Is the free market incompatible with Catholicism?

The pope’s right-hand man has essentially declared that free market economics is incompatible with Catholicism.  Speaking at a conference entitled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism,” Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, drawing on statements from Pope Francis, said that the free market economy “kills” and oppresses the poor.

His condemnation seemed to conflate Ayn Rand-style libertarianism with free market economics, but it also scored theological points against the assumptions of autonomous individualism.  Many prominent American advocates of free market economic policies–such as Rep. Paul Ryan, Father Robert Sirico,  and Michael Novak–are Roman Catholics.

Catholic conservatives, what do you make of this?  Do these arguments carry any wait for Protestants, or is Protestantism tied up with the same “autonomous individualism”?

From Melinda Henneberger, Can you be Catholic and libertarian? – The Washington Post:

In Washington this week, the cardinal some consider the pontiff’s “vice-pope’’ mocked [libertarians]  outright at a conference called “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The Religion News Service story on the smackdown of trickle-down ran under the headline, “Catholic and libertarian? Pope’s top adviser says they’re incompatible.”

That adviser, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, was introduced by AFL-CIO president Richard L. Trumka, and preached against deregulation and “worshipping idols, even if that idol is called ‘market economy.’ ’’ Rodríguez also called trickle-down economics a “deception,’’ and said the “invisible hand” of the market steals from and strangles the poor: “We are no longer to trust the blind forces and the invisible hand of the market. This economy kills. This is what the pope is saying.” . . .

In some ways, the fight is over competing interpretations of the American story, said Meghan J. Clark, a moral theologian from St. John’s University. The libertarian telling of that story stars a frontiersman who carves the American West out of nothing, in radical autonomy, with only a hunting knife. Only, doesn’t that self-made man creating something out of nothing sound a lot like God? “That’s the [Catholic] problem with libertarianism,’’ Clark said. “It depends upon a human person who creates himself, and there’s no way to make that harmonious with Christ.”

The economy created by all those frontiersfolk is the unfettered free market, and Pope Francis himself recently reiterated his view that it is “an inhumane system. I didn’t hesitate to write in . . . “Evangelii Gaudium’ (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that this economic system kills,’’ Francis told reporters on his plane en route to Rome from Jerusalem. “And I repeat this.” . . .

One of the conference organizers, Michael Sean Winters, whose anti-libertarian workthe cardinal quoted extensively at the top of his remarks, said the event was very consciously not a debate, in the same way that during the Cold War, “the objective wasn’t to dialogue with communism; it was to defeat it.”

The meeting wasn’t partisan, he said, since majorities in both parties hold some libertarian, “leave-me-alone” beliefs, with Democrats shooing government out of the bedroom and Republicans out of every other sphere of life. And “the Catholic critique isn’t based on economics; we think they’re wrong about what it means to be a human person.”

Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, which sponsored the conference, argued that like Christianity, libertarianism “offers a comprehensive worldview that informs ethics and art, lifestyles and culture, and even relationships and psychologies. Surely it’s as evident in a NARAL woman’s claim that ‘It’s my body,’ in the art of the ‘selfie,’ and in the doomsday prepper’s fantasy of self-reliance, as it is in rancher Cliven Bundy’s claim that common grazing land is ‘my property.’ ”

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., argued that libertarianism is a direct threat to faith: “Our ability to call people to believe in a gracious God” is compromised, he said in an interview, if “the cards are stacked against” the poor.

I’m curious about the Roman Catholic cult of the poor, and I hope some Catholic readers will explain it.  Is the goal to help the poor escape poverty?  If so, surely free market policies deserve credit for the improvement of life in the developing nations in the last few decades, including virtually eliminating starvation.  Or is poverty seen as spiritually and morally good in itself, as in the vows of poverty required by religious orders?  In this view, poverty would also become an occasion for the non-poor to exercise the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy, which are seen as good works that can help a person gain merit for God’s grace.  See this.  In that case, poverty is to be treasured and venerated, not treated as something to escape.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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