January 10th, 2016

Within the pages of Christian Democracy there has arisen a spontaneous dialogue on the question of Socialism versus Catholic Social Teaching. Both Christian Democracy editor Doran Hunter and Keith Estrada have expressed their advocacy for a certain kind of Socialism that passes muster with magisterial authority. In October of last year, I wrote an article entitled “Catholicism, Socialism, and Expressing Ourselves Clearly,” [1] wherein I examined the history of papal responses to Socialism, and concluded that, while it has certainly come to pass that there are economic models identified as “Socialist” which are fully reconcilable with Catholic teaching, “Socialism” was becoming too broad a term for cogency.

Mr. Hunter followed up with an article in November, entitled “Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?” [2] Fully consistent with his previous writing, he answered in the affirmative. His article doesn’t mention mine, so it would be a tad narcissistic if I treated it as if he was responding to me. Indeed, it is the fact that he did not grapple with the conclusion of my article that, in part, inspires the following. Let it be expressed clearly, then, that what follows is a response to Mr. Hunter’s article. Even though he and I disagree little as to substantive matters, I am compelled to insist that the ambiguity that has attached to the term “Socialism” makes communication of the idea that both Mr. Hunter and Mr. Estrada want to present more difficult than it needs to be.

It is undeniable that “Socialism” doesn’t always mean Stalinism, as Mr. Hunter points out. I am all too happy to agree with him, since I make that very point in my article when I say that there are a lot of things that get called “Socialism” nowadays that do not resemble Socialism as classically understood. My point is not to take issue with everything that calls itself “Socialism,” but to challenge the ambiguous use of the term. The same name should only be given to identical, or at least similar, things. A society consisting of worker-owned businesses is entirely different than one where the government owns the means of production, yet both get called “Socialism.” But if a system where everyone owns productive property is given the same name as one where nobody owns it, we are dealing with a name, a word, which has been divested of all coherent meaning.  

Of course, if we are going to call a system of worker-owned enterprises “Socialism,” then we can say that we have found a Socialist model that avoids the objection of Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno that Socialism, even in its moderate forms, involves a materialist conception of humanity. [3] A worker controlled enterprise need not be materialist. But Pius XI was not addressing worker-owned enterprises. In point of fact, in the very encyclical where the pontiff was criticizing Socialism he says this:

“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 it 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.” (¶¶ 64, 65)

It thus appears that Pius XI anticipated something close to Mr. Hunter’s proposal, and approved of it. He just didn’t call it “Socialism.”

Thus, there is really no satisfactory answer to Pius XI’s objection that Socialism “must be brought into being and maintained by force.” Workers’ cooperatives are, indeed, entered into voluntarily. But Pius XI wasn’t thinking about workers’ cooperatives when he wrote about Socialism, and a complete seizure of the means of production by the government, which is what the pontiff was thinking about, does indeed require a great deal of force for its accomplishment.

Ultimately, the question is about whether business enterprises should be, in the main, owned by the government or privately. The popes have uniformly held for private ownership. So, apparently, does Mr. Hunter. The real dispute here is over what deserves to be called “Socialism,” and my point is that when “Socialism” is used to describe different things that are completely unalike it engenders unnecessary confusion.

To see just what kind of confusion can arise when one uses “Socialism” in such a broad manner, an example can be found in Gabriel Sanchez’s Opus Publicum, where he took both Mr. Hunter and myself to task for falling to what he calls the “socialist seduction.” [4] He seemed to be saying that we both were trying to squeeze Socialism into magisterial compliance.

Mr. Hunter is more than equal to the task of defending himself, but I wasn’t attempting any such thing. I was surveying papal encyclicals for their teaching on Socialism, and found that as Socialism has developed into different forms the papal response to it has changed. It is, therefore, no longer a simple matter of rejecting Socialism on Catholic grounds. Instead, one must look to what particular version of Socialism is being advocated. While the old-style state Socialism remains wholly outside of what can magisterially be condoned, workers’ cooperatives are entirely acceptable according to Catholic teaching. Strangely, both of these are called “Socialism,” and the popes have had to respond to economic ideologies as they present themselves. Thus, in Centesimus annus, Saint Pope John Paul II limited the Church’s condemnation of Socialism to the state Socialism of Pope Leo XIII’s time. [5]

But Mr. Sanchez’s response in Opus Publicum demonstrates the level of confusion that can arise from calling different things by the same name. He even accuses me of having no problem with the idea of capturing “state power in order to strip people of their wealth and redistribute it across the board,” an idea also given the “Socialist” moniker, but which in no way was advocated in my article. He also accuses both Mr. Hunter and me of arguing for a command style economy, which applies to neither of us as best as I can tell, but is an understandable misunderstanding given the use of the term “Socialism.”

But there is a still more pernicious outcome made possible by such a confusing use of the word “Socialism.” There is an extant economic ideology, inspired by Catholic social teaching, which calls for as widely disbursed as possible ownership of the means of production, of which workers’ cooperatives have become a classic expression, and that is Distributism. While Distributists are hardly uniform in their approach to all issues, the idea of wide ownership of productive property is central. But what are currently being presented as Socialist ideas are really Distributist ideas, and calling them “Socialist” creates a reflexive opposition, as exemplified by Mr. Sanchez’s response, that Distributism doesn’t deserve.

Jack Quirk

Jack Quirk is a Contributing Editor of The Distributist Review and former Editor of Christian Democracy.