House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

ANALYSIS: Are free-market Catholics ignoring Pope Francis?

(RNS) On one level, the recent clash over Catholic University of America’s decision to accept $1 million from billionaire industrialist Charles Koch underscored the stark divide many see between Catholic social teaching and the libertarian-tinged economics championed by Koch and other conservatives.

But the controversy also pointed to another, counterintuitive reality: vocal free-market advocates are gaining traction in the Catholic Church, even as Pope Francis repeatedly condemns a capitalist system that he says is hurting the poor and increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In the political world, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is both a practicing Catholic and a devotee of the libertarian icon Ayn Rand -- as well as the face of GOP proposals for cutting welfare programs and taxes that have drawn fire from U.S. bishops and other church leaders.

In the media, CNBC’s Larry Kudlow is a Catholic convert who has taken to the airwaves to scold the pope on economics while pushing the kind of “trickle-down” theories that Francis has derided. On Fox News, Stuart Varney, also a Catholic, has labeled the pope’s views as “neo-socialism.”

Similarly, Catholic thinkers and pundits like Michael Novak, George Weigel and Tim Worstall have used the opinion pages of National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and other outlets to defend market economics against church criticisms, or to interpret the pope’s writings in a way that makes them appear less hostile to capitalism.

“I think it’s fair to say that those Catholics who favor free markets and limited government have a wider and broader voice than they did 40 years ago,” said Samuel Gregg, author of a new book, “Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing.”

Samuel Gregg photo courtesy Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg, author of a new book, “Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. Photo courtesy Samuel Gregg

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Gregg is also director of research at the Acton Institute, a leading think tank -- headed by Catholic priest Robert Sirico -- that promotes free-market conservatism and often critiques Catholics, including Pope Francis, who they say push the church’s social teaching too far to the left. (“Facile and plainly false,” is how one Acton writer characterized some of the pope’s statements on the economy in his recent apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium.")

It’s clearly a formula for conflict, and this week’s dispute over the Koch donation to CUA epitomized the emerging dynamic: the 50 priests, theologians and academics who signed the protest letter cited traditional Catholic social teaching and Francis’ blasts at “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal."

CUA did not back down. Instead, a tart response accused critics of trying to “score political points” and declared that the Koch foundation’s goals are “fully consonant with Catholic social teaching.”

If that interpretation doesn’t necessarily sync with what the pope or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops say about today’s economic system, it's a view that nonetheless is increasingly getting a sympathetic hearing, even in places like CUA -- a Vatican-chartered school and the only Catholic university in the U.S. sponsored by the American hierarchy.

Andrew Abela speaks during the celebration founding of the school of business and economics. For use with RNS-ABELA-CUA, transmitted on Dec. 17, 2013, Photo by Ed Pfueller, courtesy of  The Catholic University of America.

Andrew Abela speaks during the celebration of the founding of Catholic University of America's new business school. Photo by Ed Pfueller, courtesy of The Catholic University of America.

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Andrew Abela, for instance, is the dean of CUA’s new business school (the Koch grant will help underwrite its programs) and he is a strong proponent of free-market economics. The Busch Family Foundation also donated $500,000 to the business school; the foundation was founded by Timothy R. Busch, who is a member of CUA’s board of trustees and chairman of the board of the Napa Institute, a conservative think tank in California.

What’s more, CUA is hardly the only Catholic university to take money from the Koch foundation: as many as two dozen other Catholic colleges, from Notre Dame to Villanova, have accepted Koch grants over the years, though apparently in smaller amounts and for lower-profile purposes.

Loyola University in New Orleans still receives about $100,000 a year from the Koch foundation to fund its Economics Club, which brings in speakers to address the students. Walter Block of the Loyola economics department said he and his colleagues see no problem with that.

“Catholicism is not economics,” said Block, who is Jewish and a self-described “anarcho-libertarian” philosopher. “There is no Catholic economics.”

Block is a fellow -- along with several prominent Catholics -- of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a think tank that promotes the so-called “Austrian School” of free-market economics that is enormously influential among a range of American conservatives.

Block said all five of the economics professors at Loyola are disciples to one degree or another of the Austrian School, though they were not able to convince the university to establish a master’s program in 2011 -- to be funded in part with Koch money -- in Austrian economics. Block said they are resubmitting their proposal.

Many of these economic conservatives hold a variety of views, and they usually reject precise -- and often loaded -- labels like “libertarian” or even “capitalist.” They prefer to be known by the principles they largely share: free markets, minimal government oversight of business and the environment, reduced social welfare programs, and lower taxes for everyone, including the wealthy.

While in practice those principles often run counter to official church positions, these free-market advocates say they are in fact true to Catholic teaching; they are simply trying to achieve the same goals through different means. Those means, they add, also regard technical issues that are judgment calls for believers, not matters of faith.

