Christian Democracy is dedicated to St. Joseph the Worker. The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols

Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?

November 20, 1915

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, capitalism seemed to be the only possible form of economic organization for humanity. It was the “End of History,” declared Francis Fukuyama; all political and economic development had culminated in economic liberalism. He was echoing Hegel, who purported to prove that history had come to an end in his own time—that is, in nineteenth-century Prussia. But world events since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2007 have shown Fukuyama’s claim to have been just as premature as Hegel’s.

While central bank policy has caused equity markets to soar to new heights, enriching a tiny social layer beyond all reason, the actual economy—the production, distribution, and consumption of needed goods and services—not only has yet to return to anything like pre-2007 levels but has actually seen a marked decline in the social position of working people the world over.

The story of the economy since the beginning of the “recovery” has been one of mass layoffs, the replacement of family-wage jobs with low-wage and part-time jobs, sharp increases in poverty, especially among children, attacks on benefits and job protections, and on and on.

Moreover, the crisis of world capitalism has brought the top three nuclear-armed powers to the brink of war while the Middle East remains in its twelfth year of what Pope Francis has called a “piecemeal World War III.” These events render ridiculous the claim that free trade and free markets are automatically forces for peace.

Then there is the truly dire ecological crisis, with some scientists predicting a loss of half of the world’s species by the end of the century, and the great majority of the scientific community agreed that catastrophe due to global warming is all but certain unless we take action now. But the world’s governments, dominated by corporations and finance capital, have been completely impotent to halt the slide toward disaster. Some have thought that this situation can be addressed without change to the system at a fundamental level, that perhaps exhortation and voluntary compliance will be enough, but the total inaction since Kyoto has shown the worth of this approach.

History’s return has many of us thinking about alternatives to capitalism. For much of the past century and half or so, this has meant socialism. Post-2008, however, socialism has meant something quite different from the old Stalinist regimes of the twentieth century. Put as simply as possible, socialism has come to mean “a system that works for everyone,” not only economically but also with respect to the environment and peace. What are proposed as means to create such a system range from Bernie Sanders’s mild “democratic socialism” of reform and redistribution to the more authentically socialist models of Richard Wolff and Gar Alperovitz, which we will examine shortly. There is virtually zero serious interest in a return to Stalinism, however. So understood, there is no reason for the hysterics surrounding the reemergence of socialism as a live option.

This is especially so in relation to Catholic social teaching. Now, that Church teaching and certain versions of socialism are compatible has already been ably demonstrated in the pages of this magazine by Keith Estrada,[1] but I wish to examine certain aspects of the question myself. I am fully aware of Leo XIII’s and Pius XI’s views on socialism and have thoroughly read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church on the question and there simply is no conflict between the Church and socialism, provided the latter is rightly understood.

The popes just mentioned clearly reject the bureaucratic socialism of, say, a nation like North Korea, and the materialist conception of human life in orthodox Marxism-Leninism. A system in which all economic decisions are in the hands of a small elite of bureaucrats is too opposed to the natural law, severing the connection between labor and wealth, and undermining the natural order of society. Indeed, the pontiffs’ warnings about authoritarian, bureaucratic socialism were prophetic, for every nation that adopted the model fell into poverty and all but Cuba and North Korea collapsed.  If you read the encyclicals carefully, the departure from the natural law and the ideological rigidity about materialism are the central reasons for condemning socialism.

If there is a version of socialism that is consistent with the Magisterium, then, it will avoid both of these features, obviously. Is there such a version? Yes, but seeing that involves actually knowing what the Magisterium teaches and then becoming familiar enough with the economic system model to see that. So let’s consider that briefly.

Socialism is treated most fully in Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII argues from the old natural law view that there is a right order, divinely ordained, in the economic realm that is violated by socialism, at least as far as he understood it. Essentially, the argument begins from the natural connection between labor and wealth:

“. . . the soil which is tilled and cultivated with toil and skill utterly changes its condition; it was wild before, now it is fruitful; was barren, but now brings forth in abundance. That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. . . . As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor” (paragraph 10).

In other words, the laborer’s work, whether that work is physical or mental, is all bound up with the product of his labor—“wealth.” He has, therefore, the right to dispose of it himself, not in any way he pleases, but in accordance with justice. In Leo XIII’s view, this means providing for his family, where the man is understood to be authority within the household. He cannot provide for his family properly otherwise than by owning the means of production. Now, socialists, says the pope, want to take ownership of the means of production away from individual heads of households and transfer it to the political community (meaning, in most cases, the state) as a whole, depriving at one blow, a man of the right to possess and enjoy the fruit of his labor and of his place as provider for, and authority in, his family. So that is the substance of Leo XIII’s argument: there is a natural order of things and socialism goes against it.

Turning now to Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI does not mince his words about socialism, either of the Stalinist variety of his day or of the more “moderate” versions supported by many Catholics: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (paragraph 120). True socialists, says Pius, hold that man has only a temporal end, which is basically material enjoyment, when in fact the ultimate end of all human activity, including economic activity, is eternal happiness with God in heaven (118). Next, socialism unnaturally transfers the initiative for economic activity from the individual owner and head of household to some sort of collectively organized mode of production, to which all people are to submit. Not only is this wholly against the natural law, it will require state coercion to achieve. Nor is there in this model, wholly oriented toward production of material goods, any place for “true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God along, the Creator and last end of all things” (paragraph 119).

