A Trap Set for Catholic Conservatives

Influential Catholics—many of them supporters of Barack Obama—are advancing a proposition that may have the result of sullying the reputations of Catholic conservatives and those Catholics arguing for a robust market economy.

They couch their arguments in Catholic Social Teaching; the common good, political community, love for the poor, subsidiarity. They compare this over against libertarianism; a radical individualism where each man sets and makes his own course that—damn all the rest—leads to his flourishing unless the heavy hand of the state interrupts it. Above all—to radical individualists—the State is the Enemy. Except some of what these people call libertarianism, isn’t.

This proposition got at least a partial airing out last Summer at a conference called “The Catholic Case Against Libertarians” hosted in the lovely offices of Bread for the Poor, offices far larger and far nicer than the poor pro-life group that I run and most others that I know.

One of the overarching questions, at least for some of us in the room, was where are the libertarians you all are talking about? Why weren’t any of them invited to speak, perhaps to engage, to explain themselves. One of the organizers answered that when he said, quite unbidden, that libertarians were not invited to engage the conference “because we are here to instruct them, not to engage them. It is similar to the Church’s instruction of communists.”

I do not want to suggest that any of the speakers were cagey but as I recall only one of them even mentioned the name of a group that is suspect. Matthew Boudway of Commonweal drew a bright line right at the real target of the conference. The line began with libertarianism and went straight to political conservatives and to free marketeers. “Most Catholic defenders of laissez-fair ideology describe themselves as conservative.” But even they know such an ideology is really the “great disrupter, its gales of creative destruction sweeping away traditions, institutions, and communities that stand in its way.” Where no others did, Boudway had the courage to name names. He named the Acton Institute. More on Acton below.

Boudway also said, “Show me a country that has surrendered its politics to the dictates of the market, and I will show you a culture where personal attachments of every kind are less secure than they once were and where the poor and every other vulnerable population are at most an afterthought.” To that I would say, yes please, show me that country.

John DiIulio of the University of Pennsylvania gave perhaps the most disappointing talk. He went after “self-professed Catholics” who had dared to challenge some of the Pope’s economic pronouncements. One expected more from him, who is greatly admired by Catholic conservatives, than his repeated suggestion that Catholic conservatives are “radical libertarians” and therefore not “true Catholics.” He said such as these are fine with families living in the streets, Third World children suffering from malaria and HIV/AIDS, and indigent elderly with curable diseases. It could have been an Obama campaign commercial.

Stephen Schneck, who runs the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, gave among the most interesting talks, tracing libertarian ideas from Barnard de Mandevile’s 1704 poem The Fable of the Bees to the French Revolution to the Scottish Enlightenment to Civil War America and down to the present day.

He began, though, with Ayn Rand and John Galt. He took the detour through history to demonstrate “that I do understand libertarianism: its roots and its branches.” And he ended his historical tour back with Ayn Rand and John Galt.

That is the thing that occurred to some of us that day and subsequently. Any support of a market economy equals libertarianism equals Randism equals heresy.

Are we who favor smaller government, less regulation, and market solutions really the same as Ayn Rand and John Galt?

One of their targets, and the only organization named in the conference was the Acton Institute, the Michigan-based think tank that seeks “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” Look at Acton’s core values and they line up almost perfectly with Catholic Social Teaching. I am not aware that Acton’s leadership has ever identified themselves as libertarians.

Catholic Democrats did go a little batty when Acton’s founder Father Robert Sirico published something called “Who is John Galt?” in which he suggested that, without noticing it herself, Ayn Rand had made John Galt a Christ-figure. The Catholic left dutifully reported that Sirico sees Galt as a Christ-figure, which he never did. Of course this make Father Sirico and Acton the worst kinds of libertarians. By the way, faithful Catholics like philanthropists Frank Hanna and Sean Fieler are on the Acton board.

Another person this group wanted to instruct was actually sitting in the audience that day. Andrew Abela had been named founding Dean of the Business School of Catholic University of America. When the school was founded, a mere 12 months before, one of the big donors was the Charles Koch Foundation.

Charles Koch gave a million and entrepreneur Tim Busch gave $500,000 in order to “support research into the role principled entrepreneurship can and should play in improving society’s well being.” In the CUA press release, the University said the Charles Koch Foundation “supports research and higher education programs aimed at improving understanding of how economic freedom advances human well being.” Freedom advances human freedom? Uh-Oh. A tempest ensued.

Almost immediately 50 professors wrote a letter to CUA president John Garvey and Andrew Abela suggesting that a grant was inappropriate in light of Catholic Social Teaching. The charges against the Kochs were they supported Governor Scott Walker in his fight to free public sector employees from having to join the union, that the Kochs support those who question global warming, and that they opposed expansion of Medicaid in some of the states. I honestly never knew that mandatory union membership was something my faith required, and global warming, too,

Likely with a chuckle, the University pointed out that a huge number of professors who signed the letter work at academic institutions that happily take scads of Koch cash.

Just like the Juice-Box Theologians, these folks seem intent on convincing Catholics that we are forbidden by the Church to be economic conservatives; that Catholics cannot believe in a market economy. Anyone who espouses these ideas is outside the Church, in the words of John DiIullio, not a “true Catholic.”

Now, many people these days do call themselves libertarian. But libertarianism is a bit like socialism in that many people who claim it probably don’t know what it means. Many are merely small government conservatives who may believe they are libertarians without understanding all that it means. And none of this is to say that libertarianism is not a problem, because it is a serious problem.

In the fight against abortion, same-sex marriage, and pornography, libertarianism is the enemy. I think of the Cato Institute. I think also of Students for Liberty. I watched Matthew Spalding debate the head of Students for Liberty at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year. The student called for Federal intervention to impose same-sex marriage on the states. Spalding, who is with Hillsdale College, called him a big government liberal.

But the libertarian problem is not helped by Catholic Democrats attacking their Republican counterparts. There is, in fact, great common cause that could be made by Catholic Democrats and Catholic Republicans including on the question of libertarianism. But that cannot happen if your project is less about advancing the cause of Catholic Social Teaching than it is about scoring political points and winning elections.


Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine. His latest book, Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic, is now available from Crisis Publications.

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