Christopher Ferrara has graciously given the Review another interview for his book The Church and the Libertarian which is available now from The Remnant Press.
TDR: You are mostly known for your writings on Fatima and the crisis since Vatican II in The Remnant Newspaper and Latin Mass Magazine, but not so much for economics. What sparked your interest in Catholic social teaching as it pertains to economics and the market? Were you ever of a libertarian persuasion?
CF: First, a quick course correction. Contrary to what certain liberal Catholic sophists have suggested, I have not written about “economics” as a purely academic discipline involving such technical matters as supply and demand curves or theories of price formation in neo-classical economics, including the “Austrian School.” Rather, I have written about the Church’s binding teaching in the realm of moral theology and natural justice concerning human affairs that happen to involve the exchange and distribution of goods in society and the moral limits on what can be bought and sold.
The Church, in line with the entire Western tradition since Aristotle, considers economics to be a branch of ethics oriented to the just exchange and social distribution of goods oriented to the life of the family as the basic unit of society—hence the etymology of the very word economics, derived from the Greek oikonomeia, which denotes “household management.” The Church’s social teaching thus defends the order of justice related to the support of the family in society. No “law of economics” can trump that teaching, which looks to the moral accountability of human actors whose actions are not determined or excused by any such law. So, for example, no “law of economics” can possibly justify the way Scrooge treats Cratchit, the family man. And yet, as I show in the book, liberal sophists of the “Austrian School” cite “economic law” precisely—I am not joking—“in defense of Scrooge.”
What sparked my interest in writing about the social teaching was the attack upon it by Catholics of the so-called “Austro-libertarian” movement—a combination of the “Austrian School” of laissez-faire capitalism and radical libertarianism. We are dealing here with yet another post-Vatican II Trojan horse in the City of God, whose occupants openly defy the command of Pope Saint Pius X in Singulari quadem that Catholics must “obey and firmly adhere to and fearlessly profess the principles of Christian truth… most wisely laid down in the encyclical letter ‘Rerum Novarum’…”—that is, Pope Leo XIII’s veritable summa of the social teaching, which was always present in the Magisterium but which he and all of his successors have developed and refined for modern circumstances.
Was I ever a libertarian? Back in my college days I flirted, for about an hour-and-a-half, with Ayn Rand’s sententious drivel, and for much a longer time I dutifully observed the bourgeois liberalism I had thought was “conservative”—that is, what is good for Big Business is good for mankind. But that was before I returned to the practice of the Catholic faith in my late twenties. It was then that I realized that such works as Henry’s Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson and Frederic Bastiat’s The Law were superficial appeals to a bourgeois liberalism that insinuates itself into Catholic minds as “conservatism” by resorting to the spectre of socialism, defined as any “interference” in the “free” market and “free” interactions of other kinds among men. The Church’s teaching is the antidote to the poison of the false dichotomy—“freedom” or “socialism”—that has brought our entire civilization to the brink of self-destruction.
TDR: How long did it take you to write this work?
CF: The kernel of the book, which first appeared in The Remnant as a series of articles, took about six months to write. The tripling of that material into The Church and the Libertarian took another six months, preceded by several years of reading and study on the history of philosophical, political and economic liberalism and the triumph of all three in the form of the “moderate” Enlightenment that now passes for a “conservative” inheritance, while the Church’s vision of Man, Economy and State has been completely forgotten in the “modern world.” Over those years I have produced 750 pages of manuscript in addition to this book, which rather easily divide into three short works under the overall title Liberty, the God that Failed. Those three works consider the philosophical revolution of the “moderate” Enlightenment, then the American Revolution as its first practical embodiment, and finally the French Revolution—inspired by the American—and its world-shattering aftermath extending into the 20th century, which Pat Buchanan calls “the death of the West.”
TDR: Some Catholics have said, or will say: “Whoa, this is the same guy who wrote a book attacking the Pope and Vatican II [The Great Facade] and who wrote a book critical of the EWTN network. I don’t think I want to associate myself with any of that.” How would you respond to such criticisms? Why should people with such reservations read your book?
CF: The Great Façade actually defends the Pope and the Magisterium against a claim which, if accepted, would be disastrous for the integrity of the Faith, would undermine belief in the divine institution of the Church, and would lead people into the error of sedevacantism: the claim that the Faith in some way “changed” during and after the Second Vatican Council. As the title suggests, neither the Council nor any Pope has ever imposed upon the universal Church a single change in what Catholics must believe or do to be Catholics since 1962.
