Un-Learning Catholic Thought on Capitalism and Socialism with the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Perry

September 30, 2015

Three days ago, Mark Perry decided to provide a short collection of quotes for the sake of providing “some historical perspective” on “what four previous popes had to say about socialism”. [1]  

I suppose Perry thought he could help advance the cause of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with his short collection of quotes. If, in relation to Perry's post, AEI seeks to promote the non-existing “democratic capitalism” and not much else, the author didn’t do too badly of a job - and should be, perhaps, congratulated.

Photo by Tony Webster
However, if the purpose of the article truly extended towards providing “some historical perspective” on “what four previous popes had to say about socialism”, with the gracious benefit - though, unmentioned - of sharing catholic thought and respecting the intellect of one’s readership, then perhaps we should withhold our congratulations.

One may find that, in producing the collection of quotes, Perry could advance the position of “democratic capitalism” by negating socialism.

With the above considerations in mind, we can readily submit that the American Enterprise Institute is not to be recommended as a teaching source if one’s desire is to learn Catholic thought on capitalism and socialism - unless one desires to learn the ways and extent in which pro-capitalist venues would distort and defile Christian ethics.

Before I comment any further, I must admit that I find the short piece to be very consistent with capitalist thought. There are three reasons why I believe this to be the case:

(1) the author makes no distinctions - which would be useful for the purpose of providing “some historical perspective” - on what is understood to be “socialism” in the writing of each pope; the lack of distinction is curiously common in pro-capitalist discourse and our author does not disappoint,

Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov
(2) the author offers a quote from Benedict XVI's Deus caritas est [2] that not only fails to mention socialism, but happens to be an encyclical that cites previous work, from another pope, which seeks to correct - as opposed to reject - parts of socialism; the pro-capitalist’s fantasy that papal teaching favors capitalism and rejects socialism requires their consistent failure to engage the teaching in a historical fashion,

(3) With reason #1 in mind, we recall the nasty attempt to provide an inauthentic presentation of papal thought with the end of advancing capitalism, by failing in the acknowledgement of distinctions made by the papal Magisterium concerning socialism and refusing to provide any alternative that is not capitalism or any teaching related to capitalism - understandably negative - from the popes; this is consistent in pro-capitalist efforts, as anyone considering particular merits of a certain socialism would be identified as communists in being: anti-freedom, anti-property, anti-creativity, anti-life, anti-family, anti-enterprise - as if all socialism maintained these positions, and as if capitalism actually cared to materialize freedom, property creativity, life, family, and enterprise for all.

Let us make no mistake, dear friends, in understanding that the rejection of certain systems does not force us to embrace another, as capitalists would let us believe. As the bishops of France once wrote:

“... no Catholic should fall into that all too frequently conceived illusion that an unfavorable judgment by the Holy See on one doctrine signifies its approval of the opposing doctrine. By condemning the actions of communist parties, the Church does not support the capitalist regime.”

This was from a comment on Pope Pius XI's Divini redemptoris [3], on atheistic communism.

We should note that the bishops of France, along with Pius XI, do specifically refer to atheistic communism, and not socialism in its various manifestations, then and now. Nevertheless, I would wrong you by not providing what the bishops of France wrote in the sentence continuing from the quote above:

“It is most necessary that it be realized that in the very essence of capitalism-that is to say, in the absolute value that it gives to property without reference to the common good or to the dignity of labor-there is a materialism rejected by Christian teaching.”

That said, let us also remember that the Popes spoke before they were elected bishop of Rome. Would it be useful for “historical perspective” to have an insight into what the Popes said before election?

Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) may have believed, or simply had written down as a note:

“The church is aware that the bourgeois mentality and capitalism as a whole, with its materialist spirit, acutely contradict the Gospel.”

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) wrote:

​“Back to Europe. A third model was added to the two models of the 19th century: socialism. Socialism took two main paths — the democratic and the totalitarian one. Democratic socialism became a healthy counterbalance to radically liberal positions in both existing models. It enriched and corrected them. It proved itself even when religious confessions took over… In many ways, democratic socialism stands and stood close to the Catholic social teachings. It in any case contributed a substantial amount to the education of social conscience.”

Photo by Aibdescalzo
Jorge Bergoglio (Francis) wrote:

“What the Church criticizes is the spirit that capitalism has encouraged, utilizing capital to subject and oppress man.”

​“Capitalism has been the cause of many sufferings of injustice and fratricidal fights.”

“The capitalist system also has its own spiritual perversion: to tame religion. It tames religion so that it does not bother Capitalism too much; it brings it down to worldly terms. It gives it a certain transcendence, but only a little bit… The capitalist system in turn tolerates a kind of tamed transcendence that manifests in a worldly spirit. For religious people, the act of adoring God means to submit to His will, to His justice, to His law, and to His prophetic inspiration. On the other hand, for the worldly who manipulate religion, it is not too hot or too cold. Something like: “Behave yourself, do some crooked things, but not too many.” There would be good manners and bad customs: a civilization of consumerism, of hedonism, of political arrangements between the powers or political sectors, the terrain of money. All are manifestations of worldliness.”

