ASK FATHER: Can I be a Catholic AND a Libertarian?

From a reader….


Is there anyone I can read about being Catholic and Libertarian?

Is it possible ?

With the power the secular state is allowed I find my inclination is to be as libertarian as possible without being immoral.

You are clearly thoughtful and trying to align yourself properly with a few to your Catholic Faith.

My short answer to your question is: It depends on what someone means by “libertarian.”

Firstly, beware of anything, any comment or definition from Left, as for example from “Madame Defarge” of the Fishwrap, about “libertarian”.  Everything they say about Catholic and Libertarian is, as the saying goes, a lie, including “and” and “the”.

Let’s make rapid distinctions which I think will resolve your question.

1) If it means atheism, philosophical hedonism, government being morally neutral about everything, etc., then the answer is no.

2) If it means limited government, a strong civil society, rule of law, strong private property rights, and a market economy, then the answer might be yes, though I’d use phrases like “classical liberal” or “limited government conservative.”

The issue with most forms of libertarianism is the philosophical premises: for the most part, libertarian philosophers (though not all) don’t believe in natural law and adhere to social contract theory, evolutionary morality, act- or rule-utilitarianism, philosophical hedonism etc., and these positions clearly aren’t compatible with Catholicism.

What to read? Longer answer?

This is really good.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. ScottW says:

    Tom Woods is a very popular Catholic Libertarian. And he’s very entertaining to read:

  2. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks Fr. Z, good question and reply. Your helpful “yes-no” reply echoes St. John Paul II in Centesimus Annus.

    Good book by Samuel Gregg. He’s also written numerous good articles, such as at Catholic World Report on: Fratelli Tutti, the Faith of Charles de Gaulle, Kenneth Clarke’s “Civilisation” (“Marxism is a moral and intellectual failure”) and From Marx to Gaia (“Liberation theology never went away. It morphed into liberation ecology”).

    In the de Gaulle article, Gregg quotes de Gaulle speaking to French clergy:

    “The Church is eternal and France will never die. Whatever the dangers, the crises and the dramas that we must traverse, above all and always, we know where we are going. We go, even when we die, towards Life.”

  3. Amateur Scholastic says:

    The Encyclical Quanta Cura, which is infallible (see paragraph 6 of the document), would be worth reading. But I agree an enormous amount depends on definitions.

  4. Semper Gumby says:

    Centesimus Annus 42.

  5. Gerard Plourde says:

    This is truly an excellent answer to a difficult question. You’ve put your finger directly the difficulty Libertarianism presents. You’ve once again outlined the need for a well-formed conscience which provides a necessary check on misled free will.

  6. TonyO says:

    I agree with the above: excellent answer, Fr. Z.

    In addition to what was already said: typical libertarianism – because it does not support or even allow room for natural law – has immense difficulties with children in its declarations about freedom. It usually wants to “allow everyone to choose their own” path, ideas, preferences, actions, philosophy, etc. But when a family has babies, those babies cannot choose any of these for themselves. And parents (and older siblings) are not simply free to decide whether they will or won’t take care of the babies when they want to.

    Ultimately, we are born into communities, (several layers of them), and we have duties and responsibilities to those communities that we didn’t choose to accept, they don’t arise solely on account of each individual agreeing to accept them. And this is natural (hence natural law) because humans are by nature social beings. Furthermore, virtue lies in having a habit of good actions, and in order for children to come to a point where the even have a chance to “freely” choose to align their behavior with such actions, they have to have been raised able to perceive such actions as wholesome and right, and this means their parents raising them according to a certain notion of the good. I.E. teaching and training them in a certain way that is not neutral about the good.

  7. Elizium23 says:

    Amateur Scholastic…
    I have learned a thing or two regarding infallibility in my education as a Catechist, and I see many fallacies perpetuated regarding what it is, and what it isn’t.

    Catholic Encyclopedia: Infallibility
    Catholic Dictionary: Infallibility

    Infallibility applies to persons, such as the Holy Father when exercising the teaching office ex cathedra. It applies to Plenary Councils, when all the bishops of the world are gathered in agreement. It applies to the Magisterium, which is a group of persons, in the teaching authority exercised in union with the Roman Pontiff.