One of the many examples the book cites is the acknowledgment by John Paul II in his inaugural encyclical, Redemptor hominis (1979) that Catholics have the right to express the opinion that “ecumenical endeavours have brought negative results…Some even express the opinion that these efforts are harmful to the cause of the Gospel, are leading to a further rupture in the Church, are causing confusion of ideas in questions of faith and morals and are ending up with a specific indifferentism. It is perhaps a good thing that the spokesmen for these opinions should express their fears.” Now, the Pope added that in expressing these opinions “correct limits must be maintained,” but he does not deny the spokesmen for these opinions their right to question “ecumenism” which, unlike the social teaching, is not a doctrine of our Faith but a novel pastoral program that was unknown in the Church before Vatican II.
The main thesis of the book was resoundingly vindicated with Pope Benedict’s proclamation that the traditional Latin Mass—the attempted suppression of which is at the heart of the current crisis in the Church—was “never abrogated… and in principle was always permitted.” I am still waiting for someone to tell me what new doctrines Vatican II announced! And, if there are none, then the title The Great Façade should be self-explanatory.
As for my book on EWTN, I will repeat here what I noted on the St. Austin Review website. That book stresses on its very first pages that much of what EWTN broadcasts is quite good, and praises the courage and traditionalism of Mother Angelica before she lost control of the network (as seen in her famous opposition to Cardinal Mahony). On the other hand, the book objects to certain gravely problematical and even scandalous aspects of EWTN’s content, many of which have been remedied since the book appeared. Some examples: (1) Christopher West’s take on the “theology of the body” which is now widely acknowledged as a problem in the Church and has led to his six-month “sabbatical”; (2) One of EWTN’s kooky celebrity hosts, whose show has carried parental warnings—on a Catholic network?–has since resigned in a sex scandal which he confessed on the air. (3) An EWTN “expert” on sexuality, who had a series on EWTN, who maintains that the Big Bang was a divine orgasm (among other revolting propositions) and has published positively filthy discussions of his sex life as “advice” to other Catholics. (4) EWTN’s aggressive promotion of the idea, advanced by the Association of Hebrew Catholics (AHC), that there should be a “Hebrew Catholic” branch of Catholicism, for Jewish converts only, because “For the last 1700 years the Church has been sociologically Gentile.” (Consider the implications of that opinion for the Church’s divine institution and indefectibility.)
And consider this: recently Mark Shea quite rightly, and quite courageously, condemned what he calls “The Disgrace of EWTN’s ‘The World Over’” for its defense of the Bush administration’s torture policy and its belittling of contrary Church teaching.
My basic objection to these and other aspects of EWTN’s content is this: We must beware of allowing ourselves to slip into a sliding scale orthodoxy not unlike that which has diluted the term “conservative” in politics today. The objective truth demonstrated in the EWTN book is that a great Pope like Saint Pius X would view with horror much of what passes for “conservative” in the human element of the Church today. We must be honest about this and not allow the Faith to be relativized in the manner of culture at large merely because much of what EWTN presents is indeed sound and even laudable.
None of this is to deny the good that EWTN has done, especially with its recent promotion of the traditional Latin Mass. But a mixed bag is still a mixed bag, and when some of the contents of the bag are questionable and even plainly contrary to sound orthodoxy and chastity–as the book has shown without any real contradiction from anyone—we have every right to question the bad elements just as publicly as they are presented. This is all the more true where, as where, what is presented is essentially the production of laymen and not the Magisterium.
Having said all that, people with reservations about my earlier work should recognize that The Church and the Libertarian defends the Social Teaching, which is something on which all Catholics not only can, but must, agree, as the last sainted Pope insisted.
TDR: Though you are a Traditional Catholic and well respected in Traditional Catholic circles, there seems to be a negative reaction to your book, as well as Catholic social teaching in general. Angelqueen.org has banned discussion of your book, while groups such as Tradition Family and Property and Tradition in Action declare that Distributism, which you advocate in the book, is just Socialism. You also note in your book certain individuals who are Traditional Catholics yet oppose the social encyclicals. Why, with so many pre-Vatican II Popes, who have spoken on these issues, would Traditional Catholics oppose Social Teaching?
