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Pope Francis Attacks Objectivism in All but Name

Pope Francis Attacks Objectivism in All but Name

6 Mins
May 2, 2017

Ayn Rand delved into some of Objectivism’s most fundamental ideas—and their most poignant personal implications—in the essay she devoted to the 1967 encyclical by Pope Paul VI, Populorum Progressio (“on the development of peoples.”)

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An “encyclical” in the ancient church was a “circular letter” to the heads of Christian churches everywhere. Today, it is a personal communication by the Pope that speaks to the doctrine of the Church. As such, it represents one of the most significant statements of the views of the Church.

Ayn Rand’s analysis in “Requiem for Man” pursued and challenged the encyclical’s premises across the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, economics, and history; but her basic point, without which nothing can be understood about Objectivism and capitalism, was that “…capitalism is incompatible with altruism and mysticism….

The encyclical…reads as if a long-repressed emotion broke out into the open, past the barrier of carefully measured, cautiously calculated sentences, with the hissing pressure of centuries of silence.  The sentences are full of contradictions; the emotion is consistent.

The encyclical is the manifesto of an impassioned hatred for capitalism; but its evil is much more profound and its target is more than mere politics.  It is written in terms of a mystic-altruist ‘sense of life’

She said that this was not the sense of life of an individual pope; it was the “sense of life of an entire institution” over many centuries. The essay is included in Ayn Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and “Requiem for Man” can be read here.


Well, that institution spoke again last Friday, April 29:

  • Libertarianism “leads to the conclusion that everyone has the right to extend himself as far as his abilities allow him even at the cost of the exclusion and marginalization of the more vulnerable majority.”
  • Libertarianism, “which is so fashionable today,” asserts that “only the individual gives value to things and to interpersonal relations and therefore only the individual decides what is good and what is evil.”
  • “A common characteristic of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is the idea of ‘living well’ or the ‘good life’ in the communitarian framework.”

The statements are those of Francis, 226th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, in a message to members of the Pontifical Academy meeting in a workshop to discuss a “participatory society, “New Roads to Social and Cultural Integration.” As I understand it, the Pope did not make the message public, but a copy was obtained and quoted at length by Breitbart News under the title “Pope Francis Warns Against ‘Invasion’ of Libertarianism.” Therefore, we do not have the full context nor, it seems to me, a good translation from the Latin.

The Pope warns that libertarian is “so fashionable today” (the “good news” for Libertarians?) and then writes, in garbled translation: “I cannot fail to speak of the grave risks associated with the invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism at high strata of culture and in school and university education.”

I think that means that the Pope sees “grave risks” when top positions in schools, universities, and other cultural institutions are held by libertarians thinkers. The risk, says the message, is that libertarianism exalts a “selfish ideal,” denies the priority of the “common good,” and “supposes that the very idea of ‘common’ means the constriction of at least some individuals and on the other hand that the notion of ‘good’ deprives freedom of its essence.”

On a final point, Breitbart News partly quotes and partly paraphrases:

According to this mentality, all relationships that create ties must be eliminated, the Pope suggested, “since they would limit freedom.” In this way, only by living independently of others, of the common good, and even God himself, can a person be free, he said.


If you are familiar with Ayn Rand’s writings, such as “Requiem for Man,” you are not surprised by the pontiff’s view of the individual, selfishness, the “common good” as opposed to individual self-interest, and the evil of the individual who assumes the role of judging what is good and evil. In fact, Francis’s message is old hat, except for his use (not for the first time) of “libertarianism” rather than “capitalism” and the implication that he is attacking a “radical,” not a “conservative” doctrine.

As I read this, though, a single question keeps flashing in the night: What does this have to do with libertarianism?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers this definition: “Libertarianism is a political philosophy that affirms the rights of individuals to liberty, to acquire, keep, and exchange their holdings, and considers the protection of individual rights the primary role for the state.”

