Can you be a Catholic and a libertarian?

The Washington PostJune 9, 2014 

For years, American Catholics have been under pressure to vote Republican.

Though no church leader ever put it quite that baldly, Cardinal Raymond Burke came close when he said the Democratic Party was in danger of becoming a “party of death.”Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs has repeatedly suggested that Catholics shouldn’t be able to receive Communion if they vote for politicians who differ from church teaching on a few “non-negotiable” matters: abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia, same-sex marriage – and more recently, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.

The most intense call to the ballot box came from Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, a Holy Cross priest who referred to the “calculated disdain of the president of the United States” in a homily ahead of the 2012 presidential election. “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments,” Jenky said, “would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama – with his radical pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda – now seems intent on following a similar path.”

None of the protests that followed claimed that Jenky hadn’t made himself clear.

Now, though, the red papal loafer may be on the other foot, with economic conservatives being called out.

In Washington this week, the cardinal some consider the pontiff’s “vice-pope” mocked them outright at a conference called “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The Religion News Service story on the smackdown of trickle-down ran under the headline, “Catholic and libertarian? Pope’s top adviser says they’re incompatible.”

That adviser, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was introduced by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and preached against deregulation and “worshipping idols, even if that idol is called ‘market economy.’“ Rodríguez also called trickle-down economics a “deception,” and said the “invisible hand” of the market steals from and strangles the poor: “We are no longer to trust the blind forces and the invisible hand of the market. This economy kills. This is what the pope is saying.”

Some libertarians have described the pope’s economic views as naive and uninformed – and Rodríguez returned the favor. “Many of these libertarianists do not read the social doctrine of the church, but now they are trembling before the book of Picketty,” he said, referring to French economist Thomas Piketty’s best-seller, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” on the wealth disparities that have us headed into a new Gilded Age.

In some ways, the fight is over competing interpretations of the American story, said Meghan Clark, a moral theologian from St. John’s University. The libertarian telling of that story stars a frontiersman who carves the American West out of nothing, in radical autonomy, with only a hunting knife. Only, doesn’t that self-made man creating something out of nothing sound a lot like God? “That’s the 1 / 8Catholic 3 / 8 problem with libertarianism,” Clark said. “It depends upon a human person who creates himself, and there’s no way to make that harmonious with Christ.”

The economy created by all those frontiers-folk is the unfettered free market, and Pope Francis himself recently reiterated his view that it is “an inhumane system. I didn’t hesitate to write in . . . “Evangelii Gaudium' (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that this economic system kills,” Francis told reporters on his plane en route to Rome from Jerusalem. “And I repeat this.”

Of course, Pope Benedict XVI, too, spoke out against “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Pope Francis may or may not even know who the budget-cutting Catholic Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is.

It’s Francis’s constant refrain, however, that we walk with Christ by staying close to the poor. And Tuesday’s “Erroneous Autonomy” conference was without any doubt an attack on the politics of Ryan and other potential Republican presidential candidates, including Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who describes himself as “libertarianish,” and his fellow tea party favorite, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The Rev. Robert Sirico, of the Michigan-based libertarian Acton Institute, said the conference seemed designed to “create a straw man, shoot it down, and make political hay,” but did not accurately define or reflect views held by any but the most “extreme Randians or anarchists.” Not only is the market far from unfettered, he said, but there’s evidence that its expansion lifts people up rather than leaving them behind.

He was invited to come and sit in the audience and be instructed, he said, but no libertarian Catholic was asked to speak or sit on a panel at the day-long event.

One of the conference organizers, Michael Sean Winters, whose anti-libertarian work the cardinal quoted extensively at the top of his remarks, said the event was very consciously not a debate, in the same way that during the Cold War, “the objective wasn’t to dialogue with communism; it was to defeat it.”

The meeting wasn’t partisan, he said, since majorities in both parties hold some libertarian, “leave-me-alone” beliefs, with Democrats shooing government out of the bedroom and Republicans out of every other sphere of life. And “the Catholic critique isn’t based on economics; we think they’re wrong about what it means to be a human person.”

Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, which sponsored the conference, argued that like Christianity, libertarianism “offers a comprehensive worldview that informs ethics and art, lifestyles and culture, and even relationships and psychologies. Surely it’s as evident in a NARAL woman’s claim that ‘It’s my body,' in the art of the ‘selfie,' and in the doomsday prepper’s fantasy of self-reliance, as it is in rancher Cliven Bundy’s claim that common grazing land is ‘my property.’ “

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., argued that libertarianism is a direct threat to faith: “Our ability to call people to believe in a gracious God” is compromised, he said in an interview, if “the cards are stacked against” the poor.

Such gentle, theological warnings against both the excesses of autonomy and of the free market are a far cry from Bishop Jenky’s Hitler references.

Yet on the political front, it’s worth remembering that recent attempts to herd Catholic voters haven’t gone well, and may even have backfired; despite the efforts of a number of American bishops to cast President Barack Obama as “pro-abortion” and anti-Catholic, he won the Catholic vote in 2008 and 2012.

And at election time, it’s unclear whether the “you can’t be Catholic and libertarian” argument would work any better than “you can’t be Catholic and pro-choice” has.

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