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The Vatican/The Roman Catholic Church – free enterprise, socialism, or something else?

A little while ago it was anounced that the budgets of the Vatican State and the Papacy (they are counted as two different budgets) were back in balance (after some years of deficits). And this got me thinking about what this institution is – in terms of political economy. And this led to other thoughts about other matters.

In some countries there is still a church tax – although (as with Germany) one can normally choose what church it goes to and (just by filling out a form declarling that one has no religious beliefs) one need not pay the tax at all. So whether it can really be understood as a “tax” (in the normal sense – other than a tax in the time and effort it would take an athiest to fill out the form) is a difficult question.

However, the Vatican (and the Papacy) are not supported by taxation. The Vatican state supports itself by selling stamps and by charging admission to its museums (and so on), but no one has to go to the Vatican – and there is no charge for just entering the Vatican State (or leaving it). So is it the ultimate example of free enterprise (A. Herbert style taxless voluntary state) or is it socialism (as the state owns everything) or is it something else? And do we make a mistake trying to put everything in the world of human interactions into neat little boxes with labels on?

And there is the Roman Catholic Church itself…… the international Church.

Ask a Western “liberal” about the Catholic Church and their first words are likely to be “child abuse”. However,  sex crimes are hardly the full story – although there may well have been increase in them with the laxity of oversight that came with the changes to the Church brought by Vatican II. In that while there were, doubtless, always terrible sex (and other) crimes going on (as with any institutions made up of human beings – sinners) the removal of any real attempt at oversight and discipline from Rome (in the name of “humanizing” the Church and “local autonomy” – i.e. letting local Bishops and so on sort things out, or cover things up, without anyone checking on them) may well have increased these crimes.

Even leftist Hollywood has entertained this possibility – as the film “Doubt” makes clear, the destruction of old systems of checks and balances (in the name of reform) may have done evil as well as good. It may well be that people who were disturbed by Vatican II on political grounds (the opening it,  unintentionally, gave to the Marxism of “Liberation Theology”) should have also been concerned with the opening it gave to non political perversions.

However, even in its darkest days and in its darkest places the Roman Catholic Church was about vastly more than the sins of some its priests. A huge network of schools, hospitals, homes for the old (and so on and so on) were and are maintained by the Church – without (in most nations) any form of taxation, just the voluntary gifts (of money – and time) of believers and the profits from Church investments.

The libertarian writer (and leading Von Mises Institute man) Thomas Woods often tells the story of how he spent his youth looking for an alternative to the state – something that was interested in learning and culture, and in the poor and the sick, in education and in health. And also was on a sufficient scale to actually make a difference in these areas.

And then one day he suddenly understood that what he had been looking for (a nonstatist alternative for people who could not pay for their own education, health, old age….) was staring him in the face all along. The Catholic Church.

Now I am not saying that Thomas Woods was or is correct – but he is no fool (as his writings show) so what he says needs to be taken seriously – even by athiests who hate Christian theology in general and the Roman Catholic Church in general.

Of course there is also a special American factor here. Originally Protestant “fundementalists” were not antiscience – indeed some of the authors of the orginal early 1900′s essays on the “fundementals” of Christiainity (from which we get the word “fundementalist”) were leading natural scientists – including evolutionary biologists (hardly the buck toothed morons of Hollywood depictions of “fundementalists”). Their foe was not science – it was the disguised socialist collectivism of the “Social Gospel” (with its “theological” message that the collective is God – and its practical result of tyranny).

The Fundementalists simply listed the fundemental beliefs of Christians – the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus… and so on. And asked if the Social Gospel supporters believed in these things – and demanded straight replies (not the mists of words that the Social Gospelists tended to give people).

The Fundementalists also (by stating the core, fundemental, beliefs of Christians) also (by implication) stated what were NOT the fundemental beliefs of Christians – “Social Justice” (i.e. plunder and tyranny – I know the term “Social Justice” can have other definitions, but the implications of the collectivist use of the term are clear), the extermination of all dissent from the self appointed representatives of the collective……and so on.

Now the Fundementalists were not Roman Catholics (far from it – America had no need for some professional virgin in Rome, as they might have put it – if politeness had not forbidden it), but they were learned men, they were devoted to science and learning, and they were politically (as well as theologically) basically sound.

However, over time things have changed (indeed, famously, even by the 1920s things had changed).

Now (according to David Barton the Texas educater and Conservative Protestant) about half of all American Conservative Protestants do not believe in basic science – for example in evolution.

I must be plain in what I am saying – I am not saying that they claim that God picked evolution as the method of creating human beings. I am saying (following Barton and others) that half of American Conservative Protestants do not believe in evolution at all.

Turn on any of the “religion” stations on your television service (if you have one) and look at the output of the Protestant American stations.

The passion is there certainly, the faith is there. But is there any learning? Outside the narrow learning of the text of the Bible itself?

