“Nine Libertarian Heresies Tempting Neoconservative Catholics to Stray from Catholic Social Thought”

Published September 22, 2020

A fine essay from Daniel Finn:

For the last four decades, a number of “neoconservative” Christian scholars have worked to great benefit in articulating the moral foundations of capitalism and its positive moral effects in socializing market participants. This has been much-needed work, as the Christian churches still have not grappled adequately with the systematic moral defense of self-interest in market relationships that has been employed in secular thought for three hundred years. At the same time, however, many involved in this affirmation of capitalism have too easily found common cause with others on the political right, in particular libertarians, whose fundamental view of the human person and morality is at odds with a Christian and, in particular, a Catholic view of life.

There is no doubt that we need markets and economic freedom, individual ownership of property (including businesses), personal economic initiative, individual creativity, and a host of other things advocated by the people I will be criticizing in this essay. The point is that we cannot adequately sort out issues we face as people of faith unless we have a careful and self-critical understanding of religious social thought, something that neoconservative Catholics too often do not exhibit. For many, the tendency is to cultivate a sense of fidelity to the Catholic tradition by employing the parts of it they like while ignoring what they do not. Following the publication of Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, Michael Novak claimed the pope was a capitalist even though the pope said in that encyclical that after the fall of the Soviet Union it was an error to claim capitalism as “the only model of economic organization.”

However, the focus of this essay is not simply the selectivity of neoconservatives but on how unacknowledged libertarian presumptions in their work distort Catholic thinking. It is out of a need for a balanced affirmation of markets that I criticize those who advocate markets most energetically.

I would add a clarification about my use of the word heresy in this essay. On the one hand, I use that word informally, not intending it to refer only to errors formally condemned by church authorities. By heresy, I mean a conviction about humanity or morality conflicting with standard Catholic assumptions, particularly as articulated in official papal teaching. On the other hand, I neither claim that all libertarians hold every heresy identified here nor that all libertarians who hold any one of these heresies employ the same rationale for it. Nor do I claim that any particular neoconservative Catholic scholar is tempted by all of these heresies or holds any one of them in its pure libertarian form. The heresies operate more as lures that pull such scholars away from their Catholic roots. Furthermore, I do not claim that all neoconservative Catholic scholars are equally susceptible to going astray in this manner. It is very difficult to provide an accurate general critique of a group when it comprises considerable diversity, as is the case for neoconservative Catholics. The argument here, however, is that there has developed too close an intellectual relationship between a number of Catholic scholars and libertarianism. Much of what is wrong about libertarianism from the Catholic perspective has been integrated into purportedly Catholic ethical reflection on the economy

Read the rest here. Good stuff!

19 Responses

  1. I see a couple problems here:
    1. Jesus preached personal holiness; He didn’t promote any particular ‘social teaching’. When churchmen do so, whether they’re neocon laymen or popes, they risk wandering from the gospel.
    2. Prof Finn seems to see a single strand of legitimate Catholic thought. He uses phrases like ‘The Catholic view is…’, as if there can only be one Catholic view. He imagines there is a set of ‘standard Catholic assumptions, particularly as articulated in official papal teaching’–as if it’s the pope’s job to tell us what’s good for society. The fact is, Catholic can and do disagree with each other on social issues, but we must never lose sight of point (1) above.

      1. I think what you are trying to say is that you disagree with me. I’m not sure why, though. I gather you think there is a single strand of ‘Catholic social teaching’, and that there is no room for divergent views. Interesting, but not exactly ‘catholic’ in the true sense of the word, is it?
        If you want to send me a copy of your book I may get around to reading it…perhaps it’s more convincing than the Finn article. No promises, though. I’ve got a pretty full plate right now.

      2. @Tom Leith: When you come to believe the Catholic Church really is what she claims to be, you’ll come to agree with the catechism on the topic, even if you don’t understand it.
        An interesting perspective–though one that, to be honest, I find intellectually stultifying.
        First: is ‘the Catholic Church…what she claims to be’? That depends which claim we’re talking about. I think your definition of that claim springs from the Ultramontane language of the 2 Vatican councils (forgive me if I misrepresent you), but there are other versions of what the church is.
        Second, catechisms change. Francis, for instance, has changed the current catechism’s language on the death penalty (and put in language which I think contradicts church teaching). But either the catechism of Trent is correct, or the catechism of Francis (or neither). That is, they both can’t be right.
        Third, I agree it’s fine to accept the opinion of ‘experts’ if you don’t have the time, inclination, or even the intellectual wherewithal to put a proposition to the test. Very few of us, I’m sure, have bothered to verify that the solar system is heloiocentric, or even that there are things called planets. And this applies to theology as well.
        Finally, Protestants have sometimes criticised Catholics for denying the intellect and submitting to self-proclaimed authorities even when those authorities teach error. The more I read the apologists of Francis, the more I come to see their point.

