A Catholic Defense of Freedom

For a generation, some Catholics in America believed that the Gospel injunction to help the poor meant to help them through government.  Joined to that was a distaste for the WASP-dominated business culture of postwar American prosperity, even though Catholics had enjoyed the fruits of that prosperity along with other Americans.  The long tradition of Catholic reflection on the need for limited government and the licitness of a robust free market, was obscured.

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, has written a vigorous defense of that tradition in the face of fresh threats to liberty.  He represents a second wave of thinkers reflecting on Catholicism and the American experiment since Vatican II.  The first generation, dominated by thinkers such as Michael Novak, returned to Catholic thought a favorable view of limited government and the free market. This was no easy sell.  On the one hand, there were still groups of traditionalist Catholics who, disdaining modernity, thought that the better—indeed, the only proper—relationship between the state and church was a premodern one in which the Church controlled the excesses of the state from an official position, and the state controlled the excesses of the market.  This may have made sense in a premodern world where the apparatus of state control was undeveloped, and where improvements in trade and finance made free-market exchanges difficult.  But that had not been the case for some centuries, and a residual distaste among some Catholics for bourgeois society was not a sufficient basis to reject the unprecedented prosperity the free market brought to the world, rich and poor alike.

On the other hand, there were significant numbers of Catholics and other Christians who also believed the state needed to intervene and control the economy, but with less emphasis on any formal union between church and state.  These advocates of ‘social justice” were more than willing to let the Church take a backseat to political planners and a centralized economy.  Thus an older generation of Catholic leaders, including bishops, equated the welfare state with Catholic teaching, and argued (for example, even recently against Congressman Paul Ryan and the United States Catholic Bishops Conference) that reduction of such programs was somehow contrary to Catholic teaching.

TeaPartyCatholic_covGregg has three competing stories to tell. First he wants to explain how a Catholic can responsibly defend limited government and the free market in accordance with Catholic teaching.  This remains a crucial argument to make; since the 1980s, the welfare state has only expanded.  As the financial and housing crises of 2008 show, many still look to government to control the economy, and bail out entire industries.  Second, he wants to defend the substance of those teachings against both liberal Catholics and other sorts such as libertarians. Catholicism is not capitalism, and its defense of free-market exchanges and limited government is rooted in a certain view of the human person that is not the same as a secular liberal one.  The Catholic view promotes human flourishing, but holds that flourishing must be consistent with the natural law and the ends of human life, such as the cultivation of virtue and the common good.  Third, he wants to reconcile Catholicism specifically with the American form of republicanism. Gregg argues that the example of Catholics in America shows that the two are compatible, and that indeed the American experiment is consistent with the long tradition of Western liberty inaugurated by the Church.

That first battle, in some sense, has been won.  The collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist dreams it inspired persuaded a generation of young Catholics that freedom, not control, was not only the future but also was more in accord with human nature.  In America, as Gregg writes, “these Catholics were proudly and unambiguously American, though not in a narrow parochial sense.  They were Catholics and Americans, and American and Catholic.  Not only did they believe that Catholicism, as the fullest expression of religious truth, had an indispensible contribution to make to the shaping and uplifting of American culture; they also believed American Catholicism had gifts to offer global Catholicism….  And for many such Catholics, part of their ‘Americanness involved affirmation of what John Paul II called ‘the business economy,’ ‘market economy,’ or simply ‘free economy.’”  This new generation, Gregg argues, needs to apply Catholic historical and moral insights to the market economy as they have to other aspects of life.  “[T]he central thesis of this book is that Catholics who underscore the cause of economic liberty can—nay, must—invest the cause for limited government with the same moral depth that Catholics have brought to other issues.”  Being in favor of limited government, of course, does not mean favoring no government; Catholics are not anarchists or radical libertarians, and recognize that government can and should do certain things.  But government’s tasks should “normally have a small number of clearly-defined functions limited in their scope and impact, including with regard to the economy.”  How and to what extent the government should intervene are prudential judgments, to be made by politicians and voters in good faith.  There is no requirement of any particular set of policies, except that such policies must lead to the common good of all and work no moral evil on the citizens subject to them.

To tie this argument together for Catholics, Gregg invokes Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  Carroll (1737-1832) was a successful merchant and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Gregg reminds us that in Carroll’s day, Catholics faced significant political and social restrictions.  Nevertheless, Carroll embodied a combination of economic virtue and civic-mindedness that may prove an example for contemporary Catholics in America.  Young Charles returned to his family’s vast Maryland estates in 1765 after almost twenty years abroad, educated largely by the Jesuits, and trained also as a British barrister.  Gregg recounts the liberal education provided to Catholics in those days, deeply infused with medieval and classical learning.  These lessons, capped by Carroll by his studies of the European civil and British common law traditions, provided the intellectual backdrop for his defense of the colonies and their traditional liberties.

