By Thomas Storck
Next a passage from Pope Pius XII:
And, while the State in the nineteenth century, through excessive exaltation of liberty, considered as its exclusive scope the safe-guarding of liberty by the law, Leo XIII admonished it that it had also the duty to interest itself in social welfare, taking care of the entire people and of all its members, especially the weak and the dispossessed, through a generous social programme and the creation of a labor code. (Address to Italian workers on the Feast of Pentecost, June 1, 1941)
Then a quotation from Pope Paul VI:
On another side, we are witnessing a renewal of the liberal ideology. This current asserts itself both in the name of economic efficiency, and for the defence of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations, and as a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers. Certainly, personal initiative must be maintained and developed. But do not Christians who take this path tend to idealize liberalism in their turn, making it a proclamation in favor of freedom? They would like a new model, more adapted to present-day conditions, while easily forgetting that at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty. Hence, the liberal ideology likewise calls for careful discernment on their part. (Octogesima Adveniens, no. 35, May 14, 1971)
These statements alone ought to convince any Catholic who cares to think with the Church, that the Church has always opposed liberalism and its restricted notion of the role of government. But now I will take certain specific statements made by the Acton Institute, statements which reveal its application of liberalism to the economy, and contrast them with the teaching of the Church, including that of Centesimus Annus.
First let us look at a quote from Lord Acton, printed on the cover of a leaflet distributed by the Institute. "Liberty is the highest political end of man..."! This assertion is hardly congruent with the teaching of the Catholic tradition. St. Thomas, for example, says that the end of society is "to live according to virtue" (De Regimine Principum, I, 14). And this truth, that both individual man and man in society are both ordered, not toward freedom, but toward virtue as the ultimate end, is the truth upon which the entire liberal tradition founders. Liberty the highest political end of man? Not justice, not virtue, not the common good? All else flows from this fundamental error, the error, in fact, of Lucifer, who desired liberty above all else. The society that values liberty as its highest political goal, that refuses to safeguard the common good (except by pious exhortations), that allows for complete freedom of contract - this will be the domain of the Devil and his adherents and apologists.
The next statement of Fr. Sirico's that we will look at is this: "So long as individuals avoid forceful or fradulent actions in their dealings with one another, government is to stay out of their business" (Acton Notes, January 1998). Anyone at all acquainted with the tradition of Catholic social thought knows that this can hardly be squared with the teaching of the Magisterium. To take but a few examples, we have Leo XIII's teaching in Rerum Novarum,
The richer population have many ways of protecting themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; those who are badly off have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly rely upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, who are, undoubtedly, among the weak and necessitous should be specially cared for and protected by the commonwealth. (no. 29)
And, in a statement that utterly contradicts what Fr. Sirico says, Leo rejects the theory that free agreement between employer and employee should be the rule in economic affairs when he notes, in connection with the question of a just wage, that
there is a dictate of nature more imperious and more ancient than any bargain between man and man, that the remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. (Rerum Novarum, 34)
It is simply false to say that, absent force or fraud, the government should stay out of people's business.
We have already seen how in Quadragesimo Anno Pius XI says that Leo XIII "boldly passed beyond the restrictions imposed by liberalism, and fearlessly proclaimed the doctrine that the civil power is more than the mere guardian of law and order..." (no. 25). In other words, Pius XI explicitly denies the conception of government which Fr. Sirico champions, and like Leo, sees a strong, though not unlimited, role for the state. It is true that the popes have been careful not to call for a statist solution to socio-economic problems, but it should be clear that they definitely see an activist role for government, but within limits. However, these limits are not the limits that Fr. Sirico would like to impose on the state.
John Paul II in Centesimus makes clear that the state has a wider role than merely enforcing laws against force or fraud, but that it must be concerned with the
preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces. Just as in the time of primitive capitalism the State had the duty of defending the basic rights of workers, so now, with the new capitalism, the State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual. (no. 40)
And immediately he states: "Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic."
Other statements that John Paul makes in the same encyclical are equally damning to Fr. Sirico's position. First here is a statement from Centesimus, one of the handful that Fr. Sirico and those of like mind often quote:
It would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs. (no. 34)
But the Pontiff immediately goes on to say,
But this is true only for those needs which are "solvent," insofar as they are endowed with purchasing power, and for those resources which are "marketable," insofar as they are capable of obtaining a satisfactory price. But there are many human needs which find no place on the market. It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.... Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to the person because he is a person, by reason of his lofty dignity.
A similar caution on the market may be found in the following statement of John Paul, speaking of the kind of society that we should desire and work toward:
Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied. (no. 35)
These statements are enough for anyone to see that Fr. Sirico and Catholic teaching are not in agreement, for Fr. Sirico would never admit that the market needed to be "controlled," least of all by the state.
The apparent plausibility of Fr. Sirico's position comes from the fact that he contrasts the free market only with the evils of statism, socialism and communism. Most people think that either capitalism or some form of socialism are the only "live options" in economics. They are hardly aware that the economic arrangements advocated by the popes are neither those of socialism nor of free-market capitalism, and if someone were to tell them about distributism or solidarism, they would likely reply that since they do not presently exist, or perhaps never existed, they need not be taken seriously. This makes as much sense as to say that since there never has been a society in which chastity was entirely observed, we should not bother to promote chastity in our own society. Nor can we ignore the statement of Pope John Paul II in Centesimus that "it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called `Real Socialism' leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization" (no. 35). ("Real Socialism" means, of course, Marxist socialism or communism.)
I should also raise the issue of how far Fr. Sirico and his colleagues are misrepresenting others' opinions in their effort to promote classical liberalism. For example, on their website they have a section called "In the Liberal Tradition," in which they feature various thinkers whom they assert to be fellow liberals. Let us look at just two of them. First, St. Thomas Aquinas. They represent him as a liberal by quoting some of his words in favor of private ownership of property. By this preposterous method they might as well feature Chesteron and Belloc, both bitter critics of capitalism, but strong defenders of private property. In any case, I think Fr. Sirico knows that to defend private property (as I myself do) by no means places one in the camp of classical liberalism, but simply indicates that one is not a Communist.
Equally ludicrous is C.S. Lewis, whom they claim as one of their own, apparantly on the strength of favorable comments that he made about democracy and against unlimited government. They rather ignore the following words of Lewis from Mere Christianity:
All the same, the New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, every one's work is to produce something good: there will be no manufacture of silly luxuries and then of sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them. And there is to be no "swank" or "side," no putting on airs. To that extent a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist.
And in the next paragraph he says that we "should feel that its economic life was very socialistic...." This part of Lewis's beliefs seems to have been conveniently overlooked.
It is far from clear how Fr. Sirico and other Catholic libertarians can justify their attempt to reconcile Catholic tradition with classical liberalism. Do they really believe that the Church's social teaching and traditon can change so easily as to make obsolete centuries of the papal magisterium? Are they really unaware that such notable Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century who turned their attention to economics, as G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson and many others, were critics of capitalism? I cannot answer these questions. But what we can know is that the Acton Institute's promotion of liberalism is not something that can be embraced by an orthodox Catholic. Sirico, like Acton and Döllinger, is not a safe guide but rather a dissenter from the fullness of the Faith, a blind guide who will only lead his followers into a pit. Please God, it will not be into the bottomless pit.
Originally Published in Social Justice Review, vol. 93, no. 5-6, May-June 2002©Thomas Storck