Five Questions with Samuel Gregg

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In the heady days of the 1960′s and the election of John F. Kennedy, Catholics finally felt a sense of belonging to the American experiment, while the Democratic Party offered a comfortable political home.

Fast-forward 50 years, and that same party no longer offers Catholics the easy ideological fit, with the likes of abortion-on-demand, the bulging welfare state at the expense of the family, and infringement upon religious freedom. Where is a Catholic to turn?

Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research for the Acton Institute, offers an alternative in his book Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy and Human Flourishing. Gregg’s historical analysis reconciles the American experiment and Catholic social teaching through the old and new versions of the Tea Party, from Boston and the American Revolution up to today’s effort to restore constitutionally ordered freedom.

The Australian native has authored several books, including Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded, The Modern Papacy, and Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.

Gregg spoke with CV about his latest book and what the Tea Party and the Church together can teach us, as individuals and a society, about the key to human flourishing.

Your book is called Tea Party Catholic, but your meaning seems to align more with the Boston Tea Party more than the contemporary version. Can you explain why you went with this as a model?

The expression “Tea Party” has a particular resonance with Americans because they cannot hear the word without thinking of the American Revolution and the consequent emergence of what was—and, in many respects, still is—a unique experiment in ordered liberty. And today’s “tea party” movement reflects, at its best, the desire to see that the American experiment is not submerged by a rising tide of big government throughout the United States and a subsequent reduction in economic and religious freedom. Instinctively, most Americans still know that there’s something about these trends that don’t fit at all with the American Republic’s founding principles.

So, in one sense, the title Tea Party Catholic seeks to underscore the role that Catholics have to play in that effort to recover and bolster the American experiment. But there is another reason for the title: it is to underscore that Catholic Americans can help shape the wider movement for a return to constitutionally ordered freedom throughout America by reminding that movement of its deeper roots: roots that precede the American Founding and are located in the broader Western tradition—at the center of which is, of course, Catholicism.

This is why the book’s subtitle is The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy, and Human Flourishing. It’s the last two words—“human flourishing”—that are key. The Catholic case for freedom is not “liberty for liberty’s sake,” or “autonomy for the sake of autonomy.” Instead it concerns the excellence that the Church has always taught that is the goal of freedom. This is something, by the way, that the Founders understood. For the most part, they conceived of a republic not just of liberty, but also of virtue. Thomas Jefferson, for example, insisted without equivocation in his Notes on the State of Virginia that virtue “is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.” The Founders insisted over and over again that freedom and virtue go hand and hand. That’s part of the genius of the American Founding.

 

Among the Founders, you place a great deal of emphasis upon Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Who was he, and why does he figure so largely in your book?

Tea Party Catholic makes it clear that Charles Carroll of Carrollton is someone who every Catholic American should know about. For one thing, he was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. But even fewer people know that Carroll was one of the best educated of the Founders, an enormously successful businessman (he was the wealthiest man in America at the time of the Revolution), a legislator, an economic thinker, a philosopher, and a relentless fighter for religious liberty. In a way, he was the first “Tea Party Catholic.” Carroll wrote at length about matters such as freedom and constitutional order, but he was also a very articulate defender of what we would call “the free economy.” In his correspondence, for instance, we find Carroll outlining the workings of compound interest to his friends, as well as explaining to the far-less economically-informed Benjamin Franklin (who was no intellectual slouch) why price controls are morally questionable and economically disastrous. Carroll’s financial expertise led him to make significant contributions to the economic decisions that the Continental Congress needed to make in order to bring the Revolutionary War to a successful conclusion.

Carroll was a convinced Catholic. He read people like Voltaire and Rousseau and found their arguments against Christianity thoroughly unconvincing. But, like all Catholics in the 13 colonies, Carroll was subject to various anti-Catholic laws that prevented him and his family from voting, holding public office, and even denied opportunities for learning. Carroll thus saw the Revolution as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to establish a robust conception of religious liberty as central to the post-Revolutionary settlement. Indeed, Carroll never ceased to remind his good friend George Washington (one of the few Founders with no apparent anti-Catholic biases) that there could be no religious tests for public office in the constitutional settlement that would follow the Revolution.

In that connection, Carroll understood that economic and religious liberty go together. He had seen, for example, how anti-Catholic laws in Britain and the American colonies had been used to attack the economic freedom of Catholics. Today, of course, we see a similar thing happening: the expansion of government into healthcare (which, by definition, undermines economic freedom) has provided the occasion for an unprecedented assault on the religious freedom of Catholics and Catholic institutions.

 

Using American history and Catholic Social Teaching, what are the links between business, the free market, freedom and human flourishing? Many Catholics would view this list with suspicion because of the bad reputation that business and the free market frequently have with regard to the poor.

In Tea Party Catholic, I try to show that business and the free market are, objectively speaking, the best way to get people out of poverty. The welfare state has been great for government bureaucrats and politicians who use welfare as a way to build voting constituencies, but it has not done much for the poor. In fact, as plenty of scholars—from both the right and left—have noted, it has done a great deal of harm to many of those in need. But Catholics, I suggest, shouldn’t value commerce and economic freedom just because it reduces poverty; they should also celebrate and promote these activities because business and the free economy provide remarkable opportunities for human flourishing. Entrepreneurs and business leaders, for instance, have to develop key virtues—prudence, humility, measured risk-taking, etc—if they want to be successful.