Now, I consider myself to be a religious socialist and I find no conflict between my religion and my political conceptions. Maybe I’m not a “true socialist,” but then neither would be many of the emerging currents of socialism be socialism either. Let us briefly consider a couple of these currents and see if they violate any of the popes’ strictures.

One of the best known socialist theorists today is Richard Wolff[2], an economist and Marxist. Like the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Wolff sees socialism arising precisely from the relation between labor and wealth on which Leo XIII grounded his condemnation of socialism. For it is actually in non-socialist economic systems—slavery, feudalism, capitalism—that workers do not get to appropriate and distribute the wealth that their labor produces. Indeed, can anyone seriously maintain that in the most capitalist of all capitalist nations, the United States, workers find themselves in the position put forward as ideal and divinely ordained in Rerum Novarum: owning the means of production, the full product of his labor in his own hands, the provider for his family?  Of course not. Even if he is employed, he is likely to work in an enterprise in which not he but an owner or board of directors appropriates the wealth produced by the workers and makes all the decisions about how it will be disposed of (whether enriching the owner or distributed to shareholders or whatever). He does not get to decide under what conditions he will work or whether his job will remain in existence at all—perhaps it will be sent to China. Does this really sound like what Leo XIII was advocating?

Just as in simpler times the freedom of the citizen was secured in an important way by owning the means of production (say, the blacksmith owning the forge and hammer), so too under the socialism that Wolff advocates, workers in a complex, technologically advanced economy control their own enterprise democratically, making all the decisions about what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the wealth produced. This is far more in line with what Leo XIII is arguing for than the situation of the great majority of workers under capitalism. Moreover, it more nearly realizes the virtues of solidarity and subsidiarity than does a typical capitalist enterprise. In capitalism, the power resides at the top, whether in the Fortune 500 company or in the state which is the corporation’s instrument. That is hardly subsidiarity. Economically empowered citizens are far more likely to be able to control the state rather than the other way around. If they did, they could use its power to provide the social benefits that empower families (adequate unemployment insurance, socialized medicine, funding for startups, and so on) rather working only in the interests of the wealthy as with our present system.

Pius XI took the socialism of his time, even the moderate versions, to necessarily involve a materialist conception of man, but it should be quite clear that this is not the case with the socialist model just sketched. In fact, as recent popes have pointed out, it is in the free market economies of our time that we see a reduction of human life to mere economic value. For instance, Pope Francis points out in Evangelium Gaudium that in today’s global capitalism, man is reduced both to a consumer good and to his own consumption (paragraphs 53 and 54), completely ignoring man’s spiritual dimension and final end. Does the average worker in a top-down, mini-totalitarian enterprise have any real scope for the individual initiative Pius says is needed or must he submit himself to the organization and its leadership? If you’ve ever been an employee versus an owner or manager, you know the answer to this question.

Both Wolff and Gar Alperovitz[3] have wholly satisfactory answers to Pius’s next objection, that a socialist system must be brought into being and maintained by force. As Alperovitz especially points out, a good deal of the American economy already bears the stamp of the alternative we’re discussing. There are many thriving workers’ cooperatives (note too that sole proprietorships (which is how I make my living) are instances of the “socialist” system under consideration: the worker gets to appropriate the wealth that his labor produces). And there are a variety of government and community enterprises that are some of the most successful and prosperous in the world.  Take the Tennessee Valley Authority or Singapore Airlines, one of the most-well run airlines in the world. So, much of the program is already happening. It is merely a matter of helping it along in peaceful ways. What is scary about any of this?

Yes, part of socialism means bringing the economy under the control of the people. One component of this is worker control of industry, as we’ve seen. Another equally important part, though, is that the government must become a means for directing economic activity toward its proper ends, which is providing for human needs so that we can pursue the authentically good life, the life of virtue and righteousness. That means guaranteeing that each and every member of the society receive adequate healthcare, nutrition, housing, education, transportation, a healthy environment, and of course employment. The way we reach this is not through violence but through common agreement: no person with even a shred of goodwill or intelligence would disagree that such a society is worth pursuing. To get there, we will need to overcome the predominant attitude of selfishness, engendered by capitalism. But we have transcended terrible social attitudes and institutions in the past. Didn’t slavery seem at one time like a necessary part of human society, an economic necessity?

That the economic life of the political community has an objective teleology—namely to supply the temporal goods necessary for leading a virtuous life, which is itself directed toward union with God­—is one of the strongest reasons for working to build an alternative such as the one we have been describing here. The purpose of the economy is not to create “opportunities” to live a dignified life. It is not to serve as a vehicle for personal satisfaction. It is to meet human need and supply the material basis for man to realize his God-given potential. This is what is meant by the “common good” in Catholic Social Teaching. Government is to be a principle by which all the many diverse activities within the life of the community are directed to that end. But if you read Aristotle, still the best source for theory of the political community, you will find that the way to achieve this just arrangement is through the coming together of independently strong households and other small institutions in a true partnership for the good life. It is not through coercion. It is rather through free cooperation of free citizens that we work to build what the great Muslim philosopher al-Farabi called the virtuous city.

