On Resurgent Idols and Catholic Social Teaching
The Israelites, newly emerged from Egypt, came out with the spoils of a foreign nation, some of which were eventually used in the construction of the famous Tabernacle, its furniture, and its tools, in which the God of Israel dwelt. Sometimes things (or ideas) of some virtue are repurposed after having previously been used against God, and end up assisting him in fulfilling his highest aims. One might point to the Greek philosophical tradition or the Roman administrative elements incorporated into the Church, or any other legitimate inculturations of the Faith.
In other cases, Israel failed to fully destroy cattle, riches, or the idols of the inhabitants of the land which were designated for destruction by God. At Jericho, Achan and his entire family faced the price of death for smuggling a bar of gold, some silver, and a cloak from Shinar (Babylon) into the camp of Israel, causing its loss against the people of Hai and many second-order losses to the people of Israel. These cases were far more numerous in the biblical record.
When Israel failed to fully drive out the inhabitants of the land and destroy their images, altars, and culture, those elements became a snare which resurfaced again and again until someone rose up who had the courage to fight them head on, or Israel was itself driven out of its own physical inheritance into diaspora for its sins and compromise.
One who seeks to repurpose the spoils of Egypt — monetary or ideological — should be very circumspect as to whether he is actually clinging to gold, silver, and luxurious garments dedicated to destruction.
The subject of “Catholic Socialism” or “Catholic Communism” seems to come around every few months. It seems perpetually before us; this is no surprise for several reasons.
First, younger generations frequently overcorrect on the errors of the elder generation, and the previous generation of American Catholics often bit hard on poorly conceived economic and political arrangements.
Second, the lack of a culturally integrated spiritual community and the low perception of the Bishops and their conferences often leads to an excessive focus on modern politics, since it offers an attractive means of change for those who fail to understand the flawed tools they are attempting to wield. Politics is much more attractive and enticing than the hard work of building up men and women person by person, parish by parish (though the latter is usually more substantial and verifiable, rather than an ephemeral bit of words that polarizes often poorly conceived divisions, rather than inclining man to God); there is more drama around it, and much more recognition for signaling ones’ affiliations. Sadly, we enjoy the entertainment of it all. A corollary of this is the boredom of many, who, stuck in the Catholic diaspora (and frequently well off financially), assuage a sort of class guilt by promoting a political ideal rather than living a more personally ascetic life.
Third, though a strong majority of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired an explicit condemnation of Communism, it was cut off at the knees, just as a genuine explication of the Catholic Faith in the modern age was cut off as the carefully crafted schemas prepared for the council were discarded in favor of the wishes of a certain collaboration of Churchmen, incidentally now engaged in the promotion of what we see at the Amazon Synod. When the Church fails to destroy the idols of its age and even attempts to dialogue with them, they become thorns in its side, choking the individual of many in its manifestation in society and sometimes even damaging it at its root.
I appreciate some of the general sentiments of some of these proponents of “Catholic Socialism”; something other than consumerism and radical individualism are needed to ameliorate the ills of Western Civilization and mitigate the evils it often spreads to the rest of the world. I appreciate their emphasis of caring for the poor, the downtrodden, and those at most risk of being trampled by the sins of our age.
The state’s role, we can agree, is not merely as a neutral referee among individuals or as a protector of individual rights. The state protects from theft, murder, or other violence against person or property; it provides a structure through which oppression is fought, social cohesion is ensured, laws are enforced promptly and justly, and economic policy is most conducive to human flourishing. All of this is done under the principle of subsidiarity, that the higher levels have greater power, but that power must be exercised to the overall benefit of the lower levels, and that which can be accomplished by the lower levels must not be captured by the higher. The common good is also not merely utilitarian — the greatest good for the greatest number of people — but is oriented by importance from the moral to the political to the economic; last but not least, official policy should recognize the family as the essential unit of society.
Yet, to assert that a “socialistic character” can be ascribed to Catholic social teaching is to import a common blunder of US political discourse. I do not think those advocating such things blundered; they know well the confusion upon which they stand, and use it toward their aims in amusement.
The central element of any such defense of “Catholic Socialism” is misleading terminology, laid upon an axis of a poorly characterized dichotomy which we can thank our Americanist friends for. This feature of ambiguity (especially as regards the identity of Socialism itself) is characteristic of the sort of dialogue I have come to expect from those in this “Catholic Socialist” or “Leftcath” camp, not an inadvertence. A pithy attempt to define the term is made by one author of an opinion piece in favor of “Catholic Socialism,” who I will critique at length:
“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.”