Certainly, then, my friends, we are able to learn a bit about what some Popes had to say about capitalism and democratic socialism before becoming Bishop of Rome.

Let’s give the capitalists a pass on this one, though, as these quotes are from the time belonging to their pre-Papal ministry.

What do we have, then, on capitalism and socialism? Well, we can consider the fact that the un-helpful article produced through the American Enterprise Institute fails to do something that one of the popes it cites did - 44 years ago: namely, distinguish between socialisms.

Ratzinger did this in the quote above. Why don’t pro-capitalists do this for the benefit of their readers? It would be unhelpful for them to do so if only for the reason that they would have to then refrain from taking “socialism” -without qualification - as meaning some sort of system that can be identified with the USSR, etc. Maybe pro-capitalists think all socialisms are bad - but it’s hard to know if we never learn of any distinction.

So, let us correct our kind author at AEI by providing some “historical perspective” and context in a few words.

Benedict XVI: Anti-Socialist?

If we look at the AEI quote from Benedict XVI, we'll notice that it is from Deus caritas est (God Is Love). In the section where the quote is located, Benedict emphasizes the need and irreplaceable character of love -caritas- as service, etc. Given that Benedict, before he was elected Bishop of Rome, was able to make distinctions between socialisms, perhaps he did so as Pope.

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Let’s consider, first, that Benedict doesn’t use the word “socialism” in the cited encyclical. However, if you do a general search of what Benedict - as Pope Benedict XVI – wrote or said, using what is available on vatican.va [4], you’ll notice his harshness when treating some realities that contain, in name, the word “socialism”.

What are they?

National Socialism. It would benefit a pro-capitalist to reduce Benedict’s concern to socialism without distinction, especially in this case. Why? Because we could easily make a simple line graph explaining what National Socialism is - to the sorrow of our pro-capitalist friends:

National Socialism → Nazism → Fascism → Capitalist Pursuits to the Extreme

What else does Benedict XVI refer to when discussing socialism? The same thing he refers to when he was Prefect of the CDF: atheistic, totalitarian forms of socialism. Not only is this made evident by perusing vatican.va, but it should be considered a consistency. Ratzinger makes the distinction in the quote above. But, even a modest scholar would connect the dots between Benedict XVI's ability to make a distinction and Ratzinger’s ability to make a distinction as is evident in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As summarized in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Opposed to the social doctrine of the Church are economic and social systems that sacrifice the basic rights of persons or that make profit their exclusive norm or ultimate end. For this reason the Church rejects the ideologies associated in modern times with Communism or with atheistic and totalitarian forms of socialism.” [5] (Emphasis mine)

Are there forms of socialism that are not atheistic and totalitarian? It would seem so, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That’s a major loss for pro-capitalists, because now they have to make the distinction, which makes the actualization of their cause ever more difficult.

​Well, the next sentence from the Compendium makes life a little more difficult again:

​“But in the practice of capitalism the Church also rejects self-centered individualism and an absolute primacy of the laws of the marketplace over human labor.”

Yikes. Not only does the Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguish between forms of socialism, some of which are completely unacceptable, it strikes down capitalism in its essence.

John Paul II: Anti-socialist?

Taking John Paul II as anti-socialist is not a conclusion one should accept without qualification. John Paul II rejected, like his predecessors and successors, communism, or forms of socialism that are atheistic or totalitarian.


In Centesimus annus [6], John Paul II does two things that you would not know if you un-learned Catholic teaching from the American Enterprise Institute:

(1) He qualifies his predecessor’s rejection of socialism (paragraph 12), and;

(2) He qualifies his rejection of socialism as rejecting “Real socialism” (paragraphs 12, 13, and 35). For example, “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.”

John Paul II doesn't reject socialism outright. In fact, it can be argued that he rejects only some socialism in principle. Centesimus annus builds on and presupposes, instead of correcting, John Paul II's previous encyclicals (paragraph 10). It would also benefit us to note that Centesimus annus affirms that a market economy, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc., aren’t exclusive to capitalism. In fact, the capitalism we reject is rejected by the pope in the encyclical. When people mean to express a market system with appropriate private property, entrepreneurship, etc., but use the word “capitalism”, John Paul II explains that the appropriate term would be market economy, or free economy, or business economy. A system, like capitalism, which rejects the priority of labor over capital, among other things, is rightly rejected (see, for example, paragraph 42).

Laborem exercens is especially troublesome for the pro-capitalist cause - indeed, some could say that the capitalist cause should have ended with Laborem exercens (at least to the degree pro-capitalists wanted it to be pro-Christian ethic).

It would be easiest to provide a short quote from a section of Enrique Dussel's study Ethics and Community covering Laborem exercens​:

“Surely a central place in the history of the social teaching of the church must be assigned to Laborem Exercens. This encyclical moves to a head-on criticism of capitalism-capitalism in its very essence- and approves of socialism in principle.

