This is part 2 in a two-part series on the compatibility of Catholicism and socialism. In part 1, I defend democratic socialism against the atheistic and totalitarian objections to socialism. In this article, I will argue Catholicism and socialism are incompatible on the basis of human rights. Click here to read part 1.
Socialism has become a hot topic of discussion in contemporary political discourse. Primarily through the advocacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, many Americans have embraced what they call “democratic socialism”. Their primary line of argument rests on the back of “social justice”.
Democratic socialists advocate for strong government intervention in economic matters to alleviate wealth disparity. The end goal is to achieve greater economic equality.
On its surface, this may sound appealing to Catholics. Indeed, Catholic theology has a long-standing tradition defending social justice. Thus, we are lead to the question: Can a Catholic be a socialist?
In this article, I will explain why a Catholic cannot be a socialist (properly understood). First, I will begin by defining socialism. Next, I will explain how our colloquial understanding of “socialism” is incorrect. Finally, I will argue that socialism is incompatible with Catholicism.
What is Socialism?
Socialism is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” “Means of production” generally refers to the facilities, technology, and resources used in the production of goods. Contrast this to capitalism, where the means of production are held by private “capitalist” owners.
There are various theories deemed as “socialist” from Stalinism, to Maoism, and now democratic socialism. To properly understand the difference, it is appropriate to discuss socialism’s most iconic advocate, Karl Marx.
The Origins of Socialist Thought
Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher known for being the father of socialism and communism. Despite being German, he spent much of his life living in London after being exiled for his political publications.
It’s critically important to note that Marx was born in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. The fledgling stages of capitalism were rife with inequality and poor working conditions. The capitalist-owner class lorded over the working class. Marx and his contemporaries would have been well-attuned to this reality, and it undoubtedly served as the inspiration for their political theories.
The Communist Dream
Ever aware of the working class struggle, Marx sought to establish a class-less, anarchist society. In this society, the means of production would not be owned by a select few capitalist-owners who exploited the working class, as it was under capitalism. Rather, the means of production would be owned collectively by all. This idea is known as communism.
As mentioned, it is no surprise such an idea would arise out of the Industrial Revolution. Class struggle was an oppressive reality. From this reality, Marx envisioned a new kind of revolution: a socialist revolution.
The Role of Socialism
Where does socialism fit into the communist equation? Generally speaking, communism describes the overall class-less, anarchist socio-political structure whereas socialism describes the economic structure. However, socialism also plays a unique intermediary role in Marxist thought.
Marx believed in the inevitable, forthcoming socialist revolution. Under capitalist oppression, the working-class would eventually rise up and seize the means of production from the capitalists. This establishment of socialist economic structure was the important first-step to the latter establishment of communism. After successful socialist revolution, the government would gradually wither away, creating the envisioned class-less, anarchist society.
This is, of course, an incredibly broad overview of Marxist thought. If I had to choose one quote to get to the heart of Marx’s ideas, it would be the opening line of Chapter 1 from the Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
Different Shades of Red
One must note there are various interpretations of Marxist thought. Each ideology has unique elements which distinguish it from Marxist communism. I briefly discussed these different ideologies in part 1. Below I will discuss three specific interpretations, though there are many more.
Stalinism emphasized the use of totalitarian government to establish socialism and elimination of the capitalist class. After socialist revolution, Marx believed the government would slowly wither away. For Stalin, the working class-based government needed to become stronger first, before its eventual withering into the communist ideal. Unfortunately for Stalin, his brand of socialism devolved into mere totalitarian oppression. When talking about “Soviet Communism”, people are generally referring to Stalinism.
Mao Zedong infused a strong sense of iconoclasm and nationalism to adapt Marxism to Chinese thought. Additionally, Mao believed the revolution lay within the hands of the peasantry, rather than the working class. Whereas Marx saw the socialist revolution as inevitable with time, Mao didn’t believe the peasantry could wait. Rather, the revolution must occur as soon as possible. Mao ultimately sought the unification of China, which had become fractured due to the Chinese Civil War.
Democratic socialism rose as an anti-authoritarian alternative to Stalinism and Maoism. Democratic socialists seek to support democracy within a socialist economy. They can either be revolutionist (like Marx) or reformist. Historically, socialism was coupled with authoritarian government and spiraled into oppression. Democratic socialism avoids this authoritarian oppression by upholding democratic ideals, undoubtedly part of the reason for its current appeal. As I argue in part 1, authoritarian and historical critiques of socialism do not hold against democratic socialism.
Socialist interpretations differ on various issues. However, all forms share one view in common: collective ownership of the means of production. Collective ownership is the central tenet of socialist ideology.
The Colloquial Misunderstanding of Socialism
Socialism has a very specific definition: collective ownership of the means of production. However, our colloquial understanding of the term has evolved to be much different.
The Red Scare of the 1950s had a powerful effect on the American psyche. “Socialism” and “communism” became associated with any law which people saw as excessive government intervention. The term had become synonymous with the Soviet Union. However, Stalinism is only one slice of the socialist pie. To this day, Republicans often refer to “big government” Democrat policies as “socialist” or “communist”. Likewise, Democrats often refer to “nationalist” Republican policies as “fascist” or “neo-Nazi”. Both of these uses are a far cry from the true meaning of these terms.
The People Want President Roosevelt
Thus, we return to Sen. Bernie Sanders. Is Bernie Sanders actually a socialist? Maybe, but many of his supports are not. Socialism remains largely unpopular among Americans, though the real percentage is likely even higher given our colloquial misunderstanding. Whether Bernie supports collective ownership is a open question. More importantly, mere advocacy of large government economic programs is not enough to classify as “socialist”.
