Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What is Socialism?

by Thomas Storck



"No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist." These words, from Pius XI's encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, are blazoned on the front page of every issue of one national Catholic newspaper in the United States. And they are fine words, as we might expect from a papal encyclical, teaching sound Catholic doctrine. But although these words are of course true, I fear that most of those who read them have little understanding of what they mean. However, that same Pontiff who penned these words went to some lengths to explain exactly what he meant by socialism and why a Catholic cannot be a socialist, and he did that in the same section of the same encyclical in which he wrote this sentence. And unless these words are understood as Pius XI meant them to be, they will almost certainly be misunderstood. For that pontiff was not primarily condemning here an economic theory, and so far was he from forbidding all government ownership of productive property, that he explicitly allows and even approves such ownership.

But let us start with a little historical background. In 1891, when Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum, the socialism that Leo attacked sought "to destroy private property, and maintain[ed] that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies" (Rerum Novarum, no. 3). Obviously such an economic doctrine, which likewise had profound negative implications for family life, was contrary to the teaching of the Church, because the Church has always upheld the institution of private property. But by 1931 when Quadragesimo Anno was published, things had changed a bit. Socialism had split into two camps. Let us see how Pope Pius described this process.

No less profound than the change in the general economy, has been the development occurring within socialism since the days when Leo XIII contended with this latter. At that time socialism could be termed a single system, generally speaking, and one which defended definite and coherent doctrines. Today...it has for the most part split into two opposing and hostile camps.(Quadragesimo Anno, no. 111)


One of these camps was the communists, who had taken power in Russia only about ten years before Pope Pius wrote. They taught "merciless class warfare and the complete abolition of private ownership" and pursued their aims using "methods...even the most violent." They were hostile to "Holy Church and even God Himself." Obviously no Catholic could approve such a program or join with such a movement. But what of the other camp of socialists?

The other section, which has retained the name of "socialism," is much less radical in its views. Not only does it condemn recourse to physical force: it even mitigates and moderates to some extent class warfare and the abolition of private property.(no. 113)


Could therefore a Catholic adhere to this kind of socialist movement or party? Pius' ultimate answer is no, but in getting to that answer he makes a number of very interesting points. First, he notes that the purely economic program of the moderate socialists was moving in the right direction. But not in the direction of free market capitalism. And Pope Pius makes the striking statement: "for it cannot be denied that its [i.e. moderate socialism's] programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers" (no. 113). Then he goes on to say that if the moderate socialists continue to lessen their class antagonism and their opposition to all private ownership of the means of production

it may well come about that gradually the tenets of mitigated socialism will no longer be different from the program of those who seek to reform human society according to Christian principles.

For it is rightly contended that certain forms of property must be reserved to the State, since they carry with them an opportunity of domination too great to be left to private individuals without injury to the community ar large.

Just demands and desires of this kind contain nothing opposed to Christian truth, nor are they in any sense peculiar to socialism. Those therefore who look for nothing else, have no reason for becoming socialists.(no. 114)


In other words, it is not because Pius XI believed that the moderate socialist economic agenda was so much opposed to Catholic truth that he made his famous declaration that no Catholic could be a true socialist. It was for other reasons. And he proceeds to explain what those reasons are: "the reason being that it conceives human society in a way utterly alien to Christian truth." In fact it is because according to socialism society itself must be organized only

with a view to the production of wealth. Indeed, the possession of the greatest possible amount of temporal goods is esteemed so highly that man's higher goods, not excepting liberty, must, they claim, be subordinated and even sacrificed to the exigencies of efficient production.(no. 119)


This, in a word, is why "No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist." It is not because socialists believe that some kinds of property must be owned by the government. Indeed, Pius explicitly asserts that this is totally in harmony with Catholic doctrine. It is because socialists have elevated the material side of man over the spiritual side and made simply the production of goods the organizing principle of society. Socialism is condemned because it never abandoned its roots in a materialistic philosophy, ultimately grounded in atheism.

John Paul II returns to this theme of the errors of socialism in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, and elaborates on the previous teaching of Pius XI. John Paul states that

the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.(no. 13)


Socialism also denies to man his power of free choice and "the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil." And what is at the root of these socialist errors? John Paul answers that "we must reply that its first cause is atheism."

For our purposes here the important thing to note about the teaching of both Pius XI and John Paul II is that neither focuses on socialist economic practices. Indeed, Pius XI explicitly approves some of their practices, and both pontiffs identify an essentially philosophical error as the real reason why no Catholic can be a socialist.

However, John Paul's analysis of this gets even more interesting. For he has this to say of the atheism that is characteristic of socialism.

The atheism of which we are speaking is also closely connected with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way. Thus there is a denial of the supreme insight concerning man's true greatness, his transcendence in respect to earthly realities...and, above all, the need for salvation....(ibid.)


Who is being condemned here? It is hard to see how he could not have intended to include in his condemnation here the original formulators of economic science and capitalistic doctrine, such the Physiocrats in France and Adam Smith in Scotland. And this is confirmed a little later when he speaks of the alternatives to communism proposed after World War II. After treating of what seems to be the West German social market economy (no. 19), and giving it a qualified endorsement, he notes another response made to communism, which was

the affluent society or the consumer society [in commodorum societate...vel in rerum consumptionis societate]. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autononous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.(no. 19)


To what nation or society does John Paul refer here? Again, it is hard to see any except the free-market capitalist nations of the West, and especially the United States. And this is confirmed by the use of the term "affluent society" in the official Vatican English translation, which echoes the title of John Kenneth Galbraith's 1958 book.

So it seems that John Paul is indirectly suggesting here that, just as no Catholic can be a socialist, no Catholic can be a capitalist, insofar as that means one who embraces the full logic of the capitalist system, a logic which likewise "agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs." It is ironic that this teaching is contained in an encyclical which so many have wrongly seen as constituting an endorsement of capitalism.

So, yes, "No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist." But let us remember what Pius XI meant by that and remember also John Paul II's explication and development of Pius's teaching. If we do then perhaps we can start to look at the economy as something which does not exist for its own sake, for the mere multiplication of goods and the making of money, but rather simply as a means for mankind to fulfill its necessary material needs so that we can then concentrate our time and our energy on more important things: on the things of God, on our families and friends, on learning and the arts. For as Jesus Christ himself said, "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15).

Originally published on Traditional Catholic Reflections and Reports, November 2006.

©Thomas Storck
Thomas Storck writes from Maryland.

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