In a recent statement to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences entitled Towards a Participatory Society, Pope Francis spoke critically of libertarianism by name. “I cannot fail to speak of the grave risks associated with the invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism,” warned the Holy Father.
Throughout the memo, Pope Francis refers to libertarianism as a selfish ideology where only the individual matters, which minimizes and “denies the validity of the common good.” He equates libertarianism with anti-social terms where “only the individual gives value to things and to interpersonal relations and therefore only the individual decides what is good and what is evil,” concluding that the philosophy is radicalization of individualism.
In fact, the opposite is true: individualism is a radical minority under the larger umbrella of libertarianism.
As both a devout Catholic and a staunch libertarian, my Pontiff’s words are indeed cringe-worthy, but also cause no distress to either my faith, nor to my political conclusions, for several reasons.
First, as Tom Woods—a prominent libertarian and traditional Catholic—recently pointed out in an email, there is likely a great deal being lost in translation here. In his homeland of Argentina, it is highly improbable that Francis as Jorge Bergoglio ever encountered libertarianism as we understand it in the United States. Consider that even words such as conservative, liberal, republican, and democrat all mean vastly different things in South American and European contexts, let alone the minority descriptor “libertarian.”
This consideration seems especially applicable when you read the rest of the Francis’ line I began quoting in the opening paragraph: “I cannot fail to speak of the grave risks associated with the invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism at high strata of culture and in school and university education.” That alone should cause any libertarian reading to give a moment’s pause, if not spray their drink. Does anyone—libertarian or otherwise—feel that libertarianism as we understand it is pervasively invading the culture and universities? If only that were the case! To me, this seems to be describing more of the selfish entitlement mentality which indeed has invaded our millennial culture and universities, and fits the rest of his expressed concerns.
Now, I’m not pretending for a moment that Pope Francis would endorse our understanding of libertarianism. I am plenty aware of his political leanings, but I do always keep his statements in context of his Argentinian background, as well as the proper functions of his office. As I find myself explaining with increasing frequency, the Catholic teaching on papal infallibility applies only to matters of faith and doctrine which are specifically spoken ex cathedra. In other words, while Catholics certainly owe it to the Petrine Office to respectfully consider and humbly reflect on the counsel of the Successor of Peter, it is completely fine to ultimately hold differing opinions with the Pope on non-doctrinal matters.
With even a basic knowledge of the 1,984 year history of the Catholic Church, one realizes that popes can be and have been wrong—sometimes very wrong—in their personal opinions and behavior. St. Catherine of Siena is famous for firmly, yet respectfully, correcting Pope Gregory XI during the Avignon Papacy, just as St. Paul corrected Christ’s first Vicar, St. Peter—not for false doctrinal teaching, but for failing to practice as he preached. The Church has survived far FAR worse scandal and crisis than a few controversial opinions and remarks. Catholics either trust Matthew 16:18, or you don’t.
In the event that the Holy Father is indeed addressing our libertarianism, which has been the immediate reaction, I assert that he is clearly only familiar with Ayn-Rand-style “Virtue of Selfishness” individualism, as he consistently equates the two.
Just as it is said about the Church, libertarianism is also “a house with many doors,” meaning converts enter from any variety of origins following different paths in the face or adversity or in search of truth. Some arrive at libertarian conclusions through selfish individualistic philosophies such as Ayn Rand, while others arrive at libertarian conclusions through selfless anarcho-pacifist or anarcho-distributist philosophies, such as Servant of God Dorothy Day. The philosophies of Rand and Day are polar opposites, despite both ending up under the libertarian umbrella in terms of political applications. With this in mind, it is very common for those first introduced to one of the many libertarian philosophies to presume it is representative of the whole, which a mistake I once made as well.
For me, the epiphany came when I realized that any philosophy or model of governance can be squared with libertarianism, so as long as it’s voluntary, with everyone participating of their own free will. Consider that convents and monasteries are very successful models of socialism, with no private property, communal ownership, each receiving only according to his need, etc. In fact, many of these religious houses are far older and more successful than any modern government! This only works, however, because it is purely voluntary on the part of the participants, who all share the same motive and goals. However, once socialism is forced upon others via the state, historically, it always gets rather ugly and fails miserably. Convents and monasteries are examples of “free-market socialism”, so to speak, because participants could freely walk away at any time or violate their rule without threat against their lives, liberty, or property; they persist, however, because of their voluntary vows.
Libertarianism, therefore, is simply the doctrine of free will and speaks nothing of one’s motive or intention.
I do stand with Pope Francis in decrying radical individualism as a worrisome selfish philosophy. Even where I agree with many of the practical applications of individualist conclusions, I believe the motive is misguided. At the same time, I promote voluntaryism as a peaceful libertarian philosophy which seeks to maximize the common good and encourage a communitarian framework promoting a selfless ideal. My hope and prayer is that through this mistranslation or misunderstanding, the Holy Father may have an opportunity to at least recognize this distinction, if not fully promote voluntary governance—like that of Vatican City—as a model for all societies.