When speaking with faithful Catholics today on politics, it is common to hear the lamentation that neither half of America’s political duopoly—the Democratic and Republican parties—represents Catholic interests as set forth in the Church’s social teaching. An increasing number of Catholics, particularly traditional Catholics, have sought refuge in historically marginal movements such as libertarianism and its more mainstream offshoot, the Tea Party, in order to secure themselves from illicit government intrusion in such sacred spheres as family life. Thanks to libertarian luminary Samuel Gregg’s book by the same name, the term “Tea Party Catholic” has even entered the contemporary political lexicon while, at the same time, Catholic-run think tanks like the Acton Institute pour resources into supporting socio-economic policies that align with the Tea Party’s platform of limited government and free markets.
Accompanying this promotion of Tea Party politics among Catholics is a vitriolic assault on so-called “illiberal Catholicism,” a loosely designated body of believers who, for diverse reasons, oppose the questionable union of Catholicism with all forms of political liberalism. These “illiberal Catholics” include a significant number who are unwilling to abandon the Church’s traditional theological moorings in Scholasticism and the teachings of the 19th- and early to mid 20th-century popes and counterrevolutionary thinkers. They have embraced the “illiberal Catholic” moniker as nothing other than a symbol of fidelity to the Church’s classic social magisterium—one which takes its bearings from the Social Kingship of Christ rather than the rogues’ gallery of libertarian intellectual heroes: Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and so forth.
Before delving further into the assault on “illiberal Catholicism” and what it means for traditional Catholics, a few words seem in order concerning those who, with their instincts in the right place, have opted to support libertarian or libertarian-esque movements such as the Tea Party. In this day and age where the federal administrative state runs rampant, “crony capitalism” appears ubiquitous, and the core moral teachings of the Catholic Church are under regular assault from political agencies captured by left-wing ideologues, it makes a great deal of sense that Catholics might assign their allegiance to groups which, among other things, fight for freedom from unjust government intrusion in their private and economic lives. But this “promise,” whatever its worth, cuts two ways. For on the one hand, libertarianism offers a zone of freedom for Catholics to raise their families in accordance with the precepts of the Church and hold back their lawful earnings from being applied to immoral political projects such as publicly funded abortion, contraception, and sterilization. On the other, it also guarantees pornographers, prostitutes, and even drug dealers the “free-market space” to ply their respective “trades” without the fear of government coercion. By dialing-down the level of legitimate government power to a de minimis level, libertarianism looks to the highest degree of freedom or, more accurately, non-interference for all without regard to moral truth. Every citizen is afforded the fallacious right to construct privately his own idea of “the good life” without necessary recourse to the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” Christ our God.
Of course, all Catholics living in the United States today must recognize that they are part of a pluralistic landscape that is dominated by the creed of secularism—that anti-Christian Weltanschauung routinely and forcefully refuted by such Popes as Pius IX, St. Pius X, and, closer to our own day, Benedict XVI. As such, it is not enough to long romantically for the social reign of Christ; society, on all levels, must be converted first. Part of that conversion process includes scrutinizing the false presuppositions of otherwise seemingly attractive political movements. As Christopher Ferrara has detailed in his two landmark works, The Church and the Libertarian and Liberty, the God That Failed, libertarianism is nothing other than a high-octane version of the political liberalism repudiated by the Church for centuries. Even in its populist, Tea Party guise, libertarianism falls into the same error as the late 19th- and early 20th-century French “Sillon” movement by sourcing political authority in “the people” while absolutizing democracy, two views condemned by St. Pius X in his encyclical on the Sillon, Notre Charge Apostolique, and reaffirmed by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in his masterful commentary on that document found in his book Against the Heresies. Moreover, by promoting an economic ordo which places its faith in the “invisible hand” of the free market rather than the requirements of natural justice rooted in a thoroughly Christian anthropology, libertarianism often runs counter to the teachings of Popes Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum and Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno on the dignity of human labor and the fair distribution of goods in society.
Carrying forth this project of calling not just libertarianism, but all forms of liberalism, to the carpet are those aforementioned “illiberal Catholics” who, despite their mixed intellectual pedigrees, have come to reject the false narrative that Catholicism and liberal ideology share a common socio-political cause. Although, as noted, “illiberal Catholicism” does not constitute a uniform or even organized movement, what may be called its “traditionalist wing” has become more vocal in recent years in response to the tendency of some traditional Catholics to turn toward libertarianism in order to find some bulwark against the rising tide of unchecked and unprincipled government power. Despite the hyperbolic accusations of certain critics, the “illiberal Catholic” rejection of libertarianism does not mean a full-on embrace of the Leviathan State in all domains of human life, nor does it mean a call for public persecution whereby Protestant prayer houses will be put to the torch and non-Catholics compelled to convert at the end of the sword. On the contrary, many “illiberal Catholics” seek a return to authentic community life through subsidiarity, property ownership, and a wide distribution of the means of production. Attending, and in fact superseding, these organizational mechanisms, is an unwavering dedication to the Faith of Jesus Christ and His Holy Church, which is nothing less than “the pillar and ground of the truth.”
Some might still object to “illiberal Catholicism” on the grounds that its aims are impracticable, especially given current political realities. While that is certainly true at the macro-level, there is nothing stopping “illiberal Catholics,” or, more properly, all traditional Catholics from following the advice given by Fr. Arnaud Rostand in his concluding remarks at the 2011 Angelus Press Conference, The Kingship of Christ, namely to form worker and other positive associations, run in local elections, and use the editorial pages of newspapers and other public fora to promote Catholic socio-political ideals. Above all, Catholics must not be afraid to be unpopular by remaining out of step with the Zeitgeist. None of this means that Catholics ought to be overly polemical or outright refuse cooperation with non-Catholics on matters of common interest. What it does mean, however, is that Catholics faithful to the teachings of the Church must not compromise those teachings in exchange for dubious, and often fleeting, political relevancy.
The project does not end there. As laudable as the socio-political elements of “illiberal Catholicism” unquestionably are, they must not be pursued at the expense of, or in isolation from, evangelization. For too long traditional Catholics have contented themselves with an unfortunate but understandable ghetto existence in order to preserve the Catholic Faith; at some point, however, the Great Commission must take center stage. In addition to the millions of non-Catholics living in America who have yet to hear about the Faith unadulterated by modern sentiments, there are also millions of Catholics who, for disparate reasons, remain improperly catechized on matters ranging from basic doctrine to the beauty and integrity of the Church’s timeless liturgy. The traditionalist iteration of “illiberal Catholicism,” then, is not simply about combating the errors of political liberalism, but is also centered on attacking the pathologies of religious liberalism which often manifest themselves in the form of indifferentism, relativism, and false ecumenism.
While political prognostication is always a perilous exercise, the current evidence seems to indicate that the situation of Catholicism in America will become more difficult in the coming years as special-interest groups attempt to leverage the rule of law against traditional morality and the rights of the Church. Even so, the answer cannot be capitulation, even for supposedly “prudential considerations”; prudence never trumps principle. Now is the time for the faithful to recall their common bond in Christ the King and apply the teachings bequeathed by Sovereign Pontiffs, theologians, philosophers, and orthodox political commentators for the arduous but imperative task of rebuilding a proper social order on the unwavering foundation of Catholic truth. That is the mission of “illiberal Catholicism.” Indeed, it must never cease to be the mission of all Catholics everywhere.