Good and holy popes have frequently condemned the capitalist order. No wonder young Catholics are following suit
Why are so many younger Catholics drawn to socialism? Writing on this site, CC Pecknold recently suggested that “an increasingly vocal band of very online Catholics” is trying and failing “to reconcile socialist principles with (specifically Thomist) natural law principles”. As one of these young Catholic socialists, I am happy to provide some clarification.
The turn to socialism must be seen as part of a general retrieval of the genuine political thought of the Catholic Church, against the misinterpretations of an older generation. The better part of a decade has now been spent identifying and correcting liberal corruptions of Catholic doctrine; once these have been dealt with, the socialist character of Catholic social teaching becomes clear.
By “socialism” I mean two things essentially: the rejection of the liberal, capitalist view of private property, and consequently the abolition of an economic order predicated on the exploitation of those who do not have property by those who do. Socialists desire a society of the common good, in which citizens collaborate for mutual advantage in enjoyment of peace and security; a society where the public authority is empowered to correct injuries to the common good, rather than standing by indifferently, as if it were powerless in the face of evil.
Against this, the liberal order holds that all rights are absolute, and can be exercised independently of whether the action chosen is good or evil. Just as the right to free speech protects the most wicked blasphemies against Our Lady and the Holy Trinity, the right to private property is taken to protect any use of that property, independently of whether it serves the common good. And just as liberal societies are horrifyingly blasphemous, so too do they construct monstrous and inhuman regimes of property. In our societies, purely by political choice, we allow hundreds of thousands of our citizens to go homeless and to live in absolute poverty. And our lives increasingly rely on the brutalization of many millions working around the world in inhuman conditions, without serious political means of securing protections against us Westerners, the aggressors. Thus we have created a world in which those who have battle with those who have not, purely for the advantage of one or the other.
The Catholic Church rejects this wholesale. Leo XIII teaches of the primacy of the common good, and of the subjection of all rights and liberties to it. St Thomas Aquinas teaches of the universal destination of goods; he teaches in the same Question that my excess directly belongs by right to those who are in severe need of it. The Church has never approved of usury, and has often condemned it. Pope St John Paul II teaches of a just wage for honest work, capable of supporting a family. Pope Pius XI teaches that labor should not be bought and sold on a market as if it were a commodity; in the same encyclical, he teaches that economic life cannot be predicated on the opposition of classes or the free competition of forces. Pope St Paul VI teaches of the positive role of public authority in expropriating “private” property where it is injurious to the common good; Pope St John XXIII teaches that the rights of man include the basic necessities of life – medical care, food and shelter, rest – independent of anyone’s ability to secure these through labor. Is this not socialism?
What a socialist means by the abolition of private property is nothing more than the use of that property in the service of the common good, rather than property used only in the service of those who happen to possess it. What a socialist means by the abolition of class society is nothing more than a harmonious, peaceful society enjoying together the common good, rather than one characterized by the constant conflicts between labor and capital. And as the magisterium also shows, there remains room for private or personal use of property within that discipline.
There has been a lamentable tendency to read some magisterial defences of the right to private property in an absolutist direction. But this cannot be held in conjunction with any of the magisterial propositions enumerated above. The popes have explained the true meaning of the right to private property: that it is good for individuals to be directly and solely responsible for various kinds of property, and that it is necessary for them to use this property in service of the good of all.
Yes, the Catholic Church has also repeatedly condemned “socialism” and “Marxism”. However, these condemnations generally have very little to do with matters of political economy; if they did, the popes would have been forced to condemn their very own teachings on economic life. Some forms of socialism are surely condemned entirely, but no God-fearing Christian would want to condemn the Apostolic communism described in Acts 2 and 4. Instead, the Church’s condemnations of socialism tend to focus on other facets of left-wing political tradition: its thoroughgoing materialism and atheism, its hatred for God and for the natural family, and its totalitarian historical aspect. These I also reject, in the strongest of terms. Indeed I consider it a great victory of the Enemy that the political forces most historically attentive to economic injustices are those most dedicated to the destruction of the Christian religion and the slaughter of the innocent.
Given the association of socialism with atheism, anticlericalism, and mass murder, it’s understandable that some Catholics want to avoid the word when they describe the teachings of the popes and saints on political economy. They sometimes prefer other terms – like “distributist”. They are welcome to identify as such, but we should be clear about the central division here. The choice is either to defend an economic system of injustice and mutual antagonism, or to fight for the society of the common good demanded by the saints and the popes. Any enduring society of the latter kind is inescapably socialist, regardless of the words we choose to describe it.
So how far do Catholic critics of “socialism” really follow the magisterium? In a political moment characterized exactly by the failures of capitalist society to secure the common good of all, many seem content to recite the neoliberal slogans of yesteryear, in which public works are scorned and all attempts to ameliorate the condition of the poor anathematized. American politicians like Bernie Sanders are vilified more for their welfare policies – which could be taken directly from Pacem in Terris – than for the genocidal licence they wish to give our abortionists. In so doing, these Catholics give constant aid and support to the ruling order, which itself has been condemned – in no uncertain terms – by many good and holy popes.
I would encourage these Catholics to read the social teaching anew in its full integrity. I would ask them to join us in this project of ressourcement, so that we all might to come to the fullest possible understanding of what the magisterium proposes, and the soundest possible means of realizing it in our politics. This is but one front in an ongoing series of debates concerning the role and nature of political authority, its relationship to the Church, and the meaning of the common good.
The work of articulating a politics of the common good against the liberal order – not just in political economy, but generally – has been enormously fruitful, and has resulted in the resurgence of a genuinely Catholic political theory. Soon enough, it will be time to act: let us pray that we might do so together.