Government is part of the picture in other ways too. A worker-self-directed enterprise might want to use a technology that pollutes groundwater supplies, say. We would need the government to regulate such practices, or forbid them, as we hope it does now. The government’s role might also be economic planning—again, just as it does now with agricultural subsidies (yielding the great abundance we see in an average Safeway).

Sometimes it is objected that socialists are trying to build heaven on earth. Well, would you say the same of vaccination programs? Or the push for literacy? Socialism is trying to do the same for economics as public health programs, say, have done for the health of communities. I struggle to see what is out of line here with Christian values.

Not only world events and the crisis of capitalism are driving people to think about economic alternatives; for many it is precisely their religious faith makes certain versions of socialism so appealing. Thoughtful Catholics, in particular, might be sorely disappointed to learn that, on their face, the social encyclicals of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to forbid them from putting their energy into movements that offer solidarity, justice, and peace. I hope I have shown why there is good reason for thinking this is not the case.   

Doran Hunter

Doran Hunter is the editor of Christian Democracy Magazine.  

[1] See “Un-Learning Catholic Thought on Capitalism and Socialism with the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry,”, and “Capitalism and the Catholic Social Tradition: Conversing with Father Robert Barron,” at

[2] See his Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism and websites and

[3] See Alperovitz’s What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. I am mentioning here only a tiny sliver of his well-thought-out program.

Catholicism, Socialism, and Expressing Ourselves Clearly

October 21, 2015

Something of a controversy has arisen in these pages regarding the acceptability of Socialism in the body of Catholic Social Teaching, and, since the mission of Christian Democracy is the furtherance of Catholic social doctrine, it is critical that Church teaching on Socialism find its most orthodox expression here. Superficially, that seems to be an easy task, since Pope Pius XI clearly laid it down in Quadragesimo anno that religious “socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” [1]

But the pertinent question is: what is a “true socialist”? A lot of things get called “Socialism” nowadays, some of which are clearly not Socialism, in the classical sense, in the least. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist,” but has yet to propose anything resembling public ownership of the means of production. And we will often hear any proposal for transfer payments to the poor, or otherwise disadvantaged, derisively called “Socialism” by its opponents. 

Given this ambiguity that has crept into our political discourse, it behooves us to determine just what the popes have condemned when they have condemned Socialism. To do this, we have to look to the encyclicals themselves for the answer, because it is in those sources that the grounds for the papal objections to Socialism are laid out.

Rerum novarum is a good place to start. Pope Pius XI called Rerum novarum the “Magna Charta upon which all Christian activity in the social field ought to be based, as on a foundation,” and, in that encyclical, Pope Leo XIII had much to say about Socialism.

It was the plight of working people, who had “been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition,” [2] that concerned Pope Leo XIII in writing Rerum novarum. A remedy had been proposed by the Socialists, which Leo XIII rejected in these words:

“To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”

Photo by Soman
As will be made clear in a moment, the “property” referred to here by the pontiff is “productive property,” precisely that which socialists have called “the means of production.” The Socialist goal, then, to which the pope objected was the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. His reasoning was, in part, this:

“It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”

Leo XIII would go on to insist “that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” His thinking was this:

“If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”

This ownership society that Leo XIII envisioned was premised on this:

“That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group. It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.”

Pope Leo XIII’s vision, then, was a society where a working person would receive remuneration sufficient to become an owner of the means of production himself. That was precisely the opposite of what the Socialists intended, which was to make private ownership of the means of production impossible.

But he had another objection to Socialism:

“The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them. But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself. ‘The child belongs to the father,’ and is, as it were, the continuation of the father’s personality; and speaking strictly, the child takes its place in civil society, not of its own right, but in its quality as member of the family in which it is born. And for the very reason that ‘the child belongs to the father’ it is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, ‘before it attains the use of free will, under the power and the charge of its parents.’ The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.”

Catholic teaching concerning the family is well-known, and Leo XIII’s objection to the Socialist desire to interfere with it is not surprising. If Socialism means the power of the State to interfere with the family, except in the extreme circumstances mentioned, it can form no part of Catholic Social Teaching.

But Socialism hasn’t remained static since Pope Leo XIII’s day. Is it possible for it to change to the extent that it will be consistent with Catholic Social Teaching?

Pope Pius XI dealt with this very question in Quadragesimo anno, Socialism having undergone some transformation since the time of Leo XIII, when it was “almost a single system…which maintained definite teachings reduced into one body of doctrine….” It had “since then split chiefly into two sections, often opposing each other and even bitterly hostile, without either one however abandoning a position fundamentally contrary to Christian truth that was characteristic of Socialism.”

“One section of Socialism” had “sunk into Communism,” teaching and seeking “two objectives: Unrelenting class warfare and absolute extermination of private ownership…. by employing every and all means, even the most violent.”