And that is a fine, lean definition of libertarianism. The article then delves into the premises of such a position, the arguments, and concludes that the foundation is a theory of justice.

Libertarianism is a political position. It does not assert or entail the idea that the libertarian, to be free, must be independent of God. It does not assert that “only the individual gives value to things.” If you are a libertarian, you may believe in God, live in a commune, work for the common good. Yet, Pope Francis attacks libertarianism on those grounds. He does not mention “the rights of individuals to liberty, to acquire, keep, and exchange their holdings…” or the primary role of the state being “the protection of individual rights…”

Ayn Rand pointed out, again and again, that libertarianism is a theory of politics without a foundation in philosophy. Libertarianism could be advocated by John Stuart Mill on the basis of Utilitarianism, “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Indeed, the Stanford Encyclopedia article concludes that, with the exception of the famous arguments of Robert Nozick, “libertarianism tends to be ‘left-wing.’"

That means not conservative: “It opposes laws that restrict consensual and private sexual relationships between adults (e.g., gay sex, extra-marital sex, and deviant sex), laws that restrict drug use, laws that impose religious views or practices on individuals, and compulsory military service.”

Could it be much clearer than that?


Contemporary libertarianism is to a considerable extent an offshoot of Objectivism; the most prominent Libertarian think-tank, the Cato Institute, had Objectivist John Allison as its president and CEO from 2012 to 2015. It is Objectivism that Pope Francis is attacking.

Ayn Rand was bitterly, resolutely, opposed to an advocacy of libertarianism that cut loose from the foundation of Objectivism, hoping to soar higher with an appeal to individual liberty unburdened by premises about reason (versus faith), selfishness (versus altruism), and individualism (versus collectivism). She argued that without defending those foundational arguments for liberty, Mill, Adam Smith, and every other libertarian had fallen before the claims of altruism, sacrifice, community, the public interest, the common good, brotherhood...

She repeatedly warned Objectivists tempted by libertarianism: Arguments more brilliant than yours for the practicality of liberty, for its benefits to prosperity and progress, have gone down before the counterattack by altruism in all its forms. And, without the foundation of the philosophy of reason and egoism, you will go down, too.

And largely because of her, libertarianism today is identified, even by the Church of Rome, not as the free-floating philosophy of liberty, but the philosophy of independent human reason (deciding what is good and evil by reason, not divine authority), egoism (“a selfish ideal”), individualism (versus the “communitarian framework,”) and capitalism (“everyone has the right to extend himself as far as his abilities allow…”).

Take a moment, here, Objectivists, to mark a milestone. Objectivism has been attacked by the single dominant historical voice of philosophy, the Church of Rome. This is the voice that for more than 2000 years has spoken for faith, sacrifice, metaphysical humility, the superiority and glory of another realm, the innate sinfulness of man…

And now, it is Objectivism, as the foundation for human liberty, that the Catholic Church has identified as the “grave risk” in the field of philosophy.

We are in the finals.


Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand

Francis I: Pope of the Poor by Edward Hudgins

Can You Love God and Ayn Rand? By Jennifer A. Grossman

Walter Donway


Walter Donway

Walter Donway was a trustee of the Atlas Society from its founding until 2010. He launched the organization's first publication, "The IOS Journal," and contributed articles and poems to all later publications. He is the author of poetry collections, novels, and works of nonfiction, including his book, "Not Half Free: The Myth that America is Capitalist," with a foreword by David Kelley. He analyzed the philosophical meaning of the 2016 presidential election, and the import of Donald Trump's election, in his book "Donald Trump and His Enemies.: How the Media Put Trump in Office." He is an editor and regular contributor to an online magazine, "Savvy Street," that presents current events in the context of Objectivism. He lives in East Hampton, New York, with his wife, Robin Shepard.

Walter Donway
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"Walter's latest book is How Philosophers Change Civilizations: The Age of Enlightenment."

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