I am not saying anything bad about the study of the text of the Bible – but I am saying it is not enough to study the text of the Bible. It will not tell you about biology, or physics or any other science – and those who claim it does are just flat wrong.

Now compare this output on the Protestant American stations with the output of EWTN (the American Catholic station), the coverage of such things as physics is of the highest quality – without any feeling that their are hidden athiests (Liberation Theology types) at work. Learning is respected – and not just biblical learning.

Now I am not a Roman Catholic many things such as the authority of the Pope and the demanded celibacy of the ordinary parish clergy (as opposed to the Regular clergy – the monks and nuns, who are quite differnet in Christian tradition) hold me back from that. But there is a clear difference between the quality (the very atmosphere) of the Catholic conservatives (in the sense of anti sociaists) and many Protestant ones (in the sense of Protestant ministers broadcasting) – at least in the American context.

An understanding that one can reject the philosophy, (and theology), economics and politics taught by the secular education system (and media) without rejecting learning in general, including scientific learning.

No conclusions – just things to think about.

However, even as a non Roman Catholic I am convinced that the victory of anti socialist (or “anti liberal” as Americans would say) forces over socialist ones within the Roman Catholic church is vital for the survival of Western Civilization – both theologically and spiritually, and in terms of practical political economy.

For Thomas Woods is right about the following – the Church is, overwhelmingly, the most important non state insitution that exists. Without it (should it be destroyed or corrupted from within) hope fades for the West.


  1. At the risk of sounding pedantic, the cunning old C of E has a church tax in place on certain land. You may find that some land in England comes with the encumbrance that you have to repair the church roof etc as local landowner. Amazing but true and whereas most covenants or obligations become extinct as no beneficiary can be traced, the C of E remains.

  2. permanentexpat says:

    Great food for thought; thank you.

    ‘Single acts of tyranny’………haha, yes indeed…years ago, my deeply impoverished family was forced to give (not sell) its church to the (CoE) Diocese, because it could no longer afford the upkeep. No great loss, except of face, but you get the picture.

  3. Thornavis says:

    Right so you’re not actually bothered about liberty all that much just so long as the dominant ‘do as we tell you’ institution doesn’t have the word socialist in front of it ? It’s cobblers like this that puts me right off so much libertarian thought. If you want to believe a lot of woo that’s entirely your affair just don’t require that other people should be expected to live in a world where some self appointed representative of an imaginary being has secular authority and is listened to with reverence. ” The Roman Catholic church is vital for the survival of Western Civilization ..”, you sound to me as though you’ve been reading too much Chesterton.

  4. Sam Duncan says:


    “Now I am not saying that Thomas Woods was or is correct”“many things such as the authority of the Pope … hold me back” … and “No conclusions – just things to think about.”

    I think you should read the piece again, more carefully.

    As always with one of Paul’s, there’s a lot in there, and some serious food for thought. The real world is messy, and there aren’t always simple answers. Is the modern Church of Rome a greater or lesser danger to individual liberty than the socialist regulatory state? It was clearly the primary one in the past, but today? Could it even be an unlikely ally in (some aspects of) the cause of reason, when compared with many of the alternatives who claim to be on “our” side?

    There can be no doubt, to give another example, that it played a huge part in the fall of the Soviet Empire. You don’t have to be a supporter of the Church – and believe me, having been brought up a Protestant in the West of Scotland, I’m not – to accept that in that case it helped displace a far greater evil. And did, in the process, aided in the survival of Western Civilization.

  5. Thornavis says:

    It wouldn’t make any difference how carefully I read it it would still be all over the place. The bits you quote are typical, on the one hand this, on the other hand that, it could have been written by the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’d analyse it more closely but I’ve no desire to get into an argument on this subject I’ve been there before and it’s a waste of time.

  6. NickM says:

    The is a term for people who bandy around words like “cobblers” and criticise something heavily and then not only refuse to debate their strongly held opinion but refuse to re-read the original because they “know” what is being said. I think that term is “fundamentalist”.

  7. Roue le Jour says:

    A nice piece Paul, thank you.

    Organisation beats disorganisation every time, and the state is the supreme example of organisation. If you want to go up against it, you need an organisation of your own. You could make one up, but the church is right there.

    I often think of Socialism as a demon. You may summon it from the very highest of motives, but the outcome will always be disastrous because the whole basis of forcible wealth redistribution is evil. You are taking money from an honest man that he needs to support his family and giving it to someone who resents being dependent on charity and what’s more thinks the tax payer is cheating him anyway. How can any good come from such a perverse system?

  8. Lynne says:

    Paul, excellent food for thought.

  9. Paul Marks says:

    I thought (thought because I did) tackle the question of the use of force right at the start of the post.

    My treatment of a church tax for example.

