On this blog and in Catholic moral discourse more generally, there have been a considerable number of critiques of libertarian principles on the basis that they directly conflict with Catholic social doctrine. I have been largely convinced by these critiques in so far as they take aim at static policy proposals at a general level. However, I want to suggest that the recent revelation of the scope of our government’s surveillance practices and capacities should make it clear that there may be certain times in which the defense of the common good will bring Catholics into alignment with libertarians on particular issues. I believe now is one such time.

I don’t want to rehearse the arguments for and against the NSA surveillance policy that have recently been offered in abundance in the media. I only wish to pose the following question, which I think is the most pertinent one for Catholic social thought and indeed the one that really matters most: Is Edward Snowden a traitor?

Has Edward Snowden betrayed his nation and endangered his fellow citizens through his actions? This question opens up all the relevant issues, I think. As one hired by our government and entrusted with the information which it believed to be essential to preserving the commonweal, he made a deliberate decision to violate the oath that bound him to maintain the secrecy of the surveillance data he dealt with on a daily basis. It would seem that justice demands that he be punished, both to correct the wrong done to the body politic and to deter any future acts of this kind. The military commentator and essayist Ralph Peters recently opined that not only should be Snowden be tried for treason, but that we should reinstate the death penalty for the crime. He thinks Snowden, if found guilty, deserves death. “When did it become cool to betray your country,” Peters asks.

It isn’t cool to betray your country, nor is it just to violate guidelines of secrecy that are a part of vital government work, assuming one trusts those guidelines to be in the service of justice more broadly conceived. What happens when one’s loyalty to policies of secrecy appears to conflict with what one’s conscience is telling one about the justice of those policies? What does one do when the “vital work” one does in the name of the republic seems to contravene and negate the central ideals upon which the republic has been founded? Perhaps even more importantly, what does one do if one believes that a civil authority’s actions are violating the basic conditions under which God has entrusted that authority with sovereignty over a human community? Is it unjust to disclose government secrets when one believes those secrets are deeply corrosive of the human goods that lie at the heart of the common good whose realization is the first and most important responsibility of government? Is one a traitor for doing so?

Ron Paul asked a very interesting question today: if Edward Snowden is truly threatening the safety of Americans by doing what he did, why can’t we treat him like Anwar al-Alaki and kill him with a drone strike? What is the difference between these two “outlaws” in the eyes of the government? The difference, I would submit, is that Snowden did what he did because he loved our country. We should not kill him; we should commend and thank him.

For what is at issue in this current debate is not just the enduring significance of the 4th amendment or even a meaningful defense of the “right to privacy” (which has its own problems for Catholic social teaching, of course). What is at stake here is the existence of the space within which civil society can function qua civil society. Though not absolute, the right to private property is essential to the common good because of the space it allows for the formation and development of the family, which is the “primary cell” of human society. While the family pursues and embodies intrinsic goods, it is also ultimately ordered to a form of communion that transcends itself. This is the way in which Catholic social thought conceives of “privacy” as essential to the common good.

While there may be legitimate disagreement about where we should draw the line that determines when the basic conditions required for private property and civil society have been violated, surely there is no doubt that such a line should be drawn. And if one should respond that thus far the massive and systematic collection of personal data does not yet cross that line, one should at least ask the question that so disquieted Edward Snowden: is the infrastructure in place for the government to cross that line at a moment’s notice? When we are dealing with huge and powerful social structures like the US security apparatus, is there a meaningful moral difference between the capacity to dissolve the sphere of privacy that makes civil society possible and the actual dissolution of that sphere?