    It might apply to statements and formulations, sorta, but that is not the classical definition. Persons are infallible, statements and formulations are other things.
    It certainly does not apply to whole documents in toto. You just can’t attach an untouchable status to a complete document, because there are, more often than not, parts of it that aren’t teaching about faith and morals and necessarily do not fall under the charism of infallibility.

    A person once tried to tell me the Catechism is infallible, and I kind of took that with a grain of salt. Great book. Not infallible. Not books.

    Except the Bible?

  8. KL says:

    The problem with Catholic Socialists is that they ignore Church teaching on property. The problem with Catholic Libertarians is that they ignore Church teaching on usury.

    The people who run and fund groups like the Acton Institute, Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and AEI do not care about “social conservatism”, religious liberty, or any other issue related to the Catholic faith. They view religious and conservative voters as a means to the end of enacting their favored policies. I view alot of this stuff as propaganda meant to persuade religious voters to support policies against their economic interests. The relationship is similar to the one between Democrats and black voters.

    The standard of living for average Americans has been declining for 50 years, peaking right before the 70s stagflation. My grandfather supported 5 kids and a wife on one blue-collar income, and retied to Florida. My parents supported two kids on two white-collar incomes (one with union healthcare and benefits). I’m not married but if I started having kids now they would grow up with a noticeably lower standard of living than I did, despite the fact that I have a graduate degree and a white-collar job. Alot of the sexual revolution stuff is indirectly connected to this decline in living standards — people who would otherwise become working-class preserve their middle-class life style by delaying marriage, having their wives work, and having fewer kids. The sex revolution ideology serves as a post-hoc rationalization. I am not an expert in economics, but there is much to indicate that conservative/libertarian economic policies have contributed to these trends. In particular, the gutting of unions, off shoring jobs, mass immigrations, free trade, and the reliance on debt. There are traditions both in the US Republican Party (the protectionist American School of Economics) and the Catholic Church (Catholic Social Teaching) that are critical of socialism but also seek to avoid the pitfalls of a dogmatic free market ideology. Libertarians can make their arguments, but Catholics and other social conservatives should know that we are not faced with a simple choice between atheistic Communism and the mainstream conservative movement/GOP.

    I don’t believe Catholics can support the Democrats given their total abandonment of social conservatism. But this doesn’t mean we should simply embrace the polices of the GOP donor class.

  9. Semper Gumby says:

    KL: Another problem with “c”atholic Socialists is their Marxist politics and fascination with tyranny. The lessons of the 20th century and most of Church history eludes them.

    Your criticism of Acton Institute, Heritage and AEI is uninformed. Try a search at their sites using terms such as Religious Liberty.

    You may be interested in Samuel Gregg’s recent book: Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.

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  11. ProfKwasniewski says:

    The great American publisher and political commentator, Neil McCaffrey Jr. (father of Roger McCaffrey of Roman Catholic Books and The Traditionalist magazine) wrote the following memo to Lew Rockwell and Jeff Tucker, copied to Murray Rothbard. (It’s published in the volume of letters and articles from RCB.)

    One of my three fundamental problems with libertarianism (hereafter L) is that it scants original sin. From this follows a dizzily optimistic view of man and society, though your articles do move part of the way back to reality. And from this underplaying of original sin follows a) the L view of the state as evil incarnate and b) a vision of man and society happily free and cooperating in a dreamlike social order that never was and never can be: in fine, utopian.

    I think a more balanced view of the state, the theory of it, sees it as inevitable, invariably more or less of a burden, always potentially a burden, and meant to be a burden, if not a curse, for fallen man; but for all that, a necessary institution—or, if you will, a necessary burden. I join you most of the way in seeing the modern state as the monster state, but I find your theory of the state too sweeping.

    You make sensible points about the need for authority in church, family, society and private groups. But why quit there? We have seen in our lifetime the collapse of authority in all these institutions; demonstrably, they aren’t enough. Something more is needed. Is it the virtuous state?

