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. 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,” http://www.christiandemocracymagazine.com/2015/09/un-learning-catholic-thought-on.html, and “Capitalism and the Catholic Social Tradition: Conversing with Father Robert Barron,” at http://www.christiandemocracymagazine.com/2015/07/capitalism-and-catholic-social.html

[2] See his Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism and websites www.rdwolff.com and www.democracyatwork.info.

[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.