Charles Carroll enmeshed himself in public life, even though Catholics were prohibited from basic civil activities such as voting or holding political office. Under the pseudonym “First Citizen,” Carroll became a prominent voice in a debate over the proper powers of government.  As Gregg explains, Carroll was deeply educated in the Western intellectual and political tradition, and he drew upon this deep learning to defend a tolerant, liberal government in the face of vicious anti-Catholic attacks and in a state that denied Catholics their participation in public life.  Moreover Carroll was a prosperous businessman who saw no problem in cultivating virtue in his private life.  Carroll, like many of the Founders, believed that virtue was the basis for government, and liberty meant, first and foremost, government of the self before self-government as a community could occur.  Those habits of virtue were only partially, if at all, able to be fostered by the state.  Rather, small communities, and the family above all, were the source of those habits.

Drawing on the so-called “new natural law” of John Finnis, Germain Grisez and others, Gregg describes the Catholic view of the human person as deeply intertwined with the concept of free choice.  Our “choices about ourselves last until they are negated by a contrary choice.… For better of worse, we become the content of our choices.”  Thus Catholic freedom is the process in part of learning to choose wisely.  This view Gregg astutely contrasts with the Enlightenment view that the individual is a self-contained unit, whose choices do not affect who he truly is.  The Catholic tradition knows better, and knows that choice is not the same as willfulness.  A centralized state, which tells us what is good for us, and promises to provide for us, corrodes that habit of learning and exercising wise choices.

The determination of how government should act and to what extent has long roots as well in Catholic thought, and Gregg devotes some space to a consideration of subsidiarity.  This concept should be familiar to Americans under the name of federalism.  In its briefest sense, it means activity should be conducted and governed as close to the people affected by it as possible.  It is therefore exactly at odds with the modern notion that experts located in Washington can understand and improve the varied circumstances of 300 million people, and more.  Tocqueville recognized the vast profusion of private groups and associations Americans formed in the 1830s, and are still doing so today.  Those groups must be the primary sources of engagement and civil renewal, not government.  If government is to be involved, the lowest possible levels should be engaged first before moving up to the state or the national government. However, more work needs to be done in this area by defenders of the free market. It is all well and good to say government should be involved at the lowest level, or restricted to certain activities, but those details are too often left vague, which permits those favoring state intervention to step in.

Moreover, not all government activities are treated equally.  It is true that welfare programs can decay the work ethic and harm individual dignity, including replacing the family with the state, and Catholics are right to oppose all such efforts.  However, an excessive and extensive military is also a danger.  It destroys local communities, puts strains on families, engages in social engineering opposed at times to Christian understanding, and places ordinary citizens into morally hazardous situations, usually far from home.  Moreover, it suffers from potentially disastrous overreach, such as with the recent revelations about NSA spying.  Opposition to such a bloated bureaucracy should not have a home only on the Catholic left. It can be opposed based on the same Catholic principles Gregg outlines here, while still preserving the role of the state in providing national defense.

Tea Party Catholic therefore does a good job in updating the reason why Catholics should support the free market and limited government, and showing it is in line with both Vatican II and the more recent teachings of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.  However, more importantly, Gregg goes further. One possible criticism of the first generation of Catholic free market defenders had been that their criticisms of excessive government involvement had not been matched by criticism of consumerism, which has also drawn the ire of Catholic teaching.  Gregg recognizes this issue, and notes that Catholic teaching, by stressing that the material world is good but not final, and that we are shaped by our moral choices, can serve as a bulwark against the equation of material good with moral worth.

Gregg would also do well, in future work, to consider how the union of consumerism and government regulation has evolved.  The current HHS mandate, which Gregg rightly discusses as the threat to religious liberty that it is, represents the government taking a side in a battle, and asserting its own secular values (for a certain view of “health” or “equality”) against the religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution.  This insertion of government as a participant on one side of a debate rather than an umpire in imposing regulations is different from the fights of the 1970s or 1980s, and the arguments of free-market Catholics, while still applicable, need to address this new threat, which combines consumerism and a false individualism with government power.  That is the next front in the battle to preserve both the Catholic view of the person and the American tradition of pluralism and religious freedom, where thinkers like Gregg will serve a critical role.

Editor’s note: The image above is a portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrollton painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1763.


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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