As prepared for delivery at “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism” (with minor edits). Updated with video.
As I began preparing for today, I went back and reread some of the theoretical texts of libertarianism – Friedman, Nozick, Rand, and Hayek. These provide the intellectual claims upon which today’s political libertarian agenda are based. Freedom to Choose by Rose and Milton Friedman is particularly striking:
“Neither equality before God nor equality of opportunity presented any conflict with liberty to shape one’s own life. Quite the opposite. Equality and liberty were two faces of the same value – that every individual should be viewed as an end in himself.”
This interpretation of the American Founding sounds appealing – the language mimics that of Kant’s categorical imperative – that each human person is to be treated as an end in herself and never as merely a means to an end. And yet, I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride – “I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.” When you look closely, something else is going on here. The definition of equality before God is rooted in individual choice, and the definition of equality of opportunity is merely a lack of arbitrary obstacles. This is certainly not Kant. But even more important for our discussion today, this is not Catholic theology’s understanding of equality before God or equality of opportunity. This is not a Catholic understanding of the human person.
In my brief time with you today I would like to focus on two distinct yet related points: first, the Catholic understanding of the human person as created in the image of God. Second, what this means in terms of the Church’s social teaching with a particular focus on Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes and the recent teachings of Pope Francis, both of which are integral to Catholicism’s understanding of solidarity and help to illuminate why I have argued in my book The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights that libertarianism is a social vice against this virtue.
Imago Dei/Imago Trinitatis
“Then God said, “let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . So God created humankind, in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-7).
All discussions of human dignity and the human person for Catholic theology begin with one very clear unequivocal statement: all human persons are created in the image and likeness of God. Imago Dei. Catholic moral theology (and Catholic social teaching, in particular) is largely a series of reflections on what this means. There is radical equality before God; we are equally loved by God and equally created in the image of God. However, equality before God is not primarily about freedom of choice but relationship. And it is this equality before God that grounds the preferential option for the poor. I’d like to focus on two elements of the Catholic understanding of human persons as relational and social: the question of creation and what imago dei means for human community.
Perhaps the most important divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism are in these very basic theological claims: I do not create myself; I do no call myself into existence; and I always exist in relationship to others (other persons and to God). As I explain in my book, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, “We are not simply individuals who should choose to enter into community and relationship. While the freedom of the individual person allows for a number of choices . . . to be a human person created in the image of God is to be in community, this is not something from which we are able to opt out” (Clark 58). Human freedom is crucial in this. But it is not reducible to negative liberty. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI urges us to resist the “intoxication with total autonomy,” which is not true freedom.
Freedom to love, freedom for human flourishing, freedom for community, freedom for God – these all shape the Catholic understanding of freedom. And these begin with the recognition that human persons are fundamentally and inescapably relational. I began with a verse from Genesis 1, and in that verse we see that, from creation, human persons are unavoidably relational, in relationship with other persons and with God. Far from reducing the importance of freedom, this deeper and broader approach to freedom elevates freedom and with it our responsibility before God.
The divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism I’ve argued hinges on creation and the implications of the imago dei for human community. While we may be able to achieve significant agreement that human persons are social or interdependent – that we need other people to survive – this is not the core of how Catholicism understands human community. Human society is not merely a requirement for survival; it is a good of humanity itself. Human persons are created in the image of God, and God is Trinity. What does it mean to say that to be imago dei must be imago trinitatis?Throughout Christian history, theological schools have answered this in different ways, but today I want to invite you to think more deeply about this idea: how might we be in the image of God?
Relation then isn’t atomized and added up, but points us towards Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John: “that they may be one as we are one” (17:21). And so we end up with the Trinity and equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, providing quite clear and challenging normative criteria by which to evaluate whether or not we as a community are imaging God more or less fully in the world. It also links us as one human family created in the image of God. Thus, we end up where libertarianism cannot: “Our humanity, as in the image of God, is not only a matter of creation but also places a claim on us” (Clark 59). In a speech to Georgetown, U2 frontman Bono challenged students that “when you truly accept that those in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you in God’s eyes or even just in your own eyes, then your life is forever changed, you see something that you cannot unsee.” The image of God places a claim upon us that goes well beyond simply not harming or impeding others. It leads us to Paul VI’s observation that “there can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity” (PP43).
Catholic Social Teaching/Vatican II & Pope Francis
Reflecting on that same passage from Genesis 1, Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World emphasizes the presence of the human community at creation, as I have already highlighted. Building on this, the Council stated, “God did not create the person for life in isolation but for the formation of social unity. So also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people . . . So from the beginning of salvation history, he has chosen people not just as individuals but as members of a certain community” (32). In Christianity, God enters into relationships – covenants – with peoples. More than this, God enters into covenants with succeeding generations of peoples reaching across our traditional understandings of past, present, and future.
Already in 1965, globalization and interdependence were understood as radically pervasive and as universal in reach. As the Council explains, “In our times, a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon . . . or a hungry person” (27). Gaudium et Spes, like St. John XXIII’s Peace on Earth before it, offers a comprehensive account of what must be accounted for in upholding human dignity and the flourishing community, and it is a basic list of human rights. The concerns are always both personal and structural, recognizing that “human freedom is often crippled when a man falls into extreme poverty” (31). Again, it’s important to note that human freedom is crippled by extreme poverty whether arbitrary obstacles exist or not. Freedom is not reducible to negative liberty.
Integrating the Catholic view of the person and community, the US Bishops in their 1986 Economic Justice for All offered an integrated moral vision which places participation as central to the ethical evaluation of the economy (and social arrangements more broadly). Economic Justice for All defines basic justice as participation, as the minimum conditions for the person’s participation in the economic, social, and political life of the community (15). Catholic social thought develops this social vision into an integrated understanding of poverty as exclusion.
Pope Francis has unequivocally reminded us that Christianity is a radical call to community, building upon the vision of Gaudium et Spes. When asked to explain his decision to continue living at Santa Marta guest house and not the papal apartment, he explained, “I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.” In the now famous “Jesuit interview,” and earlier in Lumen Fidei, he explains that “self-knowledge is only possible when we share in greater memory.” You will notice that his words sound very similar to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” Francis echoes this in Evangelii Gaudium as well.
To understand what Pope Francis says on poverty, inequality, and exclusion, you have to first understand this deep unity of the one human family, of our belonging to each other and our standing together before God, which provides its necessary backdrop. The threat of libertarianism is that it creates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.
My humanity is bound up in yours. This is concrete, not abstract. In a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome, Pope Francis addressed the refugees, saying, “To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it’s our word!” Theologically, we are now back to the very heart of Christianity: Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, God becoming Human. Solidarity is our word. This passage has followed me around for the last year. I cannot think of a clearer way to show the divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism than the radical identification of Jesus with the marginalized in Matthew 25 or in Catholic social thought’s understanding of solidarity, the social virtue by which we commit ourselves to participation in the universal common good of all by all.