Francis on Libertarianism:
Even When He's Right, He's Wrong
by Christopher A. Ferrara
May 4, 2017
In a recent message to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, Francis said this about "libertarian individualism":
"Finally, I cannot but speak of the serious risks associated with the invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools, of positions of libertarian individualism. A common feature of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is, 'living well', a 'good life' in the community framework, and exalts the selfish ideal that deceptively proposes a 'beautiful life'.
"If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of 'self-causation'. Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of 'common' implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of 'good' deprives freedom of its essence."
So far, so good. The dominant stream of libertarianism, or at least the most organized and militant one, combines Austrian economics as represented by Ludwig von Mises, which is essentially laissez faire capitalism, with Murray Rothbard's "ethics of liberty," which is reducible to the "non-aggression principle": i.e. that the law should prohibit only theft (including fraud) and physical force, and that other forms of behavior people deem immoral should be regulated by private agreements among those who agree that they are immoral.
This version of libertarianism, while it pays lip service to the common good, does indeed minimize it by reducing it (as did John Locke) to the sum total of everyone's individual "pursuit of happiness" in whatever form that may take. There is for these libertarians no overarching conception of the common good that would be reflected in public law and institutions, as was the Law of the Gospel throughout all the centuries in which the Christian commonwealth was the sociopolitical norm.
The Church has condemned this form of hyper-capitalist individualism from the moment it became dominant (as seen in Pope Leo XIII's monumental social encyclical Rerum Novarum), and Francis is right to echo that condemnation to the extent that he does so faithfully — not very, as we shall see — and without the socialist cant to which he is prone.
In essence, these libertarians reject the core of Catholic social teaching: i.e., that commerce and all other forms of activity in society are subject to the higher moral law as enunciated and defended by the Church, which is not a matter of "personal morality" to be followed privately by the individual if he is so inclined, but rather is the very matrix of a just society under God and must be reflected publicly and juridically. In other words, they follow the classic — and false — liberal disjunction between "public" and "private" morality, which has been the ruin of our civilization, as Pope after Pope warned in the 18th and 19th centuries in a series of social encyclicals.
Unfortunately, as he is wont to do, Pope Bergoglio descends to caricature and obscures the truth. He states:
"The radicalization of individualism in libertarian and therefore anti-social terms leads to the conclusion that everyone has the 'right' to expand as far as his power allows, even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority. Bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom. By mistakenly matching the concept of 'bond' to that of 'constraint', one ends up confusing what may condition freedom – the constraints – with the essence of created freedom, that is, bonds or relations, family and interpersonal, with the excluded and marginalized, with the common good, and finally with God."
That is not really what libertarianism stands for. Libertarians do not propose to cut the bonds between individuals, nor do they deny the vital importance of family and interpersonal relations or the moral good of being concerned for "the excluded and marginalized." They — especially the misguided Catholics among them — would angrily respond (and have angrily responded) that they care about all these things, but hold simply that the pursuit of them involves matters of private morality which government has no business "imposing" by way of law.
Again, these libertarians adhere to the modern liberal disjunction between "public" and "private" morality that was completely unknown in Christendom and even to the pagan Greeks (as we see from a study of Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics and Nicomachean Ethics).
Yet Pope Bergoglio himself, following the post-Vatican II liberal line of "reconciling with the modern world," actually joins the libertarians in rejecting the only true solution to the problem of radical individualism: the Christian commonwealth that was overthrown and destroyed following the so-called Enlightenment and during the age of democratic revolution, beginning in 1776 and 1789.
