If there is one thing that the 2016 Presidential election taught me, it’s that, as a Catholic, I feel politically homeless. As our two party system continues to become more polar, Catholics often straddle the line between the two in a gray area where neither party truly represents them. Personally, I’ve always leaned to the conservative side of the spectrum, but I found myself losing faith in supposedly conservative political entities. It is a sinking feeling to come to all of these realizations, because it feels like the current political structure has de facto placed a sign on its door that says “Catholics Need Not Apply.” Something started to go missing, and I needed to take some time to reflect in order to put my finger on it.
After gathering my thoughts, and with the political turmoil engulfing the country, I realized that my views weren’t necessarily “conservative.” Conservative, by its very nature, is a nebulous term, since any major change in law or policy technically changes who is the conservative. As Hannah Arendt once said, and I’ve probably quoted multiple times throughout the years, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”
On this most recent journey of introspection, I found that my views were actually better defined as libertarian. After that revelation, I also found that both major political parties have essentially abandoned most notions of libertarianism, despite it being the core of this nation’s founding. As most libertarians would agree, I realized my political leanings were not so much about left and right, but rather state and individual. What truly surprised me, though, is how much libertarian principles can be seen in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
A.) A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY
I think most, when asked, would not associate the Catholic Church with libertarianism. Catholicism often gets associated with some form of strict legalism or moralism. However, nothing can be further from the truth, and there is a great deal of detailed thought under the misunderstood surface. Catholicism actually has a great deal to say about the concept of freedom, and this is born from the very root of its understanding of the human person.
The United States of America, from the moment of the Declaration of Independence, prefaced everything on defining the core concept of freedom and rights being innate in human beings. Everything flows from first laying down that foundation, which was so elegantly laid out centuries ago:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The truth, which is self-evident by virtue of our very nature, is that we are endowed with certain rights. While the “CREATOR” part can be left out for other debates, it is still important in understanding that rights are innate in our being and, therefore, NOT defined or granted by others. If they were, then they would not be unalienable and would be rendered meaningless through relativism, since they could be changed or redefined on a whim based upon the views of whoever held power at the time. Human beings intrinsically have, therefore, a right to freedom in their lives, most notably to pursue the ever elusive idea of happiness.
This freedom provided to us by our unalienable rights is actually at the very heart of the Catholic understanding of the human person through how Catholicism views man’s creation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.”
“Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts.” –St. Irenaeus
This is rooted in Biblical teaching in Sirach 15:14, which reads:
When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice.
Again, leaving aside any debate about the existence of God, the Catholic Church clearly teaches man is free and has control over his own actions. After establishing that mankind has freedom, the Catechism elaborates on it further by defining it:
1731 Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.
This was intended and desired, with man having the ability to freely choose his path in life. There is, of course, the hope that we will seek the good with that freedom, in which the Catholic Church believes freedom can find its perfection, but if we were forced in that direction we could not then argue that we are free by nature. Being free, then, leaves open the possibility of making right and wrong choices:
1732 As long as freedom has not bound itself definitively to its ultimate good which is God, there is the possibility of choosing between good and evil, and thus of growing in perfection or of failing and sinning. This freedom characterizes properly human acts. It is the basis of praise or blame, merit or reproach.
Although expressed by the notions of good/evil and perfection/sin, this is no different than pointing out that, even though we are free to act, we are not free from the consequences of our actions. Freedom is a necessity, but the ability to act or not within our will can (and is) abused when used in a way contrary to what is good.
So, there is a great deal in common between what has been expressed in the Catechism about the nature of freedom and libertarianism: man is, by its very nature, a free entity, and man has the natural right to freely act according to his will. In other words, man has personal autonomy. It is true that Catholicism takes that and applies it to what we should do with our freedom, but it never abandons the fact that true freedom of action to shape one’s own life, as opposed to force, is the key to our very being.
B.) A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF RIGHTS AND LAW
The above notions of personal autonomy establish a fundamental understanding of the human person in terms of our innate rights to life and freedom, but the world contains more than just one of us. We work together, have relationships, and, unfortunately, we sometimes butt heads. Inevitably, then, the conversation will turn to what role our human institutions and governments have in relation to the freedom of the individual. Libertarian ideals seek to maximize the amount of personal autonomy and limit government power over the individual, so chief among government’s roles is the protection of our freedoms. Again, the Catholic Church agrees:
1738 Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.
Even with acknowledging the right to exercise our freedom and the necessity of recognizing it and protecting it, Catholicism largely doesn’t give a blueprint on how government should do so. Different Popes at different times have railed against the wrongs they see in different systems, whether it was St. Pope John Paul II speaking about socialism or Pope Francis warning of the materialism that can come with an idolization of money. The criticisms are for different reasons, whether it be a lack of protecting the right to exercise our freedom or the abuse of the freedom we do have protected. Still, some of the greatest Catholic thinkers have pondered the limits of human laws, and there are, again, libertarian overtones when these issues arise. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae, had the following to say about law and morality:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like…
The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Proverbs 30:33): “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”; and (Matthew 9:17) that if “new wine,” i.e. precepts of a perfect life, “is put into old bottles,” i.e. into imperfect men, “the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,” i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still.
The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): “The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does.” Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law.
