Solidarity, Imago Dei, and the Catholic Case against Libertarianism

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.


Conservatives Must Increase Economic Security Not Undermine It

According to the idiosyncratic twentieth-century French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, “Order is the first need of all.” She wrote this line while enumerating the needs of the human soul, and defined order as “a texture of social relationships such that no one is compelled to violate imperative obligations in order to carry out other ones.”

But her claim also applies if we use a much more prosaic definition of order—say, the everyday order of a prosperous, law-abiding society where no one worries about getting mugged on the way to work, or losing their job and being unable to find a new one, or going broke to pay for medical care. An orderly society in today’s world is one where everyone has a reasonable degree of physical safety and confidence in the rule of law, as well as access to food, shelter, healthcare, education, and work. When many people go without these basic needs and face the prospect of starvation, serious illness, or extreme financial deprivation, their lives become unstable and insecure; they lack order and predictability.

If order in this expansive definition is our “first need,” then most people will prioritize it over other goods like independence and self-expression—and they will be willing to give up a relatively high degree of liberty in order to get it. These tendencies have obvious implications for the realm of politics and economics. Capitalism, for all its power to create wealth and spur technological development, entails a fair amount of disorder. Companies are founded and disbanded, industries rise and fall, workers are hired and let go. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare programs, and the rest of the safety net were created to mitigate this disorder and provide low-income individuals and families with at least some minimal degree of security.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many Americans feel threatened when conservatives seek to cut food stamps, slash welfare programs, stop the expansion of Medicaid, and limit unemployment benefits (even as job seekers far outnumber available jobs). The intentions behind these initiatives may not be cruel, but their results sometimes are. For an adult without savings and with a few mouths to feed, a $90-per-month cut in food stamps or a three-month bout of unemployment can mean serious difficulty. For those without health insurance, an unexpected emergency can mean bankruptcy. Even as conservatives tout a few sources of order—families, religious institutions, charities—their policies almost seem designed to exacerbate the destabilizing, disruptive aspects of market forces. It’s no wonder that the average American says Democrats are “more concerned with the needs of people like me” than the GOP.

If Republicans hope to win back the working class and make inroads with minorities (who are disproportionately likely to be poor or near-poor), then, they will need to do more than appeal to abstract notions of liberty. In a country that already has great freedoms, many voters will prefer to sacrifice a bit of liberty for a higher degree of economic security—and I find it hard to blame them. Conservatives should find ways to give these voters more order and stability, not less. Families, churches, and community groups are indeed crucial here, but they alone can’t guarantee well-paying jobs, health insurance, safe neighborhoods, and good schools.

But just because the government has a role to play in these areas doesn’t mean Republicans need simply sign on to Democratic ideas. Conservatives, too, have proposed creative reforms that would increase workers’ wages, spur job creation, and give families access to better schools. If they want to attract new voters and improve the lives of the financially vulnerable, they would do well to concentrate their energy not on trimming the safety net but on developing and implementing policies like these.

Anna Sutherland is a freelance writer and the editor of Family-Studies.org. You can follow Family Studies on Facebook and Twitter.


Quote of the Day

Cardinal Sean O’Malley: “Our striving for the common good in society is simply a logical corollary of our love of neighbor. Unjust structures and oppressive political and economic systems result when ethics and virtue are banished from the public square as irrelevant to building a just and humane society.”


Why Inequality is the Root of Social Evil

There is a common root to most (or perhaps all) grave forms of social injustice: the rejection of human equality and the influence of this rejection on human relationships and institutions.

Human persons are fundamentally equal in their worth and dignity. A person’s worth is not dependent on their lineage, how they fit in some utopian scheme, how much they produce or consume, their autonomy or independence, or their race, intelligence, age, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Human worth is innate and cannot be forfeited. And it is equal in each person.

This is a radical notion. It cannot be reconciled with utilitarian thinking. It conflicts with the desires of many powerful people. It seems farcical if one is a strict materialist. It is not based on a person’s capacity to feel pain or engage in critical thinking or some other capricious standard.

This belief in human equality is rooted in the recognition that each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a loved child of God. Each person is called to communion with God and others.

When one recognizes this objective truth, the evil of inequality—of rejecting the equal worth of all and the treatment that necessarily corresponds with its recognition—can be seen as the true foundation of social injustice. It defines how we view our relationships with others and the social structures that exist (and have the capacity to either foster human flourishing or perpetuate injustice). One sees that social evil is rooted in the rejection of equality.

A belief in human equality leads one to recognize the obscenity of people starving while others live in excess. One can see the evil in human beings being used as sexual objects to satiate an individual’s animalistic impulses. Pride, lust, envy, and other sins are enabled and multiplied when equality is denied.

There becomes a way to “rationally” justify using children as human shields, terminating the life of one’s own child, remaining indifferent to people sleeping on the streets and living in abject poverty. People are enslaved, raped, murdered, persecuted, and subject to countless other forms of dehumanization and depersonalization when the fundamental equality of all is denied.

And this inequality and injustice fosters greater evil. High poverty rates can result in high crime rates. Repression and violence can produce endless cycles of conflict. As Pope Francis has written, “Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.”

Is this what Pope Francis had in mind when he tweeted “Inequality is the root of social evil,” or was he more focused on the specific impact of economic inequality?

Unlike a considerable number of his critics (including those who pretend they aren’t critics), I think Pope Francis is almost always quite clear in his messaging. I’m pleased that the “what Francis really meant” industry seems to be dying down. But there is a bit of ambiguity in the tweet. Is it about economic inequality alone? If so, does it ignore other possible sources of injustice and social evil? Does it rule out the possibility that some level of economic inequality is inevitable and desirable if we prefer to not live under the communism of a totalitarian regime?