As Pope Leo XIII lamented in his landmark encyclical Immortale Dei (On the Christian Constitution of States):
"There was once a time when States were governed by the philosophy of the Gospel. Then it was that the power and divine virtue of Christian wisdom had diffused itself throughout the laws, institutions, and morals of the people, permeating all ranks and relations of civil society. Then, too, the religion instituted by Jesus Christ, established firmly in befitting dignity, flourished everywhere, by the favour of princes and the legitimate protection of magistrates; and Church and State were happily united in concord and friendly interchange of good offices. The State, constituted in this wise, bore fruits important beyond all expectation…
"Christian Europe has subdued barbarous nations, and changed them from a savage to a civilized condition, from superstition to true worship. It victoriously rolled back the tide of Mohammedan conquest; retained the headship of civilization; stood forth in the front rank as the leader and teacher of all, in every branch of national culture; bestowed on the world the gift of true and many-sided liberty; and most wisely founded very numerous institutions for the solace of human suffering. And if we inquire how it was able to bring about so altered a condition of things, the answer is beyond all question, in large measure, through religion…
"A similar state of things would certainly have continued had the agreement of the two powers been lasting…. But that harmful and deplorable passion for innovation, which was aroused in the sixteenth century, threw first of all into confusion the Christian religion, and next, by natural sequence, invaded the precincts of philosophy, whence it spread amongst all classes of society.
"From this source, as from a fountain-head, burst forth all those later tenets of unbridled license which, in the midst of the terrible upheavals of the last century, were wildly conceived and boldly proclaimed as the principles and foundation of that new conception of law which was not merely previously unknown, but was at variance on many points with not only the Christian, but even the natural law."
For Pope Bergoglio and all the other liberalized churchmen of the post-conciliar epoch, the return of the Christian commonwealth in any form would be unthinkable. Indeed, it is none other than Bergoglio who infamously declared in one of his many disastrous interviews: "States must be secular. Confessional states end badly. That goes against the grain of History. I believe that a version of laicity accompanied by a solid law guaranteeing religious freedom offers a framework for going forward."
Ironically, Francis himself proposes a social vision which the very libertarians he deplores would find completely acceptable: the secular state arising precisely from the revolutions against altar and throne that libertarians hail but the Popes before Vatican II condemned as one.
More irony: Pope Bergoglio, critic of radical individualism and staunch defender of the common good, constantly calls for the total worldwide abolition of the death penalty and even life sentences, which defend the common good by removing criminal predators from society, while conspicuously failing ever to demand the worldwide abolition of abortion, the mass slaughter of innocents in service of the most extreme form of individualism imaginable: killing another so that one's own life will not be burdened.
For that matter, the same Pope who invokes God and the common good refused to oppose in Italy the very thing libertarians have everywhere demanded: legalization of "gay marriage." In defense of his shameful silence in the face of this abominable manifestation of the radical individualism he professes to hate, Pope Bergoglio offered the excuse that "The Pope does not interfere with Italian politics. In the first meeting that I had with [Italian] Bishops in May 2013, one of the three things I said: 'With the Italian government: sort it out for yourselves.' Because the Pope is for everyone, and he cannot engage in the practical, domestic politics of one country. This is not the Pope's role."
Compare this capitulation to militant homosexualism with the repeated teaching of John Paul II on the binding obligation of Catholics to oppose the legalization of "homosexual unions," to vote against it if one is a Catholic legislator, and to resist its implementation wherever possible. Tellingly, however, Pope Bergoglio is perfectly willing to "interfere with Italian politics" when it comes to Italy's immigration policy, "climate change" and the other Left-liberal causes he incessantly promotes.
Furthermore, for a Pope who spends so much time deploring the excesses of capitalism, Bergoglio seems remarkably friendly with, even subservient to, the potentates of the global capitalist order, first and foremost George Soros.
But perhaps the supreme irony here is that while Pope Bergoglio lambasts the libertarian notion of freedom because "bonds would have to be cut inasmuch as they would limit freedom," he has spent literally his entire pontificate contriving to admit to Holy Communion and generally "integrate" into ecclesial life people living in "second marriages" constituting adultery after they purport to dissolve the sacramental bond of their real marriages via civil divorce. Even Vatican II, of which Pope Bergoglio styles himself a "spirit-led" exponent, denounced the "plague of divorce," which represents radical individualism run riot and has widely destroyed the bond of family he professes to defend against the errors of libertarianism. Yet it is precisely the plague of divorce that Bergoglio wishes to accommodate in the Catholic Church.
Angry libertarians may not perceive this in their fury over Pope Bergoglio's professed anti-capitalism, but it is true nonetheless: with "enemies" like Francis, they have little need of friends in the Vatican.