Pope Francis delivered a blistering attack on libertarianism in April. But, critics say, Francis, the Argentina-born Jesuit who became pope in 2013, confused libertarianism, which is characterized by noncoercive politics, with libertinism, which is associated with sexual licentiousness and moral relativism.
In a speech at a Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences meeting at the Vatican, the pope lamented an “invasion” of “libertarian individualism” in culture and educational institutions, claiming a “selfish ideal” is being promoted from high places.
“The libertarian individual denies the value of the common good,” Pope Francis said, “because on the one hand he supposes that the very idea of ‘common’ means the restriction of at least some individuals, and on the other hand that the notion of ‘good’ deprives freedom of its essence.”
Searching out the “common good” and contributing to that in a “communitarian framework” is more in keeping with Christian ideals than libertarian individualism, the pope surmised. He called libertarianism an “antisocial” radicalization of individualism, helping create an atomistic society that brings with it deep alienation. Communitarianism is the view that the good of the community is superior to the good of the individual.
In line with Francis’s message, John Carr, in a 2014 column posted on the website of Georgetown University, a Jesuit-founded institution, wrote that Roman Catholics are experiencing “political homelessness” as Republicans practice market-centered economic individualism and Democrats practice cultural individualism that exalts personal choice. Judging by Carr’s analysis, many Catholics assign the shorthand of “libertarianism” to practices they see as ignoring the notion of a common good.
While Protestantism has been the great engine of individual faith and its concomitant societal individualism, as the wise economist/sociologist Max Weber recognized in “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the Roman Catholic and some other churches take their inspiration from Judaism, which is communitarian at heart.
Still, among others, some “traditionalist” Roman Catholic public intellectuals, including Judge Andrew Napolitano, say Jesus’s teachings include the primacy of the individual over the state/ruling authority, which in Jesus’s lifetime was the Jewish religious establishment and the Roman government.
Similar to Roman Catholicism in its communitarianism is Judaism, as can be seen in the outline of libertarianism in the Mishnaic tractate of Avos, also known as “Ethics of the Fathers” (5:13): “One who says ‘My property is mine and yours is yours,’ is an average character type but some say this is characteristic of Sodom.”
Sodom, in Jewish tradition, is held up as the pinnacle of selfishness. The ArtScroll Siddur (prayer book) comments: “Having an attitude of ‘each man for himself’ is not merely average, but unethical, since it negates the entire concept of charity and benevolence.”
But does libertarianism negate charity?
Ayn Rand, nonpracticing Jewess but libertarian high priestess, said it doesn’t.
While opposing the notion of charity as a moral duty and primary virtue, Rand told Playboy magazine in 1964 that there is “there is nothing wrong with helping other people, if and when they are worthy of help and you can afford to help them.”
While many distance themselves from Rand’s sharp rhetorical elbows, libertarian critics of Pope Francis tend to come to the same conclusion: Libertarianism promotes economic growth. Thus it allows for more to give to charity, whether one views giving as a moral duty or not.
As for “the common good,” most people see peace and prosperity as desirable but apart from that reach little agreement on the meaning of the term, said Tom Woods, author of “The Church and The Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy.”
In an April 30 article posted on the American Catholic website titled “Pope Francis Hates Libertarianism,” Donald R. McClarey went further: “Of all the ideologies that the Pope could get upset about he has chosen the one that has never persecuted the Church, or anyone else for that matter, and that believes in voluntary exchanges and associations as the basis of society.”
Similarly, writing on May 1 for the Ron Paul Liberty Report in a piece called “Pope Francis is WAY OFF on Libertarianism,” Chris Rossini stated, “Sadly, the current pope doesn’t seem to have an affinity for individual liberty and voluntary interactions between individuals.”
Underlying all these problems may be a common cause. While the pope has deep feeling for humanity, he doesn’t know enough about some subjects, including economics and libertarianism, wrote Stephanie Slade in an April 28 blog post on Reason magazine’s website.
“The problem is not so much that he’s speaking to issues that go beyond the scope of his office; the problem is that he is speaking to matters on which he is ill-informed,” wrote Slade, who is Reason’s managing editor and identifies herself as a Catholic libertarian. “If he took time to engage with our ideas, he might be surprised by what he learns.”
Overall, in my non-Catholic opinion, the pope may be confusing libertarianism and libertinism.