    Of course not. But the state that falls in its policing duties—its proper duties—hastens the collapse of the other institutions that can’t go it alone. We need the state far less than most people think; but we do need it. Private cops? Fine—up to a point. Private armies? Up to a point. But this ain’t 1776. An armed militia, and only an armed militia, would be but a few steps short of Fidel—or maybe Jesse—in the White House. Let’s be sensible.

    (Which leads me to digress. A worldview not rooted in common sense and the common experience of mankind is doomed from the start. Universal law!) My third radical problem with L is the awkward matter of the Bible and Christian tradition. I am not confident enough to shrug off all that. Like it or not, our faith takes the state for granted, a given where it does not explicitly enjoin the institution. You don’t have to go overboard, but you should render something unto Caesar.

    I’ve always been troubled, by the way, with Acton’s dictum, a glaring confusion of end and means. It seems plain that liberty is a means to, or a condition for, the good society. But the end of society? This is like calling good digestion the end of health. The end of society is, well, civility, order, stability. Liberty, properly ordered, is a means. Liberty absolutized is the libertine idol—which you rightly deplore.

    Acton, no philosopher, made a fundamental mistake, aided I’m sure by the stable society he took for granted. We all did, till criminals and libertines assumed their privileged status.

    Yet as you distance yourselves from the barbarians and the libertines, the distance between us narrows. All the better. Libertarians have a lot to teach us. They will have more when they shuck the utopian baggage.

    Bravo for your remarks on egalitarianism, which I regard as an even greater menace to liberty than the state (in our society) because it pervades every institution. I see you went easier on its twin bastard, democracy; but one thing at a time, everything in its season.

    Along that line, a few distinctions. We are drugged by the cliché “equal before God.” Of course it’s blasphemous. You and I can see that none of us is equal. We are all different, hence unequal. Is God less perceptive than we?

    To be sure, man considered abstractly has certain strictly limited common features. We are all creatures—but each of us is a unique creature. We share equally a few human rights: to life, to worship, to marry, to own property. But even these rights are conditioned to a degree by such circumstances as our duties, our station, our age, our behavior. At best, “equal before God” blurs more than it explains.

    Especially for a Christian, who understands that God invests each of us with a different destiny. Though we are all to have the opportunity to achieve heaven, nobody will occupy the same place there. More is given to some of us; more is expected of some of us; the same is expected of none of us. Does this sound like equality? It is the crudest sort of equality, an equality that obscures our real situation, to insult the Lord who wrought a creation infinitely various. To hear today’s religious leaders talk, God made a terrible mistake creating men and races so plainly unequal, so they busy themselves trying to make good His cosmic blunder. When I said blasphemous, I meant just that.

    The same remarks apply, of course, to equality before the law. It is a severely limited equality, and should be. Even the law (or such provisions of it that have so far escaped the levelers) acknowledges this. If Smith takes a poke at me and Jones takes one at my wife, the law is likely to deal more harshly with Jones, and should.

    Drug laws are debatable. No one has a right to harm himself, and these laws are meant to support the authority of church, family and society. (Whether they do is another question.) Individual parents and clerics and teachers have long since learned that they may be no match for the drug pusher outside—or within—the schoolyard. I see nothing intrinsically wrong with making this a part of the state’s mandate to preserve order. Quite the contrary, it’s what the government should be doing. But as a prudential matter, of course there’s room for debate about how best to marshal the forces against this scourge.

  12. Semper Gumby says:

    ProfKwasniewski: Thank you for adding the Neil McCaffrey memo, he makes several good points. However, it is muddled in several places and McCaffrey, not Acton, made a “fundamental mistake” by misunderstanding Acton’s dictum.

  13. Semper Gumby says:

    KL wrote: “Alot of the sexual revolution stuff is indirectly connected to this decline in living standards…”

    Some would say it is directly connected. Here is an interesting post and discussion from December 2019:

  14. thomistking says:

    Good answer, Father. Get ready for the onslaught of triggered integralists and distributists.

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