The Summa of Liberty & Catholicism

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Our purpose in life is to be saints, promoting a civilization of truth and love (pro veritatis amorisque humanitate). The best way to achieve that goal is to limit coercion, including that of government, and to restrict the role of government to its simplest form in alignment with the principles of liberty.

On this page, I’d like to defend that thesis in the form of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologea to hopefully answer all the doubts one may have about the libertarian Catholic system.

Article 1: Whether libertarianism is compatible with Catholicism.

Objection 1: There’s a world of difference between “the tax burden should be reduced in order to promote economic growth” and the libertarian, “taxation is theft.” There’s room for the former in Catholicism but not the latter.

On the contrary: The Catechism states, “The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them.”

I answer that: The Catholic Church does not endorse or exclude one political ideology over the other. Her only goal is in the benefit of mankind. The Catechism states that regimes must be in concordance with “…the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons…” As we’ll see here, libertarianism may be the only government that actually satisfies all of these requirements.

Article 2: Whether libertarianism is rooted in selfish greed.

Objection 1: Libertarianism is based in the erroneous principle of autonomy, which manifests itself in selfish greed. It is of the philosophical tradition of anti-Christian thinkers like Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and Rand.

On the contrary: St. Paul said, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”

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I answer that: Libertarianism, which boils down to the non-aggression principle (NAP: The initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property is inherently illegitimate) is derived from the Catholic Scholastics, most notably the School of Salamanca, who based their proto-Austrian economic theory on Natural Rights derived from Scripture and Catholic theology. Thinkers like Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, and Francisco Suárez originated the modern concepts of libertarianism based on Catholic moral teaching and St. Thomas Aquinas’s theory of natural law, which stipulates the principle,  “one should do harm to no man” (Summa Theologea I-II Q. 95),  a progression from the Golden Rule, professed in the Bible: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Lk 6:31

Article 3: Whether government should promote good.

Objection 1: Libertarianism cannot be correct because the point of life isn’t freedom from harm, it is to do good. Just as man’s purpose is not simply to avoid evil but to do good, it is the purpose of government to make men better by inculcating them with virtue.

On the contrary: St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue” (ST II-II Q. 10)

I answer that: The absolute minimum for civilized society is the acceptance of Vulnero Nemo (harm no one) and the only legitimate purpose of government is to enforce this principle. In other words, the only legitimate role of government is to protect its citizens from harm to their negative rights.

It’s true that freedom from harm isn’t the purpose of life. We are called to do more than just not harm people. We’re called to do good and be proactive in love, but that’s not the domain of the government. Once the government attempts to assert positive rights or initiates preemptive war or stops victimless crimes, it is using illegitimate force. One cannot force another to be good and when one attempts that they do evil in order to promote good, a contradiction. In the Summa, Aquinas says:

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (ST II-I Q. 96)

Aquinas later elaborates, “…in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.” Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided.” (ST II-II Q. 10)

To force the Church’s moral theology on people takes away free will and negates any possibility for a moral choice in the matter. God gave us free will; he intended us to use it.

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Article 4: Whether government is necessary to help the poor.

Objection 1: As Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said, “Libertarian deregulation is much to the disadvantage of the poor.” The best way to help the poor is through governmental regulation.

On the contrary: Jesus said, “…sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;” he didn’t say vote for politicians to take other people’s money to give to the poor.

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I answer that: Cardinal Maradiaga suffers from the “Who will build the roads” economic fallacy in which he thinks that since governments provide aid to the poor and redistribute wealth that government is the only entity who can do such things.

First, as a Church official, he should know better that private institutions are much more efficient and effective at helping the poor than government. Charities really help people but government programs tend to perpetuate the problems that are set out to fix. Second, no economic system in the history of the Earth has been better at redistributing wealth from those who have to those in need than the free-market. Billions of people making exponentially more decisions will always be better at allocating wealth than a handful of central planners.

And this shows in real-world experience. The free-market system, based in libertarian principles, has led to the greatest increase of wealth the world has ever seen and the free-market has raised more people out of poverty than any other economic system in the history of mankind.

Article 5: Whether all authority is from God.

Objection 1: But it would seem that all government is instituted by God as St. Paul says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Rom 13:1)

On the contrary: St. Paul clarifies, “…For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.”

I answer that: St. Paul is not claiming that all government is instituted by God for that would carry the troubling implication that Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin were instituted by God. He is only referring to just authority as he later clarifies “…For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.” Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin caused fear for good behavior and thus were not included in St. Paul’s definition of ruler. Peter has similar criteria for the authority which we must accept: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (Peter 2:13-14)

As the Catechism states: “Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a ‘moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility.'” (CCC 1902)

Article 6: Whether we must obey the government unconditionally.

Objection 1: It would seem that we must obey our government unconditionally as St. Paul says, “therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

On the contrary: The Catechism clarifies that, “Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.” (CCC 1903)

I answer that: While authority may be appointed by God, right reason demands that only legitimate authority—that is authority that is just—should be obeyed. The Catechism states, “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “We must obey God rather than men.” (CCC 2242)

Article 7: Whether humans have rights.

Objection 1: It would seem that the notion of rights is a modern invention devised to draw away from the goal of the common good. Humans do not have rights.

On the contrary: St. Thomas Aquinas says, “…justice has its own special proper object over and above the other virtues, and this object is called the just, which is the same as ‘right.'” (ST II-II Q. 57)

I answer that: Thomas Jefferson was correct when he wrote that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And we have these rights whether our sovereigns acknowledge them or not. As Aquinas states, “Now a thing can be adjusted to a man in two ways: first by its very nature, as when a man gives so much that he may receive equal value in return, and this is called ‘natural right.’ This is contrasted with ‘positive right’ which is decreed by the prince or sovereign.” No one can take away your natural rights but they can do great damage making you think they can.

Article 8: Whether government should tax its citizens.

Objection 1: The Catechism states, “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes…” (CCC 2240) so governments have the authority to tax its citizens for the greater good.

Objection 2: St. Paul states, “This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.” (Romans 13:5-7) Since authorities are ministers of God, we have the obligation to follow their order.

On the contrary: God said through Moses the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shall not steal,” and St. Augustine declared, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

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I answer that: Theft is proscribed in the Ten Commandments as one of the central foundations of Christianity. And an act which is evil if committed by an individual doesn’t suddenly become good when a group of people do it. A thug who takes money from you isn’t moral just because a majority of the community voted for him to take money from you or because he gives some of the money to hungry kids. Theft is theft no matter who commits the act. Augustine knew that governments are thieves as he asked, “…what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?”

Reply to Objection 1: Just as it is a moral obligation to follow the laws of your community (as long as you’re not sinning or cooperating with evil) for the sake of order, it is a moral obligation to pay taxes despite the fact that it is theft. I liken taxes to a financial slap on my cheek. “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Mt. 5:39) But the Catechism says it is a moral obligation to pay taxes, and an act can’t be moral if it isn’t a free choice—free of coercion by threat of violence or death. Thus, CCC 2240 must only apply to just taxation—voluntary taxation—which doesn’t exist, at least in the United States government.

Reply to Objection 2: The problem here is taking a quote out of the Bible without using reason or considering context in order to justify an ideology. One could justify every single vile act in humanity doing that. After all, Paul says to the Ephesians, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” Does that mean that slavery is justified? No, just as slavery was accepted as the norm in Paul’s time, taxes are accepted now. That doesn’t make them just.

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Image credit: Catholic Libertarians.