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Why Libertarian Catholics are Wrong on Economics Part 2

September 16, 2022  |  1,925 words | Economics, Politics, Philosophy, Religion   

A Brief History:  Part Two


In analyzing the ideological schism that plagues present-day Catholicism, we tend to focus on the fall-out from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the sexual revolution of the 1960s that surrounded it.  With good reason, since both did indeed play a large role in splintering Catholics into the current opposing camps of “liberal” and “conservative.”


But our pre-occupation with sexual liberation and what some think of as the new theology of Vatican II has obscured what I consider to be the other revolution that was taking place in American Catholicism at the very same time.   


Just to recap the sexual aspect of this discussion as it pertains to my designated audience, the conservatives, it goes something like this:  These folks have ear-marked Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) as a pernicious piece of social engineering.  That’s the Supreme Court decision based on a case brought by the wife of the President of Yale University that made the sale of artificial contraception legal.  And they swell with pride at the mention of Humanae Vitae, the famous 1968 encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI that is subtitled “On the Regulation of Birth.”  It reiterates what liberals consider to be outdated Church teaching on family planning and other reproductive issues.  Paul did this in the face of heavy pressure from a blue-ribbon committee headed by John D. Rockefeller that recommended the Catholic Church bring its policy on birth control in line with what the Anglican Church decreed at its Lambeth Conference of 1930.


I offer this background only to point out how these self-styled cultural warriors overlook the conservative intelligentsia’s negative reaction to an important encyclical from a few years earlier.  Mater et Magistra (1961) is Pope John XXIII’s take on social and economic justice.  I find the oversight odd, since this is what greased the skids in the first place, if you ask me.  That negative reaction to Church teaching on economics gave Catholics in the pew a mixed message, and opened the door to what some might call our present-day schism.


The subtitle of this 1961 papal encyclical is “Christianity and Social Progress.”  It was intentionally promulgated on the anniversary of Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Rerum Novarum (1891), the two big papal encyclicals that heralded modern-era Catholic teaching on the economic question.  In it, John XXIII has the audacity to re-iterate how the state must sometimes intervene in matters of health care, education, and housing, in order to promote human dignity and achieve authentic community.


This did not sit well with the conservative Catholic establishment at the time.  William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925– 2008), another likable soul, directed his flagship publication, National Review, to announce how the Catholic Magisterium was no longer the boss when it comes to economic behavior.  The phrase employed to describe this cavalier dismissal was “Mater si, Magistra, no”, penned by a young Gary Wills (1934- ).  Mr. Wills has since gone on to enjoy a long and illustrious career as, among other things, a reliably staunch critic of papal teaching. 


I believe the rejection of what I refer to as economic morality on the part of conservative/libertarian Catholics is the very thing that paved the way for what those conservatives see as the revolution in sexual standards on the part of liberal Catholics.  At the very least, both developments unfolded simultaneously, and were mutually supportive.



The 1960s may have been when all this erupted into public view, but of course each movement had much deeper roots.  Staying with the apparently less-well-known economic revolution for a moment, we find that Mr. Buckley’s outburst in the early 1960s was proceeded by two decades’ worth of behind-the-scenes agitating on the part of policy wonks and political operatives.  In the late 1930s a conservative contingent was expressing frustration with the comprehensive legislative package known as the “New Deal,” on the grounds that allowing the federal government to play such an outsized role in economic affairs was un-American.


Prior to that, as a presidential candidate on the campaign trail in 1932, the politician who was to bring us that ground-breaking legislation was already going public with his admiration for Quadragesimo Anno (1931).  Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the author of that encyclical, Pope Pius XI, as being “just as radical as I am.”  FDR’s conservative Catholic critics were not amused, and by the middle of his second term those critics were positively climbing the walls.


Which is not to suggest every piece of legislation enacted by FDR during his three plus terms in office was worthy of the Pius XI seal of approval.  Only that his Catholic critics should have based their complaints on something other than a libertarian appeal to limited government and economic freedom.


This tendency to compromise Church teaching when it comes to economics – sacrificing the common good in favor of a rugged pursuit of individual advancement – is nothing new.  It’s the very same battle noted American intellectual, activist, one-time Universalist preacher, labor organizer, and Catholic covert Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was waging in the 1860s and 1870s with the Catholic politicians of his day, who cleverly justified not allowing religious beliefs to inform their actions while in public office.


The genesis of this compromise can probably be traced all the way back to 1802, when the idea of separation of church and state first entered the American lexicon.  Though not formally established by either the Declaration of Independence (1776) or the Constitution (1787), Thomas Jefferson was able to insert it after the fact, and it has since become an accepted principle of our pluralist nation.