    However, if “Thornavis” thinks he knows what I “really” mean – then I will have to reply to him directly.

    You are an idiot Thornavis – I care (and care passionatly) about liberty. And I totally condemn persecution practiced by Roman Catholics (or by their foes against them) since the time of Augustine (note to you – I am not exactly an Augustine fan).

    The modern Roman Catholic Church also condemns the use of force in religion – although, if they were more powerful would this opposition to the use of force stand?

    For example, even the present Pope (fine man though he may be) is on record as praseing Augustine (indeed Augustine was the main subject of his academic work) – not praising Augustine’s support of persecution, but (at least to me) the negative aspects of Augustine do not stop there.

    For example, predestination – if everything is decided (by God) at the start of time, then what becomes of agency (free will), of moral responsibility? If there are no, real, choices then humans are not “beings” at all, and the distinction between subjects (beings – people) and inanimate objects, falls.

    Of course many have tried to reconcile predestination and agency (free will), but only by complex twisting and mists of words – in much the same way that Augustine tried to present the position that he was horrified and disgusted by persecution (that it was against the basic teachings of Jesus) whilst still SUPPORTING persecution.

    However, even in the Middle Ages (centuries after Augustine) support for human reason and the belief that human life could be fundementally improved (in this world – not just after physical death) was strong in the Church.

    And I am not just talking about the monk who built a hand glider and broke his leg. I am pointing at such people as Roger Bacon, with his technological predictions – but also his belief that people should study ancient Greek and Hebrew. Those who think of the Middle Ages (and later) only in terms of persecution leave out half the story – the other half being the support of very many Catholics (priests in fact) for both the improvement of practical life and for learning – including the belief that the universe was governed by laws (not the arbitrary will of God – reason not arbitrary will) and that learning to understand these laws of nature could fundementally improve the life of human beings (and was a good thing in-its-self).

    Whereas Augustine (a wealthy Roman with connections to the highest levels of society – for example to Bishop Ambrose of Milan) mocked the study of the physical world and did not even bother to learn Greek (something that would be easy for a young man from good family to do in the 4th century) before de facto declaring himself the leading authority on scripture – fit to condemn Pelagius on the very scriptures that he, Augustine, could not read in the original languages (oh yes I know that Augustine had a Latin/Greek dictionary – sorry that does not get him a pass, a theologian should be able to read a text without a crib, especially as a word-for-word dictionary will not really tell you the subtle differences in meaning of a text in another language).

    Now I can not read Ancient Greek or Hebrew either – but I do not set myself up as a great authority on texts I can not read (read properly) and demand that anyone who does not agree with me be condemned (sometimes physically condemned – as with the Donatists of North Africa – who disputed the authority of priests and bishops who had previously surrendered the scriptures to be burned during persecutions, for a sinner to return to the fold was one thing, but for such sinners to then order everyone else about…..), whilst (of course) professing my love for them.

    Turning to politics and culture, Augustine simply accepted the idea that the state should maintain the poor of the cities (even though he lived into the 400s – when it was obvious that the Empire was in crises), and denied that human reason could fundementally improve life on this Earth (i.e. he accepted the technolgical and economic stagnation and decline of the Empire as unavoidable).

    None of this is based in basic Christian doctrines – it is just the “bog standard” establishment opinions of a 4th to 5th century Roman (not the universal view – but the establishment one). It might not have mattered had it not been for Augustine’s superb writing (YES – Augustine could write, and write wonderfully, whereas I sound like an old raven, I admit all that) and superb POLITICAL skills – which meant that his writings (written centuries after the death of Jesus) almost attained the status of scripture themselves – and were influentional in the centuries after his own death. Although not universally so – see above. Even as late as the 18th century various Italian cities were still plundering farmers (by “buying” food at fixed prices and so on) in order to feed the urban mob (thus underming both farming and economic development in the cities themselves) – and justifying their actions with Roman Empire style ideas (as passed down to them by Augustine and co).

    Lastly – “this could have been written by Rowen Williams”.

    Yes of course – I am a Social Gospel supporting neo Liberation Theology man.

    And I have a big beard as well.

  10. Paul Marks says:

    On evolution:

    I know well that some conservative Catholics oppose it – my point was that it is nothing like half of them (as, so David Barton and others claim, is the case with conservative Protestants). And, I repeat, I am not talking about a position that “God picked the method of evolution to….” I am talking about total rejection of basic science.

    I can even understand the rejection – after all I reject much of what the schools and universities teach about philosophy, politics, history, economics….. so why not reject EVERYTHING they teach?

    Why? Because not everything they teach is wrong.

    I can even understand the specific background to the evolution rejection in conservative Protestant circles.

    As Jack Cashill explains in his book “Hoodwinked” (pages 188 to 197) – the “Scopes Case” was not really (as Hollywood presents it) “the Bible versus Darwin”.

