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

Pope Francis closes the Jubilee of Mercy in Vatican City on Nov. 20, 2016. (Rex Features via AP Images)

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.”

Tucker is an anarchist, but he explained that libertarianism is a broad philosophy and movement. It may seem foreign to many today, but it actually traces from the “classical liberal” tradition. The term “libertarianism” was only adopted when big government advocates corrupted the term “liberal.”

Perhaps ironically, libertarianism has a proud history in the Roman Catholic Church, propelled by such great thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the scholastic tradition of medieval universities spawned thinkers like Bartolomé De Las Casas and Francisco Suaréz, who argued that the Spanish were wrong to enslave native Americans, as it violated their human rights.

Tucker quoted Pope Leo XIII, who opposed socialists who “assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life.”

Pope Francis’s suggestion that libertarianism pits the rights of individuals against the common good is actually the very idea the classical liberal tradition has aimed to answer, Tucker argued. “The seeking of the good of all does not require the violation of individual rights and interests,” the libertarian explained.

Indeed, the very ideas of capitalism, religious freedom, and limited government rest on the supposition that when individuals are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole benefits. As Ludwig von Mises argued, “With the advent of liberalism came the demand for the abolition of all special privileges. The society of caste and status had to make way for a new order in which there were to be only citizens with equal rights.”

Ironically, the very libertarianism Pope Francis feared is the society most focused on catering to everyone, not just special interest groups. Those who seek to expand the power of the state do so by catering to specific constituencies, while libertarians call for a government which treats everyone equally, with no special privileges.

“It is the great burden of the liberal tradition to forever explain that the path toward community runs through the pursuit of individual interests in voluntary cooperation with others,” Tucker concluded. “Every single individual is different. The great discovery of liberalism was to observe that it is possible for individuals to pursue their interests in a way that does not sever community attachments but rather strengthens them.”

Libertarianism is not a substitute religion, and it is not a form of idolatry, placing the individual in the place of God. Rather, it is the belief that liberty and peace are the best means of achieving the common good, and that government is more often a problem than a solution.

Pope Francis should recognize this, and join the noble tradition of Roman Catholics who championed freedom and limited government throughout history.

(For broader Christian arguments for libertarianism, readers should look to the new book Called to Freedom: Why You Can Be Christian and Libertarian.)