CF: Those “traditionalists” who equate Socialism and Distributism have no idea what Distributism is or else are presenting it dishonestly. I am amazed at the level of obfuscation that has surrounded this simple matter. Distributism means simply the widest possible ownership of private property—that is, widely distributed ownership, hence Distributism.
Distributism means a society of small owners, which is what the whole pre-Socialist Western world was under Catholic social order. It means as much free enterprise as possible for the common man. As Chesterton put it so brilliantly: “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”
Carping “traditionalist” critics of Distributism spend a lot of time rooting about in the works of particular distributist sources, such as the writings of Penty, in order to find evidence of the spectre of socialism—the same bugaboo liberals always raise to herd the masses into the concentration camp of rampant economic liberalism, where Wal-Mart with its Chinese wage slaves is portrayed as a bulwark of human liberty.
But in principle, Distributism is the polar of opposite of Socialism. Nothing about Distributism involves government seizure of anybody’s property. On the contrary, Distributists seek drastic reduction in the power of government precisely because Big Government has always favored Big Business and helped it to crush the small owner in a thousand different ways. As government recedes, and with it the massive advantages of Big Business over its small competitors, small ownership would return naturally.
Capitalism, as I show in the book, is not even at the midpoint between the two poles of Distributism and Socialism, but has actually evolved Leftward into a privatized socialism—Big Business in league with Big Government and Big Finance all over the world. Exhibit A: Bill Gates, promoter of socialism. Exhibit B: Warren Buffet, promoter of socialism. Exhibit C: Wal-Mart, which urges its employees to rely on government-subsidized health care. Exhibit D: The entire capitalist-created network of fractional reserve banking, which goes back centuries, was invented by financial “entrepreneurs” and is now protected by government at the behest of Big Finance. Exhibit E: Limited liability, publicly held, multinational mega-corporations, which are purely the inventions of government saddled to capitalist interests. Pius XI specifically condemned the innumerable abuses arising from this legal invention in Quadragesimo anno.
Anyone who thinks that Wal-Mart and its communist government-subsidized legions of wage slaves in China, or any of the other globe-spanning corporate megaliths that free-ride on government privileges and outsource labor, represents “free enterprise” versus evil Distributism needs to acquaint himself with the Church’s social teaching immediately.
Why do certain “traditionalists” oppose Catholic social teaching? For the same reason I once might have: They do not understand that they are bourgeois liberals who merely think they are “conservatives.” They have accepted the false dichotomy by which Liberalism has overtaken and overthrown all that remained of Christocentric social order: “freedom” or “socialism.”
TDR: In the book you use the term “liberalism” and “economic liberalism” yet you apply it to people who are understood as being “conservative”. Most Americans, and for that matter most Catholics, understand “liberalism” as a reference to the Democratic party or some hippies with their crystals and palm readings. What do you mean exactly by liberalism in the sense it is employed in the book? Why do people have this concept of liberalism?
CF: By liberalism I mean the idea that people should be allowed to do, say, buy or sell whatever they wish without “interference” by law, so long as they allow others to do, say, buy or sell whatever they wish. The “moderate” form of this error is that the law should restrain only violence, theft or outright fraud, with other moral strictures and duties being matters of purely “private” morality. This “moderate” liberalism—which of course has meant the death of public and thus ultimately private morality—necessarily involves the separation of Church and State, which means the separation of the State from its very soul and moral conscience. We have seen the results, of which the Popes have been warning us for more than two centuries.
People accept this concept of liberalism because the Zeitgeist has overcome their Catholic instincts, as we see even with Catholic prelates today. This is why John Paul II spoke of “silent apostasy” in the Church while Benedict decries the “secularization” of the Church.
TDR: In The Great Façade you wrote:
“As far as the Pope’s novel view on the death penalty is concerned, both Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and columnist Patrick J Buchanan have publicly stated the obvious: that the current Pope (then John Paul II) has no power to abolish the Church’s 2,000 year old approbation of capital punishment as a matter of natural justice.” (The Great Façade, pg. 242)
Moreover throughout that book you talk about resistance to things such as Ecumenism which, like John Paul’s teaching on the death penalty is stated in an encyclical (Ut unum sint) much like the matters on just wage and usury. Could not someone of the Austrian persuasion say “Look, you have a layman who is applauding other laymen whom dissent from papal teachings found in encyclicals. What is the difference if we dissent from John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, or from prior Popes on the economy?” With regard to Ecumenism see the reference to Redemptor Hominis above.
