Friday, January 17, 2014

The riddle of libertarian Catholicism

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day is a woman on her way to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, a title she never desired. "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily,” she said, and many believe that “she would rather have any money spent on her canonization given to the poor.”

Whatever Dorothy Day was, she was not a tool of the rich and powerful. She advocated for the economic idea of distributism, an economic theory in opposition to both capitalism and socialism based on principles of Catholic social teachings. Pope Francis touched on distributism in his recent statements on what he called the “economy of exclusion and inequality” in his Evangelii Gaudium, taking to task those who avoid paying their fair share in taxes.

Given the historical, rhetorical and theological power of Catholics in opposition, why do some Catholics so strongly identify with libertarian ideas such as unfettered free markets and small government?

Catholic author John Zmirak provides interesting insight into this question. It has to do with the Catholic Church’s inability to overcome the protections of the First Amendment and the separation of church and state:
In an American context, given our constitutional heritage and the large body of legal decisions solidifying its interpretation, on nearly any issue, Christians of any denomination should reject the assistance of the State. [italics in original] Our efforts to capture it, the courts have made it clear, will always fail. Any attempt to infuse the activity of the government with the moral content of a revealed religion will be rejected, in the end.
If libertarian leaning Catholics cannot control the government, then Zmirak wants to minimize state power to negligible levels:
It seems clear that the public sphere in America is irretrievably secular. So the only logical response of Christians must be to try to shrink it. Instead of attempting to baptize a Leviathan which turned on us long ago, we’d do much better to cage and starve the beast. We should favor low taxes—period, regardless of the “good” use to which politicians promise to put it. We should oppose nearly every government program intended to achieve any aim whatsoever.
Perhaps this provides an insight into why conservative blogger Justin Katz can say “on the issue of legalizing marijuana I personally don’t have an issue with it” yet then argue against legalization. Money made through taxing marijuana will help to fund the government, not starve it. Remember that Christians, according to Zmirak, “…should oppose nearly every government program intended to achieve any aim whatsoever.”

What should be worrisome in this kind of critique is the anti-American, anti-Constitutional core of the argument. Zmirak ends his piece with, “In many cultural contexts, the State can fruitfully employ its power to promote the faith and morals held in common by a community. But that can’t happen here. Not in America. Several of our Founders, and generations of our lawyers, have seen to that.”

A secular state that protects the right of conscience, freedom of (and from) religion and separation of church and state does not serve those who seek to impose their theocratic ideas on others. Those in opposition to such ideals seek to diminish the government, and in turn weaken the protections such a government provides.

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