An adviser to Pope Francis says Catholicism is incompatible with libertarianism. He’s right.

(The Week) It should come as no surprise that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga’s recent comments on American libertarianism have stirred a bit of a furor in free-market circles. On American zeal for preserving laissez-faire economic systems, the Honduran Cardinal had the following to say at speech on June 3 in Washington, D.C.:

The elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed… The hungry or sick child of the poor cannot wait… Many of these libertarianists do not read the social doctrine of the church. [Religious News Service]

Cardinal Maradiaga, who is one of the pope’s top advisers, went on to say that the free market is “the new idol,” lambasting those who adhere to libertarian economic policies in the face of the poor’s suffering. Libertarianism and Catholicism are, at times, incompatible, he concludes, though he notes that doesn’t mean the church “despises the rich.”

At National Review, Kevin D. Williamson took Cardinal Maradiaga to task, arguing that free market capitalism has done more for the global poor than any state program ever has. Williamson knocks the church for what he says is its backward, 1st-century understanding of the role of the state, one that has evolved “precious little since ‘render unto Caesar.'” He believes unfettered free trade could do a better job of caring for the poor than regulating distribution, writing:

Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. [National Review]

But Williamson, like the arch-libertarians Maradiaga criticizes, presupposes that the production of wealth gives its producers some special entitlement to it, that it belongs rightfully to them in an absolute and fundamental way. Yet, this is the kernel of Maradiaga’s argument: When states are assembled in order to protect and enforce ownership to the exclusion of the poor, then a twofold error has been committed (at least from the Catholic perspective).

First, there is no divine right to private property in the eyes of the church. Consider St. Augustine’s explanation of the origin of property in his Tractates on the Gospel of John:

By what right does every man possess what he possesses? Is it not by human right? For by divine right ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’ (I Cor. 10:26). God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, ‘this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.’ By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors. [More]

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