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.