Freedom and Flourishing

by NR Interview
Economic and religious liberty are interrelated.

‘Catholics can bring something to the political and economic agenda of America’s limited government movement often considered marginal by many libertarians and viewed as metaphysical day-dreaming by others,” Samuel Gregg writes in his new book, Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. “This is the rich conception of human flourishing.”

This concept, Gregg writes, is “at the very core of the Church’s robust commitment to religious liberty,” as the Second Vatican Council articulated it in its 1965 declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. It is “quite applicable,” Gregg adds, “to the development of a morally ‘thick’ case for the free economy and limiting the government’s economic role.”

But Gregg’s point doesn’t stop there. The Catholic social teaching he tries to bring to light would not have us satisfied with liberty merely for liberty’s sake. Individual autonomy should have as its end “the excellence rooted in our very nature as the imago Dei: a being called to freely embrace all those goods that make us flourish precisely as a human being rather than embrace mediocrity.”

Gregg talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what Tea Party Catholic is and isn’t, and why it matters.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Tell us about the title of the book. Does the Tea Party have anything to do with the Catholic Church?

SAMUEL GREGG: Tea Party Catholic itself has very little to say about the contemporary tea-party movement. But for those Americans who haven’t imbibed Progressivist ideology and who don’t think that the real America began when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, the expression “tea party” is an especially evocative phrase. It immediately conjures up in people’s minds the American Revolution, the American Founding, and the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Of course it’s true that the American Revolution and Founding weren’t Catholic affairs. Both were primarily shaped by various forms of Protestant Christianity and strands of moderate Enlightenment thought, especially that of Montesquieu. But within this context the title “Tea Party Catholic seeks to highlight two things.

First, it underscores that Catholics have been involved in the American experiment from the very beginning, most notably in the person of Charles Carroll of Carrollton and his family. If there’s anything I’d like readers to take away from Tea Party Catholic, it’s the profound role played in the American Founding by this devout Catholic layman. Unfortunately the fact that Carroll was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last signer to depart this world has actually distracted attention from his other contributions. Carroll was a tremendously successful entrepreneur, a sophisticated market-orientated economic thinker, a member of several legislatures, and a serious student of political thought. He was also deeply attached to human liberty, especially economic and religious freedom. It has always struck me as odd that more Catholic Americans don’t know about him.

Second, the title — particularly the subtitle, “The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing — is meant to suggest that Catholics today can play a significant role in deepening the intellectual and moral ballast of the limited-government movement in America. Many people in this movement talk about the idea of human flourishing as the key to such a transformation. That’s great, but some who use this expression often seem unclear about what it means. By bringing the insights of natural law and the Catholic faith to bear on this question, “limited government” or “free enterprise” Catholics can add compelling content to the idea of human flourishing in ways that are attractive to other Americans, not least because these ideas resonate with the tradition of republican virtue the United States was founded on and which was so important to Charles Carroll.


LOPEZ: Where does “solidarity” come in?

GREGG: Solidarity is nothing more and nothing less than the virtue of loving our neighbor. In America, this concern for neighbor has traditionally been expressed through the habit of free association. This was noticed by external observers ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jacques Maritain. Americans effectively lived out solidarity (and, in many respects, still do) by coming together to fix problems rather than simply expecting government to address the issue. To that extent, the American experience illustrates that solidarity makes concrete demands on us as individuals and communities. But it also shows how solidarity needs to be “operationalized” through the principle of subsidiarity.


LOPEZ: What is subsidiarity?

GREGG: The very concise definitions of subsidiarity outlined in papal encyclicals ranging from Quadragesimo Anno and Centesimus Annus to Caritas in Veritate make it clear that we need to align the fulfillment of our responsibilities for our neighbor with the necessity of freedom. Why? Because the goal of solidarity isn’t securing an absolute equality for everyone in a given society. The objective is the all-around human flourishing of all individuals and communities. And to flourish, all of us need to make free choices for the good. Government, law, communities, and families obviously have a role in encouraging us to make the right choices, but in the end you can’t flourish unless you choose to do so.