“The other section, which” had “kept the name Socialism,” was “more moderate.” It claimed to reject violence, and had a more temperate view of class struggle and the abolition of private ownership. This type of Socialism, Pius XI said, inclined “toward and in a certain measure” approached “the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred….” He put it this way:

“For if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice, and if this is not that blessed social peace which we all seek, it can and ought to be the point of departure from which to move forward to the mutual cooperation of the Industries and Professions. So also the war declared on private ownership, more and more abated, is being so restricted that now, finally, not the possession itself of the means of production is attacked but rather a kind of sovereignty over society which ownership has, contrary to all right, seized and usurped. For such sovereignty belongs in reality not to owners but to the public authority. If the foregoing happens, it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remold human society on the basis of Christian principles. For certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals.”

But, the pontiff pointed out, there is no need for a separate socialist movement to pursue goals of this kind.

“Such just demands and desire have nothing in them now which is inconsistent with Christian truth, and much less are they special to Socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become socialists.”

Still, even with these considerations in mind, Pius XI made it clear that Socialism as a whole was not ready for baptism.

“Yet let no one think that all the socialist groups or factions that are not communist have, without exception, recovered their senses to this extent either in fact or in name. For the most part they do not reject the class struggle or the abolition of ownership, but only in some degree modify them.”

The pope thus made it plain that there is no place for the doctrines of class struggle or the abolition of private property in Catholicism, and that Socialism could not be reconciled with Catholic teaching so long as it contained those elements. But would abolishing these elements make reconciliation between the two possible? He put the question this way:

Photo by Livioandronico2013
“But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion?”

Not quite.

“We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

The reason for this is that the very worldview of Socialism is contrary to Catholic teaching.

Photo by Ambrosius007
“For, according to Christian teaching, man, endowed with a social nature, is placed on this earth so that by leading a life in society and under an authority ordained of God he may fully cultivate and develop all his faculties unto the praise and glory of his Creator; and that by faithfully fulfilling the duties of his craft or other calling he may obtain for himself temporal and at the same time eternal happiness. Socialism, on the other hand, wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone.

“Because of the fact that goods are produced more efficiently by a suitable division of labor than by the scattered efforts of individuals, socialists infer that economic activity, only the material ends of which enter into their thinking, ought of necessity to be carried on socially. Because of this necessity, they hold that men are obliged, with respect to the producing of goods, to surrender and subject themselves entirely to society. Indeed, possession of the greatest possible supply of things that serve the advantages of this life is considered of such great importance that the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a secondary place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods. This damage to human dignity, undergone in the ‘socialized’ process of production, will be easily offset, they say, by the abundance of socially produced goods which will pour out in profusion to individuals to be used freely at their pleasure for comforts and cultural development. Society, therefore, as Socialism conceives it, can on the one hand neither exist nor be thought of without an obviously excessive use of force; on the other hand, it fosters a liberty no less false, since there is no place in it for true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God alone, the Creator and last end of all things.

“If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

What Pius XI was criticizing was the subjection of all economic activity to a government plan, which, even if it results in more efficient productive outcomes from a strictly materialist point of view, is destructive of human liberty. The result of such a system cannot be anything other than the subjugation of human work to the State, which can only be achieved through an extravagant use of State force.

This will be true wherever the State attempts to impose an economic ideology that requires mass cooperation, regardless of whether it calls its system “Socialism.” To superimpose an economic idea onto a whole society requires that flesh and blood human beings participate, regardless of whether they are willing to do so. It follows that the more intricate the economic plan proposed, the more State violence will be necessary to compel the unwilling. State violence, of course, is to some extent unavoidable if there are to be such things as courts of justice. Indeed, where there is no need for violence, there is no need of the State. But the more complexity required in a society’s vision of good order, the more occasions there will be for invoking the violence of the State, and human liberty diminishes in proportion to that violence.

Law is a society’s terms of compulsion, and, while that compulsion may, in given circumstances, be the more rational choice for the development of overall human flourishing, no one should be deceived about the fact that law, directed to economic activity or otherwise, is a directive of government force. At some point, the amount of force required to effect a society’s rules will diminish human liberty to the extent that the interests of flesh and blood human beings will be subjugated to the interests of a society that has lost its moorings in human well-being. The more complexity there is in a state’s planning, the more occasions of State force there will be, and the closer it gets to that critical point. Economic plans, like Socialism, are decidedly complex.

In Mater et Magistra Pope John XXIII summarized Pius XI’s statement on Socialism this way:

“Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority.” [3]

Pius XI thus could see no way to reconcile Socialism with Catholicism. Indeed, he saw no way that one could be both a Catholic and a Socialist. Moreover, there was an idea circulating in his day that might be considered a variant of Socialism today, but was not so called in his time, that he also warned against. Specifically, this was the “fictitious moral principle that all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers.” This notion Pius XI considered even “more specious than” the socialist idea that “whatever serves to produce goods ought to be transferred to the State….” As he put it,

“But not every distribution among human beings of property and wealth is of a character to attain either completely or to a satisfactory degree of perfection the end which God intends. Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits. Hence the class of the wealthy violates this law no less, when, as if free from care on account of its wealth, it thinks it the right order of things for it to get everything and the worker nothing, than does the non-owning working class when, angered deeply at outraged justice and too ready to assert wrongly the one right it is conscious of, it demands for itself everything as if produced by its own hands, and attacks and seeks to abolish, therefore, all property and returns or incomes, of whatever kind they are or whatever the function they perform in human society, that have not been obtained by labor, and for no other reason save that they are of such a nature. And in this connection We must not pass over the unwarranted and unmerited appeal made by some to the Apostle when he said: ‘If any man will not work neither let him eat.’ For the Apostle is passing judgment on those who are unwilling to work, although they can and ought to, and he admonishes us that we ought diligently to use our time and energies of body, and mind and not be a burden to others when we can provide for ourselves. But the Apostle in no wise teaches that labor is the sole title to a living or an income.”