“You clearly can’t be an anarchist. And you can’t be a socialist, either,” said Gregg. “But between those two things there is a lot of room for genuine prudential disagreement among Catholics when it comes to the economy.”

“In terms of the debate about what fits with Catholic social teaching or doesn’t, there’s a lot of opinion there,” agreed CUA’s Abela. “It’s a fairly wide range of what people consider to be consistent with Catholic social teaching.”

That wiggle room is a key factor that has allowed economic conservatives to thrive in the church even as supporters of abortion rights or gay marriage have faced official sanctions for their views. While a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found that few Catholics describe themselves as libertarians or members of the Tea Party, U.S. Catholics have been trending more Republican in recent decades just as the GOP has been trending more conservative.

The rightward shift also can be seen in the hierarchy and the priesthood, meaning that bishops and pastors -- like Ryan’s own bishop, Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis. -- often raise no objections to conservative economics or even embrace such views.

Whether the stock of these free-market Catholics continues to rise may depend on forces beyond their control.

Francis might succeed in pushing the church’s leadership to reflect his own emphasis on the social teaching of the church and leave economic conservatives out in the cold. And domestic politics could also shift the dynamic for Catholic free marketeers.

Ryan himself shepherded a crucial compromise budget deal through Congress this month, dismaying his longtime Tea Party allies; House Speaker John Boehner -- a devout Catholic whose 2011 commencement at CUA also prompted protests because of his budget policies -- pivoted sharply to the center and said the fiscal critics on his right have “lost all credibility.”

“It’s a strange new normal, isn’t it?” as Ryan told reporters.



  1. Today a poll showed that 72% of Americans now fear the government more than Big Unions and Big business. This is certainly rational and moral. Those who get the warm fuzzies when contemplating government power should take a “Time Out” and read some histories of the blood-drenched 20th Century and the role Leviathan governments played in the carnage. No wonder many of our Founding Fathers feared government power more than just about anything else.

  2. Citation please.

    100% of the people who claim phony poll results do not provide evidence of their claims.

  3. Deacon John M. Bresnahan,
    He is referencing the recent gallop poll which indicated the 72% Americans think big government is the greatest threat to the U.S. I wonder if this recent jump is related to the news of our government keeping track of all phone calls made? Maybe it is related to the short comings of the health care website. Maybe it is a byproduct of a congress that can’t make decisions. I guess only time will tell. The link is below.

  4. Thank you.

    I would venture it has a lot to do with Libertarian views becoming more mainstream in the Republicans. They have taken the mantra that a functioning government is a dangerous one.

  5. The mantra that the least government is the best government was the mantra of one of our Founding Fathers (Jefferson, I believe).
    That is because it is harder for a smaller government to destroy our freedoms and become the dictatorial rulers of our lives—or even take our lives– as so often happened in the 20th Century.
    But who cares about history??? Certainly not those who are infatuated with the nanny state.

  6. Advisory: Nobody will choke to death watching a few minutes of FNC. That channel has been citing the poll that the deacon is referring to all day. Of course the poll gets no play in the mainstream media, and we know why. If it has received any coverage, I am surprised because that would be a departure from the MSM’s usual manner of managing unpleasant facts..

    The deacon should not feel threatened by requests for citations when, as we all know, that data is available as quickly as a click on the Google icon.

  7. Telll us what is functioning about a government that has squandered over 7 trillion dollars in social engineering over a half century and has diddly squat to show for it as results. Tell us what is functioning about a regime that is currently introducing Obamacare–and gving us the pajama boy to entice us to sign up.

    But then, we can be sure how socialists define “functioning government.” There won’t be–there isn’t–a darn thing Constitutional about it.

  8. It’s troubling that Loyola’s economics dept. is entirely composed of adherents of a fringe school of economics which conflicts with Catholic teaching. That’s worth an article in itself; it raises issues not only of Catholic identity but real questions of quality.

  9. Of course they are. This is the most urgent problem in American conservativism. They cling to their faith, so long as it only requires behavior modification in others. This is why they are so quick to condemn abortion. Of course it’s easy for a white man making a Congressman’s salary to condemn abortion on religious grounds: it’s not something they will ever have to deal with in reality. It is someone else’s problem. Oh, but when it comes to the economic systems in place and how it impacts both their ability to be funded for re-election and their wallet, then they’re up in arms about it. It’s cafeteria relgion at its best. Pick and choose which beliefs suit you and your political platform.

  10. No matter where we stand on the issue, if Christians truly followed the teachings of Christ, we would act on the greatest commandment. Sadly, we often worry too much about ourselves while failing to see the need of those around us. We are a society of “I”. We are more concerned about a nicer car, a bigger house, and our clothing fashion then we are about those who have no place to sleep, nothing to eat, and nothing to drink.

  11. And the solution is a privatized, oligarchic government which gladly throws money at churches and corporate outsourcing? Or worse, devolved towards the more corrupt state and local governments.

