What The Question Isn’t: Can A Catholic Be A Libertarian?
Can someone be an unapologetic member of the Catholic Church and a proud member of the Libertarian Party at the same time? One is a faith with a strong moral code and high expectations for individuals and societies, the other is a political party which is for liberty across the board and for government only big enough to protect us from aggression and fraud.
There are, after all, many who say these two philosophies are contradictory, that it is impossible to be both, that to do so borders on scandal. See, for example, the Washington Post column Can you be Catholic and Libertarian?, as well as the National Catholic Report piece on Catholicism and Libertarianism Clash Over Property and the Common Good and Catholics Divided on Libertarianism as ‘Heresy’ on the Blaze site.
Moreover there are occasional, impassioned discussions at the Catholic Answers Forums and occasional blog posts both ways around the web such as Can Catholicism and Libertarianism Co-Exist? and Catholic and Libertarian? Cardinal Says They’re Incompatible. This is Why He’s Wrong. The problem with many of these, though, is that they are answering a flawed question. The real question is not can you be a Catholic and a Libertarian, the real question is how can a Catholic be anything else?
If authority belongs to the order established by God, the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens. The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them.
Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations on which they have been imposed. Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility.
A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.
America is of course dominated politically by the two old parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, and those parties’ positions are simply an odd collection of policy statements—stances on issues that really have no rhyme or reason, that don’t match up to overarching philosophies, consistent principles, natural law, divine law or any other explicable standard. How many times have you had to check which party stands for what position when an issue is raised you hadn’t considered before? How many times have you had to explain that you “lean” Democrat or Republican “except” on this issue or that? How many times have you been disappointed when the party you argue for fails to stand up for “its principles”? Why would that be?
How is one for assisted suicide and against the death penalty and the other other against abortion and for the death penalty? Isn’t it all the protection of life? With just one step back the inconsistencies become all too obvious. How can all of this cognitive dissonance exist within our old political parties? It’s quite simple: Because the two old parties have no consistent principles. How can a Catholic, Protestant or Hindu try to align their deeply held religious beliefs to political parties that do not, and cannot, match them because they have no consistent principles of their own?
Why would Libertarianism be an exception to this? Because it is a party of principle. It is consistently for liberty, for smaller government which makes for more freedom. On the social issues, it is for freedom. On the economic issues, it is for freedom. On any issue you can dream up, simply consider which side requires less government force against the individual, and there you will find the Libertarians. That leaves all the room in the world for your religious beliefs to be paramount in your life and in your political speech. You simply decide the moral issues for yourself and allow others the same privilege. While it is possible that this does not match the dictates of the Catechism word for word, it plainly matches it more clearly than the accumulated positions of the old parties.
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Some would say that the Republican Party is closer to Catholic principles on current, major political issues. Timothy Cardinal Dolan seems to disagree. He wrote in July of 2015 in the New York Daily News about this dichotomy: “American historians describe two approaches to the immigrant. One is, sadly, the nativists, who see the unwashed, ignorant, bothersome brood as criminals and misfits who threaten ‘pure America,’ and are toxic to everything decent in the United States.”
It is difficult to see how any descendant of Catholic immigrants can side with Donald Trump or the current Republican candidates when they are siding with a tradition that argued that their own grandparents or great grandparents were thieves, people taking American jobs, all just a bunch of criminals. That is, how can families who have suffered a lie continue that lie? If they have any faith in them at all, they cannot. (See The American Tradition(s) Of Immigration for more on the issue.) It is the position of the Libertarian Party that immigration laws need to be eased, freedom of movement needs to be protected, and that free market commerce between bordering nations is a pillar of peace.
Of course, even some libertarians make the argument that they would be for open borders except for the existence of the massive welfare state.
The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property. Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.
While the Republicans are wrong on immigration, Catholic Democrats cling equally to the idea that the welfare state is somehow an act of charitable love and any argument against it is a stance against the “common good”. See The Golden Rule vs. Catholic Case Against Free Markets. Charity, however, is the love and grace received from a genuine and personal act of giving or helping another individual. Forcing the transfer of wealth by taking the money of one and transferring it within the society under threat of prosecution is not charity, indeed it bears a closer relation to theft. By socializing charity, the political left have robbed not only the rich but made all of us spiritually poorer. The nation stands at the brink of bankruptcy because of policies that feed the state more than the hungry, and a bankrupt nation would hurt the poor far more than it helps them. See generally here and my reasoning on Why I Am A Libertarian. Society does in fact need to help the poor, but that is the role of individuals, of churches, of community organizations—the current way of doing things is a disaster just barely waiting to happen. There are many possible solutions, but paying taxes, or forcing others to pay taxes, does not satisfy a personal moral obligation to feed the hungry or clothe the poor.
