Although Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination did not turn out to be successful, the fact that Sanders at times has identified himself as a “democratic socialist” once again raised questions about socialism and its relationship to the Catholic Church, questions such as, “Has the Church definitively condemned socialism?” If so, why? and perhaps most fundamentally, What after all is socialism? Catholic discussions about socialism are apt to begin and end with Pope Pius XI’s judgment that “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist,”1 and simply assume that the reason for Pius’ declaration was the economic or perhaps the political practices of socialists. But in fact the issue is much more complex than simply a presumed condemnation of socialist economic ideas, let alone of any economic system that departs from free-market capitalism. Let us begin with the historical background necessary to understand the various papal statements on socialism.
In 1891, when Leo XIII wrote the encyclical Rerum Novarum, it was fair to say that socialists on the whole 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”.2 Hence Leo’s condemnation of a movement that opposed both the right to private property and whose teachings had profound negative implications for the economic basis of family life. But in 1931 when Quadragesimo Anno was published, things had changed considerably. Socialism had split into two groups, and Pius XI discussed them as follows.
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.3
One of these camps was the Soviet communists, who had seized control of Russia a few years before Pius was elected pope in 1922. These advocated “merciless class warfare and the complete abolition of private ownership” and made use of “methods … even the most violent.” They were self-proclaimed enemies to “Holy Church and even God Himself.” Obviously no Catholic could approve of their program or join such a movement. But what of the other kind 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.4
The question naturally arose whether a Catholic could adhere to this type of socialism? It was to this question that Pope Pius gave his categorical negative response, but the reasons for that response are little understood, for they do not primarily have to do with the moderate socialists’ economic program.
In the first place, Pius notes that the moderate socialists have been moving away from the old socialist positions of the nineteenth century.
Not only does [moderate socialism] condemn recourse to physical force: it even mitigates and moderates to some extent class warfare and the abolition of private property…. [and seems to be] moving toward the truth which Christian tradition has always held in respect; for it cannot be denied that its programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers.5
And he goes on to say that if the moderate socialists continue their retreat from class warfare and their opposition to 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 at large.6
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.7
In other words, although Pius XI has some continuing concerns with the economic program of moderate socialism, that is not the reason for his striking condemnation. This condemnation is for another reason, namely the materialist understanding of society which necessarily underlies the policies of any true socialism: “the reason being that it conceives human society in a way utterly alien to Christian truth”.8 According to such a conception, society exists solely or primarily
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.9
Because of this Pius utters his solemn judgment that “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.” But it is not because socialists advocate some forms of state ownership, something which Pius explicitly approves as being in total harmony with Catholic doctrine. It is because socialists have elevated the material side of man over his spiritual and intellectual aspects, and made the production of goods the purpose for which society exists. Moderate socialism is condemned because, like all forms of true socialism, it never abandoned its materialist roots, however much its specific economic proposals have improved.
A more contemporary manifestation of these socialist philosophical tendencies can be seen in a pamphlet entitled “What Is Socialism?” by Erazim Kohak, published by the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee.10 Although its proposals for worker ownership, along with its apparent ready acceptance of the legitimacy of small businesses “strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers,” the author betrays his fundamental intellectual outlook when he situates the effort to achieve economic justice within a larger cultural and philosophical struggle. He writes,
The struggle to set humans free lies behind all social ferment of modern times. Its first round was moral—the growing recognition, which signaled [sic] the end of the Dark Ages, that humans need not be slaves of old prejudices, beliefs and customs, but can make their own decisions and chart their own lives.
Here is simply the old rationalist prejudice against the Middle Ages and the Catholic faith, and it was in such socialist attempts to explain all life and all reality in opposition to Christian revelation that Pius XI discerned the real dangers of socialism, which was the primary reason for his famous condemnation.