This framing of Socialism encompasses all objections to the liberal view of private property as essentially Socialist and is quite honestly beneath the author’s intelligence. I did not think he would use such an overbroad definition throughout the piece and would instead provide some more specific affirmation of the concept, but alas. It is as if I was asked to define the Trinity and replied with “a rejection of the Arian concept of God.” One then concludes that Hindus and Atheists are Trinitarian in rejecting that concept.
The author has co-opted a very deep set of magisterial teachings as essentially Socialist which rail against a properly understood Socialism in no unclear terms, no matter how many ways “Communism” and “Socialism” can be said (which the author embraces in prior works, but does not put forth in such bold terms, at least not in this venue — he satisfies himself by putting it in vague and conflicting terminology, which indirectly proves his Marxist bona fides). He has predetermined the result of his line of thinking by specious terminology, by defining Socialism as “anything other than this thing that has fallen into disrepute which I call Capitalism.” As the piece wears on, this overbroad concept of Socialism (a malady of American discourse which badly needs correction), combined with a deep and ostensibly genuine sentimentality, represent the dual clubs he clumsily wields against critics of “Catholic Socialism.”
The error this definition engenders is the notion that any governmental action toward the common good that prioritizes family, community, or nation over individuals is inherently Socialist. This monumental scope of definition is, again, beneath the author’s intelligence. When Caesar taxed the people to provide a grain dole for the less wealthy, that was Socialism. When the Kings of Israel taxed their people or conscripted their men and women into service to protect the nation, that was actually Socialism. When the fledgling United States passed the Whiskey Excise Act, partially to limit excessive drinking, that was Socialism. Is the United States a Socialist country because it has a progressive income tax or because it has many social safety nets? Certainly not, if it is even necessary to support it to ameliorate the United States’ ills. The word becomes meaningless in the author’s analysis; it is simply a term of general praise for accumulation of state power over economic affairs (provided it is nominally used toward some “good” thing), provided it is used with good intentions.
There are cases in which governments have (and should) privatized or divested part ownership of certain means of production. Does this mean the government is wholly “Capitalist” because it makes such a move? Certainly not. Can we characterize such a policy as a “Capitalist” policy, given the government has not ceded authority to regulate and tax whatever private entities obtain ownership? Certainly not; the move was not made because it was capitalist, but hopefully because it was prudentially a correct decision for the benefit of the people.
The error is repeated throughout the piece, and consummated toward the end:
“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.”
A government which acts to the benefit of its people by framing the legal and social environment toward their best interest is said to be a good government; a government which captures the right to dispense with property (within clear limits) and the right to all surplus value is said to be a bad government. Our dear author uses corkscrew words to characterize any instance of the first as Socialism.
On the other side of things, Capitalism, defined in any sort of disciplined way, is a concept of total freedom of the owner of productive capital to arrange business and appropriate the use of profit however he sees fit. It rejects any public management of its economic transactions and takes a much more broad view of the right to private property and property use, free from any obligation that a properly understood notion of property rights would entail. As Pope Pius XI highlighted, this unrestrained view is a weapon of evil in societal terms and measures must be taken to return surplus value to those to whom it is owed — those in dire, serious need (though certainly not merely for their comfort relative to the rich). Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus:
If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
Often, the term capitalism (little “c”) is used in American discourse as merely a legitimate, good form of profitable commerce which mutually benefits both parties and is framed by a larger system of provision for the poor in extreme cases, and with proper regulation and oversight. But this is not “Capitalism” in the more doctrinaire sense; it is merely how governments and economies are thought to interact in the ideal.
Very few people believe that commerce is ethically neutral — evidence cries out against us in that regard. Few would support legalization of prostitution, or legalization of all drugs, or “loan shark” operations, not to speak of the deleterious effect of pornography or usury generally. Instinctively, people recognize a potentially harmonious interaction between state and commercial activity where neither is given total sway. “Capitalism” often supplants this natural concept and wears its skin in public discourse, to our detriment. Many notable Catholic figures are duped by this concept of Capitalism.
This is a crafty sleight of hand used by the Socialists and the Capitalists; we define our favorite term as the ideal of the thing in question, then use that ideal as the justification for that term itself. To be against trade is to be against Capitalism. To be against some deregulation or some tax cut is to be against Capitalism. Conversely, being for some government action for the public good is thus “against the free market” or “against capitalism.” It is a dishonest rhetorical tactic that belongs nowhere in honest discussion, much less among Catholics whose intellectual riches are far too great to be playing with such dross.
