Is Catholicism Compatible With Strawmanning?

Here’s a dispatch from the New York Daily Planet (no, that’s not a real newspaper):

Pope Francis, the new Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, has many issues on his place, such as doctrinal change and personnel issues. The Catholic Pope, who is also known as the Bishop of Italy, will have to discuss a number of issues at the upcoming Synod of the Family, such as the question of allowing communion for never-married Catholics, and whether the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, should be revised to account for the latest scientific findings regarding virgin births. Francis is from the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, which believes in the supremacy of “Scripture alone”, as opposed to the conservatives, who preach the “hermeneutic of extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” a Latin phrase meaning “Tradition alone.” Francis will have to reconcile the Catholics with many different viewpoints, among them bishops Katharine Jefferts Schori and Kallistos Ware.

Makes no sense, right? And, sadly, this might only be slightly a caricature.

Catohlicism is a complex animal, and maybe we should cut reporters some slack. It has its own lingo, it cares about issues that can seem esoteric to outsiders. And there’s all these funny hats.

Anyway–totally unrelated: for a few weeks now a small portion of the American Catholic world has been debating the question of whether Catholicism is compatible with libertarianism.

For example, here’s a representative piece in Commonweal, flagged by the ever-reliable Sam Rocha, which asks whether Catholicism and libertarianism are compatible. For this, it looks at two figures: Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand.

Ryan and Rand are certainly interesting figures. Like many people, they have some things in common, and other things not in common. For example, one of the things they have in common is that…neither of them are libertarians.

Ryan identifies as a conservative, and while many libertarians idolize Rand, she did not want her movement of objectivism to be confused with libertarianism, and as best as I can tell she despised every prominent figure of 20th century libertarianism.

Libertarianism of course is itself a very multifaceted movement, with many different strands, a bit of its own language, and so on. You have to be a little careful when you’re trying to address it.

But then again, as the Commonweal piece points out, the noted theologian and political theorist Joe Biden, who is absolutely faithful to Catholic teaching, dislikes libertarianism. You see, Joe Biden wants to “[take] care of those who can’t take care of themselves.” Presumably, unlike those nasty libertarians. And why shouldn’t we take him at his word? He is, after all, a politician.

So, is Catholicism compatible with libertarianism? It might be an interesting question. Until it’s given a competent treatment, I will have my doubts.

Spaventapasseri” by Anchise PicchiOwn work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • BTP

    Yes. Near as I can tell the debate on Patheos has been something like: all the bloggers on Patheos think Rand is the daughter of Satan. An atheist who values the individual above the collective is so obviously wrong that any moderate reading of her view must be the product of the plutocrat takeover of “Catholic” minds brought about by Paul Ryan or else juvenile power fantasies. Probably both.

    • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

      That would be because Rand is a Daughter of Satan. The only reason she hated other libertarian leaders is because they were human- too human for her objectivism John Galt.

      Her version of individualism requires sinless human beings to work.

      • BTP

        Fine, Theodore. But that doesn’t begin to get anyone past the strawman arguments, which should be the goal.

        But tell me: do you suppose libertarianism is compatible with Catholicism?

        • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

          No, I do not, Catholicism the smallest competent economic unit is the family. Libertarian individualism is too small.

          Having said that, there are many policies that a good distributist and a libertarian can agree on, and should. Localism for one, is very Catholic.

          Edited. I shouldn’t type on my phone.

          • BTP

            Ok. I assume your criticism of socialism would be the similar, but from the other direction: it ignores the family as an economic unit.

            I presume that, between a libertarian society and a socialist society, you’d prefer a libertarian one, since such a society is less hostile to families — a libertarian society wouldn’t oppose organizing as family units, while socialist ones always do.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Ok. I assume your criticism of socialism would be the similar, but from the other direction: it ignores the family as an economic unit.”

            Exactly. Economics does not scale well beyond family and immediate friendships. Centralized power breeds centralized abuse.

