Government, Economy and Religious Freedom

What It Means to Be a Catholic in America

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The last decade or so has been a difficult time for Catholics and the Catholic Church in the United States, observed Sam Gregg in the introduction to his latest book.

The somewhat unlikely title, “Tea Party Catholic,” (Crossroad Publishing Company) is a bit misleading, as the book is by no means an attempt to identify Catholics with a partisan political group.

While Catholics in America are in favour of the market economy many of them have also supported government intervention, he commented.

Gregg noted that the principles of Catholic social teaching provide a general orientation, but do not endorse any specific political or economic program. Working out how to apply these principles is, in fact, the role of lay Catholics.

He explained that in the last few decades, starting with Michael Novak, there has been a growing group of Catholics who defend the free market and argue for a more limited government role.

In his introduction Gregg explained that the book is not about the Tea Party movement or any particular group, but refers to the many millions of Americans who favor limited government.

The question of the state’s role in society has been at the forefront of the recent, and ongoing, conflict regarding the federal government’s health care regulations that oblige many Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs.


“Economic liberty and religious liberty, many Catholics started realizing, were in many respects indivisible,” Gregg commented.

The Catholic case for limited government does not mean being against all government, and it also does not mean that it is an endorsement of libertarianism or an Ayn Rand type philosophy, he stressed.

Gregg also admitted that there is a great range of views about the themes of government and the economy and social justice and that his book does not claim to be the only possible Catholic stance on these issues.

Gregg starts with a description of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence, and a strong supporter of freedom.

Carroll’s biographers, Gregg observed, all agree that his political and economic thought was influenced by his Catholicism and by what the Church had to say about the nature and limits of government.

The Catholic position on limited government differs significantly from the post-Enlightenment schools of thought, Gregg went on to explain.

It is based on what Benedict XVI termed in his encyclical Caritatis in Veritate, “integral human development,” or what others have termed, “integral human flourishing.”

Thus, the Catholic contribution to the movement for economic freedom and limited government is based on an understanding of why freedom matters, Gregg said.

Gregg identified a number of specific contributions that Catholic thought can make to the debate. Among them, he asserted, is that the market economy and limited government are reliant on a strong civil society, intact families, and a robust moral culture.


Going further into the Catholic understanding of freedom, Gregg explained that in the first place freedom is liberation from sin. Citing various Church documents he went on to stress that freedom is not license, but something linked to reason. Therefore, freedom is not simply liberty to choose.

How then does a human flourish? This happens by freely choosing basic human goods and by opting to act in a virtuous way.

This means that the Church’s view of human flourishing is non-relativistic and is also not a solitary exercise, but is carried out within society.

The social aspect brings with it the concept of the common good, which Gregg argued, is not simply some type of social contract. The end of the common good is human flourishing.

In one of the book’s chapters Gregg conceded that from the Catholic standpoint there is nothing intrinsically problematic about government regulation of the economy or the state carrying out welfare functions.

Catholics, however, cannot just leave helping the poor to the state and each one has a serious responsibility to assist those in need. The concept of solidarity, frequently evoked by John Paul II, reminds us of that obligation. While the principle of subsidiarity says that higher authorities should not take over functions that can be carried out by a lower one.

In a chapter on religious liberty Gregg referred to Benedict XVI’s famous phrase, “the dictatorship of relativism.” Relativism leads to a concept of tolerance that seeks to eliminate truth as a reference point and then to limiting the free exercise of religion.

There is no perfect economic or political system, Gregg observed in the concluding chapter, but a greater understanding of the mutual reinforcing effects of free markets, religious liberty and a moral ecology bases on truth will go a long way to recognizing people’s dignity.

As Gregg himself admitted his position is just one of a number of possibilities, yet the scope and depth of this book, only partially examined here, is both convincing and very well argued.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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