Yet, the legitimacy of private initiative in society not directly managed by the government speaks of a society properly framed by a healthy legal and political apparatus and informed by the moral doctrine of the Church. Such a society is neither purely Capitalist nor truly Socialist; it restrains and eventually abolishes usury, limits the vast accumulation of wealth and the eventual centralization of power in industries. It encourages cooperation between workers and capital rather than class warfare or the abolition of the difference between them. It correctly sees property rights as entailing an obligation, representing an inherent common good within the matrix of the social nature of man. Its government divests itself of enterprises or endeavors better suited to private initiative, rather than dominating a sphere of activity for purely political reasons or to maintain a supporter bloc. It respects the unique authority of the Church for moral impetus, while diligently discharging its responsibilities for the stability and prosperity of its citizens with an emphasis to those in most need.
The effects of Capitalism, unrestrained by private initiative or by proper government, can be seen all around us. On the moral side, rainbow-themed imagery and affirmations of evil are now promoted by every major corporation, and there are organizations whose sole aim is to organize boycotts and to ostracize those who dissent. Capital, or Corporations with such a stranglehold on their market as to be virtually untouchable, use that position and the leverage afforded them by tremendous profit to attack and infiltrate culture, as Pope Pius XI said in Quadragesimo Anno:
“But, with the diffusion of modern industry throughout the whole world, the “capitalist” economic regime has spread everywhere to such a degree, particularly since the publication of Leo XIII’s Encyclical, that it has invaded and pervaded the economic and social life of even those outside its orbit and is unquestionably impressing on it its advantages, disadvantages and vices, and, in a sense, is giving it its own shape and form.”
Even ostensibly socialist or communist regimes use a system of “state capitalism” that gives many of these larger corporations free reign to do such things, as long as they provide some benefit to the ruling class and its larger aims. The notion that a society is either Capitalist or Socialist is a moot, banal argument too abstract to confront the moral, political, and economic realities we face, except in the few rare cases that real socialism has been implemented in a nation, whose sad cases I need not detail.
The state has a necessary and even crucial role in any solution. Of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance, two are most relevant to the current discussion: one, neglecting the oppressed and disadvantaged; and two, defrauding or doing violence to the worker who only has his labor to offer. A society that rejects any state role in ameliorating such obvious evils is a society that is committing crimes against God.
I have spent so much time on terminology because precise definitions of the two major terms in question would have run his piece aground onto a real discussion of Catholic social teaching and policy proposals, which would have been a genuinely interesting read. But his primary aim is to argue that “Socialism” is not a naughty word, when understood in this other sense. But, indeed, it is not Socialism when understood in this sense. It is merely a proposal to utilize government more broadly to achieve ends to the nation/state/community, which is the function of any state at any level in the first place, and is subject to prudential analysis, which is often where such proposals fail.
In essence, he has made Socialism equal to the action of the state in all its forms, then creates the absurd dichotomy previously quoted, with Socialism as the stand-in for “the common good demanded by the Saints and the Popes.” He then provides a “generally” caveat for an otherwise ridiculous statement:
“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.”
Certainly, economic and political considerations are subservient to moral considerations and the Popes wisely recognize this. But it is quite untrue that Popes limited their critiques of Socialism and Marxism to philosophical matters, distant from political economy.
Indeed, the clearest and most specific condemnations of Socialism explicitly include matters of political economy and were addressed as responses to situations within the political economy, as will be explained shortly.
To reiterate, since he has equated state action of any kind to Socialism, he is arguing that the Popes’ teachings on economic life are Socialist, since they “give the state a role” in securing the common good (as if this never existed before). It is a trapdoor through which Catholic Socialists often wish to smuggle even more significantly condemned manifestations of Socialism and Marxism, as well as the conduit for those who misunderstand Capitalism and markets as Newtonian ideals, meant to be left alone by the state.
