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Joe Hargrave’s Hermeneutic of Selectivity

Libertarianism is seductive. It promises much while, empirically, delivering little.

That is not a defect, ideologically speaking. For so long as libertarianism lacks a functioning, real-world ordo that can be rigorously evaluated, it can never be falsified. And so, for the time being, it exists as a dream, an unfulfilled promise of a better world predicated on free markets (whatever that means), a minimal—if not nonexistent—state apparatus, and laws limited to the enforcement of contracts and the prevention of physical, but probably not moral, harms.

Numerous Catholic thinkers have taken up the libertarian cause in recent years, though a number appear uncomfortable identifying themselves as expressly libertarian—perhaps due to the movement’s perceived permissiveness when it comes to matters such as abortion, pornography, prostitution, and narcotics. Some call themselves “Tea Party Catholics”; others, such as the Catholic-controlled but officially non-confessional Acton Institute, eschew labels altogether while standing for “[i]ntegrating Judeo-Christian truths [sic] with free market principles.” A few brave Catholics, including regular Crisis contributor Joe Hargrave, have no problem flying the libertarian banner in the face of their coreligionist critics.

Hargrave is a Janissary for Catholic libertarianism. Through a series of articles dating back to 2010, Hargrave has, inter alia, called for Catholics to align themselves with the Tea Party movement; claimed to have found affinities between the liberal philosophy of John Locke and the social thought of Pope Leo XIII; and, most recently, gutted Mark Shea’s impetuous claim that libertarianism is a “heresy.” (Not everything wrongheaded and incongruent with the Church’s social magisterium is necessarily heretical, Mr. Shea.)

Hargrave, unlike some of his intellectual opponents, is a serious thinker; as such, he deserves to be given a serious response, particularly when he is seriously mistaken. With respect to his takedown of Shea’s heresy hunting, Hargrave redeploys his oft-repeated claim that Leo XIII’s great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, is predicated largely on Lockean principles and thus, perhaps unbeknownst to Leo himself, ratifies the libertarian position. Although Hargrave’s conceptual genealogy of Rerum Novarum is not entirely off-target, he errs in reading the encyclical selectively, even desperately, in an attempt to square it with doctrinaire libertarianism.

For instance, Hargrave narrows in on Rerum Novarum’s defense of private property while also claiming, strangely, that the encyclical supports the view that legally mandated charitable aid to the poor is limited to cases of “extreme need.” That assertion, which rests on paragraph 22 of the encyclical, also includes this passage that Hargrave chooses to bypass: “But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving.” In other words, Leo XIII set a base floor, not an iron ceiling, for when the state, by right, should engage in charitable redistribution of wealth.

Hargrave’s libertarian reading of Rerum Novarum is further confounded by paragraph 36: “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.” Again, Leo XIII, with wisdom and prudence, did not erect hard limits on when the state can redistribute wealth; he instead left the door wide open for case-by-case analysis, contemplating all along the possibility, perhaps truer in our time than in Leo’s, that private efforts may be inadequate to ameliorate material suffering.

Hargrave’s problematic harmonization of Rerum Novarum and libertarianism continues with respect to wage contracts. Here, Hargrave attempts to get around Leo XIII’s call that such contracts “ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner” by positing that this principle—a “dictate of natural justice” according to the Pope—does not necessarily support “a mandatory minimum wage set by the federal government.” But what does that matter? A one-size-fits-all minimum wage will, more likely than not, always be insufficient to meet the “dictate of natural justice” given the disparity in living costs across states and regions. Stronger medicine is required. Further, the actual federal minimum wage—$7.25/hour—falls short of enabling a “frugal and well-behaved wage earner” to “comfortably […] support himself, his wife, and his children”—another standard set forth in Rerum Novarum that Hargrave conveniently ignores. Guilds, labor unions, and regulations controlling wage ratios may, to the chagrin of libertarians everywhere, be required to uphold Leo XIII’s instructions.

What about Hargrave’s reading of the Church’s social magisterium beyond Rerum Novarum? There is very little to be said about it because Hargrave has almost nothing to say about it. It’s not difficult to see why. For while Hargrave can, through some interpretive acrobatics, tease out an argument for a “natural, individual and inviolable right to private property” in the text of Rerum Novarum, this narrow reading finds no comfort in Pope Pius XI’s equally magisterial Quadragesimo Anno, paragraph 49:

Wherefore the wise Pontiff [Leo XIII] declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a libertarian Catholic like Hargrave taking comfort in these words, which is no doubt why he writes—pardon the term—“magisterially” on the confluence of libertarianism and Catholic social teaching in splendid isolation from every post-Leonine development and explication of that teaching. It would be quite a feat if Hargrave were able to uncover the libertarian teachings of Pope St. Pius X’s Notre Charge Apostolique, Pius XI’s Quas Primas, or Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. My strong suspicion is that he cannot, which is why he does not.