LOPEZ: How do we determine what human flourishing is?

GREGG: Human flourishing is the excellence that we can all realize when we freely choose to participate in those fundamental goods — such as beauty, creative work, the truth about the transcendent, etc. These goods are self-evident to human reason. What reason, after all, can someone have for preferring error to truth? The same goods also make us distinctly human and, at least for Catholics and many other Christians, our participation in these goods foreshadows and builds up the Kingdom of God that is to come.

Tea Party Catholic tries to provide a relatively simple explanation of the idea of human flourishing and how it occurs in the process of free choice. A far more sophisticated account was beautifully articulated by Blessed John Paul II in his great 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor. For those who want to understand human flourishing from a theological perspective, I’d recommend they read The Sources of Christian Ethics by the late Servais-Théodore Pinckaers, O.P. A powerful and strictly philosophical treatment can be found in John Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights.


LOPEZ: Does promoting human flourishing help establish social justice??

GREGG: “Social justice” is one of those many expressions often tossed around inside and outside the Church with little effort to define what it means. But yes, promoting human flourishing is about actual social justice, because social justice is essentially about the common good,  the conditions that help people to flourish under their own volition. Among other things, such conditions include the rule of law, property rights, a prosperous economy, a constitutionally limited government, and a robust civil society. In other words, the idea of social justice, as expressed in Catholic social teaching, isn’t the same thing as the state-centric vision and the fixation with equality of outcomes that characterizes many modern liberals who have read far too much John Rawls.


LOPEZ: How are economic liberty and religious liberty “indivisible”?

GREGG: Evidence for the correlation between the two is becoming more apparent every day. The erosion of economic freedom that we have witnessed in America over the past thirteen years in the form of the expansion of the welfare and regulatory state has brought in its wake all sorts of infringements of religious liberty. To be blunt, the secular-liberal vision of life that undergirds the modern welfare state — with its near-obsession with self-expression, self-esteem, and sex — simply doesn’t take religious liberty seriously. So if one person’s religious liberty gets in the way of the state’s determination to make his business help pay for an apparently limitless supply of life-terminating drugs, sterilization procedures, and contraception to his employees, then too bad. We’re told that people can apply for an exemption. But since when has religious liberty in America been about “exemptions”? Exemptions from what? Isn’t the very point of religious liberty to allow individuals and communities to live out their religious faith, subject only to the limitations of natural law, as Vatican II specified in its declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae?

But the relationship can also work the other way. China’s haphazard opening of the economy since the 1980s has, for all its contradictions, helped create space for more people to ponder and ask questions about the meaning of life. And guess what? We now see millions of conversions to Christianity and people wanting to live out their new faith. Moreover, when people convert to Christianity, that creates problems for governments who want to try and control everything. Christianity certainly respects the state’s authority. Yet it also insists that government’s power is limited, particularly regarding religious questions.


LOPEZ: Who is the intended audience for your book? It seems like it could be helpful to more than just Catholics and certainly to more than just Catholics who identify as conservative or affiliate with the Tea Party.

GREGG: I’ve been humbled by the number of Evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews (observant or otherwise), and what Michael Novak calls “smiling secularists” who have said to me that they agree with the book’s arguments. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the number of non-American Catholics who have said very kind things about Tea Party Catholic.

Certainly, on one level, Tea Party Catholic is addressed to Catholic audiences in the United States. But liberty, limited government, market economies, and the idea of human flourishing are hardly specifically Catholic or exclusively American. Many people from all sorts of backgrounds are, I think, looking for coherent cases for freedom that go beyond the question-begging “autonomy-for-the-sake-of-autonomy” arguments often encountered in free-market and limited-government circles.

More generally, I think conservatives and free-marketers are very good at critiquing the Left, but have a less-stellar record when it comes to making positive normative cases for these good things. Critiquing ill-founded ideas is important. But unless we get beyond efficiency arguments when, for instance, explaining why free markets are preferable to social democracy, then we basically concede the moral terrain to modern liberalism. So if Tea Party Catholic helps provide some of the necessary moral argumentation, then it will have made some type of contribution.