By the early 1970s Socialism was such a draw for Christians that Pope Paul VI was able to observe in his Apostolic Letter, Octogesima adveniens, that some “Christians are today attracted by socialist currents and their various developments. They try to recognize therein a certain number of aspirations which they carry within themselves in the name of their faith.” [4] For Paul VI, this situation called for discernment.

“Careful judgment is called for. Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated. Distinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man. Nevertheless, these distinctions must not lead one to consider such levels as completely separate and independent. The concrete link which, according to circumstances, exists between them must be clearly marked out. This insight will enable Christians to see the degree of commitment possible along these lines, while safeguarding the values, especially those of liberty, responsibility and openness to the spiritual, which guarantee the integral development of man.”

Photo by Towarzystwo Świętego Pawła
Thus, by the time of Paul VI, Socialism had become divergent enough in its manifestations that it could no longer be condemned outright as Pius XI had done. Still, from a Christian perspective, it required approach with caution. Socialism, in whatever form, usually has the sort of rhetoric attached to it that would interest a sincere follower of Jesus. That the needs of all should be attended to is a Christian, as well as a Socialist, idea. But it is what Socialism has to say beyond that basic agreement that is critical, and the worldview out which Socialism has arisen must be accounted for, even where a particular manifestation of it appears in all respects benign. Above all, human liberty and the religious dimension of human life must be attended to and nourished.

About a decade later, Pope John Paul II criticized Socialism in a different and unexpected way: Socialism doesn’t adequately socialize the means of production. In Laborem exercens he said that “it must be noted that merely taking these means of production (capital) out of the hands of their private owners is not enough to ensure their satisfactory socialization. They cease to be the property of a certain social group, namely the private owners, and become the property of organized society, coming under the administration and direct control of another group of people, namely those who, though not owning them, from the fact of exercising power in society manage them on the level of the whole national or the local economy.” [5] But this transfer of the means of production to the control of government bureaucrats doesn’t bring the promised results.

“This group in authority may carry out its task satisfactorily from the point of view of the priority of labour; but it may also carry it out badly by claiming for itself a monopoly of the administration and disposal of the means of production and not refraining even from offending basic human rights. Thus, merely converting the means of production into State property in the collectivist system is by no means equivalent to ‘socializing’ that property. We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with every one else.”

Capitalism stands for productive property in the hands of the few. Socialism purports to stand for productive property in the hands of no one, but it doesn’t work that way in practice. What actually happens is that government bureaucrats take over the role of the capitalists, and there is no certainty that they will act in a manner that is conducive to human rights. Often, they have not. The capitalist might treat his workers as capital or commodities, but the socialist bureaucrat might not treat the workers as even that much. And, still, the workers remain alienated from their work, from what they produce. Socialism, in its purest form, dispenses with private property, but retains worker alienation.

So how can this problem be remedied? How might things be organized so that the means of production are adequately socialized? John Paul II said this:

“A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.”

This echoed what had already been said by Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno:

“First of all, those who declare that a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature, and hence a partnership-contract must take its place, are certainly in error and gravely misrepresent Our Predecessor whose Encyclical not only accepts working for wages or salaries but deals at some length with its regulation in accordance with the rules of justice.

“We consider it more advisable, however, in the present condition of human society that, so far as is possible, the work-contract be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract, as is already being done in various ways and with no small advantage to workers and owners. Workers and other employees thus become sharers in ownership or management or participate in some fashion in the profits received.”

Perhaps some might call this “Socialism.” If so, it is an odd sort of Socialism that, instead of abolishing private property, expands the number of people who own it. The truth of the matter is that it seems more related to Distributism, which advocates a wide ownership of productive property. On the other hand, it might claim for itself the mantle of being the only true Socialism, since it is only through widespread ownership of the means of production that productive property can be said to be truly socialized.

In any event, in Centesimus annus John Paul II made it clear that the Church does not condemn anything that happens to have the “Socialist” tag annexed to it when he called the Socialism condemned by Leo XIII “the socialism of his day,” and by referring to that “type of socialism as a State system — what would later be called ‘Real Socialism’,” thereby obviously limiting the scope of the condemnation. [6]

Words are supposed to have a specific meaning, but sometimes they don’t. The word “Socialism” has taken on an ambiguity in our time such that it can apply to a variety of social, political, and economic arrangements. Whether or not a Catholic can legitimately be a “Socialist” today seems to depend largely on what he means by it. If he means that he is in favor of abolishing private ownership of the means of production, and handing over control of it to the State, then he has chosen a philosophy inconsistent with his religion. If, on the other hand, he means to expand ownership of the means of production to working people, then he enjoys specific papal approval.

