Ayn Rand's Philosophy Incompatible with Catholic Teaching
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
Who is Ayn Rand? Most people may remember Rand, who died in 1982, as the author of novels assigned in high school, such as The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem. Teenagers understandably find something appealing in those novels about creative individuals fighting authoritative and repressive structures.
The novels and the philosophy Rand created along with them have found a renewed interest. Sales of her books have skyrocketed in recent years. Congressional leaders have cited Rand as a major influence. Hollywood recently released a first installment of a film version of Atlas Shrugged. Signs at Tea Party rallies extoll Rand. The popular North Dakota based Say Anything blog regularly praises Rand’s philosophy. Even a sign in Bismarck displays the opening line of Atlas Shrugged: “Who is John Galt?”
Catholics should, therefore, know something about Ayn Rand’s views. She was virulently anti-communist. She was also an atheist and stridently anti-religious. To her, the defense of the individual and capitalism was inseparable from the need to eliminate religion and especially the Catholic Church. The individual was preeminent and anything that interfered with an individual’s attempt at greatness and self-interest was detrimental to man. Because religion views God, not man, as perfect, religion, by definition, was anti-man.
But she did not stop there. The great enemy of the individual was altruism and selflessness, which are, of course, pinnacles of Christian teaching. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of Rand’s major anti-religious writings, Requiem for Man, was an attack on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum progressio. (Present-day Rand followers similarly attacked Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.)
A person attracted to Rand’s anti-socialist views might be tempted to disregard only her anti-religious views and embrace the rest of her philosophy. But that could be a dangerous path, spiritually and socially. For one thing, her atheist and materialist views are mostly inseparable from the basis of her anti-collectivist views. Secondly, her concept of the individual is probably more dangerous than her atheist views.
Rand elevates the individual above all else and makes self-interest the greatest possible act. It is a view that appeals to many libertarians. It is also a view incompatible with the Gospel. For one thing, we are not individuals in the sense embraced by Rand and her followers. We are persons who, by our nature, being created in God’s image, are connected to each other and to God Himself. Moreover, the entire life and message of Christ is one of self-sacrifice, not selfishness. The danger of embracing a Randian type of individualism is that it eventually leads to a distorted view of ourselves and our relation to God.
When it comes to libertarianism, we can learn from the Church’s response to democratic socialism. Communism was clearly condemned for both its atheist/materialist dogma and its oppressive collectivist policies. When democratic socialism developed, the Church noted that while some of its policies, such as social security systems, might be acceptable, its materialist philosophy could not be embraced. Likewise, some policies of libertarianism, such as limited government, might be acceptable. Underlying philosophies that embrace a flawed concept of the human person must be rejected.
Rejecting the ultra-individualism of Rand and some libertarians is part of “putting aside childish things.” As screenwriter and blogger John Rogers put it:
“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”