            “I presume that, between a libertarian society and a socialist society, you’d prefer a libertarian one, since such a society is less hostile to families — a libertarian society wouldn’t oppose organizing as family units, while socialist ones always do.”

            True as far as it goes. Having said that, practically speaking, in a libertarian society there is always somebody trying to cheat the family out of their fair due, making the duty of caring for the family extremely hard indeed. The free market is no place for a family to rely on for food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. Thus the next step up should be the parish…..

          • BTP

            Well, Theodore, that’s the link I don’t get. I don’t think we’ve had libertarian societies for historical evidence that they invariably try to cheat families. So, where does this assumption come from?

            Let me put it like this: every material thing I have is the result of free market activity; every material thing I give to the Church is the result of activity in the free market. Those are both pretty good arguments on the pro-side. An argument on the con-side is going to have to deal with that.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “Well, Theodore, that’s the link I don’t get. I don’t think we’ve had libertarian societies for historical evidence that they invariably try to cheat families. So, where does this assumption come from?”

            Original sin. The concept that if you make the ONLY value Profit, and give people a way to be anonymous in a large free market, the mortal sin of greed will be an ever present danger to the family.

            “Let me put it like this: every material thing I have is the result of free market activity; every material thing I give to the Church is the result of activity in the free market. Those are both pretty good arguments on the pro-side”

            Actually, those are arguments for the con side- for they suggest that the purpose of free market activity is to gather material things, rather than to support the family.

          • BTP

            I do think that shows a gap, Theodore. I know lots of libertarian types, and to suppose they value only money is to completely miss the point. They do think individual choice is among the greatest goods, but that shouldn’t be carelessly confused with valuing only profit.

            And, as a follow-on, the idea that such a society would promote greed in some way more dangerous than the alternatives is almost certainly incorrect. Chinese crony capitalism, to pick a random example, or Zimbabwean institutionalized racist envy, to pick another, are societies based entirely on greed. No libertarian thinks they are ok.

            Finally, the purpose of the market is to set prices and allocate material goods. To think it is supposed to support the family is to make a category error.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            In Catholic teaching, the only purpose of allowing a free market is to support the family. It is because a market can be used to set fair prices and just wages in the allocation of material goods that it is allowed at all. Markets that fail to set fair prices and just wages are immoral markets.

            The lack of reference to the needs of the family in Austrian economics is indeed a glaring hole. And the concentration on piling up material wealth is a logical hole in the system: Given a truly regulation free market, a government and crony capitalism will develop just as soon as one man becomes rich enough to buy it.

            And in America, we have 400 men rich enough to buy the government they want and make sure voters have no choice.

          • BTP

            And there we have the disagreement. I disavow your first sentence, entirely. The reason we ‘allow’ a free market is because it is right and just that a man owns the product of his labor.

            Second, I believe you are simply mistaken about the lack of attention to family in Austrian economics. That group is quite famous for asserting the importance of cultural institutions, of which the family is foremost.

            Finally, and a debate on this topic shouldn’t have to repeat this, the fact of wealthy rent-seeking behavior is precisely the problem that the libertarian approach is designed to curb. A government that can credibly commit to resist giving out rents can resist rent-seeking behavior. Governments that give out goodies, well, find customers.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            “And there we have the disagreement. I disavow your first sentence, entirely. The reason we ‘allow’ a free market is because it is right and just that a man owns the product of his labor.”

            Why is it right and just that a man owns the product of his labor? So he can take care of his family obligations.(Rerum Novarum 12)

            “Second, I believe you are simply mistaken about the lack of attention to family in Austrian economics. That group is quite famous for asserting the importance of cultural institutions, of which the family is foremost.”

            I actually see libertarians as being *against* cultural institutions such as the family- and for things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality.