Catholic libertarianism is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. While not all of its proponents’ thinking is wrongheaded, much of it is. Hargrave, like many of his confrères, believes that libertarianism can find support in the Church’s social magisterium, but such claims are only plausible if one accepts Hargrave’s hermeneutic of selectivity: Embrace and absolutize everything that appears superficially congruent with libertarianism and steadfastly ignore everything else.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • chezami

    People keep telling me libertarianism is not heretical. Here’s more Libertarian thought from libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard:

    “The Catholic antiabortionist, for example, declares that all he wants for the fetus is the rights of any human being, i.e., the right not to be murdered. But there is more involved here, and this is the crucial consideration. If we are to treat the fetus as having the same rights as humans, then let us ask: what human has the right to remain, unbidden, as an unwanted parasite
    within some other human being’s body? This is the nub of the issue: the absolute right of every person and hence every woman, to the ownership of her own body. What the mother is doing in an abortin is causing an unwanted entity within her body to be ejected from it: If the fetus dies, this does not rebut the point that no being has a right to live, unbidden as a parasite within or upon some person’s body.”

    Rothbard on parents and their (born) children: “Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.”

    Also there’s this gem from Rothbard: “Now the man who seizes another’s property is living in basic contradiction to his own nature as a man. For we have seen that man can only live and prosper by his own production and exchange of products. The aggressor, on the other hand, is not a producer at all but a predator; he lives parasitically off the labor and product of others. Hence, instead of living in accordance with the nature of man, the aggressor is a parasite who feeds unilaterally by exploiting the labor and energy of other men. Here is clearly a complete violation of any kind of universal ethic, for man clearly cannot live as a parasite; parasites must have non-parasites, producers, to feed upon. The parasite not only fails to add to the social total of goods and services, he depends completely on the production of the host body. And yet, any increase in coercive parasitism decreases ipso facto the quantity and the output of the producers, until finally, if the producers die out, the parasites will quickly follow suit.”

    Of course, by “coercive parasitism” Rothbard means any form of social assistance to “parasites” like the truly indigent, the aged, the infirm, the disabled, orphans, and so on. So, a question: If your mother or grandmother is on Social Security or Medicare, is she a parasite?

    Good luck reconciling this with the teaching of the Church.

    You speak of “heresy hunting”. I see nothing wrong with pointing out that Libertarianism, like all ideologies, kypes a few ideas from the Tradition, expands them to insanity, and uses them to make war on the rest of the Tradition. Nor with noting that this is also known as “heresy”. I do, on the other hand, strenuously object to lay people taking it upon themselves to don paper mitres and kick people afflicted with heretical ideas out of the Church. That’s real heresy hunting and I’m it’s mortal enemy, as, I suspect, are you, Mr. Sanchez.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Agreed. At the rhetorical level at least, accusations of “heresy” are unhelpful. And again, I am speaking of libertarianism writ large here. There are different shades. Rothbardian libertarianism — something which is manifestly at odds with Catholicism — is exponentially more toxic than the “Tea Party Catholic”-style libertarianism championed by some of the folks at the Acton Institute.

      • chezami

        Just to be clear: I was using “heresy” in a much looser sense than formal heresy. Arguing that babies are parasites who we can kill at will and parents owe their children nothing = heresy. And that’s Libertarianism distilled to chemical purity by Rothbard. Most Catholics, including Hargrave, take the poison in much more diluted form and it gives them an individualism high without completely deadening their humanity and sanity as it does with Rothbard. Problem is, it also impairs their ability to listen to the parts of Catholic teaching libertarism dislikes, as you note. I don’t sweep all libertarians into Rothbard’s camp. I recognize that there is no libertarian magisterium and that people pick and choose bits that they like–and that lots of people influenced by libertarianism are very nice people and very good Catholics. I also recognize that all they are doing is selecting bits and pieces from Catholic Magisterial teaching and that the more Catholic you become the less Libertarian, while the more Libertarian you become, the more like Murray Rothbard you become. My solution: ditch Libertarian picking and choosing and just stick with the fullness of Catholic teaching.

        • Michael Sullivan

          But that is really the issue here, what does Catholic Social Teaching propose? Fr. John A. Ryan used CST to argue that the New Deal was CST in action. He was wrong. It is largely his influence that today we have all of these liberal catholics who want big-government solutions to society’s problems. The welfare state is not an expression of CST, it is an indictment against the Church!

          Before the New Deal and the expansion of the social welfare state, ALL the social services were provided by the Church and Christian mutual benefit societies. That was a golden era of small government in a culture of Christian charity and volunteerism.

          Today the State is pushing the Church out of social welfare as it further expands, and the Church is contracting. The average Catholic gives less than 2% of their income to the Church! Why? Because so much of their income goes taxes to pay for the welfare state (and those who voted for big government feel they have already done their part for “social justice”).

