The Church vs. Economic Liberalism: Ferrara Nails It!

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[Christopher A. Ferrara, The Church and the Libertarian (Minnesota: The Remnant Press, 2010), $25, 383 pp., soft cover.]

Since hearing, a few years ago that Chris Ferrara was preparing this book, I have eagerly looked forward to reading it. I have not been disappointed. This is a tremendous and necessary defense against a dangerous ,widespread ideology that is all too often defended by Catholics — who, as Brother Francis (RIP) would say, should know better. That most Catholics now do not may have something to do with why Our Lady of Fatima called our time an era of diabolical disorientation.

In the Author’s Introduction to this superb, well reasoned and brilliantly written defense of the Church’s Social Teaching, Christopher Ferrara writes: “In a world burdened by massive governments whose tentacles extend deeper into our lives with each passing day, the attraction of Austro-libertarianism as a radical solution to our predicament is understandable.”

In the late 1970s, concerned about “our predicament,” which like so many Americans I mistakenly thought I understood, I was attracted to this “radical solution.” At the Foundation for Economic Education, the self-styled “Home to freedom, prosperity, free markets and Austrian economics for over 50 years,” I willingly absorbed this great sounding sophistry and enthusiastically tried to pass it on to all I could. Thanks be to God this changed. Soon after being led into Christ’s Church in 1992, I received the additional grace of finding my way to Saint Benedict Center. Working through the reading requirements of the Saint Augustine Institute of Catholic Studies, I took particular interest in Liberalism Is a Sin by Don Felix Sarda y Salvany. What might have once been “understandable” became painfully regrettable.

The recorded philosophy lectures of Brother Francis sparked an interest in revisiting the Austrian teaching. I started to understand that the classical liberalism they defended was not only an illusion but a disastrous mistake. They insisted economics was “value-neutral,” but the Ethics course in Brother’s Philosophia Perennis showed this to be a normative science. His course on Polemics offered the final push. This deals with the catastrophic results issuing from the errors of men of great genius, and why and how they must be opposed.

Following the method of the St. Augustine Institute, I started with the encyclicals of the Popes. A favorite passage comes from Leo XIII, who is frequently quoted by Ferrara. In his first encyclical, Inscrutabili, (On the Evils Affecting Modern Society, 1878), he wrote: “Now the source of these evils lies chiefly, we are convinced, in this, that the holy and venerable authority of the Church, which in God’s name rules mankind, upholding and defending all lawful authority, has been despised and set aside.” This easily describes the theme of Ferrara’s book.

My new friends at SBC suggested additional useful works; books such as The Liberal Illusion by Louis Veuillot, The Framework of a Christian State by Fr. E. Cahill, S.J., the many books made available by John Sharpe at IHS Press — e.g.: those of Chesterton, Belloc, Amintore Fanfani, and Henrich Pesch, S.J.; and even those by former communist sympathizers like James Burnham (Suicide of the West) and communist converts like Whittaker Chambers (Witness). There are also many excellent articles in Catholic periodicals by good Catholic writers. These include those of Mr. Farrara, from which this book originated.

For Catholics today, the frequent reading of authentic Catholic Social Teaching is important. Most Americans, including most Catholics, are now liberals. In great numbers our deluded neighbors and Catholic brethren even brag of being liberals; while most so-called conservatives are unaware they too have swallowed this poison, condemned by the Church. Very simply, liberalism, according to Fr. E. Cahill, is, in thought (or philosophy), rationalism; in politics, secularism; in economics, greed; and in religion, indifferentism. It is this product of the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries that present day “conservatives” are trying to conserve.

Because those seeking to avoid legitimate criticism often inflate even fraternal correction into false accusations, only to insist they are falsely accused, Ferrara offers a worthwhile list of disclaimers and even identifies throughout the book such rhetorical appeals to emotion with the very useful label “panic button!” He is not, therefore, suggesting one can not vote for a libertarian, which candidate might be the only one a Christian in good conscience could vote for; he is not critiquing the benign libertarian call for “limited government” consistent with Catholic teaching; he is not defending any form of socialism; and refuses to place the entire blame for our present tribulations on the Federal Reserve System, but rather recognizes its creation involved power grabs by Big Business and Big Finance, aided by Big Government; and finally this is not an attempt to “excommunicate” anyone from the Catholic Church.

Instead, this is a sensible, sober realization of “the impending demise of Western civilization because of its collective apostasy and loss of grace….This book is written to address errors, not to make accusations against the persons who have uttered them. Catholics have every right to counter publicly errors that have been disseminated publicly. Public discourse is, after all, a two-way street.”

He closely examines the opposition of what he labels the Austro-libertarian movement — a combination of radical libertarianism with the so-called “Austrian School” of economics — with Catholic Social Teaching. Although he insists this latecomer is hardly the whole of the liberal movement, he uses it because of its current popularity, especially among unfortunate Catholics (both lay and religious) who mistakenly use it to oppose Church teaching. He mentions the first leaders of the Austrian School, the Viennese liberals Carl Menger, and Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk, but those Ferrara chiefly holds responsible for the spread of this intellectual plague are Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. Both of these men — now deceased, Jewish by birth, and later agnostics — accurately considered themselves products of the Enlightenment. This may sound like an unfair over-generalization, but Ferrara capably shows these two didn’t miss much of the liberal worldview.

