Dear Faculty of Georgetown University,
Thank you for your letter anticipating my Whittington Lecture. I am sorry it has taken me so long to reply. I’ve been very busy trying to prevent the Affordable Care Act from forcing Catholics to subsidize the killing of unborn children. As you know, the Catholic Church holds that abortion is an “abominable crime” (Gaudium et Spes 51), that laws which allow unborn persons to be killed are “intrinsically unjust,” and that Catholic politicians have a grave moral obligation to oppose such laws (Evangelium Vitae 73).
Incidentally, I noticed that the architect of that mandate, Kathleen Sebelius, was your graduation speaker. Since she too claims to be acting on behalf of Catholic social teaching, I assumed that you would also send her a public letter “challenging her continuing misuse of Catholic teaching.” But I can’t seem to find it.
The reason I write: I’ve recently finished reading Samuel Gregg’s new book, Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. Believe it or not, Tea Party Catholics have been around for over two hundred years. The first one was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, cousin to the founder of your own university, and the only Roman Catholic signatory of the Declaration of Independence. In the words of John Adams, Carroll “hazard[ed] his all, his immense fortune, the largest in America, and his life” for the cause of civil and religious liberty.
Carroll didn’t learn these principles from John Locke or Protestant covenant theology. He learned them from “what the Catholic Church’s greatest minds had said about the nature and limits of government.” These are the same principles that animate Tea Party Catholics today.
I don’t expect that this book will change your mind. But I do hope it will prevent you from relying upon straw-man arguments that falsely represent the position of those faithful Catholics who disagree with you on certain matters of social and economic policy.
As Gregg’s book makes clear, defending market economies does not make one a libertarian. And, in fact, no libertarian or Randian egoist would approve of my budget plan, which—whether you agree with it or not—is a sincere attempt to preserve and improve a financially endangered social safety net, not destroy it. Nor should defense of the market be confused with crony capitalism, which is profoundly unjust, and which I have spoken out against strongly and repeatedly. Finally, the market is not a panacea for all our ills, and is even a source of a few of them. There are common goods that can only be secured by good government. And, like government, the market will only be as good as the human beings who act within it.
The fact that we disagree on some matters of policy does not necessarily mean that either of us is outside Catholic social teaching. As Gregg points out, in most cases, Catholic social teaching only provides the correct principles for resolving complex social and economic questions, rather than specific policy requirements. This means that in most cases there is room for legitimate disagreement on the correct application of those principles.
The principle of solidarity, for example, requires assistance for the poor. However, it does not dictate (1) how the poor are to be defined; (2) exactly how such assistance should be provided (e.g., food stamps, food pantries and kitchens, cash subsidies, etc.) or (3) by whom (government bureaucrats, fraternal and charitable organizations, churches, etc.). These practical “how” and “by whom” decisions are further controlled by other primary principles of Catholic social doctrine: the dignity of the human person, the common good, and subsidiarity.
In short, Catholic social teaching simply does not determine the correct position on most matters of social and economic policy, such as tax rates, minimum-wage laws, interest rates, and farm subsidies.
As Gregg further points out, Catholic social teaching denies that Catholic bishops have any special competence in making concrete determinations on matters of social and economic policy. Relying on the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council, Gregg writes that “working out the applicability of these principles in the complicated world of politics and economic policy, is, for the most part, the role of lay Catholics.” Is it possible that the bishops of the United States have diluted the effectiveness of their teaching authority on those matters involving moral norms that have no exceptions (abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc.) by extending their specific policy prescriptions into areas over which they have no special competence?
Of course, the fact that most matters of social and economic policy are subject to prudential determinations that are not the special competence of the bishops does not mean that these matters are free from moral evaluation. And here is where Gregg’s book will be especially useful to you, for it effectively counteracts two of the strongest and most harmful prejudices of our time, both of which you seem to share: first, that the market is necessarily rooted in individualism and egoism; second, that government action is the only moral response to social problems.