Rome, for its part, has been consistently trying to clarify things for its upstart American followers.  The Syllabus of Errors (1864), though not directed specifically at us, still spoke to the American version of the popular modernist trend sweeping over the West in the wake of the Enlightenment.   On Americanism (1899), a papal encyclical penned by Pope Leo XIII, was indeed aimed directly at us, and at our leading prelate at the time, James Cardinal Gibbons.  Cardinal Gibbons, you may recall, became a major proponent of the American Experiment.  By the time he appeared on the scene in the 1880s the Church in the United States was flourishing.  New parishes were being established left and right, beautiful cathedrals were getting built, convents and seminaries were full to bursting.  


Gibbons concluded America’s new form of government – a pluralist, liberal democracy – was good for the propagation of Catholicism.  But his rosy assessment didn’t account for the exploitation of the working class being perpetrated at the time by the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.  Good thing Leo XIII was on hand to address the problem in his formidable 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, sub-titled “On Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”


This special encyclical kicked off Catholic social teaching as it pertains to modern-day economic behavior. And this aspect of the Church’s Magisterium has been going strong ever since.  Every pope since Leo, in every single papal encyclical, has made reference to this economic teaching, to one degree or another.  And the conservative/libertarian Catholic brain trust in this country has been ignoring that teaching for just as long.



Well-meaning people on both sides of the aisle can disagree as to the underlying source of our present cultural stalemate.  Though I would think we can all agree the contentious nature of our politics has indeed brought us to a bit of a stalemate, since fights are likely to break out among friends and neighbors at the drop of a hat, over the average day’s headlines.  What can be done to improve the cultural climate, moving forward?


Well, most successful conservative Catholics I know think “righting the ship” will be as simple as reversing Roe v. Wade, and electing another Republican to the White House.  Then we can all sit back as the culture magically heals itself, and the familiar trickle-down economic policy prescriptions are once again put in play to solve all our economic woes.  


Whereas the more thoughtful (and typically less successful) conservative Catholics I know are given to a sense of despair.  They see the dissolution of Western civilization as being so pronounced, conventional political alternatives offer them little hope for improvement.  Such folks are busy implementing their own version of what’s been dubbed “The Benedict Option.”  The only reasonable way to address their overwhelming sense of spiritual ennui is to pull back from mainstream culture altogether.  These stout souls are out to build a new sense of community that strikes them as being more authentic than the consumer-oriented one we have now.  They are usually happy to live far from the madding crowd.


This latter approach certainly has a lot to recommend it, since good things usually happen when birds of a feather flock together.


The romantic appeal of the Benedict Option, as put forth by author Rod Dreher in his best-selling 2017 book of the same name, is undeniable to a solitary soul like me.  But romance aside, there is another strategy available to faithful believers in this secular world of ours.  To access it, though, we must hedge a bit on that ancient admonition to be in the world, but not of it.  If we seek a cultural restoration, we should not be so quick to exile ourselves from the mainstream.

My suggestion on how to alter the course of Western civilization for the better will not be easy for either brand of conservative Catholic to swallow.  Not for the Wall Street Journal crowd, who has the world by the tail and is enamored of Republican fiscal policy.  And not for the more modest Benedict Option types who distrust all political machinations, and harbor a special disdain for what they see as the openly immoral nature of certain aspects of Democrat social policy.

But my plan has an upside:  Achieving cultural restoration will not require any sort of dramatic about-face, or anything as drastic as a re-invention of the wheel.  We do not need to come up with an entirely new system of economic exchange, nor must we foment a political revolution that will result in a return to what some fondly remember as the confessional state of bygone days.  

Yes, it’s true, all of modernity has been fraught with problems.  But there is a reason the smart set sought the overthrow of the Christian ethos at the beginning of the modern era, all those hundreds of years ago.  Everyone was ready to try something new for a simple reason:  Christians were not doing Christianity very well.  So here we Christians now find ourselves, in the land of pluralism and liberal democracy based on majority rule.  And it’s our job as people of faith to make it work.

Contrary to conventional conservative wisdom on the subject, the fastest way to restore a semblance of moral clarity to contemporary secular culture is not to try and re-legislate morality back into the system by repealing Roe v. Wade, or rescinding the legalization of gay marriage.  Because in a nation dedicated to the proposition of individual liberty in the pursuit of one’s own definition of happiness, taking away choice in any area of personal behavior is not a winning strategy.


Instead of taking something away from people, better to provide something they currently lack.  In this case that something is dignity and a sense of authentic community.  Recasting our existing capitalist model from one based solely on supply and demand, to one that can work justice and charity into the picture, could provide both.  


Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

September 16, 2022

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