In eighty-minutes, they never agreed on the subject. Debating the claim that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist,” Sam Rocha (arguing one can) and Trent Horn (very much arguing one can’t) didn’t agree on the thing they were debating. But one had the better way of defining it.
Rocha teaches educational theory in Canada. (I should note he’s a friend and someone I’ve edited.) He grew up in a family of Catholic evangelists and went to the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is an expert on writers like Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich. Horn hosts the Catholic Answers Live radio show and has written several books of apologetics. His newest, written with political scientist Katherine Pakaluk, is titled Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?
What’s there to argue about? The popes rejected socialism, starting with the founding work of Catholic social teaching, Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The debate took as its topic Pope Pius XI’s declaration in his 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, CST’s second major work.
Can a Catholic be a socialist? The answer is obvious. No, not in a million years, why would you even ask? Pius said no one and no means no.
But it’s not so obvious. What did the popes mean by the word? What was the socialist movement of their times? Did they reject every movement that called itself socialist or just the purest version, because that’s the easiest one to address?
Has socialism evolved in the 129 years since Leo wrote and the 89 years since Pius said what he said? How have the successes of market economies and the growth of the welfare state (itself partly driven by socialists) affected it? How has wide Catholic acceptance of what were once socialist policies — European Catholics and nationalized health care, for example — changed the Church’s relation to it?
In other words, is the idea the popes condemned the reigning idea of socialism today? More broadly: did the papal condemnations embrace every possible iteration of socialism? That is the crucial question for us. Horn never dealt with it. He invoked a dictionary definition of socialism and assumed the popes meant the same thing. Rocha tried to define socialism historically, pointing also to three Catholics—two Servants of God and one Blessed—who called themselves socialists.
The possibility that socialism might mean something else is contained in Pius XI’s encyclical itself, in the paragraphs just before his declaration. Even if socialism changes its teachings on class struggle and private ownership, he explains, a Catholic still can’t be a socialist. He can’t accept the movement’s understanding of human society, that it exists “for the sake of material advantage alone.”
That leaves open the possibility that if socialism changes its mind on that matter, it might become a commitment Catholics could accept. That it has changed is Benedict XVI suggested, in his much-quoted remark (Rocha quoted it too) that “In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine, and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.” In 1970, the priest who wrote Quadragesimo Anno said that the democratic socialism of the day was not the thing the pope denounced. (Even back when the encyclical appeared, the Archbishop of Westminster assured the British Labour Party it didn’t apply to them.)
The movement has changed, at least great parts of it. For example, this article from Michael Walzer, a patriarch of American socialism, once editor of the major socialist journal, Dissent. “Entrepreneurs are necessary people,” he argues. “We need to make sure that there is space for them to do what they do. There has to be motivation, too, not just money but also honor and celebrity.”
The debaters’ failure to agree on the subject pointed to the problem of definition and to a possible solution.
Rocha’s was the more fruitful way to define the subject. To talk about socialism as an historical reality and a living movement raises the question of the context in which it works. Why are socialists socialists? To what are they responding? What questions do they try to answer and what problems do they want to solve? What did they see that others didn’t and don’t?
That would point to the problems of the American economic system and the neo-liberalism that so frequently justifies it in the minds of its defenders. Whatever is right with the American economic system, its current iteration is at least as problematic for the Catholic than is socialism, which is and will remain in any case a minority movement.
Neo-liberalism needs to be challenged because it’s the water in which American Catholics swim. They assume it’s just the way things are, rather than a political and legal creation. If Catholic Answers really wants to advance a needed discussion, they should host a debate on the question, “Can one be a Catholic and an American capitalist?”
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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