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The Republicans, generally speaking, are for foreign wars with the next one ready as the last one ends. George Washington, the nation’s first president, in his farewell address in 1796, advised friendly relations and commerce with all countries, but not to “entangle our peace and prosperity” with them. See the whole speech here. Similarly, outgoing President Eisenhower in 1961 noted that: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” See here.
The Iraq War was predicted to cost around $21 billion. It cost $800 billion and over 36,000 were wounded and killed in a series of actions that ultimately replaced Saddam Hussein with ISIS. For more on this see The Intervention Intervention, Part One.
Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan. There are those who would have us sending young people to Ukraine, Syria or Iran right now. There is always an enemy and the cry is always for intervention, but unless the elements of the Just War Doctrine can be met, the Catholic position is clear, and the neoconservatives and their calls for one war after the next stands clearly against the tenets of the faith.
Meanwhile, as they cry peace at every turn, Democrat leaders hypocritically embrace all of the wars that the neoconservatives clamor for around the globe. For example, see Support for Iraq War Still Haunts Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy. She was not alone: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Harry Reid and other Democrats followed suit. In more recent years, Pope Francis himself had to put pressure on Barack Obama to prevent an incursion into Syria. See here.
Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” . . . . The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies.
The Democrats, generally speaking, are ever seeking to bring government decisions farther and farther from the people, which runs sharply against the Catholic social teaching on solidarity and subsidiarity. “The principle of solidarity, simply stated, means that every human being on the face of the earth is my brother and my sister, my ‘neighbor’ in the biblical sense. At the same time, the time-tested best way for assisting our neighbors throughout the world should follow the principle of subsidiarity. That means the problem at hand should be addressed at the lowest level possible — that is, the level closest to the people in need.” Bishop Robert Morlino, Subsidiarity, solidarity, and the lay mission. For a general review of subsidiarity check out Wikipedia here. These principles hardly square with a party that appears to be ready to resort to federal legislation to cure every perceived wrong.
Republicans fare little better on the issue of big government despite their rhetoric. They have had great control over the federal government in recent decades and the debt never comes down, programs never end. The results we see are never free market, as they claim, but are more often favoritism and crony capitalism dressed up as economic policy.
OLD PARTIES, OLD WAYS
This odd division of positions between the parties is not because of the principles of either. Sending someone to jail for one case of drug possession, a bad choice in youth perhaps, is big government of the highest order, but the Republicans largely embrace it. Democrats decry big business and greed but take as much or more money from Wall Street and the banks to do their bidding. These are not principles, they are positions that must be specifically and individually learned, born of power and the ensuing corruption, not of values or principle. Such are the ways of the old parties, and it is why the number of people who belong to either party is in a slow but certain decline. (See Gallup.com: Record-High 42% of Americans Identify as Independents.)
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human 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 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Question 96, Article 2: “Whether it belongs to the human law to repress all vices?”
Catholic history offers as many reasons to be suspicious of government as it does to partner with government. And directing all moral policy through the government is not a principle embraced by its greatest leaders. The idea that human vices, which we might call victimless crimes, are not something the law should prohibit is hardly foreign to Catholic thought (see above). They must ask themselves the simple questions such as whether drugs or the drug war itself are causing more senseless death, whether it is a health care problem or one to be tackled with the full violence of the state.
However, some things are not merely vices, they are understood as evils.
Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law: You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.
To join one of the old parties you basically must conform to their position on abortion or things become very uncomfortable. The Catholic teaching on abortion is clear and inarguable. So, if Catholic tenets must determine your political party (as some argue regarding Libertarianism) the Church’s position immediately eliminates the possibility of a person aligning with the Democrat Party in any way.
Libertarians, though, largely live by what they call the Non-Aggression Principle which states that people should be free to make their own decisions and live their own lives unless it causes aggression upon another. As seen above, faithful Catholics must consider abortion aggression against an innocent. As such they are in compliance with the Non-Aggression Principle because abortion is aggression, plain and simple, and they should be welcome in the Libertarian Party, even if they do not see this issue the same way as those in the majority.