Limiting the scope of law, particularly when it applies to “victimless crimes,” is an ideal that many libertarians share. Aquinas pointed out, succinctly, that human law is not designed to make man perfect and that it is also not necessary to legislate all of morality. In fact, in man’s flawed existence, you couldn’t possibly legislate man into a state of virtue. So, the real focus of the law should be for the most serious offenses, and should also be further focused on those offenses that harm others. This is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson’s definition of rights and liberty:
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
In essence, if each person is represented by a circle, we form a massive Venn diagram where the equal rights of others intersect. In those intersecting areas is where you will find the most proper use of law to protect the public from, as Aquinas put it, the most grievous of vices or to adjudicate disputes.
C.) SUBSIDIARITY: A CATHOLIC UNDERSTANDING OF GOVERNMENT’S ROLE
Elaborating on the freedom of the individual and the importance of government to protect that freedom within a limited human law, it should be apparent that the Catholic Church views personal autonomy to be not only important, but integral to the very dignity of the human person. Therefore, logically, any infringement upon man’s freedom robs him of his dignity, but there are many ways freedom can be attacked. We often think of clear examples, such as slavery, but there are far more insidious ways freedom can be indirectly extinguished. One such way is by usurping man’s activities and responsibilities.
Although not called by the name subsidiarity, Pope Leo XIII prepared the foundational principles of the concept in his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum. Rerum is a direct commentary on socialism and its inevitable effects on man, where Leo XIII defends private property ownership and the importance of man’s labor. Through that defense, he wrote the following:
The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop.
Forty years later, as the name literally states, the condemnation of a usurpation of man’s actions was expanded further by Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo anno:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.
All of Quadragesimo is a very detailed piece about man and government, written at a time that saw the rise of Nazism and Communism on one hand and the entrenching and expansion of capitalism on the other. In it, Pope Pius XI also warns against the reduction of all things into the two spheres of the individual and the state, making the case for multiple social units between them. This includes everything from the family to local governments, non-profit organizations, and corporations. This hierarchy of social order, between individuals and the State through various social structures that promotes “Industries and Professions” for man to exercise his freedom with others, strikes a balance between statism and complete individualism. In more clear terms, subsidiarity as a concept presents a strong case for limited government.
Between the two documents, a picture of limited government is painted that places as much focus as possible on the smallest units of social life. Government’s limited role, then, is only to support smaller units in those functions that they cannot handle on their own. To take away a smaller social unit’s function is to rob the individuals of their usefulness and dignity.
The commitment to the concept of subsidiarity didn’t end there, as St. Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus annus on the 100th anniversary of Rerum. The position remained the same, notably:
In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, 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.
The principle of subsidiarity has had a large effect on institutions outside of the Church as well. The European Union uses subsidiarity as a core concept in its functionality as a governing body. Also, the United Nations has even noted its usefulness, stating in its Development Programme’s 1999 report:
Decentralization, or decentralising governance, refers to the restructuring or reorganisation of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, regional and local levels according to the principle of subsidiarity, thus increasing the overall quality and effectiveness of the system of governance, while increasing the authority and capacities of sub-national levels.
Many libertarians hold that self-governance is an important principle, and subsidiarity is largely a parallel concept that guides how limited a government should be with its responsibilities. It by no means ends with Papal encyclicals, either. Many great Catholic writers and thinkers, from G.K. Chesterton to Dorothy Day, have added their thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, even amongst modern Catholics, the idea of subsidiarity is not discussed much, but hopefully that will change as we continue to live under an ever-expanding bureaucracy.
D.) CATHOLIC LIBERTARIANISM
It is, of course, difficult to reduce 2,000 years of thought into a single essay on the subject of man’s nature and social interactions. However, what should emerge, from examining specifics, is that the Catholic Church does share many core values and teachings with the principles of libertarianism. Both see the individual as a free entity, both see the government’s chief responsibility as the protection of those individual freedoms, and both desire that the protection of that freedom arises from a limited government that leaves man able to best express and utilize his freedom.
Libertarianism is a large umbrella with a diverse people underneath it, and although there may be disagreement on moral principles in the end, Catholicism undeniably agrees on the value of freedom to pursue the truth through man’s own rational thought as a means. Many issues today are best left to that realm, through discussions between human beings in a more broadly social context rather than by the force of law. Evangelization, at the end of the day, is based on that principle. No one is mandated to be a Catholic, but Catholics believe we are to help others seek truth. Whether it is a religious issue or a broader social discussion, reaching out to people on a personal level about what you believe and finding the truth toegether can only be truly preserved in a society where men are free to search themselves in order to decide on their own. Catholics and other libertarians may disagree on where ultimate truth resides, but both support the mechanisms of freedom that allow us to have that conversation.
As a Catholic, I have come to the conclusion that I need to follow my conscious on the principles of the condition of the human person, on the law, and on the concept of subsidiarity in the greater context of Catholic social teaching. I’m not sure that the current two party system presents an option for those ideals, nor could a binary system ever accomplish that. In the end it is, of course, up to the individual, but I think the time is right for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to stop being politically homeless and search for another option that fits them more closely. Considering what Catholicism has taught, and seeing how it is written on the very heart of the United States in its founding principles, perhaps libertarianism can provide the roof Catholics have been missing for so long within our political system. I think the time is right for many groups of people, including Catholics, to start building their own custom homes rather than accepting the two cookie-cutter models.