      3. @tony

        “ Finally, Protestants have sometimes criticised Catholics for denying the intellect and submitting to self-proclaimed authorities even when those authorities teach error.”

        Oh! my ears and whiskers! As the bible is the inerrant, literal, unchanging word of god, irony is officially dead.

    1. “Jesus preached personal holiness; He didn’t promote any particular ‘social teaching’. ” Of course he didn’t, because all of that stuff about love your neighbor as yourself was just hippie Jesus, not the real Jesus, who came not to bring peace but a sword.

      Jesus also said on the number of occasions that one should not be a moralizing busybody until one has achieved sinlessness oneself. Since when has that stopped the single churchman, or a single not-a-churchman? Nothing is minding so much as other peoples business.

      Speaking of swords, Our Uber catholic attorney general, William barr, instituted capital punishment in the federal government again. We’re going to have another execution shortly. Catholic social teaching says that capital punishment is wrong, unless it doesn’t. But I guess it’s all just a matter of opinion, isn’t it? And since barr isn’t doing the capital punishment himself, I’m sure he’s guilty of absolutely nothing.

      I would hand him a bar of soap. Just like pilate.

  2. Most American (and European) Catholics “disagree” that the Eucharist really is what the Church claims it is. That does not mean there is more than one Catholic view on the subject.

    Jesus DID promote a particular social teaching — love your neighbor as yourself.

    It very precisely is the pope’s job to tell us what’s good for society.

    “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.” (CCC 2032)

    It is our job to listen and act.

    I could criticize Professor Finn’s paper from twenty years ago, but certainly not on grounds proposed here.

    Early Catholic communities amounted to Catholic Communes — they acted perhaps a bit unwisely, making assumptions about the timing of the eschaton (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32-35). Making a free choice for the Gospel means giving up a degree of autonomy in temporal matters (Acts 5:1).

    The Scholastics recognized a pattern in Scripture and in practice governing the idea of property, which they termed Universal Destination of Goods. While property is necessary for human thriving, it is first of all a social construct which may or may not be well-ordered, and is not absolute. THAT is a “standard Catholic assumption”. There are a number of these, a fairly small number, but they have corollaries. Practical consequences. They’re what any political economy is judged against by a Catholic who believes the Church is what she claims to be.

    This may be helpful: https://ethikapolitika.org/2014/09/29/authority-catholic-social-teaching/

    1. Hi Tom, perhaps we’re just using words differently. I wouldn’t categorise ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ as ‘social teaching’ but as teaching about personal holiness. To me, ‘social teaching’ is when hierarchs start opining on government, politics, economics, etc. And I think there’s a danger there that they can wander from the gospel.

      Your example of the Eucharist is a good example of how arguing by analogy can mislead. You imply that because you can find unorthodox views on the Eucharist among Catholics, therefore any variety of opinion (on other matters) must also be unorthodox. That doesn’t follow. (And surely even within orthodox Catholicism there is room for legitimate difference of opinion regarding the Eucharist?)

      I disagree with you that it is the pope’s job to tell us what’s good for society. How on earth does he get that ability? Being made pope doesn’t make you wise, or holy, or an expert on–anything. It doesn’t give you a secret hot line to the Almighty. It just makes you pope.

      1. Hi Tony

        Yes, I’m sure we ARE using words differently. I am using the term Social Teaching to identify a set of topics in Political Economy, which is a branch of Moral Theology.

        I didn’t imply any such thing.

        When you come to believe the Catholic Church really is what she claims to be, you’ll come to agree with the catechism on the topic, even if you don’t understand it.

      2. @ tony

        Just imagine if everybody actually loved their neighbor as themselves, which is the entirety of the law, according to somebody who is no longer important to Christianity. What a better world this would be. The entirety of the law, which is a social construct.

        Instead, what we have is some people obsessing over other peoples alleged sins, especially what they do with the naughty bits. Instead, what we have is some people demanding that other people not be treated in a way that those people with demand for themselves. Instead, what we get, undercover of abortion, is for throated traditional Catholic support for a four times bankrupt, three times married, two Corinthians spouting, self-proclaimed sexual assaulter, adulterer, and fornicater.