It must be submitted here, however, that the word “Socialism” carries with it a charged meaning in the United States. Bernie Sanders notwithstanding, the use of the term doesn’t appear to be calculated to promote understanding in our national context. One cannot be blamed if he hears the word “Socialism,” and believes that the abolition of private property into the hands of an authoritarian State is being promoted. It would be arrogance to insist that he become better educated on the subject, because, classically, Socialism does stand for the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, and different terms can easily be used in the interest of clarity.

Finally, whatever political philosophy we Catholics adopt, be it Socialism (of an acceptable kind), Conservatism, Distributism, or something else, we must never allow it to become a god. Human understanding is fallible, and systemic proposals to the problems facing humanity are likely to have shortcomings. The only sure guide is to keep in mind that each and every human person is an end in himself. We are not for the greatest good for the greatest number, but the greatest good for each person. There is no such thing as acceptable collateral damage in Catholicism. And we are, in the end, Catholics after all.

Jack Quirk  

By Any Other Name

October 8, 2015

I’ve been a little confused by some of the stuff I’ve been reading in Christian Democracy lately. It seems there’s an idea going around that it’s fine for a Catholic to be a Socialist so long as he doesn’t believe in the kind of socialism that the popes have condemned.

Now the kind of socialism that the popes have condemned is the one that tells us that all productive property (the “means of production” the socialists call it) ought to be owned by the government (or by the public, to make it sound kinder and gentler). That’s different than a lot of things that get called “socialism” today.

Some people seem to think that things like welfare and food stamps are socialism. But things like that aren’t socialism, they’re just ways of redistributing income to help out those who wouldn’t be able to take care of themselves otherwise. The popes have never condemned anything like that, except to say that people shouldn’t be stuck in that situation, but have the right to decent paying jobs. So if someone is saying that the sort of Socialism where people get welfare until they can get decent paying work is fine by Catholicism, then they’re right. Except that isn’t Socialism. A better name for it would be something like Basic Human Decency.

One other thing that I’ve heard being referred to as socialism now and then is worker owned businesses. But that’s not Socialism either. As a matter of fact, it’s sort of the opposite of Socialism, because in those businesses the workers have something that Socialism tells them they can’t have: ownership of productive property. Now maybe I don’t have the right to tell someone that he can’t call that “Socialism” if he really wants to, but he’s sure confusing me if he does. And I just don’t know why he wants to confuse me.

Picture by Alex Akindinov
It might be that someone who thinks that worker owned businesses are a kind of Socialism are getting Socialism confused with collective action in the business world. But people coming together to run a business or make a profit aren’t being socialists because of that. Otherwise, every business partnership would be at least part socialist, and wouldn’t some stockbrokers be surprised.

On the other hand, it may be that I’m assuming something that I shouldn’t. See, when I talk about worker owned businesses I’m thinking about voluntary associations. But some people might think that worker owned businesses are such a good idea that the government should force everyone into one of those businesses. Now the problem with that is that owning property means that you have some measure of dominion over it, and it just doesn’t seem possible that you could be forced to own something and, at the same time, really own it. Sure, you might get a piece of paper saying you’re a part owner of the business, but it seems to me that, in that situation, the government would really be the owner, and you would be the unhappy subject of forced labor. You might be better off financially than you would otherwise be, but that’s one of the things that the popes criticize about Socialism: it presumes that material benefit is all there is to life.

So I get nervous when I hear the word “Socialism.” The person using the word might have a good heart, and be thinking of a world where everyone’s needs are taken care of. But I’ll bet that a whole lot of my needs would be taken care of if I was put in a zoo, and when someone comes at me with the word “Socialism” I can’t help but worry that he’s thinking about pushing me around.

Louis Rose

Some Thoughts on the Oregon Tragedy

October 3, 2015

It has become too familiar a story in the United States. “Ten people are dead after a gunman opened fire at an Oregon community college Thursday, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said.” [1] The shooter was also killed after an exchange of gunfire with police.

The immensity of the tragedy is plain for all to see, but proposed remedies are the subject of political wrangling. We need to do better, but the wise will be humble. Here are some suggestions.

I. Gun Control

Photo by Sjhcq
The proliferation of senseless mass killings in the United States is a life issue, of this there can be no doubt. But it is a very complicated one, since effective solutions are not readily apparent. It is also a highly charged political issue in the United States. What’s more, as Carol Glatz writes in an article appearing in the National Catholic Reporter, the “Catholic Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership?” [2]

Self-defense against deadly assault is the reason generally given for allowing the private ownership of firearms, and the Catechism tells us that “it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow….” [3] Moreover, legitimate “defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life.” It should be added, however, that the Catechism authorizes only the force necessary for self-defense or the defense of others. “If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.... Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”

Now it would be nonsensical to authorize the defense of one’s own life, and, in certain circumstances, make it a duty to protect others against a deadly assault, but at the same time prohibit the means of doing so. Firearms cannot be un-invented, and there are certainly cases where the only means of defense against an assault by means of a firearm is by using a firearm. Thus, it does not appear likely that the Church would prohibit private gun ownership while there are people in the world offering deadly violence to others.

