Home / Economics / Catholic Social Teaching / A Resolved Tension


Distributists frequently find themselves in the thick of it all, especially when talking about the woes of Austro-libertarianism. I was recently involved in such a discussion with a certain Catholic libertarian on YouTube. The exchange took place on The Remnant Video channel, and it was in relation to things said during the Lake Garda interview of Christopher Ferrara regarding his book, The Church and the Libertarian.

My friend, in defense of his position, made repeated reference of the person and works of Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Truth be told, this is rather common when entrenched in debates of this kind with Catholic libertarians. Woods is amongst their favorites, and his works are widely read and revered. But this was hardly to my disadvantage, proving to be a boon rather than a bust. I believe such was true in that discussion and I believe such will be true here, the reasons for which are as simple as they are practical.

Woods provides for us a very useful example when discussing the difficulties posed by Catholic libertarianism, at least when considering those who embrace and advocate what is commonly referred to as Austro-libertarianism. On the one hand, Woods is quite conservative. This is true both politically and religiously. He has been rather critical of the political, academic, and cultural Left, having written books and essays on a number of contemporary controversies. He is also an advocate for the Traditional Latin Mass, having once been the associate editor of The Latin Mass Magazine. On the other hand, Woods is a senior fellow at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. This particular institute is dedicated to the tradition of classical liberalism championed by men such as Ludwig Von Mises and Murray Rothbard. As such, Woods is a Catholic fusionist; one seeking to blend together principles and policies from two schools of thought that at least appear to be in radical opposition.

What can be said of Woods may be said of this strain of Catholic libertarianism as a whole. Such becomes all the more obvious when considering the fact that he is not alone, being accompanied by many prominent Catholics otherwise known for their more conservative and traditional tendencies. Given the influence both he and others have on Catholics at large, what is said of him may be said in a very general way of others, and done so without prejudice and gross overgeneralizations. For this reason, as well as others already mentioned, it seems both acceptable and appropriate that we use both Woods and his work as the case-in-point for this article.

One is left with a very difficult decision when dealing with what Woods and others refer to as “the unresolved tension” between Catholic Social Teaching and so-called economic law. Given the extensive reach of this controversy – something Ferrara’s 400-page book discusses at length – it would do us well to consider what may be rightly identified as the heart of the matter. It is my suggestion that the central issue here is that of competency. In short, it boils down to whether or not it is beyond the competence of the Magisterium to describe and pronounce upon social and economic matters.

Consider for a moment his essay entitled, “Catholic Social Theory and Economic Law: An Unresolved Tension.” Woods spends a decent amount of time reflecting on the matter of competency. After much consideration, Woods contends,

“… by any definition, it lay well beyond the competence of the Magisterium to presume to describe the workings of economic relationships.” 

This is said in light of a cautionary note insisting that he and others should,

“…hesitate to describe Catholic social teaching as an abuse of papal and ecclesial power.”

Yet even this sense of caution doesn’t curtail his claim that it “seems dubious” that the Church would “attempt to impose, as moral doctrine binding on the entire Catholic world,” principles ultimately founded in and derived from the Church’s,

“… intrinsically fallible reasoning within a secular discipline like economics.”

 He concludes by saying, 

“… at the very least, it appears to constitute an indefensible extension of the prerogatives of the Church’s legitimate teaching office into areas which it possesses no inherent competence or divine protection from error.”

His position, in short, was summed up with the words,

“There is no competency here.”

The question, then, becomes whether the position held by Woods and those like him hold up in light of what the Church has said regarding her own competency in these matters. In brief, do Catholic libertarians of this kind speak of the Church as the Church speaks of herself?

I do not believe as much. While I wouldn’t be at a loss for authorities to cite in my defense, I will here restrict myself only to a handful. Central to my argument is the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, written by Pope Pius XI in 1931. It is my belief that this encyclical, and particularly what is said in paragraph 41, lays this issue to rest. Other paragraphs give substance to this, specifically those referencing Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Also worthy of mention here will be Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, both of which dealt with considerations quite relevant to this controversy. From this time forth Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno will be referred to as RN and QA.

Let us first consider the referencing of RN in QA. This is rather significant and for many reasons. In paragraphs 8, 11 and 31, Pius XI contends that Leo XIII spoke authoritatively on social and economic matters, and this on account of his being both within his right and within the virtue of the apostolic office:

“The wise Pontiff long weighed all this in his mind before God; he summoned the most experienced and learned counsel; he pondered the issues carefully and from every angle. At last, admonished ‘by the consciousness of His Apostolic Office’ lest silence on his part might be regarded as failure in his duty he decided, in virtue of the Divine Teaching Office entrusted to him, to address not only the whole Church of Christ but all mankind.” (RN, §8)

“… the pope, clearly exercising his right and correctly holding that the guardianship of religion and the stewardship over those things that are closely bound up with it had been entrusted especially to him and relying solely upon the unchangeable principles drawn from the treasury of right reason and Divine Revelation, confidently and as one having authority, declared and proclaimed ‘the rights and duties within which the rich and the proletariat – those who furnish material things and those who furnish work – ought to be restricted in relation to each other,’ and what the Church, heads of States and the people themselves directly concerned ought to do.” (Ibid, §11)

“… The rules, therefore, which Leo XIII issued in virtue of his authority, deserves the greatest praise…” (Ibid, §31)

Weighing in on what is said here is all the more important when we recognize the breadth of subject matter discussed in RN. Leo XIII spoke of things including but not limited to usury, the just wage, unchecked economic competition, socialism, private property, duties of employers, labor associations such as unions and guilds, agricultural stability, well-regulated family life, the fair imposition of public taxes, art, trade, the interests of the poor, and the relationship between capital and labor. As such, Pius XI insisting that Leo XIII was within the virtue of his office to speak authoritatively on these matters provides us with an idea as to what the Church believes regarding her competency, and a rather clear one at that.

