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.




Why Tea Party Catholicism Is a No Go

Is Tea Party Catholicism dead as a legitimate political stance within the Catholic Church? That’s what Pope Francis’ close Honduran cardinal-advisor Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga is arguing.

During his keynote address at a June 3rd forum hosted by The Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, Rodriguez—defending Pope Francis’ economic teachings—derided the current economic system for being built on what he called the “new idol of libertarianism.” “The libertarianism de-regulation of the markets and financial market is much to the disadvantage of the poor,” he said. “This economy kills.”

Read the full article at Time.



Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Pope Francis’ Holy Land Triumph by Michael Sean Winters: “When he was introduced to six victims of the Shoah, he bent down and kissed their hands. We are accustomed to the negative of that image, of people great and small bending over to kiss the pope’s ring. Here, he reversed the image and the significance: It was they, the victims of the worst atrocity in history, who merited the veneration of a kiss.”

An Older Definition of the American Dream by Anna Sutherland: “Reviving civic involvement and widening access to good education may be more difficult tasks than improving the material situation of the poor, but they are just as crucial to the formation of an egalitarian, democratic society.”

Myanmar’s Appalling Apartheid by Nicholas Kristof: “Myanmar seeks American investment and approval. We must make clear that it will get neither unless it treats Rohingya as human beings.”

A Tidal Wave of Trauma by Lauren Wolfe: “Right now, there are about 9 million Syrians who have fled their homes, 2.7 million of whom have taken refuge in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. And, of course, there are millions of Syrians still suffering inside their country. Do the math, and it’s easy to see the enormity of the mental health crisis this war has created. But amid a litany of humanitarian needs that aren’t even remotely being met, can this crisis possibly be addressed? Can its long-term effects — illnesses that could tear apart families and reduce quality of life — be mitigated in a meaningful way?”

On the science of abortion, liberals are in serious denial by Michael Brendan Dougherty: “When anti-abortion activists say that human life begins at conception, they are not trying to confuse people about whether legal personhood and a viable conceptus are actually the same thing. They are trying to reinforce and build on the common intuition that society’s notions about human life should have some correspondence to observable reality, and that legal personhood should have a relationship to when we know a new individual of the species comes into existence.”

Too High a Cost to be Pro-Life? by Teaghan Grayson: “Helping Americans understand that unborn children are actually children and that we ought to secure their right to life is not sufficient to combat support for legal abortion. Instead, we must go further, to convince our country that the cost that comes with this population increase is a cost worth bearing.”

‘Allowed to Hope’? by Kevin Clarke: “It is hard to overestimate the need and the complexity of the problems challenging the Central African Republic.”

Paul Ryan’s letter to the poor by Kevin Clarke: “Like Rep. Ryan, the church has also worried about the soul-crushing potential of a suffocating social welfare bureaucracy. But in Catholic social teaching, our encyclicals’ authors probably had more the Soviet model of social suppression in mind than cheerful Swedish day care centers for working parents or programs that deliver daily bread to struggling families.”


Cardinal Dolan Tries to Spin Pope Francis’ Message with Help from a Free Market Critic of the Pope

Cardinal Timothy Dolan has a new article in the Wall Street Journal. It is massively disappointing and either exceptionally inarticulate and incoherent or an intentional dissent from Catholic doctrine on economic justice. What is clear is that it is an attempt (albeit failed) to spin Pope Francis’ strong defense of economic justice in order to make it more free market friendly. The article fails to address the critical role government must play in regulating markets and redistributing wealth for the sake of the common good (outside of vague references to proper regulation and “public policies of ‘legitimate redistribution of economic benefits’”). No effort at all is made to explain what this means in terms of the role government must play in promoting the common good. Free market fundamentalists can read ‘properly’ (regulate) and ‘legitimate’ (redistribution) as ‘minimally’ and ‘minimal,’ reinforcing their libertarian beliefs. Nothing is done to disabuse them of the illusion that their beliefs are compatible with Catholic teaching.

Cardinal Dolan writes, “The answer to problems with the free market is not to reject economic liberty in favor of government control.” This language simply does not reflect the language that has been used in over 120 years of Catholic Social Teaching. If it is merely a rejection of communism, the language is imprecise and unfortunate. But one might also draw the conclusion that ‘government control’ means coercively redistributing wealth and regulating markets, both of which the state has the responsibility to do under Catholic teaching.

He concludes by writing, “A just economic order relies on both material wealth and on people’s openness to the transformation of their hearts in love and solidarity. That is the path to the greatest kind of prosperity for all.” It also relies on the state playing a critical role in ensuring economic justice. This is integral and cannot be ignored or mentioned only passingly. It needed to be at the center of this article if he intended to explain authentic Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis’ efforts to promote economic justice.

In reminding us that “what many people around the world experience as ‘capitalism’ isn’t recognizable to Americans” and “Americans must remember that the holy father is speaking to this world-wide audience,” the article seems to imply that Pope Francis’ critiques of economic libertarianism are not really applicable to the United States, only to ‘crony capitalist’ states, a talking point favored by free market fundamentalists who reject Church teaching on economics. Perhaps the most stunning line, one that indicates that Cardinal Dolan is disconnected from the very culture in which he lives, is his false claim that “few people subscribe to an inhumane philosophy of radical economic individualism.” The very heart of Pope Francis’ message is a critique of this individualism, and he is not Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Proponents of economic libertarianism, which is rooted in radical economic individualism, play a critical role in American politics and are the chief obstacles to social justice.

On twitter, free market enthusiast Larry Kudlow, who has been critical of Pope Francis and is a proponent of the bogus theory that Pope Francis does not understand free market capitalism because he is from Argentina, noted that he worked with Cardinal Dolan on the article. In attempting to explain Pope Francis’ approach to economic justice, why on earth would Cardinal Dolan turn to a critic of the pope?

This may explain, however, why he fails to clearly articulate the role government should play in promoting economic justice and focuses on individual virtue instead. He writes, “Virtuous people, acting justly, compassionately and honestly, are the foundation of good economic or business activity that can produce prosperity for all, and not just for a few.” Individual virtue is something worth encouraging and it is critical to a more just society, but that cannot be the basic foundation of economic justice, because human beings sin. If men were angels, no government would be necessary, but here on earth, institutions must protect against individual and structural sin. This is why while we encourage women to choose life and work to give them the resources they need to make that choice, we also work to ensure that the state will guarantee unborn children the right to life.

Cardinal Dolan calls for a “middle course” on economics. That’s great. Unfortunately he does nothing to point us in the right direction of where that middle path is. Instead, he embraces themes that have been articulated by critics of the pope. If Cardinal Dolan wants to support Pope Francis’ efforts, next time he would do well to reach out to those who understand Church teaching and have been fighting for economic justice here in the United States, instead of free market enthusiasts who reject Church teaching.