True Catholicism Versus Radical Libertarianism

An ideology of individual rights without civic duties clashes with four core Catholic social teachings.

This article is drawn from the text of John Dilulio’s remarks for a conference sponsored by the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism” on June 3, 2014.

Last month, Pope Francis met in Rome with officials in charge of the humanitarian programs for the United Nations. He praised their efforts to protect “the poorest and most vulnerable.” Achieving “equitable economic and social progress,” he counseled, requires “cooperation between the private sector and civil society” and “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state.”

In response, some conservative pundits, including some self-professed Catholics, uncharitably charged him with speaking not as a religious leader, but as a white-robed politician peddling failed left-wing ideas.

Actually, the holy father was just being wholly unoriginal. Like many other popes before him, he condemned the “economy of exclusion” and counseled individuals, churches, businesses, and “the state” to work together to eliminate excessive economic and social disparities — or what the Catechism calls “sinful inequalities” that “are in open contradiction of the Gospel.”

True Catholics must follow the pope in taking sinful inequalities seriously. They must, therefore, reject radical libertarianism, the ideological cult of the ostensibly self-created and autonomous individual in which the human person has individual rights without having corresponding social and civic duties, and in which government anti-poverty programs from Medicaid to Food Stamps are considered illegitimate because they redistribute income.

Radical libertarianism does not mix at all with four core Catholic social teachings as plainly proclaimed in the Catechism:

The Common Good: It is “the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable” people to realize their full human potential; and, among other things, it “requires social well-being and development.”

The Political Community:  It exists for the common good, and “it is necessary that all participate . . . in promoting the common good.”

Love for the Poor: “God blesses those who come to the aid of the poor and rebukes those who turn away from them;” and, as Pope Benedict XVI stated in his first encyclical, Deus et Caritas, “love for . . . the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to (the Church) as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.”

Subsidiarity: It “is opposed to all forms of collectivism” and “sets limits for state interventions;” a “community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order . . . but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

Radical libertarians harbor no such conception of “the common good.” The “political community” is for them but an unavoidable evil. They are as dogmatically allergic to government action, not least by the national or central government, as radical socialists are dogmatically addicted to it. They violate the “subsidiarity” principle by de-legitimating government’s role in achieving the common good. They disfavor government-led efforts to reduce sinful inequalities or manifest “love for the poor.”

Thus, they favor health-care ministries but not Medicaid; they support church food pantries but not Food Stamps; and so forth. Where non-governmental assistance fails the needy, they would protect their “freedom” by leaving orphans free to build their own orphanages, homeless families free to live on the streets, third-world children threatened by malaria or HIV/AIDS free to suffer, and indigent senior citizens with curable diseases free to die. And, as I witnessed first-hand during my time as the first “faith czar,” though some may profess support for faith-based initiatives, they seek to practice it as radical libertarianism in religious drag.

In the aforementioned address, Pope Francis celebrated progress in reducing sinful inequalities but cautioned that these gains “are only consolidated by working to achieve even more” by attacking “the structural causes of poverty and hunger” and by challenging “all forms of injustice . . . which nowadays sadly risk becoming passively accepted.”

In response, all true Catholics say “amen.”


Image via Shutterstock.

John DiIulio
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  • Martin Hughes

    If there is a common good there is surely a set of people who benefit and who have to take decisions by some means in common, therefore could reasonably be called a collective. How then could all forms of collectivism be opposed? Are all forms of collective or common property wrong, even if they might offer some protection to the poorest against complete destitution?
    On the other hand, is it always wrong to prefer, for some periods of time, to gain more property for oneself rather than to give to the poor?
    If there is a community of higher order I don’t see how it can fail to direct in some degree the behaviour of the communities of lower order – if it has no right or power to do so, how is it higher? A congregation is supposed to take some notice of the higher authorities of the Church, any Church, surely? Perhaps this should not amount to interference, but what is the difference between intervention and interference? A multinational corporation might think it best to let its local managements determine the exact range of products to be sold locally, perhaps, but that is a matter of discretion and the senior management would hardly be behaving unethically if it instructed all its branches to put a certain product on display.
    I don’t mean these questions in a frivolous or sarcastic spirit – but I think things are rather more difficult and complex than perhaps you make them seem.

  • Michael Schmitt

    If the Catholic Church is opposed to Libertarianism, then they support the poverty and death of millions under socialism. The Catholic Church would rather people live in poverty under North Korea than in wealth under South Korea. This is immoral. If the church continues this dangerous and immoral attitude, they will ignore the teachings of Christ and lose the support of its flock.