Skip to Content

Can Catholics love their faith and the free market?

Pope Francis Leads Way Of The Cross On Rio's Copacabana BeachPope Francis Leads Way Of The Cross On Rio's Copacabana Beach

Liberal America is gleefully welcoming Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, and it’s not hard to understand why. The new Pope has made a concerted effort to play down (though by no means repudiate) the church’s opposition to things like abortion and homosexuality, while speaking assertively in favor of a coordinated effort to slow climate change, combat poverty, and reduce economic inequality.

But as historian pointed out recently, American progressives shouldn’t mistake a change in tone for a reversal of the Church’s centuries-old positions. The views of the Catholic church don’t fit neatly into American concepts of left and right. And while liberals shouldn’t expect the Pope to suddenly support abortion rights, Republican Catholics should expect to continue to hear the Pope criticize the excesses of global capitalism.

Indeed, the Pope’s rebuke of “unfettered capitalism,” marks the continuation of a tradition as old as industrial capitalism itself. As writes, “Back in 1864, Pope Pius IX denounced anyone who would even suggest that the Roman pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” And during the Great Depression, Pope Pius advocated for workers’ rights and fair wages.

At the same time, the typical American Catholic doesn’t necessarily vote in accordance with the teachings of their church. Just as many Americans don’t abide by the church’s teaching on birth control, the fact that U.S. Catholics are increasingly voting Republican suggests that many don’t agree with the church’s general predisposition towards social spending and foreign aid.

So, how can the 48% of Catholic-American voters who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 justify their support for the candidate’s economic policies?

Historian Thomas E. Woods has been leading an effort among Catholic intellectuals to harmonize the church’s thought and the free-market fundamentalism of America’s right wing. In his book The Church and the Market, Woods advocates for Austrian economics, a heterodox school that is even more suspicious of government intervention than famous right-wing economists like Milton Friedman. The book is part an explanation of the Austrian point of view, which rejects evidenced-based economics that relies on natural experiments and is instead in favor of principles derived by reason and logic. Woods points out that this approach is congenial to Catholic tradition, writing that, “The Church has always maintained that faith and reason are not in conflict, but rather constitute two harmonious paths to truth.”

To illustrate the difference between Austrian and mainstream, right-leaning economics, Woods examines the minimum wage. He writes:

Since [Austrian] principles … are established on the basis of logical deduction from an irrefutable axiom, they are … apodictically true. They are not falsifiable by experience. Economic law is not disproved if no change in unemployment is observed after an increase in the minimum wage to $25 per hour. All we can say is that unemployment is higher than it would have been in the absence of the minimum wage.

The result of this faith in Austrian principals leads its adherents to reject almost any kind of government intervention of economic activity as harmful to the very people, the working class and the poor, that it is often aimed at helping. Woods takes aim at classic conservative targets like rent control and minimum wage laws, which he argues end up hurting the most vulnerable by reducing the total amount of affordable housing and killing jobs.

Woods’ other targets include a Federal Reserve-managed monetary system, foreign aid, and, perhaps most controversial in terms of Catholic philosophy, the welfare state. He argues that the welfare state “amounts to a direct assault on the extended family.” When the state takes over the job of caring for the elderly through programs like Social Security, for instance, it “effectively subsidizes the breakup and dispersal of extended family units.” Woods argues that the welfare state isn’t effective at alleviating poverty and discourages institutions like marriage and values like hard work that would lift up the less fortunate.

Woods’ ideas are fairly similar to those of Republican hard-liners like Paul Ryan, who has argued that reducing spending on the poor would be good for low-income people in the long run. But in the end, much of what Woods argues is hard to square with the Christian faith’s approach to charity. Woods does not explain, for instance, why public charity is so corrosive to the family, but private charity is not. Nor does Woods address the Pope’s recent arguments that modern capitalism itself has a distorting effect on the human spirit. Welfare may erode a desire to pursue work, but the Pope is also arguing that materialism is eroding the desire for spiritual satisfaction.

It’s for these reasons that Woods and those who think like him remain outside the mainstream of Catholic thought. But his arguments offer a guide for Catholics who feel the need to reject Pope Francis’ condemnation of the global economic order.