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Why Pope Francis Is Wrong to Attack the Libertarian 'Invasion'

In a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Pope Francis warned against the "invasion, at high levels of culture and education in both universities and schools, of positions of libertarian individualism." But in attacking libertarianism, Francis ignored the Roman Catholic tradition in favor of limited government and property rights — and twisted libertarianism to mean something it doesn't.

"If individualism affirms that it is only the individual who gives value to things and interpersonal relationships, and so it is only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad, then libertarianism, today in fashion, preaches that to establish freedom and individual responsibility, it is necessary to resort to the idea of 'self-causation'," the pope argued. "Thus libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good."

He went on to describe "libertarian" as "anti-social," and defined it as the idea that "everyone has the 'right' to expand as far as his power allows, even at the expense of the exclusion and marginalization of the most vulnerable majority."

The pope ended by warning that libertarianism destroys freedom itself, or so his tortured logic implied: "By mistakenly matching the concept of 'bond' to that of 'constraint', one ends up confusing what may condition freedom — the constraints — with the essence of created freedom, that is, bonds or relations, family and interpersonal, with the excluded and marginalized, with the common good, and finally with God."

In other words, libertarianism is radical, so radical that it is incompatible with Christianity. Pope Francis' remarks seem to describe an idolatry of the individual, where self-determination is the only goal and all interpersonal relationships become essentially meaningless. This may well be a threat to believers, but it is not the libertarianism "today in fashion."

Reason's Stephanie Slade (a Roman Catholic libertarian) responded powerfully to Francis, saying "the problem is not so much that he's speaking to issues that go beyond the scope of his office; the problem is his speaking on matters on which he is ill-informed." She described his understanding of libertarianism as "shallow."

Jeffrey Tucker, another Roman Catholic and director of content for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), wrote a powerful response to Pope Francis' remarks. Indeed, it is probable Francis was replying to Tucker specifically.

Francis argued that libertarianism "exalts the selfish idea that deceptively proposes a 'beautiful life'." Tucker noted that the 2nd edition of his book Beautiful Anarchy: How to Create Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age just came out in Spanish (the pope's native language), "with solid sales." The pope's reference to a "beautiful life" might be a reference to the libertarian's book, so Tucker penned a lengthy response.

The FEE content director defined libertarianism as "the political theory that freedom and peace serve the common good better than violence and state control, thus suggesting a normative rule: societies and individuals must be left unmolested in their associations and commercial dealings so long as they are not threatening others."