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There is a battle going on for the soul of the Catholic Church. This battle is fought on many fronts: doctrine, liturgy, the nature of the priesthood, the governance of the Church. One of the most important disputes concerns the interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching, a body of teaching whose modern form has developed over the last 120 years, but whose roots go back to the early Fathers of the Church.

The teaching concerns the relationship of the person and the family to the social, political, and economic orders; that is, it concerns the prudential order, the mundane world. Like all teachings that deal with the mundane world, it will support a variety of interpretations. But it will not support just any interpretation. Some are clearly contrary to both the meaning and spirit of the teachings. Some are positively subversive of the Church’s message and mission.

Often, these battles are presented as a dispute between “liberals” and “conservatives.” This taxonomy comes near the truth, and like many things that are nearly right, it is often completely wrong. The real battle is not between liberals and conservatives—words whose precise meanings have become vague at best, misleading at worst. Rather, the real struggle is between Liberalism and the Church’s traditional understanding of herself. Now, it may seem odd to distinguish between Liberalism and liberals. After all, aren’t liberals the people who espouse Liberalism? That should be correct, but often it is not. By Liberalism is meant something very specific, mainly that body of ideas that grew up in the so-called “Enlightenment” of the 17th and 18th centuries, ideas that were a reaction against reason and religion in general, and the Catholic religion in particular. Reason was replaced with rationalism, which is not at all the same thing; anything can be rationalized; only the truth is reasonable.

The ideals of the Enlightenment are by now so old that some wish to “conserve” them, to make them the basis of conservatism. Hence, some “conservatism” is very liberal in its character. At the same time, many “liberals” have discovered the value of limits, reason, tradition, place, worship, and so forth, ideas that are certainly intelligible to conservatives. Thus, in place of a sharp division between liberals and conservatives, we are often faced with a confusing mixture on both sides.

One of the more egregious examples of Liberalism masquerading as “conservatism” is known as Austrian Libertarianism, an economic and social philosophy that traces to Ludwig von Mises and his student Murray Rothbard. It is not an idle charge that Mises considered himself a product of the Enlightenment, a “man of 1789” (the French Revolution); this he says himself. The question, therefore, is not whether Mises is the very embodiment of Liberalism; Mises did not dispute this and in fact boasted of it. The real question is whether the philosophy he represents can in any way be reconciled to the Catholic faith and serve as a basis for the understanding of Catholic Social Teaching, or indeed of anything Catholic or even Christian.

As one who has studied Mises and his work, I find his economics useless and his philosophy jejune. But the academies are full of jejune and useless doctrines, and it just doesn’t do to get too upset by any one of them. So why should a book dedicated to refuting his work and Austrian libertarianism in general be of particular interest to Catholics? Because Austrianism has insinuated itself into the struggle over the interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching, in ways that in fact subvert that teaching, even to the point of rendering the Gospel null and void.

That, of course, is a serious charge, and should only be made on serious and overwhelming evidence. That is the burden of Christopher Ferrara’s book, and it is a burden that he has met and even surpassed. Those who find Austrianism a useful interpretation of the Church’s teaching should give careful consideration to Mr. Ferrara’s presentation. He has done the Church a great service with this well-researched and well-reasoned discussion.

There are two further points to mention here. The first is that this exposé of “Austro-libertarianism” should not be construed as an attack on libertarianism in general, as Mr. Ferrara himself notes in the Introduction. There are many strains in that particular view, many of which are useful in our understanding of the social and economic orders. But “Austro-libertarianism” is rather a latecomer to the libertarian tent, and hardly the whole of the movement.

The other point that needs mentioning is that this is a book by a Catholic, addressed to Catholics, over issues which concern Catholic doctrine. Therefore, it should be read by as many non-Catholics as possible. This is not only because the issues are of universal significance, but also because this book is a superb example of how reasoning that includes the moral and supernatural orders enlightens and completes the natural order. Indeed, it is the view of the Church, and of the mass of men in most times and places, that our understanding of the natural world could not be complete without some reference to our origins and ultimate ends. Life on this earth has a destination and meaning beyond this earth, and no discussion of human institutions can be divorced from human ends, ends that exceed the mundane. Social thought that is divorced from ultimate ends will be dry and sterile, but religious thought that ignores the human condition will be oppressive and unreasonable.