          People like Mr. Sanchez who misrepresent CST to push for an activist State in wealth redistribution, are basically calling for the destruction of Catholicism in my opinion because they do not believe that freedom is the best conditions for the Church to thrive and transform society, but rather we need to politically organize (by misrepresenting CST) to get our hands on the power of the State to socially engineer a better society. The Power of the State over freedom of the Church, is their ultimate mantra, they lack faith in Jesus Christ.

          No serious Catholic thinker can look at the last 100 years and say that the leviathan State is the best condition for the Church to evangelize culture, over a limited State where personal moral freedom is maximized, so let’s advocate for more State power, action and social engineering!

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            I agree with just about all of this. Thank goodness I am not calling for what you claim. Your panicked reading of “wealth redistribution” strikes me as the source of your animosity with respect to what I wrote. If you can find me the passage where I call for “socially engineering a better society” (whatever that means), I’d love to read it.

          • John Médaille

            “Before the New Deal and the expansion of the social welfare state, ALL
            the social services were provided by the Church and Christian mutual
            benefit societies. That was a golden era of small government in a
            culture of Christian charity and volunteerism.” Not quite true. What it really meant was that most needs went unmet. There was a time when the Church had governmental and ministerial authority over these areas. Education, welfare, even banking and business regulations were under the authority of the Church. But what is important to note is that the Church discharged these obligations not with “charitable” donations, but with tax revenues. The tax system was land, but the Church did not remit the land fees to the King, but kept them to discharge her obligations. And the Church owned 1/3rd of the land. Further, the Church had an additional revenue source that the king did not have: an income/wealth tax in the mandatory tithe. I have never seen a proper accounting of it, but I think it likely that the Church had more tax revenue than the prince.

          • Gary Houchens

            I believe you ought to read Kevin Williamson’s book, “The End is Near.” Far more needs were being met in the pre-New Deal era by civic groups and professional guilds, etc., than you give credit.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            Even if that is true, that doesn’t mean that situation is feasible right now. It would be better if we did have that situation, of course.

          • chezami

            That golden era of Hoovervilles and breadlines came within inches of communist revolt because the private charities were overwhelmed by the catastrophic failure of capitalism. This sort of rhetoric is a triumph of libertarian ideology over reality.

  • chezami

    Speaking of which, how is this…

    “Hargrave, like many of his confrères, believes that libertarianism can find support in the Church’s social magisterium, but such claims are only plausible if one accepts Hargrave’s hermeneutic of selectivity: Embrace and absolutize everything that appears superficially congruent with libertarianism and steadfastly ignore everything else.”
    …not a description of the very essence of heretical thinking? The word does, after all, come from the Greek for drawing out a thread from a whole weave. So what’s the diff between your analysis and mine?

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      I don’t think Hargrave, or any other Catholic libertarian, are committing formal heresies. They are, however, trying to square their socio-political views with the Church’s magisterium in a highly selective — and very problematic — fashion that needs to be forcefully critiqued. Calling them “heretics” isn’t particularly helpful, though. And though this article was not the place to do it, I should be clear that not all libertarian thinking is incongruent with the Church’s social magisterium. For instance, libertarians tend to support governance policies that are roughly akin with the principle of subsidiarity. Libertarians also reject socialist and other forms of command-planned economies, which is also supported by the social magisterium of the Church. Where you really see a fissure emergence between libertarianism and Catholicism is with respect to property rights. Libertarians take an absolutist view of property rights and the Church, well, doesn’t.

      • chezami

        I doubt they are committing *formal* heresies either. But my point was that Libertarianism is a classic example of an ideology that swipes bits and piece of the Catholics tradition and suppresses what it dislikes–which is the essence of heretical thinking. And since you make exactly the same point I do, I think we are basically on the same page.

  • Dan Hugger

    “For so long as libertarianism lacks a functioning, real-world ordo that can be rigorously evaluated, it can never be falsified.”

    Isn’t this the purpose of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom?

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      My point is that we don’t have a “libertarian state” that we can evaluate to see if libertarianism, indeed, fulfills its promises. Some libertarians argue that, at times in history, there have been certain polities that have had libertarian/libertarian-esque measures in place, but they cannot be assessed in isolation from other influences and factors as well. So, for the time being (and probably in perpetuity), libertarianism will always be a quasi-utopian ideal — always strived for and never attained.

      • Dan Hugger

        I’m not sure any two libertarians would agree on what constitutes the libertarian movement let alone a “libertarian state” ( In this way they are very much like progressives, liberals, socialists, conservatives, and Gaullists. Are these systems thus similarly unfalsifiable?

        • Gabriel S. Sanchez

          Libertarianism, as it is typically argued, only “works” if the entire ordo is libertarian. Since we lack that ordo, we cannot evaluate and test it — or so the story goes. For instance, when certain economic policies which can be described as libertarian are critiqued on various grounds, the libertarian defense (dodge) is that it’s not the fault of the policies themselves but rather the other policies at play which are not, in fact, libertarian.

