The Catholic Case against Libertarianism (Part II): Cardinal Rodriguez and Bishop Cupich

The centerpiece of the recent Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism conference was Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga’s keynote address, which was followed by an excellent, thoughtful response by Bishop Blase Cupich. The Cardinal was introduced by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who described Pope Francis’ commitment to workers and their families while movingly recounting how the Church served as “a refuge against injustice” and “a flesh-and-blood sanctuary” for those fighting for economic justice, including those in his own family.

The keynote, given by Pope Francis’ closest adviser, has sparked a big reaction in Catholic intellectual circles, which hopefully will reach the average Catholic. Libertarianism is so pervasive in American politics that all Americans would benefit from hearing a critique of this ideology, particularly Catholic Americans, who are not at all immune from its appeal. Here’s a quick recap of the two speeches:

Cardinal Rodriguez

Cardinal Rodriguez started by quoting a Michael Sean Winters article that highlighted recent libertarian dissent on Catholic social doctrine by American conservatives to show what everyone who studies American political ideologies (or American politics, more generally) knows: libertarian ideas play a powerful role in American politics. Criticizing them is not attacking a straw man. It’s confronting an ideology that has led many, including large numbers of practicing Catholics, to reject Church teaching on social and economic justice. The impact on the common good is real and destructive.

The primary focus, in keeping with Pope Francis’ priorities, was poverty. Cardinal Rodriguez pulled no punches. He identified the free market as an idol. He said the invisible hand of the market is a “blind thief” stealing from the poorest people in the world, and that the managers of today’s unjust economy are comfortable with this injustice. He denounced the fact that “today states are not looking after the common good but after private interests” and that politics is “submissive to money not the common good.” Fortunately, he explained, Pope Francis is not deceived by trickle-down theories. He rejects the libertarian mindset that puts “money at the center.” Instead, Francis embraces the Church’s social doctrine, which is “the Gospel applied to today.”


Cardinal Rodriguez took aim at “today’s asymmetric, distorted global economy”:

In Germany e.g. there is one doctor for 266 persons, in Liberia for example there is one for 82,000. Notwithstanding the Millennium Development Goals the international community formulated with a view to 2015, the fact is that today still about 870 million people go hungry. Two billion of the world’s population does not have access to life’s essential medicine and one billion do not have sufficient and clean drinking water.

He highlighted the growing economic inequality that is present not only globally, but also here in the US. He cited Pope Francis’ statement: “This economy kills!” He explained how the global economy “under the conditions of libertarianism,” excludes people, citing his own experience: “As a pastor in a very poor country I know how much of daily insecurity is connected with this situation of poverty- insecurity for the children in particular, but also big worries for mothers and fathers that do not know how to get drinking water, food, medical care or school education for their children.” Again citing the pope, he stressed that those who are excluded are not merely exploited but treated like “rubbish.”

He explained Pope Francis’ critique of the “anthropological crisis” of our time:

The worship of the golden calf (Ex 32, 1-15) today is demonstrated by the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an economy without a human face, lacking a real human purpose (cf.55). He denounces the unbridled greed for power and property as well as “ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the market and financial speculation” (cf. 56). This denies the state’s right of control, whose intrinsic task is to protect the common good. The idolatry around the market concentrating on the increase of profit, disregards all that is weak and equally disregards environment (cf. 56). Money must serve, not rule (cf.58).

Seemingly hoping to clarify the confusion some have with the concepts of charity and justice, Cardinal Rodriguez explained how “God’s Kingdom, which God offers and to which we all are called, is incompatible with injustice, poverty and exclusion of part of humanity”:

Our answer to His love should not “be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need” (180). In his own figurative language Francis refers to this as “a kind of charity a la carte”, a series of good deeds in order to calm our conscience. This I understand is a clear statement at the rich and at the Church in rich countries.

What is demanded is change—immediate structural change:

Someone who like him has profound knowledge of the life of the poor says that elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed. The hungry or sick child of the poor cannot wait. Apart from this pragmatic view Francis recognizes in those unjust structures an illness of the system as such.

And that change must undo the damage wrought by libertarianism:

As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems” (202). Any economic policy therefore must be re-structured focusing on the dignity of each individual and on the common good (cf. 203). We no longer are to trust the blind forces and invisible hand of the market. Economy should reject a mere economic growth and increase of profit at any price, which means even at the price of excluding workers, because it is growth in justice that should set the direction.

Love must be transformed into justice:

We are used to linking this principle of love to the micro-relationships, as friendship, family and small groups, but it must be extended to macro-relationships encompassing the social, economic and political relationships. Francis has a high opinion of politics in as far as it can be oriented towards overcoming the absolute dichotomy between economy and the common good, taking the poor’s needs seriously and guaranteeing fair access to the common goods (cf. 205).

The changes must occur on the national level, but also on the international and global level “to promote a more inclusive society and integral human development” through better global governance and a stronger global civil society.

Bishop Cupich

Bishop Cupich noted, “At the heart of the Cardinal’s analysis is the fact that the vision of Pope Francis and the vision of his libertarian critics constitute two compellingly different pathways for humanity at this moment in history.” He highlighted how “differing anthropologies put libertarianism and Catholic Social Teaching on two distinct trajectories when it comes to the meaning of economic life, and the goal of politics in a world of globalization.” He explained that “by uncoupling  human dignity from the solidarity it implies, libertarians move in a direction, that not only has enormous consequences for the meaning of economic life, and the goal of politics in a world of globalization, but in a direction which is inconsistent with Catholic Social Teaching, particularly as it is developed by Pope Francis.”


Bishop Cupich then outlined some of the differences between Catholic social teaching and libertarianism, between Pope Francis’ approach to politics and his libertarian critics’ approach:

For Francis the human person seeks and claims an integral development, morally, spiritually and emotionally, which is joined intrinsically to the communities that sustain him.  For the Pope’s critics, the human person is the autonomous individual, man the producer and man the consumer.

For Francis inclusion and economic security for all are measures of economic health in contrast to the one-dimensional measure of economic growth proposed by his critics….

For Francis, politics seeks the common good.  For his libertarian critics, politics seeks to maximize the freedom of markets and individual choice.

For Francis the strength of globalization leads to the need for global structures that help mold the forces of market capitalism to advance solidarity and dignity for all.  For libertarians market forces left to themselves are the best arbiters of economic progress.

Bishop Cupich explained Pope Francis’ focus on lived reality rather than ideological devotion to abstract ideas. And he noted that Pope Francis’ emphasis on encounter and accompaniment cannot really be reconciled with the libertarian goal of increasing autonomy.