Skip to main content

Transatlantic Blog

Pope Francis’s attack on ‘libertarian individualism’ not about libertarians

The following essay appeared Friday, May 5, 2017, at Crux.

In a recent message by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Academy of Social Science he outlines some moral concerns about a phenomenon he sees as invading (his term) “high levels of culture and education in both universities and in schools,” namely “libertarian individualism.”

On the first day of my philosophy classes, the professor admonished us that if we want to have an intelligent discussion or debate, we must begin by defining our terms. Exchanges can become heated and rambunctious but ultimately pointless without observing this first step in clarity.

So let’s consider the pope’s own definition of what he is criticizing. Like the word “capitalism,” the word “libertarian” is encrusted with numerous definitions, broad and narrow as well as nuanced and blunt. What, then, is the pope talking about?

When the pope speaks of libertarian individualism, he has in mind something which he says “exalts the selfish ideal,” whereby “…it is only the individual who gives values to things and interpersonal relationships…” and where it is “only the individual who decides what is good and what is bad.”

This, he says, result is a belief in “self-causation,” which I take to mean the denial of any givenness in human nature in favor of a radical autonomy in which morality is no longer a question of free adherence to the truth about good and evil but rather simply a matter of whatever I will it to be.

The question that remains is whether the pope is offering a fair or accurate definition of “libertarianism.”

All of this, the pope contends (and I agree), “denies the common good.” One could add that it also denies the entire tradition of natural law via an exaltation of subjectivity and the detachment of conscience from the truths knowable via faith and reason.

But the most interesting part of Pope Francis’s comments arise when he states that libertarian individualism denies the validity of the common good, because on the one hand it supposes that the very idea of "common" implies the constriction of at least some individuals, and the other that the notion of ’good‘ deprives freedom of its essence. This, then, is “anti-social” at the root.

At one level, the pope is expressing concern about the type of mindset that denies that there are conditions which enhance human flourishing (which is how the Catholic Church understands “the common good”) through the acceptance of common constraints (the rule of law being a good example).

He also seems to be critiquing any ethical system that sees freedom, in the sense of absence of constraint, as its own end and finality. For Catholics and other Christians, liberty is more than just negative freedom or the capacity to will X rather than Y.

All this is standard Catholic teaching. The question that remains is whether the pope is offering a fair or accurate definition of “libertarianism.”

Consider, for example, that there are many schools of libertarianism – Lockean libertarians, bleeding heart libertarians, Nozickian libertarians, Hayekian libertarians, Randian libertarians, even Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists, to name just a few.

By no means do they agree about everything. As interesting as it might be to examine the differences between these positions, I think it is more productive to outline some concepts to which I suspect all serious believers could subscribe and see if these can provide an alternative to the specific kind of libertarianism the pope is denouncing but also inoculate us against collectivist alternatives that some might believe the pope could be advocating.

Human beings are not simply individuals, even if we colloquially employ this word to describe people. Certainly, human beings enjoy the kind of legitimate liberty and distinctiveness which some (e.g., Aristotle and Aquinas among others) refer to at times as an expression of individuality.

Even the Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes speaks of private property as conferring “on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom.”

We also know, as a matter of natural reason and natural science, that from the moment of conception, each human being is biologically distinct from his father and mother. Their DNA, for instance, is different. Yet at the same time, that very same individual human being is in relation to his mother and father.

In short, the human person is both individual and social simultaneously. Perhaps in this light it is better to speak of human beings not so much as individuals but as persons.

The social reality of persons to persons is what constitutes a human community. This is a bond – one which certainly comes with some constraints, but one which can’t be reduced to constraints.

This brings me to the pope’s concern about bonds and constraints in relation to human freedom. In this regard I have long found the writings of the sociologist Robert Nisbet to be helpful, particularly the distinction he draws between power and authority.

Both power and authority are forms of constraint, Nisbet explains. Power is a form of constraint external to the person. This means that a constraint is forced upon a person without regard to that person’s free will, such as an act of violence to conform another’s behavior.

Authority, on the other hand, is a form of constraint interior to the person, some overarching code that the person himself believes in and to which he acquiesces, as begrudgingly as the case may be, such as abstaining from meat on Friday.

Most of us freely submit to all sorts of “authority,” in Nisbet’s sense of the word, and rightly resent what Nisbet regards as impositions of “power.”

Another form of authority long recognized by the Church is, of course, legitimate law and the legitimate acts of sovereign governments. Law and government certainly impose constraints upon people but they also create particular bonds between particular groups of people.

From this standpoint, we start to see that many of the debates engaged in by people of all political persuasions – including self-described libertarians – concern when a bond has become an illegitimate constraint; or where a constraint, however necessary, is mistaken for a bond.; or when societies are relying too heavily on constraints to do the work of what is normally undertaken by bonds.

Alexis de Tocqueville summed this up in one succinct question when he asked, “How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?”

These are the questions which are, and should be, engaged in by societies that seek to take liberty, justice, and the common good seriously. They are also perpetual works in progress.

The irony, however, is that we live in a time when a concern for liberty – especially in the specifically Christian sense of the term – far from invading our cultures, is under siege.

In some parts of the world, it is threatened by the type of populism that has done so much damage in Pope Francis’s Latin America (and is presently destroying Venezuela). In other countries, it is being slowly strangled by the bureaucracies which rule European social democracies.

Then there is the jihadism that is destroying the freedom of many, and literally killing thousands of Christians ever year.

So while the pope’s warnings against the radical individualism against which the Catholic Church has always cautioned are important, let’s hope that his words don’t distract attention from some of the profound violations of freedom occurring across the world.

(Photo credit: Republic of Korea. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.