Adding to the Church’s claim to competency would be what she has said concerning the connection between morality and the political economy. Pius XI saw what he believed to be an obvious connection between the Church’s social teaching and morality, and he says as much in paragraphs 41 and 42. While the pope admits outright that it is unlawful for the Church to deal matters such as technique, he makes clear that the Church has the right and duty to get involved with,

“… all things that are connected with the moral law.” (QA,§41)

While recognizing that the moral science and economics have sets of principles, each within their own sphere,  the pope does not grant that the two are entirely separate, much less at odds with one another. Rather, he argues that they are connected on the basis of the individual and the social nature of things and of men.

“Even though economics and moral science employs each its own principles in its own sphere, it is, nevertheless, an error to say that the economic and moral orders are so distinct from and alien to each other that the former depends in no way on the latter. Certainly, the laws of economics, as they are termed, being based on the very nature of material things and on the capacities of the human body and mind, determine the limits of what productive human effort cannot, and of what it can attain in the economic field and by what means. Yet it is reason itself that clearly shows, on the basis of the individual and social nature of things and of men, the purpose which God ordained for all economic life.” (Ibid, §42)

Pius XI was not alone in seeing the correlation between the Church’s social teaching and the moral law. Pope John Paul II would discuss this at greater length in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS). Here he emphasized the right and duty of the magisterium to weigh in on social and economic matters.

John Paul II sets the stage by writing,

“As her instrument for reaching this goal, the Church uses her social doctrine. In today’s difficult situation, a more exact awareness and a wider diffusion of the ‘set of principles for reflection, criteria for judgment and directives for action’ proposed by the Church’s teaching would be of great help in promoting both the correct definition of the problems faced and the best solutions to them.” (SRS, §41)

He would then argue that when dealing with socio-economic matters, the Church is within her right and duty given that her social doctrine is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission, being aimed at guiding people’s behavior. He writes,

“The teaching and spread of her social doctrine are part of the Church’s evangelizing missions. And since it is a doctrine aimed at guiding people’s behavior, it consequently gives rise to a ‘commitment to justice,’ according to each individual’s role, vocation, and circumstances.” (Ibid, §41)

It is in this vein that the pope would make the rather bold assertion that,

“It therefore belongs to the field, not of ideology, but of theology and particularly of moral theology.” (Ibid, §41)

With all the aforementioned in mind, let us look lastly at what I believe to possibly be the most explicit papal claim concerning the competency of the Church’s social teaching. This is found in the already-referenced paragraph 41 of QA. Pius XI would write,

“… the principle which Leo XIII so clearly established must be laid down at the outset here, namely, that there resides in Us the right and duty to pronounce with supreme authority upon social and economic matters.”

The pontiff would insist that the aim of the Church social teaching is to,

“… bring under and subject to Our supreme jurisdiction not only social order but economic activities themselves.” (Ibid, §41)

This paragraph, possibly more than any other, settles the score, clearly setting forth what the Church says and believes both of herself and her social teaching.

So back to the question whether or not libertarians maintaining Woods’ position regarding competency are speaking of the Church as the Church speaks of herself. In light of what has been discussed here, is it at all possible to admit that arguments and criticisms advanced by Woods and his ilk hold up in light of what the Church has said of herself? The answer to both of these questions is absolutely not, not even close.

Sadly, Woods and many prominent Catholic libertarians know as much to be true. They are also well aware of what the Church has said regarding dissent on this matter. This will be the topic of my next article.


About the author: Jeremiah Bannister


Jeremiah Bannister is the creator and former host of "Paleo Radio". He writes about politics, economics, religion and culture from a Catholic perspective. Bannister lives in Michigan with his wife and four children.


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  1. When libertarians talk about the “laws of economics”, I mentally shift that to “laws of human desire”, and the scales fall from my eyes. I think. After all, de-regulating economics is pretty much the same as de-regulating the fulfillment of any and all human desires (or so it plays out before my eyes). Only a fool or worse would want that. Am I stretching things, or am I essentially correct?

  2. When I say “de-regulating economics” I mean the lifting of all moral constraints, such as the Church might impose.

  3. You are essentially correct, and they know as much. Here is another consideration.

    I ran across an article by Nicholas Capaldi in The American Conservative. Capaldi is Legendre-Soule Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University. In his article, “Spiritual Capitalism,” he argues in favor of liberalism. He insists, as most liberals of this kind do, that the liberal order is founded on pluralism and individualism.

    While such may be true of their position, saying as much doesn’t get us very far. In truth, we are immediately hurled into ethical and even religious considerations concerning what is and what ought to be, both of men as individuals and of society at large. More than this, we are left having to consider what is meant by individualism and pluralism.

    These things are presupposed by the liberal, but allowing them to beg the question will not do. We must critically consider such things, and we must do so presuppositionally. We must recognize and act upon both what they admit and what they deny, and that being that their position is, at root, one founded upon religious and ethical beliefs regarding man, society, the here and now, and our last end.

  4. You’ve hit on the basic problem, Axe. These folks tend to take a ‘whatever works’ attitude towards economic life. They get wrapped up in their graphs and spreadsheets and whatnot, coming to the conclusion that whatever system they believe yields the best numbers on paper has to be ‘right.’ Morality doesn’t come into the equation, it just kinda sorts itself out as people make a run for the cash. Classic case of abstraction taking precedence over the concreteness of human nature and plain ol’ right and wrong. Crude way of putting it, but that’s about the size of things.

    At least the wacky antinomian libertarians have the consistency to follow their principles to the bitter end. They don’t just stop at money matters, they’ll take it all the way. They’re more logically consistent than the ‘Catholic libertarians’ at least.