It should come as no surprise that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga's recent comments on American libertarianism have stirred a bit of a furor in free-market circles. On American zeal for preserving laissez-faire economic systems, the Honduran Cardinal had the following to say at speech on June 3 in Washington, D.C.:

The elimination of the structural causes for poverty is a matter of urgency that can no longer be postponed... The hungry or sick child of the poor cannot wait… Many of these libertarianists do not read the social doctrine of the church. [Religious News Service]

Cardinal Maradiaga, who is one of the pope's top advisers, went on to say that the free market is "the new idol," lambasting those who adhere to libertarian economic policies in the face of the poor's suffering. Libertarianism and Catholicism are, at times, incompatible, he concludes, though he notes that doesn't mean the church "despises the rich."

At National Review, Kevin D. Williamson took Cardinal Maradiaga to task, arguing that free market capitalism has done more for the global poor than any state program ever has. Williamson knocks the church for what he says is its backward, 1st-century understanding of the role of the state, one that has evolved "precious little since 'render unto Caesar.'" He believes unfettered free trade could do a better job of caring for the poor than regulating distribution, writing:

Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. [National Review]

But Williamson, like the arch-libertarians Maradiaga criticizes, presupposes that the production of wealth gives its producers some special entitlement to it, that it belongs rightfully to them in an absolute and fundamental way. Yet, this is the kernel of Maradiaga's argument: When states are assembled in order to protect and enforce ownership to the exclusion of the poor, then a twofold error has been committed (at least from the Catholic perspective).

First, there is no divine right to private property in the eyes of the church. Consider St. Augustine's explanation of the origin of property in his Tractates on the Gospel of John:

By what right does every man possess what he possesses? Is it not by human right? For by divine right 'the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.' (I Cor. 10:26). God has made the rich and poor of one clay: the same earth supports the poor and rich alike. But by human right, however, someone says, 'this estate is mine, this house is mine, this slave is mine.' By human right, therefore: that is, by the right of emperors.

Augustine's point is that property is a de facto creation of the state. It's a fairly simple idea: By creating property laws and then enforcing those laws with force (such as the armed forces and police), the state shapes and maintains property ownership. This legal realist position has been more recently popularized by the early 20th century jurist Robert Hale and by philosopher Thomas Nagel.

For Augustine, unlike secular legal realists, property has a spiritual dimension: All things in common belong to the people of God. But in temporal matters that heavenly distribution isn't honored, and so we rely on states to create institutions of property that are hopefully fair and just. This is the second point Williamson on which departs from church wisdom. For the libertarian, Williamson says, government simply has no moral dimension:

...[T]here is an implicit and sometimes explicit belief that the state is a channel for moral expression, whether that expression takes the form of entrenching traditional ideals about family life or or collaborating with the state in the seizure and redistribution of wealth… But the state is in fact no such thing. It is a piece of social software, a technology, a tool with no more moral significance in and of itself than a hammer. [National Review]

But to deny the moral dimension of government is to suggest that there are realms of human life exempt, somehow, from moral judgment, and this is emphatically contrary to the Christian vision. A hammer may be a piece of technology, but there's a decided moral distinction between using it to nail down a beam and using it to bash in a skull. Likewise, the state may be a tool, but the way it shapes property distribution — to either care for the poor, ill, and those in need or to ignore them — is absolutely subject to moral inquiry.

This is the point Cardinal Maradiaga made, and it has been a powerful theme in Pope Francis' ministry as well. There may very well be particular inflections or applications of libertarian thought that are consonant with Catholic social teaching, but they must account for these foundational truths.