    Of course the biggest waste being a war you have forgotten all about. Neither side seems to be in a hurry there. But what is the conservative plan for that? Nothing. Just make life for those at the bottom of society as bad as possible without reinstating serfdom. Of course the ACA only exists in IRS present form because idiot Obama was trying to compromise with the GOP. Socialist single payer would have worked better.

  12. FNC only causes mild mental infirmity. In the last 3 weeks they were caught running 4 fabricated stories about the war on Christmas.

  13. After all the Confederacy before the constitution and during thethe

  14. (Damn sausage fingers and cheap phone)

    …civil war were models of effective government. What is funny is you small government people always attack the 14th amendment. The big government action which has has been the source of all major civil liberty victories in the last century. Plus Jefferson is not always the best person to reference on individual liberties. He owned human beings as chattel property and kept a concubine.

  15. Citation? If true, I’d gladly write them about that. Perhaps, however, FNC did correct its reporting. It would not serve their purposes, though, to publicize this fact if it were true.

  16. Larry, regarding your earlier comment about Obama having compromised with the GOP in Obamacare. I’ll remind you that the socialists permitted no input from the GOP in the House and Senate debates prior to passing the legislation. The socialists own this mess entirely.

    We see how socialized medicine works elsewhere. Most Americans do not want the long wait times and poor and arbitrary service that is an essential part of virtually every government enterprise.

    Conservatives and libertarians do not want the abolition of all government, but both groups rightfully point to ongoing history as reasons for making drastic changes and calling for restrictions on federal power. Socialists, wanting more government, are repelled by Constitutional notions and restrictions. Utopians have learned nothing from history, however, nor from current examples around the world.

    State governments are more corrupt than the federal government? Corruption is more easily addressed on the state level than it is in Washington, as is evidenced by what has been happening for decades in DC. Perhaps, though, some people have redefined “corruption” as they’ve been trying to redefine marriage and hate.

  17. Let’s hear it for Lenin, Stalin and the other great socialists and communists who made slaves of their entire nations.

    Small government people attack big government for the failures it has always exhibited, and for which the Founders attempted to guard against when they wrote. Other than civil rights legislation to end discrimination, there’s hardly a bit of social legislation from a half century that has anything to show for itself other than a a steadily enlarging number of people employed in the “implementation” of this legislation. Show us how family structure has been strenghtened and poverty decreased in this half century. You can show us, though, how much the federal employment rolls have increased in that same period.

  18. Mr. Clark, be reminded that the central feature of the abortion debate centers on taxpayers providing for it.

    As for the rest of it, we voters can term-limit our legislators. We refuse to do this, however. If sufficient numbers of state legislatures have term limits, perhaps those same legislatures can petition for a Constitutional amendment. For certain no Congress will offer up one; it’s not in their career-founded interests to do so.

    Obama, by the way, has already hinted that the 22nd Amendment should be repealed. Of course! It’s inimical to the designs of a would-be dictator.

  19. Irene, perhaps we should focus on what Christ really said about helping the poor. He made it a Christian directive, a religious one, to assist the poor. Nowhere did He say that the state has a responsibility in this regard.

    The bishops as a collective err in recognizing this distinction. Once the state, through its taxing power, addresses the poverty issue, we as individual Christians can make no claim to following Christ’s command.

    No, that does not mean that we as a society should not assist in eradicating or reducing poverty (“the poor you will always have with you”). We as voters should determine through our elected representatives the extent that the federal government is involved in this matter. We, however, have not been recognized by the dominant political faction in the federal government (in both parties) which wants an ever-increasing role for itself.

    We are Catholic and Christian when we give of our own accord, not when government uses the tax code and the budget to do this.

    How could the bishops miss this? Easy. They are mostly Democrats, liberals. Even now they hesitate to speak out when Obama wants to take away First Amendment rights. Three or four bishops speak out. The rest have nothing to say.

  20. Mr. McKenzie, a survey taken regarding charitable contributions–true giving–has found that this giving is more abundant in traditionally conservative areas. That’s where you find concentrations of believers who acknowledge the command to help the poor. Not faring so well in the survey were liberal strongholds, especially on the coasts. No surprise there.

  21. Evidence? What precisely did Francis say? I read Evangelii Gaudium, a document prepared with great attention to thoughts and their expressions. Words expressed there are a bit different from published interviews in an Italian newspaper.

    For certain, Francis spoke harshly of unregulated capitalism. There’s plenty of regulation in American capitalism. Some of that regulation by Congress was to force Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to take risks they shouldn’t have taken and wouldn’t have taken except under law. The result was the mortgage mess and meltdown–thanks to socialists who think they know better and have no apologies for what they did. And would do it all over again even in 20/20 hindsight.

  22. Considering the revolving door between corporations and government, I don’t see much separation between one or the other.

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