Mr. Ferrara has shown how Catholic teaching links the natural to the supernatural in social life. People of whatever faith tradition, Protestant, Buddhist, Islamic, etc., will, I believe, find this work and excellent demonstration of how faith enlightens reason, even if it doesn’t happen to be their faith.

Note: this article is the foreword to The Church and the Libertarian: A Defense of the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Man, Economy, and State by Christopher Ferrara.

The book may be ordered from The Remnant Press at their web site.

 

About the author: John Médaille

 

John Médaille is an adjunct instructor of Theology at the University of Dallas, and a businessman in Irving, Texas. He has authored the book The Vocation of Business, edited Economic Liberty: A Profound Romanian Renaissance and just completed Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.

 

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10 Comments

  1. Great forward to what I am sure will be a great book. Ferrara’s piece that he posted on The Remnant addressed directly to Dr. Thomas Woods, “Ludwig von Mises versus Christ, the Gospel, and the Church,” is excellent and worthy of being shared on the Review.

  2. Libertarians are notorious for absolutizing “freedom” so-called as their only spiritual virtue. As a result any limitation on trade of any form is considered a “vice”. Sadly these are the kind of “conservatives” who would open a brothel and congratulate themselves on providing work for our wives and daughters!

  3. Might have to pick this up sometime. So sick of seeing the widespread infatuation with libertarianism in traditional Catholic circles. It’ll be fun to watch this book ruffle their feathers. God > Rothbard.

  4. This review did not summarize or otherwise tell us anything about the argument of the book, it merely asserted that von Mises is jejune and useless. The book may be brilliant and prove its case, but we can discern nothing about that from this review. This review is of no utility to anyone who does not already agree with its conclusions.

  5. Richard Aleman

    Dear Mr. Green,

    As you may have noticed at the bottom of the article, this is the “foreword” to the book The Church and the Libertarian.

  6. There are many forms of Libertarianism, not all are for unregulated capitalism, in fact many are for the co-operative model of distributism, which they consider as the true form of a market.

  7. In fact, I see myself as both a libertarian and a distributist, as I believe there is far greater chance for distributist system to grow in a libertarian society. I believe a co-operative market structure would dominate upon a capitalist market structure as a result as a free competition in a truly free market society. Without massive state intervention in behalf of few capitalists to maintain its dominance, property would be more widely distributed to the workers, and ultimately the most decentralized units of individuals, which is to the family.

  8. “On the other hand, property may also bring a series of deceptive promises that are a source of temptation. Those people and societies that go so far as to absolutize the role of property end up experiencing the bitterest type of slavery.”

    This quote from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, I interpret it as the “fictional” property created by State intervention in the marke, such as limited liability, intellectual property, patent privilege, central banking (in contradiction to decentralized credit unions), etc, which is the evils of Capitalist property.

    I am against Capitalist, a libertarian, and a distributist. Not all libertarian are in favor of capitalism, in fact, the word “libertarian” historically are against capitalism and are for the co-operatives, widely distributing property to the general population. These modern libertarians, who are so much defensive to the actually-existing capitalism, are called by the contemporary mutualist libertarian economist, Kevin Carson, as “vulgar libertarians”.

  9. “The means of production “cannot be possessed against labour, they cannot even be possessed for possession’s sake”.[606] It becomes illegitimate to possess them when property “is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people”

    This quote from CSDC, I see as monopoly-oligopoly ownership privileges resulted from State intervention in behalf of capitalists, which corrupt the true form of property. Capitalists uses the state to corrupt a true form of property, which is a property that does not exploit the work of others, a property that is not separated from it utilization.

  10. Unregulated Capitalism = Unlimited individual privilege for the few (through the State) in the expense of the majority.