Probably the key encyclical among papal social encyclicals is Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.
What makes Quadragesimo Anno important? We can get some idea if we look at the encyclical’s formal title: “On reconstructing the social order and perfecting it conformably to the precepts of the Gospel”.
Although written in response to the economic dislocations of the Great Depression, Pius did not stop with lamenting the evils of his time or even proposing immediate remedies. Surveying the entire field of Christian social ethics, he proposed a framework for a real Christian reform of society.
The encyclical is so rich that one could write an entire book about it – and that has been done! Here I focus on one aspect only, Pius’s treatment of socialism.
In the United Kingdom and the United States socialism has been a political issue for the last few years, and although temporarily laid to rest, with the unexpected economic turmoil that the coronavirus has introduced it is likely to be revived.
Pius XI’s examination of socialism is nothing if not nuanced. He begins his discussion by noting that since Leo XIII’s time socialism had split into two opposing camps. One was communism, obviously opposed to Catholic faith. But the other, what he terms moderate socialism, was complex.
With regard to the economic proposals of this camp, “It cannot be denied that its programmes often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers.” For it rightly attacks not private ownership itself, “but that type of social authority, which, in violation of all justice has been seized and usurped by the owners of wealth. This authority in fact belongs not to the individual owners, but to the State.”
Socialists rightly contend “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 at large.”
Reading this, one might suppose that a Catholic could well be a socialist of this type. But not so.
For contained in all genuine socialism is a materialism that is opposed to Catholic faith: socialism “conceives human society in a way utterly alien to Christian truth”. Hence Pius’s famous condemnation, “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.”
Crucial here are two points: Pius’s approval of many of the economic proposals of moderate socialists, and his use of the word “true” in his condemnation.
There have been those who label themselves socialists who are not true socialists. Thus the British Labour Party was specifically exempted from Pius’s condemnation in June 1931 by Cardinal Bourne.
Thomas Storck’s most recent book is An Economics of Justice & Charity (Angelico Press). See www.thomasstorck.org