LOPEZ: Politics and religion are the topics we’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties. How can they mix in the public square and policymaking in a constructive way?

GREGG: The mixture of politics and religion in the public square doesn’t have to be problematic, but it often is. Theocracy isn’t the answer. Nor is the radical separationism that seems intrinsic to modern secularism. Some better models are the vision of –churchstate relations articulated by Vatican II in Dignitatis Humanae, but also the way that the Founders addressed religious liberty.

In terms of policy, religious leaders are well placed to remind everyone of some of the principles that should guide political deliberation. When, however, bishops, pastors, and clergy get into the business of constantly lobbying for, or expressing endless opinions on, pieces of legislation, I think they generally diminish their ability to influence the political process creatively. Instead they end up being viewed as, and sometimes acting like, just another lobby group among a legion of lobby groups.

Occasionally, religious leaders do need to lobby about specific matters. But most of the time they don’t. And in the case of Catholics, the details of policy and legislation are in the vast majority of cases the prime responsibility of laypeople — not priests, religious, or bishops.


LOPEZ: Who gets to claim that they are advocating truly Catholic views and policies? How do we determine what’s right if there are competing opinions claiming to be the “Catholic” view?

GREGG: Right from the start, Tea Party Catholic doesn’t claim to be the only possible Catholic position on, for example, the economic issues it addresses. That would be arrogant and fallacious.

Catholics have every right to speak as Catholics on public issues. At the same time, most policy issues are matters for prudential judgment. While there is normally a reasonably strict translation of Catholic teaching about an issue like euthanasia into a particular policy position, on many economic issues, for example, the choice isn’t just between good and bad options. It’s often a choice between a range of good options. Some of these good options, as the moral theologian Germain Grisez stresses, might not be compatible with each other but are nonetheless compatible with Catholic teaching. Grisez goes on to observe that in many cases, when a good quality-of-life posture is identified, such as universal health care, the discernment of how a modern society attains that end may depend upon empirical and prudential judgments reasonably in dispute among people equally well informed by principles of Catholic teaching.

But if you want to determine when a policy labeled Catholic isn’t in fact a Catholic position, a good starting point is to determine whether it allows, encourages, or further facilitates intentional violation of any of the negative moral absolutes of the Church’s teaching (e.g., don’t kill). Much of the internal coherence of Catholic moral teaching rests upon the insight that it is never permissible to choose evil, and that evil may never be done that good may come of it. When it comes, however, to living out the positive commands of Church teaching (such as “help the poor”) in the realm of public policy, there are many good, often competing alternatives that people can reasonably choose and advocate as Catholics.


LOPEZ: Is your book a critique of libertarianism?

GREGG: To critique something means you underline the strengths and weaknesses of a stated position, so, yes, parts of Tea Party Catholic are an implied or sometimes direct critique of libertarianism. Self-described libertarians range from those who call themselves virtue libertarians to those who celebrate hedonism and seem rather anxious for everyone else to do so. Others turn out to be conservatives who favor free markets.

But whatever different people mean by the term, the great strength of libertarians is the rigor that they bring to the study of economic issues and the way they force the rest of us to see the unintended consequences of various forms of state intervention. In doing so, they highlight all sorts of truths that some people, especially governments, don’t want to know about. Many people want, for example, to believe that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

But economic truth is only one part of the overall truth about man and his world. In this regard, I think most libertarian thought in the realm of philosophy and ethical and political theory is highly problematic and erroneous. People like Hayek, Mises, and Friedman were great economists. Their critiques of Keynesianism and socialism turned out to be spot-on. Yet when we look at the underlying philosophical commitments of many such individuals, it’s often the same unstable mixture of utilitarianism, skepticism, positivism, and evolutionist logic that tends to characterize modern liberalism. As I often say, you don’t have to accept libertarian philosophical claims in order to believe that the market economy is the most optimal of economic arrangements. Adam Smith, who was more of a classical liberal than a libertarian, once said that no one thought more as he did about economic issues than Edmund Burke. Yet few would call Burke a libertarian; he was, after all, the founder of modern conservatism!