          • Dan Hugger

            I think evaluating and weighing ideas based on how they are typically argued is a terrible way to go about reaching a conclusion about those ideas (Particularly if those ideas are political). Postrel is good on this: I’ve also never heard a libertarian argue that we can’t cut social services spending because sugar subsidies are still in place or that it would be a bad idea to cut taxes before there was a world free trade agreement, but there is no accounting for experience.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            That’s fine. My point was only that libertarianism continues to prove attractive because it remains, by and large, a theory (or, really, an ideology) that cannot be falsified empirically. As for particular libertarian ideas, policy goals, etc., they would have to be assessed on their own merits to the extent they can be isolated from one another.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        History affords many examples of libertarian states. One has only to consider France and Germany, throughout the mediaeval period, when a military aristocracy, a territorial clergy and the free cities imposed very effective limits on the power of the central government, often to the point of reducing it to impotence. It was also, as Lord Acton noted, “the most absolute contradiction of democracy that has coexisted with civilisation.”

  • Michael Sullivan

    “For instance, Hargrave narrows in on Rerum Novarum’s defense of private property while also claiming, strangely, that the encyclical supports the view that legally mandated charitable aid to the poor is limited to cases of “extreme need.” That assertion, which rests on paragraph 22 of the encyclical, also includes this passage that Hargrave chooses to bypass: “But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving.” In other words, Leo XIII set a base floor, not an iron ceiling, for when the state, by right, should engage in charitable redistribution of wealth.”

    This is a GROSS misreading of Rerum Novarum! The context of paragraph 22 is the duties of those blessed with possessions beyond what they need for their needs. It is not about State action AT ALL, except for this passage (NOTES AND EMPHASIS MY OWN IN UPPER CASE):

    But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’”(12) True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(14) It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty NOT ENFORCED by human law [i.e. THE STATE]. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving [I.E VOLUNTARY CHARITY – GIFT, NOT TAXATION AND REDISTRIBUTION] – ‘It is more blessed to give [I.E. VOLUNTARY CHARITY – NOT TAKING BY THE STATE AND REDISTRIBUTION] than to receive”;(15) and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself – “As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.”(16) To SUM UP, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that HE MAY [NOTICE THE ACTOR HERE, THE PERSON, NOT THE STATE] employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others. “He that hath a talent,” said St. Gregory the Great, “let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor.”(17)

    The State is incapable of “charitable redistribution of wealth” because the State doesn’t produce anything, and the State is not capable of virtue because it is not a person with moral capacity. The State is pure power – force.

    The context of this passage is that even the duty to help in extreme circumstances of poverty is not a duty that should be mandated by the State, i.e. human law, but one that is called forth by law and judgements of Christ for each person to express Christian charity. The laws need to yield to the law of Christ, meaning it must not usurp personal charity by mandating action under the threat of penalty.

    This is clear in the summary of the argument of the passage.

    Also, the second passage from paragraph 36 is grossly misrepresented. NO WHERE does Leo XIII call for taxation for wealth redistribution. No. Where.

    This passage is about the legitimacy of State regulation of industry under very circumscribed conditions, 1) when a group is threated; and 2) when ALL OTHER means have been exhausted and failed. Then, and only then should State intervention be considered and it must be 1) narrowly tailored to the conditions, and 2) focus only on the evil or mischief to be eliminated.

    • Gus

      Excellent response, Michael. This whole distrubutism vs. capitalism vs. libertarianism debate is becoming irksome. Seems to me the that Church has always endorsed a ‘free market’ that is moral and ethical. Whatever economists want to call it is beside the point. The state’s role is to mostly stay out of the way unless things get our of whack, and if it has to intervene it needs to be done judiciously.

      • Gabriel S. Sanchez

        There is nothing here I disagree with per se, but to libertarian eyes, the state doing much of anything except throwing hooligans in jail and enforcing contracts is anathema. Nothing I wrote here was calling for a mass redistribution of wealth; it was simply pointing out that Leo XIII, and the post-Leonine magisterium, did not erect the sort of barriers to redistribution efforts that Hargrave intimated.

        • Gus

          When you say “regulations controlling wage ratios” may be required, it sounds like you favor progressive economic policies. In your opening paragraph you also seemed to question the viability of free markets. I guess when all is said and done, however, I am more inclined to agree with Hargrave’s reading on RN than yours. Redistribution is socialism, and the Church is clearly not in favor of socialism.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            It was a suggestion of a possible mechanism for meeting the “dictate of natural justice” Leo XIII set forth in the encyclical. How does that make me a favorer of “progressive economic policies”? And, for that matter, what do you even mean by “progressive economic policies”? I did not question the viability of free markets at all. If anything, I made two points: First, that we don’t have a libertarian free market to test empirically; and second, the term “free market” is ambiguous. And, in the end, I am going to disagree. Redistribution is not socialism per se. If that were true, then even the example I set forth in these comments — the state seizing a surplus portion of a farmer’s crops to feed people starving to death — is “socialism.”