  3. Nice. Good stuff to think about.

    I liked Heresy #9: Government-related failures constitute definitive evidence against reliance on government, but market-related failures do not count as evidence against reliance on markets.

  4. Thank you for posting this. It clarified a number of issues I was very confused about when I started, several years ago, to read Catholic blogs. However, the first blog I found, because a friend had forwarded an article that was actually good about a controversial book, was Crisis. At the time I had practically no idea of what libertarianism was, and I discovered in Crisis a form of Catholicism that was very, very different from the one I had learned growing up in Quebec, and even during my studies in business and economics in late 50’s and early 60’s, in a Catholic university that had included Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum among the undergraduate text books. For a while, I had started to wonder if in some way I had failed to follow current Catholic thought. Eventually, I began to realize that my education, continuing studies and natural talents made me almost as much of an “expert” as some of the writers I was reading… Professor Finn’s article actually covers most of the matters that had troubled me so much at the time, and in a way confirms the conclusions I had eventually come to.

  5. @John Thayer Jensen and @bensnewlogin:
    It strikes me as odd that if you suggest that it’s possible for the Catholic church to be a ‘big tent’–catholic in the sense of universal–you’re accused of being a Protestant. That shouldn’t be the case. There’s room for legitimate disagreement. If Pope Francis (for example) thinks the death penalty is always wrong and must not be used, that’s fine–he can have his opinion, as can we all. But it’s not the sole legitimate opinion a Catholic can hold. (Maybe that’s not a great example, because here the pope has clearly contradicted historic church teaching. But you see my point.)

    There’s a terrible tendency among Catholic hierarchs to insist everyone do things their way. It never occurred to Paul VI that he could have introduced his Novus Ordo as an alternative option; no, he had to force it on the entire church (and people voted with their feet). I see the same tendency in the Francis apologists. They want his new doctrines to be the only legitimate expression of Catholicism. Sorry, that’s not going to happen.

    That said, I want to thank everyone for their thoughts. I find it very interesting to hear views that differ from my own and ponder them.

  6. @ tony

    I agree. It’s absolutely silly. But then, i’m an atheist.

    It’s like a protestant telling a Catholic (or vice versa) saying “I have the one true way to worship Jesus Christ.“ And the other replying, “I have the one true way to worship Jesus Christ.”

    It’s like a sunni Muslim telling a shia muslim (or vice versa) “ I have the one true way to worship allah” and the other replying, “I have the one true way to worship allah”.

    It’s like any kind of Christian telling any kind of Muslim (or vice versa): “i worship the one true god, and you don’t.

    And don’t even get me started with Unitarians!*

    What you have here – and to be fair, it’s not just you – Is the one thing that conservative and/or really believing Christians don’t want to acknowledge — and to be fair, it’s not just Christians, but Muslims as well. With all of you have is simply your opinions about what is true. The argument rarely can progress beyond that, because there is evidence for each set of supporting opinions, but NO evidence that would convince aTrue But Different Believer.

    No, I’m not making an argument about the folly of religion, Although I am certain i will shortly be accused of it. As I’ve said many times on these very pages, I don’t really care what you believe, but I do care what you do with it. I’m pretty sure that we all need our metaphors, at least as far as I’ve been able to observe in my decades on the planet. Even I, atheist that I am, have my own metaphors.

    But this is what you said: “There’s a terrible tendency among Catholic hierarchs to insist everyone do things their way.” I would say that that is a terrible tendency among lots of people. But it seems to be particularly present in people that think they speak either for or to God. But here we are: right to life Christians claiming that God wants every fetus to come to term, but people dying because of capital punishment, or people dying because selfish people can’t restrain themselves during a pandemic, or people dying because they are black or gay or Jewish or Muslim and breathing simultaneously.

    All that is just fine. Or perhaps merely regrettable. Or even regrettable but THE ECONOMY! Or ALL LIVES MATTER!! (Just not so much fill-in-the-blank’s life, because fill-in-the-blank). Or IT’S JUST LIKE HITLER/STALIN/NAZIS/MARXISM/THE PROTOCOLS OF ZION (even though “it” is nothing like “them”).But I do agree with you on one thing: whatever the pope says is his opinion, and you are not bound to follow it.

    And that is why there are Protestants. But it’s also why we need a secular government with an absolute separation of church and state.

    * that’s a joke. Unitarians will embrace any heresy! That’s why i like them.

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