Catholic moral theology has long been enriched by fruitful dialogue with secular moral arguments. Many of the church fathers were deeply shaped by the Stoic view of moral order, which some of them learned even before they encountered Christian faith; and Thomas Aquinas incorporated the “pagan” philosophy of Aristotle in creating his system of natural-law ethics, the foundation of Catholic moral theology for seven centuries. So there’s no shame in learning from secular views when they assist in the proclamation of the gospel and the tradition that has flowed from it. Recently, however, several Catholic neoconservatives seem to have embraced a secular, libertarian view of the moral life that stands in stark contrast to Catholic moral theology.

Neoconservative Catholics like Michael Novak (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism) have made significant contributions to our ethical debates about economic life. These include an emphasis on the creation of wealth and on those virtues, such as industry and personal responsibility, that a market economy promotes. Recently, however, some neoconservatives have rolled out doubtful theological arguments to use against liberals who see an active government as one means by which Christians can fulfill their God-given obligations to help others. The basic neocon rejoinder is articulated by Samuel Gregg in his book Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded, which argues that “forced solidarity” is “morally empty.” “If solidarity is a virtue,” Gregg writes, “it cannot be coerced.”

A recent issue of Religion and Liberty carried a vivid example of this line of thought by Fr. Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.” In his essay, Sirico makes three main arguments—two of which run contrary to Catholic teaching, the third entailing a deeply flawed empirical claim. He starts by dismissing as a “biblical fallacy” the liberal belief that government provision can play a role in Christians’ obligation to help the poor. As he puts it, “Jesus never called on public authority to enact welfare programs.” Yet Catholic biblical scholarship and magisterial teaching have rejected the fundamentalism of “If the Bible doesn’t say it, it shouldn’t be done.” We might further note that Jesus didn’t talk about either free markets or democracy, both of which Sirico himself praises as moral expressions of dedicated Christian faith. There is something intellectually dodgy about selectively applying fundamentalism to critique one’s opponents’ ideas while sparing one’s own.

Sirico’s second and more basic moral argument is that law undermines morality. He argues that using law to compel a particular action deprives that action of its voluntariness, and thus of its moral significance. “That we go along with the demand is no great credit to our sense of humanitarianism or charity,” he writes. “The impulse here is essentially one of fear.” In other words, a legal obligation makes virtuous behavior impossible.

But this is a thoroughly un-Catholic view of law and morality, directly contrary, for example, to longstanding Thomistic tradition. Aquinas taught that virtue entails a constant will to act rightly, and that those who don’t learn virtue from their parents need the “discipline of laws” to keep them “restrained from evil by force and fear.” Significantly, Thomas adds that unvirtuous men, “by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hitherto they did from fear, and thus become virtuous.” If law can “habituate” even the unvirtuous to act out of virtue, then surely the virtuous individual can act voluntarily and virtuously in spite of a law that would constrain him if he needed it. We might ask Fr. Sirico why he does not beat his employees at the Acton Institute. Is it merely because the law forbids him to? Would he really claim that the day before the state legislature made assault a crime he would have been acting virtuously but a day later he would be acting out of fear?

Returning to economic issues, Sirico uses his tendentious view of law and morality to conclude that raising taxes to help others is unchristian, since citizens have no choice but to pay the tax. “I cannot see how this method of redistributing wealth has anything to do with the gospel,” he writes. One wonders if this conviction hasn’t been engendered by a libertarian view of government actions, where such redistribution is always immoral. And the same goes for Sirico’s third argument, that “the programs are not effective over the long term.” Does he really believe that all long-term government programs have been ineffective? What about Social Security? Unemployment insurance? The subsidized inoculation of poor children? Sirico’s stark appraisal seems either ideologically biased or uninformed.

What should we make, finally, of the prospect of such strongly un-Catholic attitudes about law and morality being voiced by a Roman Catholic priest? I have heard similar arguments put forth by Christian fundamentalists, who explicitly endorse a libertarian agenda regarding government. Libertarians, of course, allow taxation for national defense, police, and court services, but consider nearly all further taxation a violation of the rights of taxpayers, who have no obligation to help others if they haven’t explicitly agreed to do so. Libertarians see such laws as violating not only justice but freedom too. This worry—that law violates freedom—seems to lie at the bottom of Sirico’s argument. And yet, as we have seen, the Catholic view holds that one can voluntarily choose to do what the law requires. With this paradox, the Catholic view embraces the reality of mixed motivations in our lives and actions, a grey area between acting purely out of virtue or purely out of fear. For instance, while our roads have speed limits to improve safety, if you’re late for an important meeting, you may be tempted to speed. But you recognize that if you were allowed to do this, everyone else would too, creating a dangerous chaos. It also helps to know that the local police are there to stop you if you do speed. Your behavior, in other words, is part virtue, part fear, part prudent recognition of the social contract—a less-than-perfect mixed motivation, but a fairly ordinary part of moral life for sinners, which all Christians know themselves to be by faith and daily experience.

So has Fr. Sirico mixed libertarian heresy about human freedom into his Christian view of morality and law? I’ll leave that for him to reflect on. But it isn’t difficult to imagine how a person can be so committed to free markets and minimal government that he erroneously discerns an antitax message in Catholic moral theology, and thereby engages in the error biblical scholars call “eisegesis,” reading into someone else’s position what you want to find there.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no interest in squelching a much-needed debate about the proper balance of public and private action in how we fulfill our obligations to the needy. I would suggest, however, that neoconservative Catholics inquire into the influence of libertarianism on their work and, most importantly, that they make Catholic moral theology the standard for judging right-wing claims about morality in economic life—and not the other way around.


Read more: Letters, October 24 and November 21, 2008

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: View Contents

Daniel K. Finn teaches economics and Christian ethics at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict and is the director of the True Wealth of Nations research project at the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. His latest book is Consumer Ethics in a Global Economy: How Buying Here Causes Injustice There.

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