          • Gus

            I’m not saying it ‘makes’ you in favor of progressive economic policies, just that it ‘sounded’ like you were in favor of them, and by this I mean Keynesian economics as opposed to free market economics.

            I think the overall tone of your essay perhaps lead me, and others, to believe you favor redistribution as opposed to a free market, which I don’t think is all that ambiguous a term. I would define it as Murray/Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel have defined it. The fact that you are writing in Ethika Politika would also seem to indicate that you support the MacIntyre/Schindler school of thought in government / economics.

            Also, you seem to be trying to walk a very fine line when you say “Redistribution is not socialism per se,” and then offer an example that is an extreme. In such an instance, redistribution may — or may not — be called for, based upon all kinds of mitigating factors.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            I don’t live my life in the Manichaean worldview of contemporary libertarians, so I really can’t follow you very far here. With that said, some thoughts…

            First, I am not in the MacIntyre/Schindler school of thought, though I am sure many of my views are congruent with theirs. If there is a “school of thought” I subscribe to, it is the “classical” school of Catholic social thought set forth and expounded before the Second Vatican Council, though I neither ignore nor reject the post-conciliar developments of the Church’s social magisterium. I believe it should be interpreted as a coherent whole. I consider myself a Distributist, but I do not reject a priori the insights of various economic schools of thought, nor do I believe that Distributism supports anything close to the administrative state we currently have in place in the United States.

            Second, the “free market” is an ambiguous term because it mean everything from a market with no state intervention to a market with some pretty substantial degrees of state intervention. As for the extent and nature of that intervention, there is a pretty wide spectrum of thought out there on when and where such interventions are appropriate. When you have libertarians out there arguing that the state should intervene in instances of market failures while others are claiming there’s no such thing as a market failure, you are dealing with some pretty radical disagreements. So, when someone tells me they support “free markets,” it usually entails a very longwinded discussion of what they mean by that and on what level.

            Third, with respect to socialism, that’s a slippery concept as well. It is also overused in the political arena to tar n’ feather a pretty broad array of government social and regulatory programs. I don’t find it particularly useful analytically, which is why I stay away from the term. As far as me and redistribution goes, I favor redistribution only the extent set forth by the Church’s social magisterium — no more and no less. I don’t think that makes me a socialist; I think it makes me a faithful Catholic.

          • Gus

            Your statement, “If there is a “school of thought” I subscribe to, it is the “classical” school of Catholic social thought . . . ” helped clear things up.

            But when you also say, “I consider myself a Distributist,” this brings me be back to my original reply to Mr. Sullivan — “This whole distrubutism vs. capitalism vs. libertarianism debate is becoming irksome.” However, I like what you said next, ” . . . but I do not reject a priori the insights of various economic schools of thought . . .” Keeping in mind that RN was written in 1891 and addresses the state of society and economics / governments at that time, and that since then we’ve had “updates” from Pius Xi, John XXIII, and John Paul II, I tend to think that capitalism, libertarianism, and distributism may all have something to offer. I guess I’d just like to see more cohesiveness from Catholic economists as opposed to factionalization.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      Your reading is colored by your ideological bias, which you wear on your sleeve. You are reading paragraph 22 as an absolute prohibition and, again, in isolation from the line I quoted, as if Leo XIII is arguing that the state cannot and ought not to adjust its laws accordingly under any conditions. Your reading of paragraph 36 is overly narrow and does not follow that it is only applicable to regulation. Moreover, regulation — as you should well know, being a libertarian — is one means, perhaps not the best means, of wealth redistribution in society alongside taxation. To offer a historic example, industry regulators such as the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission and the Civil Aeronautics Board used to routine approve high fares on heavily trafficked routes in order to cross-subsidize lower trafficked routes (mostly to rural/small destination areas). In other words, a wealth redistribution. If you weren’t in a statist panic, I am sure you wouldn’t have overlooked that point.

      • Michael Sullivan

        Mr. Sanchez, that is certainly calling the kettle black! The passage I quoted from your article compared to the passage from RN quoted in full bears out your misreading of the encyclical. A plain reading of the text in context bears out that not even Hargrave’s reading of a “legally mandated charity” is accurate. Pope Leo is making a distinction between a duty in justice (a duty to give only in extreme circumstances) and a duty in Christian charity (a duty to love thy neighbor), and a further distinction between this duty and human law (mandated giving, which is no giving at all). Being a lawyer, you should know that there is a distinction between having a moral duty in justice (or charity for that matter), and a legal duty in law.