Pope Pius labels socialist efforts to propagate their philosophical outlook as cultural socialism. Cultural socialism is
a certain new socialist phenomenon…. Its main aim is the formation of minds and manners. Under the appearance of friendship, it attracts little children in particular and attaches them to itself, though its activity extends to all the people, to make of them convinced socialists, upon whom to build a society modeled on socialistic principles.11
An historian describes such cultural socialism as follows:
It is impossible to understand the appeal that the movement had … without recognizing that socialist parties were far more than pressure groups on behalf of the working class. Like the sansculottes of 1793 they claimed to offer a formula for the total regeneration of society…. [T]hey believed that socialism held the key to human emancipation and all else would follow from it….
Wherever socialism established itself in the late nineteenth century it tended to form a network of supporting institutions, rather similar to that which the Catholic church used to strengthen the bonds between the faithful and to preserve them from the contamination of `the world.’… [A]lthough the number of committed and informed socialists was small, a much higher proportion of the working class was partly involved in the socialist sub-culture, through attending the nightly debates and lectures…or the Sunday festivals for socialists families….12
It is very important to recognize, however, that while all true socialists may be materialists, not all materialists are socialists, as St. John Paul II explained in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. There, in confirmation of his predecessor, John Paul notes 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.13
In addition, socialism 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.”
But John Paul continues his analysis, an analysis which he extends beyond the socialist movement.
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….14
About whom is he speaking here? It is hard to see how he could have meant anyone other than the original formulators of economic science and capitalistic doctrine, such as the Physiocrats in France and Adam Smith in Scotland. Their doctrine too is essentially atheistic, for, like the socialists, they regard society as existing primarily “with a view to the production of wealth.” Indeed, this is the continual boast of the supporters of capitalism, the great quantity of goods that a capitalist economy creates. It appears, then, that John Paul is suggesting that, just as no Catholic can be a socialist, no Catholic can be a capitalist, if that means one who embraces the logic of capitalism, 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”.15
One more point. In a 2006 article in First Things, “Europe and its Discontents,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote of socialism:
But in Europe, in the nineteenth century, [arose] socialism, which quickly split into two different branches, one totalitarian and the other democratic. Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected. It also managed to appeal to various denominations. In England it became the political party of the Catholics, who had never felt at home among either the Protestant conservatives or the liberals. In Wilhelmine Germany, too, Catholic groups felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. 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.
To some extent Benedict is here simply repeating Pius XI’s sentiment quoted above, that “it cannot be denied that [moderate socialism’s] programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers.” But he is alluding to a further point also, which is this. When we look at Pius’ famous condemnation of socialism, “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist,” it is important to note the two adjectives, sincere and true. The significance of the first is clear, but what of the latter—why does he speak of a “true socialist”? By saying that a sincere Catholic could not be a true socialist, Pope Pius was acknowledging the possibility that some who called themselves socialists were not truly socialists. Perhaps the best example of this was the British Labour party, which, as Benedict noted, “became the political party of the Catholics,” even though it called itself socialist. But it was not truly socialist, not in any condemned sense, as Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster noted in 1924, when he said it “has nothing in common with the socialists of the Continent.”16 Thus we must go beyond mere terms and seek to understand what people mean by them. There are many who see the destructive effects of free-market capitalism, and who in reaction label themselves socialists, mistakenly thinking that there is no other way by which they can express their dissent from the reigning capitalist consensus. For the most part they are ignorant of or misunderstand Distributism, and do not realize that in the Church’s tradition is to be found a much more effective means and solid tradition of opposing the errors and evil effects of free-market economics.
If Catholics are true to the heritage of the Church’s social magisterium, then we will battle all economic systems that explicitly or implicitly elevate material goods to be the summum bonum of human life. Such a false and disordered understanding of economic activity is not confined to socialism, but is common wherever fallen mankind has abandoned the salutary warning of our divine Lord, that “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 120.
- Rerum Novarum, no. 4.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 111.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 113.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 113.
- Ibid.,no. 114.
- Ibid.,no. 115.
- Ibid., no. 117.
- Ibid.,no. 119.
- Undated, but published sometime in the 1970s.
- Ibid., no. 121.
- Hugh McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789-1989, 45-46.
- CA, no. 13.
- Ibid., no. 13.
- Ibid., no. 19.
- Quoted in Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett, Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism Since 1750, 229.