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Catholics Divided on Libertarianism as 'Heresy

Pope Francis greets faithful as he leaves St. Stanislaus church in Rome, Sunday, May 4, 2014. Pope Francis celebrated a mass for the Polish community in honor of newly sainted Pope John Paul II. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino) AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Is libertarianism "heresy"? That question prompted a theological and political debate among writers for three major Catholic publications, with one writer recently asserting that libertarianism is consistent with the moral teachings of the church, unless – like any other philosophy – taken to extremes.

Pope Francis greets faithful as he leaves St. Stanislaus church in Rome, Sunday, May 4, 2014. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

A recently published Catholic argument for libertarianism showed a “complete lack of human solidarity,” wrote Michael Sean Winters, author of the 2008 book, “Left at the Alter: How Democrats Lost the Catholics and How Catholics Can Save the Democrats.”

“Callous and cold and, just so, not very Christian let alone Catholic,” Winters wrote in a blog post on National Catholic Reporter this week.

The specific piece Winters was so angry about was written by Joe Hargrave, an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona, in the magazine Crisis.

“Among the poorest areas of the United States one will find high rates of crime, drug abuse, educational failure, sexual deviance, illegitimacy, and so on,” Hargrave wrote.

“This is not to say that people in these areas ought to be written off, but it is to say that no employer is obliged to subsidize their moral failings—and neither are we, the frugal, well-behaved wage-earners to whom Leo XIII refers,” Hargrave continued. “This is not just about the moral failings of the poor, as libertarians do not want to pay for the birth control pills of middle class college students or provide massive bailouts and subsidies for major banks and businesses either.”

Just as Hargrave's column prompted a response, Hargrave's piece was itself a response to a Catholic blogger that insisted libertarianism was absolute heresy.

“The trick that Catholics influenced by libertarian ideology (aka heresy) need to master is this: instead of ransacking Catholic teaching for the subsidiarity bits that happen to comport with libertarian heresy, instead embrace the fullness of Catholic teaching, including the Church’s teaching on solidarity, the common good, and the legitimate role of the state,” wrote Mark Shea, a writer for the Catholic publication Patheos.

Shea quoted extensively from Pope John Paul II's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which among other things states: “Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen.”

Shea added those opposed to wealth redistribution seem to think, “should taxation could simply be done away with, unfallen man would emerge from his cocoon of state oppression and rugged individuals would automatically see to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.”

In his piece in Crisis, Hargrave argues Shea is oversimplifying things.

He pointed out that the father of modern libertarianism Murray Rothbard cited Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum as “fundamentally libertarian and pro-capitalist.” This is because the encyclical defends the right to private property as a reward for their labor and declares that charitable giving is not a matter of human laws.

“All of this is to say that complex economic and ethical issues cannot be resolved by shouting 'heresy!' It would be antithetical to the spirit of Catholicism to suggest that anything other than the common good ought to be the ultimate goal of economic policies,” Hargrave wrote.

“It would also be antithetical to the spirit of Catholicism to suggest that there is only one way to promote it, and that all other ways are automatically heretical and forbidden,” Hargrave continued. “Libertarianism is only a 'heresy' in the same way that every other idea becomes a heresy; when it is taken to irrational extremes or when it explicitly rejects a fundamental teaching of the Church. There is no reason why any self-identified libertarian has to do either.”

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