        This passage in the encyclical (22) is all about the moral duty to give to one’s neighbor who is in need, and stressing that the State must not mandate this giving under human law (i.e., through wealth redistribution) even in extreme circumstances.

        As for the other passage, read the list of issues and the conditions, from para 36:

        1) “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or is threatened with harm, which can in no other way be met or prevented, the public authority must step in to deal with it.” – I.E., When all other means have been exhausted, the public authority is the last resort – perfectly consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

        2)”… in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.” – I.E., narrowly tailored to the nature of the conditions and focus only on remedying evil or removal of mischief – perfectly consistent with a non-interventionist policy of State action in the market. Notice that the pope uses the expression “the law’s INTERFERENCE”, interference with what? Human freedom especially our moral freedom. Notice also, that the interference is limited only to addressing evil, it is never invoked in this document to legitimize the State’s/law’s interference to advance some social value like income equality.

        3) “If by a strike of workers or concerted interruption of work there should be imminent danger of disturbance to the public peace; or if circumstances were such as that among the working class the ties of family life were relaxed; if religion were found to suffer through the workers not having time and opportunity afforded them to practice its duties; if in workshops and factories there were danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes or from other harmful occasions of evil; or if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law.” – This is the list he gives. He is invoking circumstances for regulatory action, not income redistribution, to eliminate an evil – strike violence, family breakdown, freedom of religion attacked, moral evils in the work place, unjust employment practices, degrading working conditions, health dangers in the work place, etc. Notice these are all about eliminating an evil afflicting a group, and only when all other means have been exhausted.

        Mr. Sanchez, this is a plain reading of the text. You can issue ad hominems against me, but show me the evidence in the text for my misreading of it. It is you who are misreading and misrepresenting Leo XIII in your article.

        By the way, I agree that regulatory action can be redistributive and almost always picks winners and losers in the market place, that is not the issue. The issue is whether the social encyclicals of Leo XIII call for this type of interference which does not address an evil where the general interest is being harmed or a group and where all other avenues for correction have been exhausted.

        • Gabriel S. Sanchez

          First, your “plain reading” of the text creates tensions where there ought to be none. By positing that paragraph 22 is an absolute prohibition on the state to engage in wealth redistribution (as opposed to, say, punishing an individual with a fine or prison sentence for not engaging in charitable giving — which is the more plausible reading), it eviscerates paragraph 36 which expressly contemplates such redistribution. Where you appear to disagree with me is what form those measures ought to take. That is, at best, a marginal quibble since you have conceded that regulation can, like taxes, be used as a means of wealth redistribution.

          Second, I will concede the point that “legally mandated charitable aid to the poor” was a bad choice of words on my part since it has led to a misunderstanding of my point that I am calling for the state to criminally punish individuals who do not give to charity. A clearer formulation — which I actually do make at the end of the paragraph — is that RN paragraph 22 does not say that the state can never redistribute wealth. That reading, again, harmonizes with what is expressed in paragraph 36.

          Third, speaking of paragraph 36 — and perhaps my whole interpretation — you seem to be saddling me with a view which I did not advance in this article, namely that I am calling for — or arguing that Leo XIII called for — economic egalitarianism (or something in that ballpark). “Wealth redistribution,” outside of the libertarian lexicon of dirty words, is a neutral expression of moving wealth from one party to another, be it five cents or five grand. Any form of aid from the state to any class of individuals is going to entail a redistribution of wealth in society, regardless of what mechanism is selected (taxation or regulation). I made no claim that Leo XIII, or the Catholic social tradition writ large, placed no limits state action or set no conditions for when the state acts. My point was much, much more modest.

          Fourth, even if I am misreading/misrepresenting Leo XIII in my article (which I reject), your counter-attack, much like Hargrave’s original analysis, is issued absent the post-Leonine social magisterium. RN — or I should say — RN paragraph 22 cannot be absolutized at the expense of the rest of the encyclical and the many other encyclicals which followed it.

          • Michael Sullivan

            Mr. Sanchez, thank you for your clarification. I’m not engaging in wholesale review of the social magisterium, I’m responding to how you characterized para 22 and 36 in aid of your argument for State intervention. I maintain you misused those quotes.

            You wrote: “In other words,[in relation to para 22] Leo XIII set a base floor, not an iron ceiling, for when the state, by right, should engage in charitable redistribution of wealth.”

            Yet, the passage you quote is not about setting a base floor for the “right” of the State to engage in charitable redistribution of wealth. It isn’t about that at all.

            It is about the positive duty of individual persons to respond in justice and charity to the material needs of others, and the positive duty of the State (human law) to restrain itself from ANY action in law that would interfere with the free exercise of that moral duty by persons in the society.

            In short, in answer to the question, “When should the State, by right, engage in charitable redistribution of wealth?” The only answer found in para 22 is NEVER. It is not setting a base floor, it is erecting a firewall. How you can read otherwise is a mystery to me.