Indeed, the fight to make the party more true to its core principles, which allow for both sides on this issue, continues to this day. See Why I Am a Pro-Life Libertarian at Reason.com, a libertarian-based magazine, and see the recent piece Abortion And The Libertarian Conscience in the Independent Political Report. But note that the abortion question has more than one answer in the Libertarian Party and the debate goes civilly on, without the calls for your ouster faithful Catholics might see in the Democrat Party. And, of course, the Republicans claim to be a pro-life party, but their leaders do nothing about it.
The purest Libertarian position on marriage licenses is that the government should not issue them. This falls into alignment with the historic Catholic position, since the Church has been around longer than most modern governments anyhow. Indeed, the Church has reserved its right to decide on the validity of marriage both at the time it happens and at the time the government may have declared a divorce under civil law. It should hold the final say on the marriages it conducts and the ones it recognizes, and there is nothing in Libertarianism that contradicts that. See Its Time To Separate Church And State Marriages in U.S. Catholic and, for example, Can Libertarians Separate Government and Marriage?
Moreover, now that the government has recognized gay marriage, the onus is on the Libertarians to protect religious freedom as vigorously as it supported what it considered to be equal application of marriage laws. That is to say, if the Libertarian Party is to be true to itself it must now protect religious organizations and their freedoms. Board members at the nation’s largest libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, agree: See Whatever Happened to Religious Freedom?
The Republicans are pro-business, which is most evident in the crony capitalism that gets government money and government contracts to the large corporations that back their candidates. Very much to the contrary, the Libertarian Party is pro-free market. That is to say, it is against government intervention in the economy to pick favorites, support political supporters, and claim it is “creating jobs” when it pays millions in “tax incentives” to a company to move from one state to another. It is for free markets without government intervention, which is pro-small business, pro-individual, and comports with basic principles of fairness, which business owners must also wrestle with themselves. See A Free Market Gets Its Long-Overdue Catechism at the National Catholic Register.
Meanwhile both of the old parties tacitly, if not openly, support the Federal Reserve, whose monetary policy is a crime against the poor. The Federal Reserve, with the acquiescence of the Congress, keeps printing money increasing its supply beyond measure, which–under the most basic economic principles–drives down the value of the dollar. If you make $35,000 now and it does not go up over time, as many salaries have not in the last decade, your money buys less and less, all because of all of the dollars the government is producing which robs almost directly from the poor. Moreover, the reckless spending of the two old parties is a genuine moral crime against future generations who may not see significant prosperity because they are saddled with taxes and impossible debt as a result of what the old parties have done.
The idea that the Federal Reserve policies are a part of the problem is hardly unique to Libertarians, but they are very much come from the prevailing economic school of thought amongst Libertarians, the Austrian School. Those who subscribe to this school of economic thought admit that it followed the great School of Salamanca, an area of the Catholic Spain from which many theories were later adopted by the Austrian School and Ludwig von Mises, a Catholic who referred to them as the “proto-Austrians”. See here and more generally here.
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
The pedigree of libertarian thought owes much to great Catholic thinkers from Erasmus to Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke to the School of Salamanca, Thomas More to Friedrich Hayek. Many of its precepts rely upon the existence of natural law and on concepts of freedom developed by Catholics in monasteries, Churches and universities. Indeed, Murray Rothbard traced the principles of the Non-Aggression Principle itself back to St. Thomas Aquinas and the Salamanca School. See here.
A recent non-scientific survey showed Catholics as being 10 percent of Libertarians today. See here. The Facebook Page called Catholic Libertarians has some 4,700 members, Pro-Life Libertarians has some 2,400 members and there are many others. My humble site at Traditium.org and on Facebook is steadily growing.
The fact that the leaders of the Democrat and Republican Parties have no principles, and ignore those within their parties who do, is not even shocking these days. The fact that the two parties combined have mortgaged America’s future beyond their own ability to fix the problem is open and obvious. The result is that the number of people who support either party is rapidly declining and anyone who defends one of the old political parties on every issue is increasingly a caricature from a time long gone.
America was created by the founders as a place of individual liberty, as a place that avoided foreign entanglements, where government was only large enough to protect the individual from aggression and fraud, where the freedom to believe as you will was paramount and protected. That does not mean that everyone must give up their religion, quite the opposite. It means that your religion is too sacred to be tainted by interference from the state. These are the principles that must be protected, as much by Catholics as any other group.
The Democrats and Republicans have plainly proven themselves unfit for the task that was given them. How can a faithful Catholic be either? Perhaps it is time to embrace the only party that makes liberty its highest principle, when the only other legitimate choices are two parties with no principles at all?
John D. Pierce