That said, I’ve always advocated a big-tent approach. Plenty of libertarians live in a self-imposed bubble, just as there are some orthodox Catholics and social conservatives who seem content to more or less ghettoize themselves. Such isolation, however, doesn’t help when it comes to rolling back some of the very serious assaults upon economic and religious freedom occurring today, let alone trying to get America back to the best insights of its Founding. Internal tensions have always existed on the right, and they always will. But such strains aren’t a reason to stand by and let America be turned into just another bankrupt, self-loathing social democracy.


LOPEZ: You say that businesses’ “primary input to the common good occurs precisely by businesses doing what they are supposed to do as businesses.” How are the businesses, such as Hobby Lobby, that are fighting with the Obama administration over religious liberty contributing to the common good as businesses?

GREGG: All organizations have different roles to play in promoting human flourishing. Mistakes often occur when they start doing things quite distant from their core activities. Charities aren’t businesses. Businesses aren’t charities. One is focused on helping those in need through direct forms of assistance. The other is about creating the economic resources that enable us to engage in any number of activities, including works of mercy. The very nature of the common good means that different people and communities contribute to it in different ways.

But businesses owned by people of faith should be able to perform their particular role in ways consistent with their owners’ religious beliefs and practices. After all, our religious liberty isn’t limited to our individual choices. Religious liberty also exists to protect the freedom of communities — not just churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques but also those communities established upon, and that try to live in accordance with, clearly articulated religious principles.


LOPEZ: What are we doing wrong in talking about religious liberty?

GREGG: I think the Catholic bishops of America and others have done a good job in explaining why religious liberty matters for everyone. The problem is that many modern secular liberals aren’t listening. Why? Alas, I think much of the non-listening flows from the fact that, deep down, they just don’t regard religious liberty as especially important. When you read their writings, some of them can barely disguise their conviction that religious belief is simply an atavistic irrationality that will eventually disappear when the rest of us become as enlightened as they are. Some of them would, I think, be quite happy if the Church morphed into just another NGO, something, by the way, that Pope Francis consistently warns us against. But I have two suggestions to make about the way we should be talking about religious liberty. First, we could focus more attention upon the Founders’ attachment to religious liberty and to showing that efforts to relegate it to a fourth-level concern are thoroughly inconsistent with the American Experiment. Second, I’d suggest we present religious liberty in the context of the overall assault on the freedom and lives of Christians that’s going on throughout the rest of the world, and that John Allen documents so well in his new book The Global War on Christians.


LOPEZ: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, reminds us that “there will always be loneliness.” Is this important to keep in mind in political discussions? Or can it be used as an excuse for indifference or half-measures?

GREGG: Pope Benedict’s words remind us that there are no utopias in this world, that politics can’t solve all problems, and that not every problem is an issue of injustice. Christ redeemed us and our world, but we are still fallen. That’s not a justification for indifference or resignation. Rather Benedict was underlining that many forms of material, moral, and spiritual poverty can only be addressed by a willingness to engage in personal, direct, and at times frustrating one-on-one work with broken individuals and dysfunctional communities. In these situations, governments and government officials usually have little to contribute, and their attempts to push themselves in are often counterproductive.

Instead, what’s needed is Christian love. Benedict made this point in the very same paragraph from which you quoted him. “There is,” he said, “no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.” And Christian love isn’t mere emotivism or vapid sentimentalism. Because at some point, Christian love also involves telling people the truth about Christ, themselves, and their afflictions. It means showing them that Christ came to set us free: not by letting us wallow in our sins, addictions, and disordered passions, but by opening up for us the way of truth and giving us the freedom to embrace, live, and love this truth. That is true Christian liberation, and it can’t be found in or realized by politics.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor at large of National Review Online.