            “Finally, and a debate on this topic shouldn’t have to repeat this, the fact of wealthy rent-seeking behavior is precisely the problem that the libertarian approach is designed to curb. A government that can credibly commit to resist giving out rents can resist rent-seeking behavior. Governments that give out goodies, well, find customers.”

            Thrift and savings, when it becomes its own cause, will eventually create a government that gives out goodies. But the politician can’t sell to a market that nobody can afford.

            Hmm, thanks for the idea for an economics blog post on using taxes to curb bribery.

          • BTP

            I very much disagree with your reading of RN here, Theodore. RN finds private ownership of property (and, thus the proceeds of that property) to be based on the study of nature, itself (RN 11).

            I agree that libertarians, themselves, tend toward disregard for the family. Yet, I think the overall thrust of libertarianism creates precisely the room for the flourishing of the family. There is no bias within libertarianism, for example, that one’s children must be educated in a government school or that the government ought to subsidize abortion. These are non-trivial advantages when measured against the alternatives, as we are finding.

            Happy to help with ideas for your blog!

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            It continues on with RN 12 and RN 13, in which the proper use of property is discussed.

          • BTP

            I know, I’m looking at it now.

            “The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations.” –RN12

            The rights that are natural are seen in a stronger light when family is considered. This does not mean those rights are because of or contingent upon other social obligations.

            “That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group.” –RN 13

            The right is a natural right, Theodore. You are reading this wrong, I’m afraid.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            The family is natural. And necessary.

          • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

            2nd Reply- you see libertarianism in that natural right to property- but I see Trickle Up Middle Out economics of the type this guy is promoting:
            http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.html#.U715z_ldViY

          • oregon nurse

            Free market is an oxymoron in this day and age. Supply and demand capitalism works pretty well up to the size of a small village where everyone is some kind of craftsman, service provider, or food producer. Everyone has an interdependent niche, and all are pretty equally poor and trying to meet needs rather than wants. As soon as someone starts buying up the means of production of needs, cornering the market and taking autonomy away from individuals making a living, it starts to break down. If Joe the blacksmith makes lousy products then there is an opportunity for someone else to do it better and Joe has to either do a better job or an equal job for less money or go out of business and move elsewhere. It’s a pretty level playing field. But Joe can’t compete with a distant factory the way he can with an individual in his village, so if the factory puts Joe (and others like him) out of business he (they) can’t move on anywhere else within the orbit dominated by the factory, and he (they) can’t purchase goods from the others in the village and the village economy starts to suffer too.

            There is no great market system, only some less worse than others, because they are all subject to the distortion of human vices. The bigger capitalism gets (global economy now) the worse it gets for the masses and the more the money moves up the ladder into fewer and fewer hands that can afford to control the markets. Right now consumerism is the problem leading people into debt. Once the extra disposable income is gone, it becomes about controlling necessities, like a big global ‘company store’. People should be very worried when billionaires like Gates and Buffett start getting involved with the food grains that feed the majority of the world.

          • BTP

            o.n., there is a considerable literature in many economic textbooks countering your standard Marxist critique. Suffice to say: there is considerable variance when it comes to the efficient scale of businesses, and it is by no means obvious that bigger firms will necessarily drive out small firms. This is especially true where (as in a libertarian utopia) government does not do the sorts of things that big firms want it to do to protect themselves.

            These organizational principles are _of course_ subject to human vices and original sin — that’s precisely what Theodore, below, seems not to be facing. The question is which organizing principles allow for the best chance of human flourishing.

            Recall, one’s woks ought to be a vocation and a source of allowing genuine creativity to be expressed. For example, I have the sort of job that simply cannot exist without the type of sophisticated, large, corporations that can exist in a modern capitalist society. Without it, I wind up in a less rewarding line of work, being less creative, deriving less satisfaction from my work. I think very may people are situated this way, and that is surely an argument on the ‘pro’ side for libertarianism and capitalism.

          • oregon nurse

            I’m not Marxist and if you can’t see that then you’re blind.