Through out the book, Ferrara skillfully identifies their grave moral, philosophical and even theological errors. He begins his examination with the Austro-libertarian defense of the illusory “free” market, which they admit does not exist! “One of the principal reasons the ‘pure or unhampered’ market has never existed (except in the imagination of Austrians) is that capitalist entrepreneurs themselves have militated against its existence from the very inception of the capitalist era by obtaining special favors, protection and exemptions from the post-Catholic and then post-Christian nation states that replaced the decentralized structures of political authority in Christendom.” (Italics in original.)

From the start of the Protestant revolt under Henry VIII (with its massive seizure of Church property), through the French and American revolutions, the State was used for the forcible redistribution of this theft to the emerging capitalist classes. Take from the Church and give to the already well-to-do. This control of the market is still exercised by the three “Bigs” mentioned above (Government, Banking, and Business). Ferrara’s description of the immoral treatment of the poor, their forced labor, debtor’s prisons, starvation and the like is sad enough; it is surpassed only by the Austro-libertarians’ approval and excuse of these horrible conditions.

They excuse themselves by substituting their own “scriptures” for the teaching of the Church. Human Action (1949) by von Mises and Man, Economy, and State (1962) by Rothbard make up their Old and New “Testaments.” “It is immediately apparent that since Mises and Rothbard maintained that as economists they were merely presenting value-neutral ‘economic’ principles, they exceeded their own brief by counseling the world on human action (Mises) or man and state (Rothbard). Yet it did not prevent them, in these works and elsewhere, from expatiating on ethics, politics, justice, and human liberty — subjects on which (unlike the Church) they had no claim to authority.”

In the second and longest section, “Austro-Libertarianism Contra Ecclesiam,” Ferrara exposes a great number of their erroneous views: on Man and God and Man and the State (concerning pluralism and the separation of Church and State); their consequentialist ethics, absurd ideas on the “absolute” right to property, the utopian “stateless society,” their defense of usury, abortion, and homosexuality, including “gay adoption;” their denial of the just wage, the moral primacy of labor over capital; their defense of child labor; their insistence no worker is underpaid, or any CEO overpaid; opposition to unions, defense of Scrooge, the nonsensical law of equal freedom, and, in general, that the market can do no wrong. All through this section is the seemingly never-ending evidence that the Austro-libertarians, and most liberals in general do not realize the problems they now bemoan are the result of the principles they defend.

Near the end of the book, “A Catholic Response” starts with an admission that undermines the entire Austrian position. In “How the Worst Rise to the Top” Hans-Hermann Hoppe argues: “Free entry is not always good. Free entry and competition in the production of goods is good, but free competition in the production of bads is not.” In Hoppe’s Democracy: the God that Failed, tradition-minded Catholics will find an astonishing argument with which they can certainly agree.

Ferrara resourcefully adds the excellent observations of a convert (for he is soon to develop the necessity of conversion): a former atheist, Protestant and Transcendentalist, the brilliant essayist and political thinker, Orestes Brownson. Historian Theodore Maynard described Brownson as “the greatest and most luminous mind that has so far appeared among Catholics in this country.” Amazingly, only a year after his conversion, he wrote a prophetic essay entitled: “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty.”

For those now insisting we must “rally ‘round the Constitution” to save our country, Brownson wrote: “The Constitution is a dead letter, except so far as it serves to prescribe the modes of election, the rule of the majority, the distribution of tenure of offices, and the union and separation of the functions of government. Since 1828, it has been becoming in practice, and is now, substantially, a pure democracy, with no effective constitution but the will of the majority…The reign of great men, of distinguished statesmen and firm patriots is over, and that of the demagogues has begun….”

Ferrara reminds us: “Nor could the Constitution arrest ‘the democratic tendency,’ since the Constitution, reciting ‘We the people’ as its very source and making no mention of God, could be amended (or expediently disregarded) by the ‘will of the people’ as expressed by their ‘elected representatives.’ No contrivance on paper, no matter how skillfully drafted, could arrest the inevitable course of events. The framers of our government foresaw this evil, and thought to guard against it by a written Constitution. But they entrusted the preservation of the Constitution to the care of the people, which was as wise as to lock up your culprit in prison and entrust him with the key.” (Italics in original.)

He also points out: “Brownson, being Catholic, saw what Washington and the other Founders did not: that because Protestantism in its ever-multiplying varieties is by it very nature subject to the popular will, the only religion that could provide a ‘religious principle’ sufficient to sustain the Republic is Roman Catholicism.”

When confronted with the challenge of Faith and the necessity of conversion, not only for the eternal salvation of each of us, but also for the preservation of our country, many we have talked with over the years exclaim: But this would take divine intervention!! Is this not what is offered to us by Our Lady of Fatima?


Robert Boehm
20 August 2010
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

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