To his credit, the author invites us to investigate the testimony of the whole magisterium and the deep riches of Catholic Social Teaching. I gladly engage with any Catholic who desires such a goal, but I must point out specific problems with the idea that Socialism can be somehow baptized or separated into pieces, some of which are amenable or essential to a Catholic social order. Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno observed and predicted these attempts to consume Socialism piecemeal nearly a century ago:
“Socialism, against which Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, had especially to inveigh, has since his time changed no less profoundly than the form of economic life. For Socialism, which could then be termed almost a single system and which maintained definite teachings reduced into one body of doctrine, has since then split chiefly into two sections, often opposing each other and even bitterly hostile, without either one however abandoning a position fundamentally contrary to Christian truth that was characteristic of Socialism.
“One section of Socialism has undergone almost the same change that the capitalistic economic system, as We have explained above, has undergone. It has sunk into Communism … Although We, therefore, deem it superfluous to warn upright and faithful children of the Church regarding the impious and iniquitous character of Communism, yet We cannot without deep sorrow contemplate the heedlessness of those who apparently make light of these impending dangers, and with sluggish inertia allow the widespread propagation of doctrine which seeks by violence and slaughter to destroy society altogether…”
I believe the below section is what advocates of the author’s view have seized upon, perhaps without realizing its explicit denunciation:
“The other section, which has kept the name Socialism, is surely more moderate. It not only professes the rejection of violence but modifies and tempers to some degree, if it does not reject entirely, the class struggle and the abolition of private ownership. One might say that, terrified by its own principles and by the conclusions drawn therefrom by Communism, Socialism inclines toward and in a certain measure approaches the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred; for it cannot be denied that its demands at times come very near those that Christian reformers of society justly insist upon.
“For if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice, and if this is not that blessed social peace which we all seek, it can and ought to be the point of departure from which to move forward to the mutual cooperation of the Industries and Professions. So also the war declared on private ownership, more and more abated, is being so restricted that now, finally, not the possession itself of the means of production is attacked but rather a kind of sovereignty over society which ownership has, contrary to all right, seized and usurped…”
On the above, I am in concord with the author and hopefully with every Catholic, in the recognition that a false definition of private property has pervasively harmed society and given undue power to transnational owners of capital and the means of finance. However, Pius XI clearly articulates the response to such a “Catholic Socialism”:
“Such just demands and desire have nothing in them now which is inconsistent with Christian truth, and much less are they special to Socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become Socialists.
“Yet let no one think that all the Socialist groups or factions that are not communist have, without exception, recovered their senses to this extent either in fact or in name. For the most part they do not reject the class struggle or the abolition of ownership, but only in some degree modify them…
“But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth…
“If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious Socialism, Christian Socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true Socialist.”
Pius XI implied that any of the good elements of Socialism, divested from its roots and core methodologies, were already present in Catholic teaching in a better form. Invoking Socialism becomes an impotent, pointless practice that does not improve one iota the condition of the worker, birthrates, or the conduciveness of society to family. Converting American Catholics who have been saturated in anti-Leonine concepts of Liberty and Capitalism will take much more than “Socialism is great, abolish classes, fight transphobia and homophobia.”
If only the author had tried to convince Americans that their legal and political structures must change and they are far too favorable to capital without appealing to Socialism. On this, they will find great common ground with a majority of Americans and a majority of Catholics. On the matter that all state action toward the common good is purportedly “Socialist,” they will find far less common ground.
Even in the greater context of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, he is painting a portrait of a corporative system that recognizes the organic nature of society as it should be, without the constant control of the state. He contrasts this to an organization where all industry was subservient to the interests of the state and its corporate structure was essentially a tool of the state, as was the case in Mussolini’s Italy. Certainly, neither in the text nor in the context of Catholic social teaching is “Socialism,” defined as the Popes define it, enjoined. Rather, a radical approach of cooperation, integration, and community is prescribed. This approach is needed now more than ever in the United States, especially among those who do manual labor, and whoever can accomplish it will gain much political benefit from the loyalty of those workers.
Our aim should not to try to merely “Catholicize” terms which happen to have practical strategic use to us, which is irresponsible; it should be to bring out of the dusty, cobweb-laden storehouses the riches of tradition.
There is fundamental baggage with “Socialism,” and it should not be granted freedom to infiltrate Catholic social teaching any more than “free market” or libertarian proponents of a sort of unlimited Capitalism-as-ideal should be allowed. The error is inherent in the term “Catholic Socialist.” In this case, the adjective “Catholic” merely describes a flavor of “Socialist.” One may as well speak of a round square.
We also must make sure that we are not articulating our Catholicism as a mere adjective of our political tribe, left or right.
