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.”

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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:

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“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.

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“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.”

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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