Yesterday’s online dustup over “friendly fascism” and liberalism involving two champions of Catholic libertarianism—John Zmirak and the Acton Institute—reveals more than just the obvious fact that Catholics disagree strongly on the relationship between the Catholic Church’s principles and concrete socio-economic policy. It also shows the extent to which the libertarian wing of the Church chooses to remain ignorant of their critics. (Before proceeding, let me be clear that despite Acton’s claim to be a non-confessional enterprise, its core leadership is Catholic, and many of its activities have a conscious Catholic bent to them.) For those who have been monitoring the “great debate” concerning Catholicism and liberalism which has again picked up steam over the past decade, none of this is entirely surprising. Acton’s members, for instance, have been subjected to withering criticism for years by a broad base of Catholic (and a few non-Catholic) thinkers, particularly Distributists and others who are concerned with upholding the integrity of the Church’s social magisterium. Acton’s response, at least thus far, has been to either ignore those criticisms or, worse, manipulate the debate by presenting caricatures of its critics. At the Institute’s annual “Acton University” (a misleading name if there ever was one), a “course” on Distributism is regularly offered, albeit one taught by Todd Flanders, an economic liberal who has little-to-no clear sympathy for the Distributist tradition. Having been graciously afforded the opportunity to listen to last year’s lecture, I can say with full confidence that the presentation was imbalanced, superficial, and, at points, lacking in seriousness.
While noting that none of this is surprising, let me stress that it is still upsetting. It is upsetting because Acton, like other Catholics who support liberal socio-economic positions, routinely claims to be “misunderstood” or “mischaracterized” by its critics. Acton will claim, for example, that it is not libertarian despite championing positions on its website, blog, and other publications which are manifestly libertarian (e.g., Right to Work laws, anti-minimum wage arguments, etc.). Further, Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, published a book last year entitled Tea Party Catholic in which he endorsed a broad libertarian socio-economic agenda as being consistent with Catholic teaching and history. Further, Acton University features numerous “courses” on economic thought and policy taught from a distinctly “Austrian,” i.e., libertarian perspective. One of its lecturers is Jeffrey Tucker, an unabashed anarcho-capitalist, and many others are associated with libertarian and neoliberal causes. Acton has defended itself by pointing to members, guest speakers, and participants who do not self-identify as libertarian or neoliberal (a slightly more palatable form of economic liberalism), though that’s a smokescreen. At its core, Acton is oriented by principles and positions that come out of the libertarian or, at “best,” neoliberal playbook. The semantics game is far less important than its substantive commitments.
As for Zmirak, to his credit he never fails to put his cards on the table; he just can’t stop making bad bets. As J. Arthur Bloom has also discussed, Zmirak lives in a Manichean universe divided between the “children of light” (libertarians/neoliberals) and the “children of darkness” (everybody else). In his fury that any Catholic should dare question the glories of socio-economic liberalism, Zmirak never pauses to consider the potential depth of those with whom he disagrees. It can’t be that Alasdair MacIntyre, Patrick Deneen, or even Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig have some intelligent words to speak against the Catholic/liberal synthesis which Zmirak defends; it can only be that they are half-mad ideologues intoxicated by various forms of totalitarianism. Even if that were true, it wouldn’t explain how Zmirak could also lump someone like Rod Dreher in that category. If anything, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is a call for disarmament and retreat in the face of a culture which is almost thoroughly de-Christianized. The “Benedict Option” may have its problems, but a lust for oppressive political power isn’t among them.
The integralists, for better or worse, remain lost in the sauce. Perhaps that’s a good thing, at least for the time being. The new Catholic integralism, as several observers have noted, is just beginning to come alive; its “members” (if one can call them that) are organized in only the loosest sense of the word. There is The Josias and, prior to its advent, the singular efforts of Pater Edmund Waldstein and, to a lesser degree of excellence, myself. Strewn across the Internet are other, related, projects, not to mention numerous veteran writers who have worked tirelessly to keep the flame of the Church’s authentic magisterium alive during many decades of liberal darkness. That Catholic integralists will come to be (perhaps intentionally) misunderstood, ridiculed, and ignored is inevitable, though that is not going to limit their resolve. Unlike Acton, Catholic integralists have nothing to hide, though much to clarify and recover. And certainly unlike Zmirak, integralists are genuinely interested in getting their critics right, internalizing the good that comes from outside the Catholic tradition, and jettisoning the bad. Does it mean that integralists read Kant, Marx, and Zizek? Yes, but always through the clear lens provided by Ss. Augustine, Bernard, Aquinas, Alphonsus, Pius X, and innumerable other beacons of Catholic enlightenment. The integralist mission is not to obfuscate; its mission is to work for truth in the light of reason and revelation. And truth, much to the chagrin of some, is neither libertarian nor neoliberal.