Photo by Antique Military Rifles
But that doesn’t mean that gun ownership can’t be regulated. Carol Glatz points out in her article that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated a position in the 2000 document “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, And Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime And Criminal Justice.” There the bishops said this:

“All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help victims break out of the pattern of abuse. As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” [3]

That statement is footnoted, and in that footnote the bishops go on to say:

“However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society. ‘Furthermore, the widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated “call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”’”

While this statement of the American bishops isn’t Magisterial in the sense that it binds Catholics to a religious assent, it is certainly entitled to respect. And the truth of the matter is that if handguns could be effectively eliminated from society, the need to use them for self-defense would be greatly diminished. Unfortunately, we seem to be a long way from being able to accomplish that, and the lack of success there has been in abolishing the illicit drug trade doesn’t inspire hope. Moreover, the recent Supreme Court decisions holding the private possession of a handgun to be a constitutional right under the Second Amendment are going to put off the removal of handguns from American society for a while. [4] [5]

Perhaps of more concern are certain long guns, specifically the semiautomatic variety with large capacity magazines, commonly referred to as “assault weapons.” There was a federal law against owning these that expired in 2004. [6] Although these weapons generally carry more powerful ammunition, with a larger ammunition capacity, than do handguns, their prohibition is even more constitutionally dicey (while the federal law survived a number of legal challenges, its constitutional validity under the Second Amendment was never litigated [7]). To understand this it is helpful to read the Second Amendment in its entirety:

Photo by Moriar on Flickr 
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The scope of the right protected by the Second Amendment has long been a subject of controversy, but the kind of weapon it refers to was settled in 1939 in the Supreme Court case of United States v. Miller. [8] In that case, two men, Jack Miller and Frank Layton, were indicted for transporting a double-barrel shotgun, with a barrel less than 18 inches long. The defendants asked the trial court to dismiss the case on the ground that transporting such a firearm was protected activity under the Second Amendment. The trial court agreed with them, and dismissed the case. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed because there was no evidence to “show that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’…has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia,” or “that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”

What the Second Amendment protects, then, is possession of the kind of weapon that would have a military application. But semiautomatic rifles are clearly in that category. In fact, automatic rifles and submachine guns fit in that category. While the technology has changed since the Miller decision (the semiautomatic M1, with a clip capacity of 8 rounds, had just replaced the bolt action M1903 as the standard service rifle [9]), the Second Amendment has not changed. With this history, there can be no confidence that an outright ban on so-called “assault weapons” can survive constitutional scrutiny.

What to do then? There is always repealing the Second Amendment, and that is precisely what was suggested in a 2013 editorial in America. As the article put it:

“The Second Amendment impedes the power of the government to regulate the sale or possession of firearms. Unfortunately, the grim consequence of this constitutional restriction is measured in body counts. The murder of 20 elementary school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., in December was merely the latest in a string of mass shootings: Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek. In the last 30 years, there have been 62 mass shootings (each leaving at least four people dead) in the United States. Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo., there have been 130 shootings at schools; nearly half involved multiple deaths or injuries.” [10]

The Second Amendment, of all the Amendments making up the Bill of Rights, seems uniquely out of sync with contemporary conditions. How much sense can it make that the Amendment allows for the proscription of double barreled sawed off shotguns, but not rifles with high capacity magazines? The reason for this is that the pertinent social conditions of the late 18th century were markedly different than contemporary ones, and a full realization of the intent of the Second Amendment would actually look fairly strange and intrusive to modern eyes.

A “militia,” as that term was understood at the time of the adoption of the Second Amendment, was not a voluntary group. It referred to compulsory service, under state auspices, of every able-bodied male of a certain age (e.g., 16 to 45), who was required to provide his own weapon and ammunition meeting certain specifications. Moreover, there were periodic musters. In modern terms, this would be like every male citizen of the specified age range, and not a member of the regular armed forces, being required to join the National Guard, except that he would be required to provide his own weaponry. One can imagine the outcry if such a requirement was imposed today. But it was the right to maintain this institution that gave rise to the Second Amendment in the first place, a right that would not be viewed as such by most citizens of today’s more self-indulgent America.

What, perhaps, is required is not a simple repeal of the Second Amendment, without more, but, rather, an updating to meet the circumstances of today. This updating, which would come in the form of an amendment to the Constitution, would address the need of both a regulated militia and the natural right of self-defense. The amendment would (1) recognize the right and duty of every state to have its own militia, subject to being called into federal service under certain conditions, (2) recognize a right of every physically and mentally able citizen to be a member of that militia, and (3) recognize the right of every person to have arms that are suitable for his or her self-defense and the defense of those for whom he or she is responsible. The original purpose of the Second Amendment would be furthered in that it would protect against a federal monopoly of military force, military grade weapons would be accessible (though, perhaps, not owned or kept at home) to most citizens without discrimination subject to the requirement of militia service (which, it is hoped, would involve mental health examinations as a prerequisite), and every adult citizen of sound mind would have a more restricted access to firearms of the kind that would answer the legitimate needs of self-defense. Interestingly, double barreled shotguns (though probably not of the sawed-off variety) would pass muster for self-defense purposes, while large capacity assault rifles would not. A remedy like this should be sufficient to satisfy all rational sides of the debate, and there might even be room for the United States bishops’ hope to rid our society of handguns, at least of the semiautomatic variety with large magazines.

