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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.



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Hi Robert,

Really enjoying this series of medidations. I'm a political economy PhD student leaning heavily into political science. I'm writing about gerrymandering and conservative ideology. My personal (not academic) interest goes more towards the right wing paranoid, but since I study economics, I think a lot about libertarianism as an economic system.

I'm afraid I don't have any particular insights to add at the moment, but I wanted to share how much I've enjoyed your posts.

Hi Robert:

It seems to me that there are two questions. One is about the extent to which Roman Catholicism, has, as part of her doctrinal teaching, a specific and authoritative social teaching that would resist political extremes of communism at the one end and Rand styled libertarianism on the other.

Of course, we could point to the substantial work on social teaching since Leo XIII that too few Catholics are familiar with. Still, even with those, they can and have been interpreted by various conservative Catholics to support free market capitalism, free trade, etc., etc. You have alluded to these.

The other is the unique culture of the United States. The United States is one of the few countries that was born almost solely out of ideas springing from the Enlightenment. The jury is still out as far as many Catholic intellectuals and leaders, particularly in the Vatican, around whether the Enlightenment actually brought enlightenment.

The Roman Catholic Church has had a difficult time adapting itself to a pluralistic, areligious, political culture which is emobodied in the United States. It, finally, acknowledged, appropriate church/state distinction in Dignitatis Humanae but even that document is contested by groups like the SSPX.  And, in this, they have a point. Religious freedom has not historically been exactly at the top of the Catholic and even Orthodox church's tradition since Constantine.

As a distinctive, political and cultural country, the United States has adopted individualism as an ideal and important mythology. The self-made man, the myth that anybody can grow up to be president, the myth that everybody has equal opportunity, have deep resonance in the United States. Canada, frequently contrasts itself against the United States culturally by saying Canada is a mosaic as opposed to the great melting pot of the United States. People are "American" and are proud of that identity and that identity usually is rooted in some form of individualistic ideal. I am not saying it is wrong, it is what makes the United States unique and naturally Catholics would identifty with that.

European countries (and especially Scandanavian countries but they are not highly populated with Catholics) tend to have more of a collectivist or even communitarian ideal.

And maybe this policial and cultural dynamic has an effect on their interpretation of Catholic social teaching.

So the question is complex. Who is right and is it possible to even speak of a distinctly "Catholic" ethos that will move cultures in specific directions and if so, what is that direction. Does the US have to become like Europe or vice versa? And which is more "Catholic"?

"As a distinctive, political and cultural country, the United States has adopted individualism as an ideal and important mythology."

The United States has two founding myths that contrast sharply. Yes, there is the Deerslayer, the Lone Ranger,  John Wayne everywhere and anywhere, the Marboro man and all that. But opposite and equally, there are also the rude farmers facing the best military collective of their day, the wagon train, the pioneer family, the Navy Seal team. And a lot of other examples of both. Even John Wayne needed a wing man and a (virtuallly invisible) crew when he flew with The Flying Tigers.

My point is, that the individualism we hear so much about these days is only one drum that can beat in U.S. democracy. The other is available and has sounded often in our history. After the last Depression "united we stand" sounded more urgetly and we had some very good years. It is taking a lot of time and some people's money to keep My Way the temporary natonal anthem.

I  don't want to assent to the notion that Howard Roark is the typical American and those fellows in the boat with George Washington on the Delaware are something else.

I am soooooooooo very glad that you are taking on "Fr." Robert Sirico.  Fire when ready, Gridley, and do NOT spare the missles.

John D. --

I wonder just how much the Enlightenment's values permeated the cultures of the thirteen original U. S. colonies.  Five of them were Southern states, and it is my understanding that the in the Southern colleges Christianity and the Stoicism of the Romans predominated in matters moral.  Note also that the Northern colleges also included much Christian thinking.

Yes, the works of the Enlightenment were available everywhere, and, true, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were highly influenced by some Enlightenment moral principles, especially with regard to rights and notions of government, but Jefferson and Madison, and I daresay most of the members of the Constitutional Conventions, were among the wealhy, educated class, not the relatively uneducated middle one or lower ones.  Even if most of the members of that convention espoused the Enlightenment morality, I doubt that most Americans did. 

So were the typical Americans (if there was such things) rugged individualists?  I doubt it.  Too much Christian and Stoic thought around, at least in the South.  Like the Christians, the Stoics thought that all human being were equal and that  people should cooperate for everyone's benefit.  So I suspect that in the U. S. there has always been a clash between the two opposing worldviews, with the poles correlating roughly to the rich and non-rich classes.

Or maybe I should take some of that back.  Up until the '60s "the Enlightenment" was an issue having to do with male values, not women's.  But maybe with Ayn Rand and her radical feminist friends the Enlightenment became a prop for some of there feminist thinking.  Hmmm.

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