            That is what I mean by misrepresenting RN.

            Now, whether CST as a whole mandates State intervention in charitable redistribution of wealth, that is another question. I would argue that it doesn’t because the nature of the State makes it impossible to be charitable. It doesn’t earn anything, and it can not love.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            You are still locked in a tension here, which seems to me to be rooted in your “isolationist” read of RN. An intratextualist reading seems more warranted. But more critically, following your reading, paragraph 22 would mean that an individual has a duty *in justice* to help those in “extreme need” (which was also Hargrave’s point) but that the state has *no right* to enforce that particular duty of justice. Am I correct in your interpretation here?

            If I am correct, that would mean you could have a scenario — pardon the lawyerly simplification — whereby a rich farmer could have an abundant harvest which far exceeds that necessary to meet his needs while his neighbors starve and the state, following paragraph 22 of RN, *could do nothing about it.* Yes, the farmer would have a duty in justice to give of his harvest, but according to you, the state could not enforce that duty by, say, seizing a portion of that harvest and redistributing it to the starving masses. That creates some rather troubling tensions in Catholic thought as a whole, particularly with what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say on “extreme need”: “When one’s neighbor is in extreme need all things become common as far as he is concerned. Hence he would not commit sin even by seizing them violently or stealing them.”

            It is almost impossible to imagine that RN — which uses “extreme need” in paragraph 22 — was issued by Leo XIII in ignorance St. Thomas on this point given the Leonine revival of Thomism. But again, if one follows your reading of paragraph 22, then it would be not only better, but just, for the state to stand by and let starving citizens engage in theft — even violent theft — to meet their needs rather than for the state to compel the farmer to share from his harvest.

          • Michael Sullivan

            Mr. Sanchez, you are avoiding the point. You have grossly misread para 22 to mean the opposite of what it says.

            You are correct in your scenario. In justice, the starving neighbors can take the excess food from the rich farmer by violent theft in extreme need, however, not the State. Thomas doesn’t say that the State has a right in justice to take the food, only the starving person in need. That is a key distinction. Remember, CST is personalist.

            What is the State’s role here? If the rich farmer takes the starving neighbor to court for theft, the State should rule the neighbor innocent.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            My reading harmonizes paragraphs 22 and 36; keeps in accordance with subsequent CST; does not create buffer zones which keeps the state from upholding justice and/or opening the door to violence in cases of extreme need; and keeps an eye on the state’s overarching duty to harmonize its laws and policies with the precepts of Christ and His Church. I’ll take that over your isolationist approach.

          • Michael Sullivan

            Isolationist?!? Since when are we talking foreign policy?

            Look, Hargrave answered you here.


            His observations about your use of 22 and 36 echo my own. You are seeing “charitable redistribution of wealth” where none exists. What exists in 22 is a clear statement on the restraint of the State not to interfere with the personal moral duty to give (be it in justice or charity). What exists in 36 is a clear statement again of strong restraint on the State and only permits action when no other means are available and only narrowly tailored to addressing the evil that can’t be address otherwise.

            Not a single mandate for the State to act “by right” to charitably redistribute wealth. Not one in either of these paragraphs.

            I’ve noticed that in your responses to me, you fail to quote from the encyclical directly to support your reading. I gave the full context of both of these paragraphs pointing out the severely limited context of when State interference with the moral freedom of persons is called for and in what exceptions.

            How you see a right of the State to charitably redistribute wealth in these paragraphs is a mystery. If you read statutes in the same way you have read these paragraphs in RN, you would lose your case.

            It should be pointed out what the Church says about State action is always qualified by the primary action of the local authority, whereas in America we are almost always talking about Federal action and power in these debates because so much of our political focus is on Washington because of its leviathan growth. Local power has been usurped by centralized power in DC.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            I think you hit the nail on the head here: you are attempting to read RN like a statute rather than a magisterial text which is part of a much larger tapestry of Catholic social thought and moral theory. In fact, you are trying to read RN like a legal textualist of the Scalia-Manning axis, which is perhaps why you would accept absurd results flowing from your reading (not to mention results which do not cohere with the subsequent deposit of CST). That is fine to do in the realm of law under the (contestable) theory that it is the duty of courts to read and apply statutes as they are written, regardless of the results; it’s up to the legislature to make corrections if they are unhappy with those results. Why you believe this interpretive approach is not only valid, but exclusive, with respect to RN is quite beyond me. Regardless, that is where the matter stands at the moment — much to your chagrin, it seems.