“Now it is socialism that comes in for particular criticisms and a call for internal reform. The orientation conferred on the social teaching of the church in 1891 has been reversed. If the earlier ‘key’ was private property, now ‘human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the entire social question’ (Laborem Exercens, 3). The basic thesis of the document’s criticism of the essence of capitalism is enunciated in terms of ‘the principle of the priority of labor over capital’ (ibid., 12):

“‘This principle directly concerns the process of production: In this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause’ [ibid.].

“‘Further consideration of this question should confirm our conviction of the priority of human labor over what in the course of time we have grown accustomed to calling capital’ [ibid.].

“‘We must emphasize and give prominence to human primacy in the production process, the primacy of humankind over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things’ [ibid., 13].

“The social teaching of the church no longer held that work can be set in confrontation with capital or detached from it as an independent factor or aspect on the very level of production itself. Rerum Novarum had held: ‘Neither capital can subsist without labor, nor labor without capital’ (no. 14). Now we are taught instead:

“‘This consistent image, in which the principle of the primacy of person over things is strictly preserved, was broken up in human thought. The break occurred in such a way that labor was separated from capital and set in opposition to it, and capital was set in opposition to labor, as though they were two impersonal forces, two production factors juxtaposed in the same “economistic” perspective’ [Laborem Exercens, 13].

“All capital is work. The creative source of wealth, of all wealth or value, is work, not capital. On the other hand, as we have seen, John Paul II basically accepts socialism: ‘In consideration of human labor and of common access to the goods meant for humankind, one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production’ (Laborem Exercens, 14). But now there is more: socialism is criticized internally. Instead of being criticized from without, as before, it is corrected from within, as I indicated:

“‘We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of their work all persons are fully entitled to consider themselves part- owners of the great workbench at which they are working with everyone else’ [Laborem Exercens, 14].

“‘If it is to be rational and fruitful, any socialization of the means of production must ...ensure that in this kind of system also persons can preserve their awareness of working “for themselves”’ [ibid., 15].”

The quotes within the above quote come from John Paul II's encyclical, as cited by paragraph numbers. There is more to Dussel’s study and I heartily recommend you access his work for more.

Don’t forget that John Paul II also said: “Look, I can surely say by now that I’ve got the antibodies to communism inside me. But when I think of consumer society, with all its tragedies, I wonder which of the two systems is better.” [7] He also said, “If present day capitalism is improved, it is in great part because of the good things realized by communism: the fight against unemployment, concern for the poor. Capitalism, on the other hand, is individualistic.” [8]

That being said, let us consider Paul VI.

Paul VI: Anti-socialist?

Paul VI's 1971 apostolic letter to Cardinal Maurice Roy of Canada, Octogesima adveniens [9], takes the step of admitting that there are distinctions to be allowed for socialism. It actually comes from the same paragraph the American Enterprise Institute article pulls from, beginning in the sentence where the AEI quote ends:

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​“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. (31)”
And now, John XXIII.

John XXIII: Anti-socialist?

It is easy to see that John XXIII rejected the pure materialism of an atheistic socialism. We might also note that in Pacem in Terris [10] he writes that each person,

“has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood” (11).

Who has it as a primary responsibility to make sure these rights are promoted? For John XXIII, it's the state (starts at paragraph 60). Doesn’t Pope John know that the market will take care of everything? What is he, a socialist?

Photo by Towarzystwo Świętego Pawła
In Conclusion

Let us remember that the American Enterprise Institute and, perhaps, other manifestations of capitalist apologetics - whether led by priests or otherwise - aren't always a safe place to learn Catholic teaching on capitalism and socialism. Perhaps, it may be said, one could go there to un-learn Catholic teaching.

I know it's a challenge to go through a lot of material in the Church's teaching, but remember that such pursuits are worthy and fruitful. Know that capitalists would discourage these pursuits. I am reminded especially of Hayek and Mises, not only because such pursuits are inefficient or non-lucrative in their view, but will teach you about the Christian virtues that contradict the capitalist way of life. Instead they may resort to posting short, unhelpful, non-perspective-giving quotes to keep you in their trap. Or, instead, they may just produce their own summaries of encyclicals, or go so far as highlighting for you what is authentic teaching in an encyclical and what is not. A pro-capitalist effort such as this relies on your vulnerability and abuses your trust, while insisting that it is simply making life easier for you - which capitalism could never do.

Do remember, this isn't meant to provide a complete treatment on Catholic thought, socialism, and capitalism – it’s just a subtle and modest correction of the AEI article linked above.

Also, remember to look at Laborem exercens to learn about unemployment—an evil—and how the Church tasks the state with planning (not in a centralized fashion) to avoid or diminish its effects. John Paul II, in the same encyclical, ties the right to employment to the universal destination of goods, and expresses that it is a 'right to life' situation. Maybe AEI will quote that section in a future article.

Keith Michael Estrada

Keith Michael Estrada is the founder of Students for a Fair Society at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a member of the International Observatory of Young Catholics (Rome). Finishing his MA in philosophy at the aforementioned institution, he writes from Seattle-land, Washington. He can be reached at keithmichaelestrada.com.


This article previously appeared at http://www.keithmichaelestrada.com/