I have argued before that, in their fullest, libertarianism and Catholicism are incompatible — but to what degree are they so?
Leaders of the libertarian movement have certainly said silly, anti-Catholic things. Ludwig von Mises, for example, compared Christ to the Bolshevists and also said, “..[I]t is the resistance which the Church has offered to the spread of liberal ideas which has prepared the soil for the destructive resentment of modern socialist thought” (Socialism, Chapter 29). Translation: opposition to liberalism of one stripe must be blamed for inspiring liberalism of another. Huh?
Much of the conflict between libertarians and the Church can be traced back to key misunderstandings. Mises assumed the worst and demanded that the Church accept “the indispensability of private ownership in the means of production” (Socialism). The thing is, She already does: that is what distributism is all about.
This conflict need not be so heated, because both sides have mutual points of interest. And you can see this in some of the writings of the famous Murray Rothbard.
Rothbard noted in his Memorandum on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism (1957) that Protestantism had resulted in the elevation of work itself as “divine” and over the worker, causing a serious perversion of economics. He considered Catholic thought on the subject, overall, to be superior to ideas based in the supposed “Protestant work ethic”. This is a huge admission, especially given the time period and the strength of misconception — still in force today — on that topic.
But he went even further, in Readings on Ethics and Capitalism: Part I: Catholicism (1960). He said that much of the Church’s teaching is “fundamentally libertarian and pro-capitalist”, mentioning later therein that it has “been interpreted (by Ropke, Baudin) as compatible with capitalism”.
Rothbard admired Rerum Novarum‘s emphasis on Man over the State, its condemnation of socialism, and its insistence on “the absolute right of the individual to private property”, which he recognized as “derived from natural law, the nature of man”. He had his frustrations with Quadragesimo Anno, though. He said that the Church had a “fascist tendency” in response to the World Wars, about which he was not thrilled. He saw Pius XI as undoing Leo XIII’s work. But the idea of Pius “misinterpreting” Leo here, on social justice, is absurd. Leo himself lamented the “misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class” and made multiple comments about it in his own letter. Both pontiffs demanded a return to Christian principles and worked to ensure “that a high standard of morality should prevail, both in public and private life”.
Where he critiques Pius, Rothbard is not very well-grounded. Pius held concern for “those who needed [workers’ associations] most to defend themselves from ill treatment at the hands of the powerful”, yes, but that hardly makes him a socialist. Still, I do not blame Rothbard too much for these mistakes. Leftists like Franklin D. Roosevelt had been trying to take advantage of Pius’ letter. For clarification, one merely has to look at Pope St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus.
John Paul recognized transactions “mutually agreed upon through free bargaining” as “important source[s] of wealth in modern society”, and affirmed them as long as they were subject to “the judgment of Christ”. He wrote, “It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. But this is true only for those needs which are ‘solvent’, insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are ‘marketable’, insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources. Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.”
So, Rothbard clearly respected the Church’s teaching on economic matters, but just failed to look at some of it in the fullest context. The Church is not necessarily hostile toward capitalism. She just wants safe-guards put in place — and for them to be put in place at the lowest possible level, in subsidiarity.
On another issue — secularism — Rothbard argued a most interesting point: by demanding respect for human dignity and the natural law, the Church limited the power of the State to a degree that made libertarianism — in practice, at least — more possible. (Take that, statists!) This is no surprise, really. Monarchies, favored in Catholic countries, traditionally, have spent less than 10% of their GDP on average. Secular democracies, meanwhile, tend to turn into welfare states. Monarchs, usually, are more responsible.
With all of this in mind, a logical libertarian simply could never support those who (to, again, quote Rothbard in 1957) “place their theology — and their ethic — on a more emotional, or direct Revelation, basis”. Protestantism is intellectually stunted, and, in many ways, it disables people. We know that. Consider the inherent subjectivity of the religion: Everyone is individualized by their own interpretation of a book of which they, typically, have hardly any knowledge. This shatters community, destroys economics, and benefits only secularism. Liberty cannot thrive in such an environment.
Libertarians, join the Church.