Moreover, if you look at the entirety of the Church’s social teaching (which begins, by the way, centuries before Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum Novarum), you find many positive affirmations of the moral worth of commerce and business, not to mention rigorous defenses of private property and free trade. Of course Catholicism doesn’t teach that “Greed is Good.” The Church has always warned about the moral temptations associated with wealth. The Catholic case for the free market is most certainly not a Randian case for capitalism! But Tea Party Catholic does argue that the Church has a far more positive view of the habits and institutions associated with economic freedom than many Catholics realize.

Incidentally, I’m well aware many Catholic Americans of good will don’t agree with me on some of these matters. What about, they say, social justice? What about the option for the poor? What about consumerism? These are all fair and important questions. So, in a spirit of openness, I devote an entire chapter in Tea Party Catholic to outlining the most significant of these objections and then detailing my answers.

 

Why is virtuous citizenship such a crucial element of society?

As Tea Party Catholic makes clear, both Catholic social teaching and the American Founding stress that you cannot have a free society without citizens that take virtue seriously. Unless most of the citizens try to embrace the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) and the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), you will end up with a society of people that has no faith, lacks hope, and hates or is indifferent to others, as well as citizens who are imprudent, intemperate, cowardly, reckless, and unjust. That’s dangerous in itself because it makes freedom close to impossible to realize in a civilized society. But the same lack of virtue means that people will start looking to the government to create social order via laws and regulations.

Naturally there are some things that only the state can do. I’m neither an anarchist nor a libertarian. If, however, you expect the state to do everything with regard to social order, then it becomes impossible to assign limits to the potential reach of government power, no matter how many constitutional restraints you put down. Moreover, such power will be ultimately ineffective. For as Charles Carroll wrote, once virtue ceases to prevail either as a reality or an ideal in a free society, the laws “become dead letters, their spirit and tendency being inconsistent with the general habits and disposition of such a People.” Carroll then added that such a people will start to use government and law to trample over the well-being of others in order to satisfy their own selfish ends.

 

You have a unique chapter (6) discussing a new trend among Catholics that is a far cry from a more established form of Catholicism passed down from previous generations. What are these differences and what is unique about what you call “the Patriot Minority”?

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, all good Catholic Americans voted Democrat, joined trade unions, and supported the economic policies that we have come to associate with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s (not-so)-Great Society. Those days, however, are over, and have been over for a very long time. There is a new generation of younger Catholic Americans—clerical and lay—who aren’t glued on to the Democratic Party or the “center-left” more generally. That’s partly because of modern liberalism’s obsession with promoting and widening access to abortion, its fixation on redefining marriage, and its mania for making everyone pay for other people’s birth-control.

But it’s also the case that this new generation of Catholics—many of whom fit the criteria of what Benedict XVI called a “creative minority”—is more-often-than-not skeptical about economically interventionist policies. Nor do they think that the option for the poor translates into an option for big government, top-down planning, high taxes, and endless redistribution. This doesn’t mean that these Catholics are becoming glued on to the Republican Party—far from it. But they do think that favorable attitudes toward business, a critical view of the welfare state, a positive inclination towards free trade and other characteristics of the free economy such as sound money are very compatible with being a faithful orthodox Catholic. Like Pope Francis, these Catholic Americans love the poor, but, like Pope Francis, they refuse to treat the poor in the abstract bureaucratic way that even well-intentioned state officials and policy-makers find hard to resist. Moreover, like Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, they regard the spiritual poverty of relativism as being just as problematic, and sometimes as a major contributor to, material deprivation.

I also think that this generation of what might be called “free enterprise Catholics” or “limited government Catholics” are uniquely positioned to help renew America’s moral, political and economic culture. Contributing to such a renewal would, I suggest, be rightly understood as an act of patriotism. Patriotism, remember, is not nationalism or jingoism. The Church understands patriotism as love of the true good of one’s country.

In that spirit, Tea Party Catholic argues that limited government Catholics can remind their fellow Catholics and other Americans that love of one’s homeland does not bear primarily upon the government. Catholic teaching insists that patriotism encompasses one’s love of that larger community that precedes the state and which governments exist to serve. Patriotism isn’t about love of the government per se. The claim we have heard of late that it is government that makes us a people, that makes America a nation, is absurd and dangerous.

A second contribution of this patriotic minority would be to underscore the pivotal role of a strong conception of religious liberty—the same strong conception you find expressed in Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty as well as the First Amendment—in a free and virtuous society. All across America, efforts are underway to re-define religious liberty in order to reduce it to freedom of worship, thereby clearing the way for the de facto establishment of liberal secularism as America’s unofficial state religion. In that regard, limited government Catholics can join with other Americas, Catholic or otherwise, who understand just how ominous this trend is.

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One thought on “Five Questions with Samuel Gregg

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    How does a poor church for the poor help formulate good economic policy? Can the wealthy like Carroll really formulate policy that works for the poor?

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