Contra Sirico (Part 1 of 3)
Thank you for the comments; these kinds of contributions end up becoming integrated into future thought pieces in interesting and unpredictable ways. I want to begin here by emphasizing that I’m hardly the first to have written on the topic of libertarianism and the American Catholic Church. Others have done so ahead of me (see for example Daniel Finn, “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free-Market Theology,” Commonweal, September 08, 2008). Finn’s piece is excellent: it narrows on some crucial questions. Unlike Finn, I’m not a theologian, and in any case I’m constitutionally disinclined to make decisions about heresy. My working knowledge of the history of political thought is pretty strong, however, and I’ve got to remark (again) that the libertarian turn confuses me. For roughly a hundred and fifty years we Catholics were thought to take orders from a Roman prince; we were thought to embody what was stifling and immobile and traditional about the old world; Puritanical Protestants were supposed to be the ones who represented austerity, thrift, private property and radical individualism. Put more bluntly, Catholics were thought to be antimodern, while secularized puritanism was thought to be the underlying foundation for a nation that would become hypermodern in its outlook.
What has changed? Two relatively straightforward answers suggest themselves, both of which speak fairly directly to conditions in the United States in particular. The first is a general, very common sociological observation. Forgive me if I paint with a broad brush here; the point I want to make in this part is essentially subordinate to a second argument which is more specific. I will make this argument in Part 2.
First, the sociological observation: as is well documented, American Catholics are without question in the demographic mainstream of society. This demarginalization is a great thing, but assimilation has its costs. On the one hand, Catholic images, religious practices, and theological commitments are more than tolerated; they have filtered into a cultural space formerly dominated by WASPs. On the other hand, Catholics have vigorously appropriated newer ideas and ideological trends and attempted to graft them onto a much older stock. The irony of the so-called traditionalists in particular, is that they have been especially aggressive at this hybridization effort. This isn’t surprising in a postmodern culture of appropriation, synthesis, “mash-up,” whatever you want to call it; it makes sense also given the American conservative love affair with libertarianism. As new members of the club, perhaps desperate to fit in, conservative Catholics are not only eager to show that their tradition can be shaped to tolerate and perhaps include libertarian ideas, but that Catholicism has “all along” been perfectly harmonious with them. We’ve become used to the Protestant idea of an American Jesus; for some conservatives, the implication now seems to be that Augustine’s vision of love “actually” meant the virtue of selfishness, or that Aquinas’ vision of a well-ordered society “really” prioritized private property above all else. A dubious if not ridiculous proposition, to be sure.
This cuts directly to my second, more specific observation. The sociological argument is fine in hindsight, but it makes structural changes appear as if they were determined. One can instead shift the focus away from demographics and so on, to individuals: thinkers and writers and political actors who actively changed public opinion. This is instructive, because as powerful as some of these men have become, their arguments can be assayed in the light of reason, and their influence can be traced and in turn evaluated. This is what I plan to do in part 2.
About the Author
Robert Geroux is a political theorist.