstream popular culture. In politics, that would be the free market. In religion, that would be Catholicism (see The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, written by an Episcopalian).
I hope that we can effectively demonstrate to our fellow Catholics not only that every devout Catholic can and should be a libertarian, but even more so, to be obedient to the teachings of the Church, we practically must be. (“Did he really just use the words ‘libertarian’ and ‘obedient’ in the same sentence?”) In fact, if you are a devout practicing Catholic, you may discover that you are already pretty darn libertarian, you have just yet to realize it. We also hope to clarify many of the misunderstandings towards the Church from many of our fellow brothers and sisters in liberty, and that if you still can’t see our theology in a new light, you might at least tolerate the notion if not fully embrace us wacky papists.
Let me begin by clarifying what a Catholic libertarian is not. We are not libertarian Catholics.
Yes, the difference seems subtle, but I feel that it is important. Catholics should never modify—and thus attempt to divide or customize—our Catholicism, which is One, Holy, Catholic (literally meaning universal and all-embracing) and Apostolic. While well-meaning Catholics use these terms frequently, there can actually be no conservative Catholics, versus liberal Catholics, or even traditional Catholics, so there can certainly be no libertarian Catholics. [Marc Barnes does an excellent job making this point in his article Catholic. Nuff Said.] Technically, even the familiar term “Roman Catholic” isn’t an official label, but is rather a relatively-recent unofficial term, mostly used to distinguish Catholics under the most-common Roman Rite of the West instead of one of the other various valid Eastern liturgical rites (e.g., it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, not the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church). Modifying our Catholicism in any way only does a disservice to the Church and the faith. Within the Church, there are only Catholics and there are heretics. We must instead use our Catholicism as the modifier for everything else!
Libertarians, meanwhile, are an incredibly philosophically-diverse group agreeing simply on the doctrine of free will. Beyond that, libertarianism is open to modifiers, as a simple search of Facebook page titles including “libertarians” will quickly demonstrate (Pro-Life Libertarians, LGBT Libertarians, Christian Libertarians, Punk Rock Libertarians, etc.). It is quite logical to conclude that Catholic libertarians can, in fact, be a thing. More than just being possible, however, it is the careful examination and uncompromising application of our Catholic faith along with a hard look at the realities of the State which has led us to discern political conclusions that currently happen to be best classified as “libertarian.”
Before continuing, it is worth noting for any non-libertarian Catholics who may have wandered here that the word “anarchism” does not mean “no rules” and thus “chaos” as is a common misconception, but rather “no rulers,” equating it essentially to true free-market capitalism and Austrian economics, which foster voluntary rules (think contractual law), mutually-beneficial exchanges, and no small amount of charity. Due to these common misunderstandings, however, philosophical anarchism is now often appropriately relabeled as voluntaryism.
As Jeffrey Tucker notes, there’s actually a very rich history of Catholic anarchism, which is always just below the surface of the Catholic Church. Historically, Catholics haven’t made very good subjects to the worldly governments of men, favoring instead our citizenship in heaven. Thousands of persecuted and martyred Saints are honored by the Church for defying coercive empires and unjust laws throughout history. (Pictured to the right is Fr. Francisco Vera who was executed by firing squad in 1927—only 87 years ago—for defiantly holding a public Mass against Mexican law.) Not to mention Jesus Himself, whose birth, ministry and death were all in criminal defiance of the State; He was even accused of subverting the state and opposing taxation leading up to His capital punishment (Luke 23:2). True Catholic history is almost nothing but the Church vs. the State, and the Church has continued to outlast every oppressive government since 33 A.D.! Doctors of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine practically wrote out the Non-Aggression Principle, teaching that vices should not be made into crimes, “lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred”, even arguing the more-moral case against criminalizing prostitution. More recently, Servant of God Dorothy Day (featured image at top)—who has been endorsed for canonization as a Saint by His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan—as an outspoken anarcho-distributist who opposed taxation, voting and “Holy Mother State” wrote:
Anarchism is based on love not hate. Self-government rather than an imposed government… The true anarchist asks nothing for himself, he is self disciplined, self denying, accepting the Cross, without asking sympathy, without complaint. The true anarchist loves his brother, according to the new law, ready to die rather than compel his brother to go his totalitarian way, no matter how convinced he may be that his way is the only way … Anarchism is personalist before it’s communitarian: it begins with living a disciplined life, trying to be what you want the other fellow to be.
Quite a few prominent names in the liberty movement today are also devout Catholics, many of whom are even old-school Catholics, preferring the Traditional Latin Mass: our own Jeffrey Tucker, Tom Woods, Judge Andrew Napolitano, Lew Rockwell, Gerard Casey, Thomas DiLorenzo, Fr. Robert Sirico and The Acton Institute, to name a few. Frédéric Bastiat and Alexis de Tocqueville were Catholics as well.
Edit: I originally forgot to mention the great Catholic apologist G. K. Chesterton, to whom David Friedman devotes the final chapter of his book The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, stating:
When I first discovered Chesterton I was already a libertarian. I enjoyed his political essays while being puzzled and intrigued to find him defending, with equal intelligence and persuasiveness, Christian and even Catholic orthodoxy— ideas which seemed as indefensible to me as his (and my) political views seemed to everyone else. It was still more intriguing to learn that he was a Christian not in spite of being a libertarian but because of it … I think it worth recording as evidence that modern readers, especially libertarians, should take seriously Chesterton’s claim concerning the connection between his political and religious views.
Dorothy Day also wrote of Chesterton in her autobiography The Long Lonliness:
G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc…and Father Vincent McNabb were the great distributists who opposed the servile state, the ‘providential state’ as Pope Pius XII recently called it… [They] would have feared the word, ‘anarchist,’ and understood it only in its popular connotation. I myself prefer the word ‘libertarian,’ as less apt to offend.
Interestingly, the only sovereign nation that functions today as a truly voluntary society with no forced taxation, no offensive military, no coercion, and ex officio leadership is Vatican City. Some view Vatican City as a monarchy, however, it is a purely voluntary authority with no threat of force against you for rejecting it, satisfying the Non-Aggression Principle. This idea is further explored in this Mises.org journal entitled Vatican City as a Free Society. J.R.R. Tolkien—another Catholic anarchist—coined the idea of an anarcho-monarchy or “unconstitutional monarchy” as he called it, which is more of a symbolic kingship with no actual governing power based on force, but instead a voluntary leadership for the purpose of serving others, much like the Holy See (this is reflected in his books with The Return of the King; additionally, the Shire was his ideal anarchist society while Sauron reflects the State). This is all modeled after the Kingship of Christ which hinges entirely on love, which is the voluntary giving of ourselves, including even voluntary obedience, by our own free will.
Everything I do or say is filtered through my internal screen of Catholicism. I am thrilled beyond compare at the number of libertarians that carry rosary beads in their pockets.
To further explore the ideas of libertarianism from a Catholic perspective, please check out this “Getting Started” list of resources from Randy England, author of the highly-recommended book Free is Beautiful: Why Catholics Should Be Libertarian.
"If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar." ~ Servant of God Dorothy Day