These two prejudices have informed much Catholic instruction in Catholic social teaching, although they are not supported by the actual texts. Thus Catholics of my generation were often led to believe that, as Gregg puts it, “the Catholic understanding of human dignity cannot translate into anything but generous welfare states, weak conceptions of property rights, heavy regulation, and more or less social democratic policies.”
Hearing this before 1989, while seeing more than half the world’s population impoverished and groaning under the weight of violent and oppressive socialist regimes, is it any surprise that some Catholics found relief in the crabbed writings of Ayn Rand? And how refreshing to find in the actual texts of Catholic social teaching a better account of social justice than one finds either in Ayn Rand or in the social democracy interpretation of Catholic social teaching!
It is true that certain Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment defenses of the free market are rooted in individualism and egoism, the extreme form of which one finds in Ayn Rand. One thinks of this famous passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.
Others defend the market simply in terms of its superior efficiency in harnessing and distributing scarce resources.
But the Catholic defense of the market is based primarily on a positive conception of integral human development and flourishing. According to this view, an economic act is not merely a neutral and instrumental means to non-economic ends. Rather, it is “an act that reveals the humanity of men and women as creative and relational subjects.” As such, market behavior is moral behavior—that is, one means by which human beings freely participate in the truth about themselves and about the created order.
Thus, although those who participate in the market may be prone to certain vices, such as consumerism, individualism, and avarice, these are not essential to such participation, either in theory or in practice. Marketplace exchanges are not inherently selfish, zero-sum games in which one party loses while the other wins; they are acts of cooperation, redistribution, and self-constitution.
Refreshing for the misguided Ayn Rand Catholic is the Church’s condemnation of “the Social Assistance State,” which "[b]y intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility . . . leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (Compendium, 187).
One does not have to be libertarian to notice resemblances in this passage to the policies of the current administration. Tea Party Catholics do not deny, of course, that political authority plays a necessary and even positive role in providing the right conditions for human flourishing. But that role is governed by the principle of subsidiarity, which prohibits the government from assuming the functions of those persons and communities it is trying to help. Rather, the role of government help is fundamentally instrumental: human flourishing subsists within civil society, not within political society.
This understanding of the proper relationship between government and civil society is captured in the description of the common good given in Gaudium et Spes: “the sum of those conditions of social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection.” Gregg advises us to note carefully the words “attain their own perfection”:
That is the end of the common good: human flourishing. Promoting the common good must therefore be about helping – as opposed to attempting to realize directly – the flourishing of all human beings in a given society. Because no matter how conducive or difficult conditions are to human flourishing, it will not occur unless people freely choose moral and spiritual goods through their actions.
But there is something more ominous in the Social Assistance State than “the loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies.” It is the threat to religious liberty, the “first freedom” without which no others can stand. The Health and Human Services regulation mandating contraception coverage seemed to take many Catholic supporters of Obamacare by surprise. If they knew their history better, they might have seen it coming.
The Social Assistance State is not always a response to the needs of the poor. In the past, it has also been the outgrowth of an aggressive statist and anti-clericalist vision of social order that began with the French Revolution, was further solidified under Otto von Bismarck in Germany, and was imported into the United States under the name of Progressivism. Continental liberalism is suspicious of every form of social order that is not constructed by the state. Those American Catholics who embrace the Progressive agenda should rethink the lessons of the French Revolution and Bismarck’s Kulturkampf.
The liberalism of the American founding, on the other hand, is based on principles of religious and civil liberty set within a larger theory of the natural moral law. In this, it comes much closer to the vision of social order one finds in Catholic social teaching than Progressivism does. We should not be surprised, therefore, that both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered high praise for that vision. They saw what Charles Carroll had seen two centuries earlier, and what I and so many other American Catholics see now.
I do hope you will read Gregg’s book. You will not find there either Ayn Rand’s sophomoric ethics of egoism or a partisan pitch for Republican Party politics, but a liberal, formidable, and faithful mind attempting to make sense of the great challenges of our time in light of Catholic social teaching. Maybe even invite him out for a lecture. That would be a very Catholic thing to do for America’s oldest Catholic University. And the Carrolls would approve.
The Honorable Paul Ryan
Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College.