I believe what many people truly desire is a new President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Yorker has a great interview with history professor Michael Kazin comparing Sanders and F.D.R. Regarding whether F.D.R. was a socialist, Professor Kazin states (emphasis mine):
[Bernie Sanders] calls himself a socialist, which F.D.R. never did, because he wasn’t…[Socialists of the 1930s] thought that F.D.R.’s policies were far too timid, because they really wanted to bring about a socialist society, not just a reformed capitalist one. And F.D.R. was very much in the tradition of the Democrats…who wanted to give working people more power in the society. But they were really trying to make sure that capitalism would be able to serve the needs of most people. They wanted what you might call a moral capitalism, which they thought would be able to promote growth and more equity in the society but at the same time stay away from any kind of state ownership.
Modern-day “democratic socialists” often don’t truly want “socialism”, collective ownership. Rather, they desire a moral capitalism which promotes growth and more equity. It just happens that Sander’s populist messaging resonates with them the deepest, regardless of whether they support true democratic socialism.
Thus, there is a legitimate difference between what may be deemed as “welfare capitalism” and democratic socialism. Welfare capitalism upholds the right to private ownership, whereas socialism (of all forms) seeks to eliminate private ownership. Catholics must launch their attack on this central tenet of socialism.
The Natural Right to Private Property
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum norvarum. It stands as a direct rebuke of both socialism and certain unjust forms of capitalism. Importantly, Pope Leo affirmed the Catholic belief in a right to private property. He writes:
“Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. “It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.'”
The Argument from Natural Law
For an argument on why Catholics believe this, philosopher Edward Feser outlines the Thomistic understanding of property rights in his essay Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Private Property.
Here is a quick TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) version based on what I consider some major points of the argument (though please do read the whole article):
- We are rationally obligated to follow what is good for us in accordance with our metaphysical nature as human beings.
- “An individual’s personal capacities and potentials cannot be exercised and realized, respectively, without at least some stable body of resources on which to bring his efforts to bear”
- A right to private property is necessary to ensure this stable body of resources.
- Therefore, humans have a natural right to private property.
The full argument is much more detailed and convincing, though this serves as a basic outline.
The Argument from Authority
Additionally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church upholds the right to private property by means of the Seventh Commandment, “For the sake of the common good, [the Seventh Commandment] requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property” (CCC 2401).
By appeal to the authority of the Magisterium through the Catechism, we reach the same conclusion regarding respect for private ownership. Thus, it is absolutely necessary and imperative that Catholics uphold the right to private property.
Limitations on the Right to Private Property
Feser discusses the purpose of private property by stating, “Property exists in the first place in order to allow individuals to realize their natural capacities and moral obligations by bringing their powers to bear on external resources.” Are there limits to this right? Yes, Feser lists two.
First, one does not have a right to use their property for immoral conduct. For example, the right to private property does not cover owning a strip club or hosting a pornography website.
Second, one does not have a right to use their property in a way that undermines the possibility for others to fulfill their natural ends and moral obligations.
Feser explains the implications of this second principle (emphasis mine):
The most obvious implication is that individuals in circumstances of absolute distress have a right to the use of the resources of others, where the paradigm examples would be the starving man in the woods who takes food from a cabin…for actions like the ones in question to count as theft etc., the cabin owner or homeowner would have to have such an absolute right to his property that he could justly refuse to allow others to use it even in the circumstances in question, and according to natural law theory, no one could possibly have so absolute a property right.
For similar reasons, some measure of relief for those who find themselves in economic straits and have no natural resources of their own to fall back on would be justifiable.
Why Welfare is Permissible but Socialism is Not
After reading Feser’s exposition of Thomistic property rights, it should now be clear why welfare is permissible but all forms of socialism are not.
Socialism wishes to establish social ownership of the means of production, thereby eliminating private property rights. Welfare maintains private property while limiting private control for the sake of people in distress – an application of the second limitation on property rights.
As discussed above, government intervention into the economy alone does not constitute socialism. In fact, the Church commends government economic intervention for the sake of the common good, “Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” (CCC 2425).
Alternatives to Socialism and Corporatism
Various non-socialist alternatives to the current state of corporatist/crony capitalism exist. Distributism (a discussion for another post) seeks to find a middle ground between socialism and unbridled capitalism. Some reformers believe government intervention is necessary to combat economic equality (i.e. welfare capitalism). Others believe our economic injustice is due to too much government intervention (i.e. free-market capitalism). Regardless of which camp you fall into, the definition of “reasonable regulation” is primarily a question of economic science, not theology. Legitimate disagreements can be had within the confines of Catholic teaching.
Welfare capitalism, free-market capitalism, and economic alternatives such as distributism, all of which uphold private property rights, each serve as valid alternatives to the socialist dream of social justice. The basic premise stands: Catholics cannot support the abolishing of private property. Socialism, which seeks to abolish private property, cannot be supported in any form.
In conclusion, a Catholic cannot be a socialist. Socialism (of all forms) seeks to abolish the right to private property. Catholics must uphold this right. Two arguments can be made in this regard: the argument from natural law and the argument from authority.
Definitions are important. Unfortunately, our colloquial understanding of the word “socialism” is not in line with the true definition of “socialism”. Our duty as citizens requires us to inform others about the difference between welfare programs and socialism. Also, we must give strong alternatives to socialism which more truly satisfy the desire for social justice.
Overall, socialism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Socialism seeks to promote social justice while ripping apart the natural right to private property. Socialism cannot be support. However, we must not allow the rejection of socialism serve as an excuse for being reluctant to support legitimate reforms to the capitalist structure which seek to promote social justice with an eye towards the common good.