A remedy like this would go a long way toward protecting schools from visits by heavily armed persons who are mentally disturbed, since large capacity firearms would not be available to the general public. While individuals of the criminal underground would find a way to get their hands on illicit weapons, isolated and disturbed individuals of the kind that bring attacks like the one that just happened in Oregon, not likely to have sufficient underworld contacts, would find it difficult.

But there are other things that can be done.

II. Publicity

With reference to the individual who recently shot and killed a reporter and a cameraman in Virginia, the gunman in the Oregon shooting had previously blogged his observation that such individuals “are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.” It seems clear that the Oregon shooter was hoping to ease whatever internal anguish he was experiencing with the thought of the notoriety he would achieve through the spilling of blood.

In recognition of this motivation, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has refused to mention the killer’s name. [11] This article is following suit (except, unfortunately, for the necessary links), and news outlets, writers, and commentators would do well to do the same. Convincing the public press, whether in print, the airwaves, or online, to adopt a policy of neither mentioning the names of such perpetrators, nor showing their pictures, should be an easy sell in a decent society. Historians might also consider taking up the cause. No one should be allowed to view mass slaughter as an escape from obscurity.

Photo by Commander Zulu
Still, there is more.  

III. Mental Health

While the Affordable Care Act has expanded medical coverage, universal coverage has yet to be attained in the United States. Added to this is the ignorant and superstitious shame we bring to bear on issues of mental illness. Access to healthcare for all, regardless of means, is long overdue in this country, and that healthcare should include mental healthcare. And it is not just availability that is needed, but desirability. Just as there has been the public promulgation of the dangers of smoking, so there needs to be a campaign to eradicate the notion that mental illness is somehow a reflection of a person’s character. When mental healthcare is accessible to all, and accessing that care is considered no more shameful than going to the doctor with symptoms of pneumonia, we will have gone a long way toward preventing the kind of tragedy that happened in Oregon.

And finally,

IV. Social Structures

Photo by Stephen Z
We wonder at the early days of our republic when it was a requirement for able-bodied men to own firearms. How was it that there were so many armed people, and no one was going to a school to inflict a massacre? True, there were no large capacity assault rifles in those days, but the fact that such actions are a continuous danger in our society today indicates that something critical has changed.

Liah Greenfeld, a University Professor and a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong [12], tells us that modern “humans—that is, people who live in societies such as ours, democratic, prosperous, relatively secure, and offering its members numerous life-choices, people like you and me, in other words—are different from humans who lived or live in other types of societies. We experience life differently from them: perceive reality differently and feel emotions that other humans did not have.” [13] This is a result of historical processes. As Dr. Greenfeld puts it:

“Human experience was revolutionized in the 16th century England. In the previous posts we have already discussed such new emotions as ambition, love, happiness, and their connection to the new form of consciousness, which came to be called “nationalism” and formed the cultural framework of modernity. Nationalism implied a special image of society as a sovereign community of equal members (a “nation”) and of reality in general. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere. Considering a living community sovereign (the source of all laws), it implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God and, even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, which happened often, was to all intents and purposes secular. It was dramatically different, in other words, from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness which it replaced, and it shaped the way we live today. Among other things, the new consciousness made the human individual one’s own maker: it implied we had the choice to decide what we want to be; it dramatically increased the value of human life, encouraging us to realize it to the fullest extent—in other words, it gave us dignity and freedom. The society built on its premises of equality and popular sovereignty was an open society, in which the individual had the right to define one’s own identity, a society which made one’s identity one’s own business.”

But this social development came at a cost.

“The liberty to define oneself has made the formation of the individual identity problematic. A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself.  Modern culture cannot provide individuals within it with consistent guidance, with which other cultures provide its members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), it in fact actively disorients us. Such cultural insufficiency is called anomie. Already over a century ago, it was recognized as the most dangerous problem of modernity. For many people, the necessity to construct one’s identity, to choose what to make of oneself, became an unbearable burden.”

The ramifications of this new situation have proved immense.

“At the same time as the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self. Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment. Sixteenth-century English phrases such as ‘losing one’s mind,’ ‘going out of one’s mind,’ and ‘not being oneself’ captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.”

The anomie that Dr. Greenfeld describes has reached crisis proportions, and has resulted in the internal anguish with which the Oregon shooter suffered. While we have increased freedom, we have, at the same time, made our environment less human. For too many of us, the increased range of choices has brought us to the conundrum of selves that we desire but are impossible to attain.

But this is a result of circumstances that are exterior to ourselves, the societies that we have created. That being so, remedies must be sought in transformation toward more human social structures. Otherwise we will remain a society characterized by the abundance of consumer products, but deep internal suffering. We will continue to be a society that has gained the world, but has lost too many of its souls.

Jack Quirk