            Neither Hargrave nor I follow your reading of para. 22 which would bar the state from upholding a matter of justice with regard to those in “extreme need.” It would be incongruent with the larger social teaching of the Church to hold that the state cannot uphold justice, and the example I presented, rooted in St. Thomas’ teaching, shows the perverse result which would flow from your reading. Moreover, to repeat myself again, your reading of para. 22 creates an unnecessary tension with para. 36. Your reading of that paragraph is, if I may say, a little wonky insofar as:

            (1) You first claim that it demands an exhaustion of all other measures before state intervention; it doesn’t say that. It simply says “no other way,” which does not mandate that “all other ways” must be actually tried first. It’s a minor over-read in the end, but worth noting.

            (2) You spend a lot of time talking about the limitations set forth in para. 36 as if I somehow claimed there were no limitations. You even go so far as to imply that I support social engineering of some sort. I asked you where you got that from, but you never told me. However, even with the limitations set forth, the class of individuals which may be harmed and thus require state intervention is undoubtedly broader than those in “extreme need” as stated in para. 22. But by your reading, those in “extreme need” cannot expect any state intervention on their behalf — even in the starvation scenario I set forth — and yet those contemplated in para. 36, those who are in “less-than-extreme need” may receive state intervention on their behalf in accordance with the limitations set forth in that paragraph. That is an absurd reading of the document.

            (3) You have already backed down on the regulatory point, or so I thought. Even if regulation is the only mechanism contemplated by para. 36 (and that assumes that Leo XIII’s list of scenarios is exhaustive — nowhere in that paragraph or anywhere else in RN does he say that list is exhaustive; it’s only illustrative), regulation can still succeed in redistributing wealth. In fact, it is one of the primary means in most Western states today — a reality not lost in free-trade agreements or the detailed legal structure of the World Trade Organization which disciplines both taxation and regulation in tandem.

            (4) Finally, my reading of para. 36 is coheres with other interpreters of the Church’s “classic” (pre-Vatican II) social magisterium, particularly Fr. Edward Cahill’s Framework of a Christian State (1932).

            Once again, your ideological bias seems to lead you to interpret “redistribute wealth” along pure social engineering/mass taxation/etc. lines. That is not what I have argued for here, and it is certainly not what RN, or the post-Leonine social magisterium, contemplates. As I pointed out earlier, you have basically confined yourself to much teeth-gnashing over two paragraphs in RN, as if the exoneration of your isolationist reading — and no, “isolationist” doesn’t need to have one meaning; context is important (though that may be lost on you given your narrow textualist approach to RN) — somehow secures the very libertarian principle that even in the face of starvation, the state cannot redistribute a farmer’s abundant harvest (though in astoundingly non-libertarian fashion, the people have the right to invade that farmer’s property and violently take what they need from that harvest). At the close of business, we have a strong hermeneutical disagreement here; you are advocating for a narrow textualism, the sort which may (or may not) work in the realm of conservative jurisprudence, but which has decidedly unpleasant limitations with respect to the Church’s social magisterium. Thankfully, RN was not the Church’s last word on modern socio-economic matters; it was just the beginning.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            I will say, in closing (because I really can’t stay on this thread indefinitely), that were I to rewrite this piece or, more likely, expand on it later (it’s an ongoing project), I would make clearer the interpretive approach I was taking while also bringing in the larger framework of Catholic moral and social teaching which preceded RN. So it goes. While I think it’s a tad bit low-class to accuse me of being some sort of state-loving, regulatory obsessed social engineer, I do appreciate your thoughts and will certainly take them into account if/when I revisit this issue. As for Hargrave’s reply, I may have something more to say about it, but I will do it over at The American Conservative.

          • Gabriel S. Sanchez

            For what it is worth, here is a clearer translation of a disputed passage in RN: “These are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action” (taken from the translation at New Advent and the Acton Institute). Here the limitation of “cannot be enforced by legal action” is clearly applicable to duties of charity only, not justice.

    • K

      well done

      • Gabriel S. Sanchez

        A good, cheerleaders.

        Just what we need.

        • K

          Oh, how scholarly of you! Just what we need–another strong headed lawyer. Keep insulting your readers when they disagree with you, it will definitely convince them you’re right!

  • My reply is at The American Catholic. Judging by some of your follow up comments below I really think a good portion of our dispute is semantic, which isn’t to say that we have no philosophical disputes at all. Anyway I thank you for the fair tone and I do believe it is high time I addressed some oil the encyclical more systematically.

  • Neil

    Most of what u say seems to make sense, but your comments on minimum wage. Min wage jobs are not intended to be jobs that one keeps to support a family. Min wage jobs are jobs for high school kids, college kids, and a spouse that wants a job to supplement the family income to have some extra spending money.

    • Gabriel S. Sanchez

      I am not sure what you mean by “not intended.” I suspect that many people who take jobs with minimum-wage rates “do not intend” to take them to make less than the threshold set forth in the article. Hargrave’s point was that a flat, across-the-board minimum wage is not supported by RN. He’s probably right, albeit for reasons he would disagree with, namely that an across-the-board minimum wage is insufficient to meet the criteria of natural justice Leo XIII sets forth in the encyclical.