CF: The distinction is obvious: John Paul II did not, and could not, abolish the constant teaching of the Church on capital punishment, and did not require any Catholic to believe that capital punishment is per se immoral. The Social Teaching, on the other hand, has been forcefully imposed as morally binding by Pope after Pope, including Saint Pius X, as noted already.
TDR: In your book you talk about usury, and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition in condemning it which has long been prevalent in the Church. Yet, there has not been one mention of usury since Vix Pervenit 300 years ago! Why is it, in your opinion that the Church has not officially spoken on usury in all that time not only prior to Vatican II, but after as well? Has it just recognized times have changed?
CF: First of all, usury does receive mention in the new Catechism and in pronouncements by the Holy Office during the reign of Pius XII. Application of the teaching has changed with a radical change in the facts to which it is applied. Bear in mind that, in its broadest sense, as Tawney and others have noted, the Catholic moral teaching on usury relates to all forms of overreaching in business, not just interest-taking.
TDR: In this book, you say concerning usury: “What is popularly, but quite wrongly, assumed to be a “change” in Church teaching on usury is reality nothing more than the recognition that with the rise of banking and investment markets a new “title” to compensation for money advanced has arisen because money has in itself become an income-producing asset for which it is just to charge a reasonable “rental”. But this development does not change application of the dogmatic condemnation of usury in cases where an excessive and thus immoral rate of interest is charged.” (pg. 154; emphasis mine.)
Hilaire Belloc in Economics for Helen seems to paint a different picture:
“Modern people have so far forgotten this exceedingly important matter that they have come to use the word “usury” loosely for the taking of high interest upon a loan. That is very muddled headed thinking indeed, as you will see in a moment. The character of usury has nothing to do with the taking of high or low interest. It is concerned with something quite different. Usury is the taking of any interest whatever upon an UNPRODUCTIVE loan.” (Economics for Helen, pg. 156, emphasis in the original)
Moreover St. Thomas and other medieval scholastics who you quote in The Church and the Libertarian just a few pages before your quote above, call it evil all the time, (when it is actually usury, not a share in profits from partnerships or investments in which case it is productive). St. Thomas says “To take usury for money lent is unjust in itself, because this is to sell what does not exist, and this evidently leads to inequality which is contrary to justice…” (The Church and the Libertarian pg. 152; emphasis mine) That seems contrary to what you said, which is that usury seems to be alright as long as it is not excessive. If that were the case, wouldn’t the Church have in fact changed her teaching?
CF: Belloc speaks of usury as taking interest on an unproductive loan. Such indeed is usury. If I loan you a bottle of wine and demand two in return, that is usury. If I loan you ten dollars today, and demand twenty tomorrow, that is usury.
But what if I lend you ten dollars today and you propose to pay me back ten dollars five years from now? In the modern economy, the question of usury in that case is not so simple as saying the loan is unproductive, for money today is essentially an unstable claim on goods and services in the form of currency whose value declines over time due to inflation and manipulation of the money supply, so that a lender who receives a year from now the same ten dollars he lent a year earlier has actually suffered a compensable loss.
Now, Catholic moral theology, even at the time of Vix Pervenit, has always recognized a title to “compensatory” interest when a lender actually loses value and thus suffers harm in the transaction. Moreover, in today’s financial markets a lender who advances funds foregoes opportunities to “grow” those funds by investments. Catholic moral theology has also always recognized a title to interest to compensate a lender for a legitimate foregone opportunity that he had to give up in order to make the loan.
As for Aquinas’s teaching on usury, he wrote at a time when money was essentially coin that constituted a fungible good. A ducat today would buy no more or less than ducat a year later, so that lending money (coin) was no different from lending wheat or wine. Just as one could not morally charge for the “use” of wheat or wine, so one could not morally charge for the “use” of coin, which had no independent use value. Today, given our vast and complex financial markets, the thing we call “money”—paper notes representing a fluctuating claim on goods and services—has acquired a use value and, moreover, a lender suffers harm if the face amount of dollars returned is identical, but the effective purchasing power of the funds has declined significantly in the interim.
Of course, even today the charging of excessive interest constitutes usury under the broader meaning of usury as any form of overreaching in business. But today’s liberal sophists defend any “agreed” interest rate as legitimate, no matter how predatory. “What is excessive?” they ask obtusely, as if the law were incapable of considering any questions of degree. Just as obtusely they ask such questions as: “How much is a family wage?” as if this were some compelling objection to an employer’s moral duty to support the workers from whom he demands a full time commitment for his own family’s benefit. But they might as well deny a father’s moral duty to support his family in the first place—“How much support?”—or the moral duty to give alms—“How many alms?”