If recognizing Christ the King means greater government involvement or oversight in one area to provide for the common good and to ensure a more Catholic society, that should be on the table. If government divestment or indirect action to spur private initiative through legal restructuring or other means would accomplish the end, that should also be on the table. But by appearances, it seems as though they want to proclaim their Marxist bona fides proudly (as in the previously linked manifesto) with the safe retreat to “my version of Socialism isn’t condemned,” precisely because they have diluted the definition of Socialism so much as to make it not Socialism. But this is a rhetorical trick; they do indeed ascribe to Marxist ideas. This crowd does indeed seek some form of “worker’s revolution” if not give shelter and comfort to such ideas. They simply want to be able to retreat to the trapdoor of the more amenable definition as it suits them strategically.
A much better definition of Socialism is the idea of total public ownership of the means of production and the planning, distribution, and appropriation of all surplus value by the central state. This definition is a much more effective (and honest) starting point for discussion. On the Capitalist end of the spectrum is a faulty, evil idea that all surplus value is at the discretion of the owner of the capital who produced it (a condemned proposition) or the worker who received it as pay.
On the first side is the evil idea that the state must ultimately control the appropriation of all surplus value (a condemned proposition) toward a nebulous “common good,” usually only meaning what buttresses the power of the ascendant state.
Socialism as such is condemned as a prescription for a whole society; what we observe in Acts 2 is most definitely not a prescription for large, complex societies or for all Church activity, nor is it ever argued in magisterial documents as such.
For guidance, I think a somewhat recent address by the Holy Father is instructive. Many of his most powerful articulations of Catholic truth tend to be sidelined in favor of controversial ones. One such case is a little known audience with members of the Confederation of Italian Cooperatives from March:
“Today too the Church not only needs to say the truth out loud; she is always in need of men and women who transform into concrete goods what the pastors preach and theologians teach. In this sense, today, to say “thank you” to you for your hundred years of effort is also to show an example for the men of our time, who need to discover that they are not only “takers” of good, but “entrepreneurs” of charity.
“Your cooperative model, precisely because it is inspired by the social doctrine of the Church, corrects certain tendencies typical of collectivism and statism, which are sometimes lethal to private initiatives; and at the same time, it curbs the temptations of individualism and selfishness typical of liberalism. In fact, while the capitalist enterprise aims primarily at profit, the cooperative enterprise has as its primary purpose the balanced and proportionate satisfaction of social needs. Certainly the cooperative must also aim to produce profits, to be effective and efficient in its economic activity, but all this without losing sight of mutual solidarity.
“For this reason the model of the social cooperative is one of the new sectors on which cooperation is now concentrating, since it manages to combine, on the one hand, the logic of the company and, on the other, that of solidarity: internal solidarity towards its members and external solidarity towards recipients. This way of living the cooperative model already exerts a significant influence on companies which are too bound to the logic of profit, as it pushes them to discover and evaluate the impact of social responsibility. In this way, they are invited to consider not only the economic budget, but also the social one, realizing that it is necessary to contribute to responding to the needs of those involved in the enterprise as well as those of the territory and the community. It is in this way that cooperative work carries out its prophetic function and provides social witness in the light of the Gospel.”
Pope Francis need not invoke Socialism, class struggle, or the abolishing of class to articulate the essential substance of cooperation between classes and divisions that is at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Indeed, the cooperation that Leo XIII and his successors artfully and clearly express within the private sphere is of a distinctly different substance than Socialist conceptions of the state appropriating all surplus value.
The danger in such collectivism is to pursue the very same mechanization and commodification of human beings that we are trying to escape under Capitalism. It is as St. John Paul II stated, “Rerum Novarum is opposed to State control of the means of production, which would reduce every citizen to being a ‘cog’ in the State machine.” It is the collectivist danger Pope Francis also warns against, a tendency typical of statist modes of governance.
More than ever, Catholics are in diaspora. They have aligned themselves into various ideological tribes (partly a result of social media) and sometimes rely on social soundboards when forming their opinions of other tribes. Online Catholics of many varieties demean or post irony-poisoned invectives against Catholic opponents rather than genuinely discussing magisterial documents and sidelining those abusing social media.
In a world where dialogue is possible through so many venues, it is disappointing but perhaps predictable that those venues are often used for schoolyard drama rather than for dialogue. I would rather see one real action towards a better state of affairs in the local community than days worth of arguments about Socialism on social media. So, I hope I have contributed meaningfully to a re-framing of the great Catholic Social Teaching debate, or at least destroyed a few idols.