Ultimately, it’s not particularly important, as Pope Francis believes in this personalist understanding of human equality (thus his opposition to a ‘throwaway culture’) and, like his predecessors, recognizes the current reality of gross economic inequality—both across borders and within countries (which certainly includes the US)—as a serious obstacle to social justice and the common good. It’s a mistake to focus on the semantics rather than the core message.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis uses language that is very similar to his tweet within the context of talking about the economy, saying, “Inequality is the root of social ills.” And he is not thinking of a hypothetical utopian free market but the state of the world today. He condemns the libertarian mindset that focuses so much on autonomy and individualism and calls for the creation of more just social structures and policies that address the structural causes of poverty. He is explicit in his rejection of an approach that relies too heavily on free markets: “We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market.”

This is nothing new in Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Paul VI condemned the “flagrant inequalities” in both the enjoyment of possessions and the exercise of power. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner.”

Pope Francis’ tweet should challenge everyone across the political and ideological spectrum. It challenges us to fully recognize the equality of all and create conditions that reflect a total commitment to human dignity. In particular it should challenge us to confront the injustice of economic inequality in our society and globally. While the challenge may be greater for those conservatives and libertarians who have embraced economic libertarianism, liberals and communitarians must be willing to abandon stale formulas and seek innovative strategies for ensuring that every person has access to those needs that are necessary for human flourishing.

Is economic inequality the root of social evil? Is the love of money really the root of all evil? This strong language is not an empirical claim to be taken literally or analyzed scientifically, but a wake-up call to open our eyes to the gravity of the threat economic inequality and injustice poses to human dignity and the common good. We would be wise to respond to this call to action rather than to fixate on the phrasing of the pope’s tweets.




Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Truth and Truthiness by Patrick Manning: “If we want our students to seek Christ with their whole selves, we must engage them in the fullness of their being—heart, mind and will. St. Augustine long ago offered a formula for doing just this: delight the heart, instruct the mind, persuade the will. Stephen Colbert has demonstrated that this formula is still effective in our own time.”

The Art of Presence by David Brooks: “We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation.”

I Have Seen the Future of the Republican Party, and It Is George W. Bush by Jonathan Chait: “A Republican Party that reprises the Bush era was a grim and unfathomable prospect in 2008, and is not exactly palatable now. But in the wake of the party’s thrall to Ayn Rand and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, a return to Bushism sounds almost comforting.”

Number of Darfur’s Displaced Surged in 2013 by NY Times: “An estimated 400,000 people fled violence afflicting the Darfur region of Sudan last year, more than the number of those displaced in the previous two years combined, the top United Nations peacekeeping official said Thursday in an appraisal that suggested the decade-old conflict there had taken a turn for the worse.”

The Populist Imperative by Paul Krugman: “A new Pew poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans — and 45 percent of Republicans! — supporting government action to reduce inequality, with a smaller but still substantial majority favoring taxing the rich to aid the poor. And this is true even though most Americans don’t realize just how unequally wealth really is distributed.”

Silence, Outsider: The Catholic Internet, Donatism, and the Medicine of the Eucharistic Life by Timothy O’Malley: “The Catholic conversation presently operating on the internet tends toward its own self-confident (even prideful) Donatism.   There are communities of Catholics online who stand above the Church and articulate criteria that they believe essential to being Catholic.   They then apply these criteria (apart from the actual, existing Church of bishops and councils and the sensus fidelium) to universities, to parishes, to priests or bishops or popes whom they find do not conform to such criteria.”

Supporting the Euromaidan Movement in Ukraine by Cardinal Timothy Dolan: “We Catholics in the United States cannot let these brave Ukrainians, whose allegiance to their religious convictions has survived ‘dungeon, fire, and sword,’ languish.  They deserve our voices and our prayers.”

What presidents really believe about God by Michael Beschloss: “Lady Bird Johnson told me decades later that her husband had found such comfort in the Catholic Church and ‘Luci’s little monks’ that she had once thought it only a matter of time before LBJ became a converted Catholic himself.”

‘Cold call’ pope strikes again by John Allen: “One more was added to the record Friday, as the Italian paper Corriere della Sera reported that Francis called an Italian woman named Filomena Claps on Monday evening, reaching her at her husband’s bedside in a hospital in the city of Potenza.”

More Imperfect Unions by Ross Douthat: “So one hypothetical middle ground on marriage promotion might involve wage subsidies and modest limits on unilateral divorce, or a jobs program and a second-trimester abortion ban.”

It’s cardinal v. cardinal on divorced and remarried Catholics by John Allen: “A rift has seemingly opened between two cardinals with significant Vatican influence, as the head of the pope’s Council of Cardinals has suggested that the Vatican’s doctrinal czar needs to be more ‘flexible’ in his views on divorced and remarried Catholics.”

Greed Is Not Good: The Social Usefulness of Progressive Public Policy by Charles Reid Jr.: “Progressives must never abandon appeals to fairness and concern for the vulnerable when advocating on behalf of sound public policies. But we must also bear in mind that many in our audience have been conditioned, through years of exposure to appeals that pander to the selfish side of human nature, to ask what a particular policy can do for them.”

A New Gilded Age Threatens The State Of Our Union by Howard Fineman: “Study after study shows that we are in the midst of a new Gilded Age, in which a yawning, gold-plated gap between the richest and the rest of us risks collapsing the American ideal of fair play and democracy itself.”