In principle, there has been no change whatever in the Church’s teaching on usury.
TDR: On pg. 197 of The Church and the Libertarian you write:
“The point here-the point of this whole critique of Austrian thinking-is not that government should do something about the increasingly dire state of our “free-market society,” although there is a role for local law in ordering community life to restore our economic independence from Big Business, but rather that the “free” market requires moral correction by its own participants” (emphasis in the original).
Now while you produce the example of the CEO of COSTCO, Jim Senegal, not all men are going to choose to employ distributive justice in the market place or in their business. Most don’t. There will still be greedy men in the market who will do their own bidding, such as we see in large corporations who run labor camps in third world companies. So, while you argue for limited local government to handle many of these problems, can these really establish justice in the market? How does a local or state government for example outlaw pornography when the source for it on the Internet is in another state or in another country? How does the local government, in a country such as ours, stop a transnational corporation from coming to town out of the power of the local jurisdiction and violating the salient moral principles laid out in your book? At some point don’t we need state power to maintain a Distributive economy against greed?
CF: One practical point: even now Internet pornography can be, and is being regulated by means of content filters and blocks that can and should be legally required of Internet service providers. The Catechism of the Catholic teaches that that public authority has a duty to prevent the distribution of pornography and even to confiscate and destroy it. The same principle applies to the Internet.
More broadly, these are huge questions involving a complex interplay between civil law, natural law and the eternal law, the correct relation between which depends, in the end, on nothing short of the reconversion of the Western world and the rebuilding of some form of Christocentric social order, which it seems increasingly evident will take place on the ruins of the existing order.
As the Lutheran defender of the market, Wilhelm Roepke, observed: [“T]he ultimate source of our civilization’s disease is the spiritual and religious crisis which has overtaken all of us… Above all, man is Homo religiosus, and yet, we have, for the past century, made the desperate attempt to get along without God, and in the place of God we have set up the cult of man…The essential symptom of our cultural crisis is precisely that we are losing the inner certainty which the Christian and humanistic belief in the unity of man gave us.”
Accordingly, my book looks at both the ultimate solution—social metanoia, a return to our Christian roots—and proximate solutions within the existing legal framework, which would involve local law strategies for protecting neighborhood commerce, mass secession from the economic hegemon by simply refusing, wherever possible, to deal with the gargantuan, government-favored corporations that pretend to be “free enterprise” today, and a list of practical suggestions for promoting a return to a society of owners and an economic life of one person doing business with another in a neighborhood.
Then there is the possibility of peaceful secession from the political hegemon. Here we have some common ground with libertarians, who are right about the evil overreaching of the modern state, but who fail to see that the modern state is the end result of their own principles in operation, which have severed the State from the authority of the Church and from the natural and eternal law, and who also fail to see that Big Business poses its own threat to authentic freedom quite apart from—nay, in tandem with—Big Government.
TDR: There are libertarians who will read your book, and say: “Well, I’m not Rothbard, I’m not Mises or Thomas Woods. I think they’re too extreme. What’s wrong with that? Can’t I just accept a kind of Capitalism that isn’t bound up with government Socialism?”
CF: As I show in the book, the “Austro-libertarian” strain of libertarianism has nothing legitimate to offer to the question of freedom beyond what the Church has always recognized in her defense of the principle of subsidiarity, private property and free enterprise within the due moral limits of her social teaching. The Austro-libertarian movement’s peculiar “contributions” are nothing but the same old liberal errors: the disjunction between “public” and “private” morality, the “consenting adult” principle, the non-existent “absolute right” to private property and “self-ownership,” the idea that the only legitimate purpose of law is to prevent physical invasion of another’s rights, and even the demand for total abolition of the State in favor of an “anarcho-capitalist” utopia in which the State withers away, just as in the communist dream.
This book shows that the true libertarian movement is the Catholic Church, whose truth will make us free in all areas of social life. Mises, Rothbard and the extremists who pit their ideas against the social teaching are really enemies of true freedom—the freedom that comes from living according to the law of the Gospel. That is the burden of my book, and I believe I have met it.
Jeremiah Bannister’s An Interview with Christopher Ferrara
John Médaille’s The Church and the Libertarian