    The book that was being used to teach biology (in a State school – not a private school) was “Hunter’s Civic Biology” – a work in which eugenics is defended (indeed “defended” it is just assumed – in the arrogant way Progressives assume everything without real arugment), and whose racism even shocked people in Tennessee. The real William Jennings Bryran (a Democrat and a man of the moderate left in his politics) was not like the demented fool “Matthew Brady” of the Hollywood propaganda film “Inherit The Wind” (just as the agnostic “Henry Drummand” character is nothing like the hard line athiest, Clarence Darrow of real life – who, privately at this time – openly later, denounced the “slave” morality of Christianity, and proclaimed that there was no such thing as the basic importance of human life).

    The real Bryan was horrified by the IMPLICATIONS of what was being taught – the eugenics and the “scientific racism” – he know that already Progressives were demanding the forced sterialization of the “inferior” (incidentally when this finally got to the Supreme Court only one Justice opposed using violence against people who had committed no crime – look up which Justice it was), and had discussed MASS MURDER.

    Both the American Progressives and the British Fabians discussed the extermination of “inferior” races – years before the German National Socialists put theory into practice. This is what Bryan predicted – and passionatly opposed.

    However, William Jennings Bryan (and those who followed him) made the fatal mistake (pointed out by F.A. Hayek in his “Constitution of Liberty” 1960) of opposing a scientiic theory (evolution) on the basis of the political and social CONSEQUENCES of that theory.

    True there have been cases of fraud in evidence presented in support of evolution (cases of fraud that Cashill points out in “Hoodwinked”), just as there is still much dispute over what specific form of “evolution” one is talking about, but much of the evidence is certainly NOT fraud – indeed to reject evolution is to reject the science of biology (it really is).

  11. berenike says:

    From what I’ve read of him, Thomas Woods chooses his religion to fit his political ideas: and even then he adjusts it where it doesn’t fit them.

    Those points of his that you cite are obviously true (as are many of the things said by the “social gospel” people, or liberation theologians), but don’t take him as a guide to Catholic teaching, or as a Catholic commentary on other matters, without a sack of salt. In fact, not even then.

    I’m drawing on foggy memories of last year’s web-skimming, which are that while I’m sure Mises may well have said some interesting and valid things (as did Marx), the principles or framework of his ideas are entirely foreign to, and incompatible with, any Catholic philosophy.

    (The first sentence is rather harsh. I don’t mean by it that he is insincere in his religion.)

  12. PeterT says:

    Good article.

    I have recently come to believe that if we do need a state for some limited purposes: defence, maybe some police, very basic health and income support for the destitute, then a good way to fund it would be to grant it land, from which it could derive income (possibly holding minority stakes to prevent it from seeking to influence society through its ownership). This of course would be similar to church funding.

    There are two main benefits to this:

    1) the state would not have to collect taxes, and would therefore not require information on the citizenry.

    2) to the extent that one might be concerned about the problem of initial acquisition, it may be thought proper that the state be funded with land.

    As far as catholicism seems to be a more human friendly philosophy/culture than protestantism, which may suit miserable people like Objectivists, but is unsuited for those who like to live a little. My Dad’s ex-wife to this day (she is in her 70s) smokes a cigarette a day in defiance of her late mother, who, being an evangelical Christian, had banned her from dancing as a child/young adult. The C of E is fairly tolerable in some respects, not being awfully serious about the belief thing, but you won’t see me signing up while it behaves like the religious wing of the left wing of the liberal democrat party.

  13. Paul Marks says:

    “The state be funded with land”.

    That reminds me of the old English demand (heard for many centuries) that the “King live off his own” – i.e. fund his government with the profits from his own estates.

    I am not a follower of Henry George – but in the circumstances of time and place (basically up the 18th century when the cry “live off your own” stopped being heard so much) I would have some sympathy with the government being funded by the profits of the Crown Estates (because that would have kept government spending down).

    The obvious question is how much land? Should the King (or a non Royal government) take land – perhaps claiming that it was not “justly acquired” (and if one traces land back far enough… virtually any title can be questioned).

    I would strongly oppose such a policy – others would strongly support it.

    However, one myth must be nailed – state control of land does not solve the problems it is claimed to solve.

    For example in Israel more than 90% of land is under state ownership – not notional state ownership (as with Feudalism – where in theory the King owned all the land, and in practice he had LESS control over it than an Emperor under the Roman Empire when land was formally privately owned, that is the hidden truth of “feudalism” – feudal law was a better protection for real private ownership than the formal protection offered by Roman law).

    Yet, Isreal still suffers from high (and rapidly rising) house prices and high rents. State ownership (even real state ownership) does not repeal the laws of supply and demand.

    Whether it was in the American West where (to the horror of Henry George) the price of property and rents kept going up in certain areas (i.e. as more people came to an area………). Or in Israel.

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