With all the discussion of marriage of late by Roman Catholic bishops and observers of the Roman church, we may forget that back in the Spring the hot topic of conversation was libertarianism (and the implicit argument that Pope Francis had pitted solidarity against hyper-individualism). Here is how one interlocutor described the relationship between Roman Catholicism and libertarianism:
Libertarianism is an ideology that cannot be reconciled with Catholicism. Unfortunately, it has a relatively wide appeal in our society, including among some who identify as Catholic. But the very foundations of libertarianism directly and unavoidably conflict with the principles of Catholic moral and social thought.
Libertarianism is inseparable from individualism, self-interest, and autonomy. Property rights are sacrosanct. Government is viewed as a necessary evil and a constant threat to liberty. And the market is turned into an idol.
Conversely, Catholics are called to recognize themselves as persons who only reach their full development in community — or, better yet, communities, as we exist in crosscutting communities from our families to the global community. Catholics believe that real freedom is found through communion with God and others. Our desire for love, joy, and communion leads us to choose solidarity over autonomy.
For Catholics, government has a positive role to play. It exists to foster conditions that allow each person to reach their full emotional, intellectual, physical, and spiritual potential as human persons. National governments have the responsibility to create these conditions for their citizens, but they are also responsible for promoting the global common good — solidarity transcends national borders. The foundation of this understanding of government is the dignity of the human person, which is universal, giving all people equal worth as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.
Some might find it odd that so many Roman Catholic intellectuals and some clergy could so clearly see that libertarianism is bad but not be so definite about gay marriage, divorce, Islam, or even Protestantism. I do understand that Roman Catholic social teaching has been cautious about the excesses of capitalism and has generally sympathized with workers (especially in ways to prevent labor from turning Communist). I also understand that the kind of libertarianism popularized by Ayn Rand is goofy even if it is distinct from more responsible versions on tap from such folks as Albert J. Nock, H. L. Mencken, William F. Buckley, or P. J. O’Rourke. Even so, you do have to wonder about the matters that tighten some Roman Catholic jaws and not others.
And while I’m wondering, I do wonder why critics of libertarianism are not less hostile to it given the church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person:
The basis for the theme of Human Dignity, the bedrock of Catholic Social Teaching, is that humans were created in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of any factors or reasons we can think of, individuals have an inherent and immeasurable worth and dignity; each human life is considered sacred. This theme is about our radical equality before God that leads us to think no less of somebody because they are from a different place or culture, because they believe something different to you, or because of their work or employment situation.
The principle of Human Dignity means that Catholic Social Teaching takes a strong position on issues around the start and end of life (like the death penalty and abortion) but it also has big consequences for everything in-between. For example it can effect how we think about how our society supports those with disabilities, how we address global inequality and the approach we take to civil rights issues. It is from this idea that all people have inherent dignity that the themes of ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ and ‘Authentic Human Development’ develop within Catholic Social Teaching.
The idea that each life has value isn’t something Catholic Social Teaching has a monopoly on; it shares a lot in common with International Human Rights which are also universal, inviolable and inalienable. But Catholic Social Teaching differs slightly because of its basis. It grounds Human Dignity in the firm foundations of the Catholic Church’s traditions thought about the sanctity of creation as told in the story of our creation (Genesis) and God’s incarnation (Gospels).
I understand that this is not necessarily an affirmation of individualism and also that Roman Catholic social teaching understands individuals not as isolated beings but as social creatures. Even so, if you are going to stress the sacredness of every individual and all of their personal existence between birth and death, and if you are going to basically embrace freedom of the will (and let Calvinists take all the blame for the wills bondage even though Aquinas taught it), wouldn’t you have some sympathy for policies that respect the sacredness of persons who own and run businesses?