          • BTP

            Didn’t say you were. Your critique is fairly standard in those circles, though: capitalism’s internal inconsistencies lead to it’s inability to deliver, big drives out small, etc.

            These criticism’s are generally invalid and, more to the point, are quite specifically the sort of thing that libertarianism is quite unhappy about, being the result of rent-seeking behavior on the part of the well-connected.

          • oregon nurse

            My critique is consistant with Gospel values (do you need quotes?) and subsidiarity and freedom as defined by the Church. Call it whatever you want.

          • BTP

            I think your critique is consistent neither with the values of the gospel, nor with the insights of economics. Thus:

            As soon as someone starts buying up the means of production of needs, cornering the market and taking autonomy away from individuals making a living, it starts to break down.

            Well, ‘buying up the means of production of needs,’ is, for example, purchasing farmland or cattle. That they then ‘corner the market’ is the stolen base in your reasoning.

            So, I think it would be helpful to see how your critique really is consistent with the gospel.

          • oregon nurse

            Feel free to stop critiqueing my reasoning any time. Since you called it Marxist, your insights don’t interest me.

  • http://connecticutcatholiccorner.blogspot.com/ CT Catholic Corner

    Umm…. “the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin,”

    You’re not serious? Is that a joke or are you serious? I can’t tell.

    Is that what you think the dogma states?

    I thought only protestants thought the Immaculate Conception was about Jesus’ birth! Goodness Catholics need to be better educated!

    FYI, the Immaculate Conception is about MARY being conceived without sin- has nothing to do with Jesus.

    In 1854, with the Bull Ineffabilis, Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception: “… We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful” (DS 2803).

    Source: http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2bvm23.htm

    • IRVCath

      It’s a caricature of the mainstream media. Hence, a joke.

      • http://pegobry.tumblr.com/ Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

        Right.

  • Kasoy

    Libertarianism means different things to different people. But if we look at its core principle of the primacy of individual judgement and freedom of choice, it becomes in essence relativism – a principle that empowers man to define for himself what is good and what is evil without reference to eternal truths. It puts man above God – man says to God ‘my rules, my choice’.

    Catholics will be much better off NOT adhering to any -ism except Catholicism. They should just read the CCC and they will understand what principles they should believe in and practice.

    • BTP

      I would suggest that these other -isms are good to discuss, since Catholicism seems compatible with a pretty wide range of social structures, yet not all social structures are equal when it comes to promoting the good the the whole person.

      That’s the direction the debate should be heading.

  • http://www.bewilderingstories.com/bios/thomas_r_bio.html Thomas R

    I don’t think those are the only or even most sensible choices of libertarians, but I actually don’t think genuine libertarianism is compatible with Catholicism.

    Some who say that go into a position I don’t like. Like they think libertarianism is all about selfishness, greed, throwing poor people out of hospitals, and so forth. There have been many libertarians who are more “neighborly libertarian” or “pioneer libertarian.” They value “voluntary community” and even personal virtue. They also, in several cases, object to subsidies or any form of “corporate welfare.”

    So why wouldn’t that be compatible? Well traditionally Catholic social teaching, as I understand it, believes the State has a role in the common-good and criticizes the idea of maximizing business or personal liberties above all else. Even if there’s lots of voluntary charity a libertarian society still might end up lacking in support of the most vulnerable. Also there’s some legitimate concern libertarianism leads to libertinism.

  • Alexander S Anderson

    I don’t even think Catholicism is even truly compatible with liberalism, so I suppose libertarianism must go as well.

    • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

      Yep, that’s the point where we depart- the modern definition of liberty, which is just moral relativism in disguise.

  • oregon nurse

    Since comments are closed on your Rob Bell post there is no place to alert you to this mistake.
    “…then it’s the idea that He would become, and truly become bread and wine.”
    I’m sure you know Jesus does not become bread and wine and meant to say the reverse of this.


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