The Catholic Church on the Seven Deadly Sins of Socialism
However well-intended, socialism is a virus that drains human energy and degrades us.
One of the stories that excited Catholics of different political persuasions this spring concerned the participation of Bernie Sanders in a Vatican-sponsored conference on Catholic Social Teaching and his brief meeting with Pope Francis.
Is the Catholic Church feeling the Bern? Many writers have made the case, listing ways in which Pope Francis and Senator Sanders sound alike. Senator Sanders calls himself a socialist. Is socialism itself Catholic?
There are two main questions here. First, what is socialism? Second, what would it mean for socialism to be the Catholic option? For many, the second question is simply sociological — to ask if anything is Catholic is simply to ask if there are any Catholics who believe that thing. A better question to ask is what the Church officially teaches about socialism. And that depends on the answer to the first question.
What Is Socialism?
Numerous news reports this year indicated that “millennials” have embraced socialism as a choice, while at the same time those same people also support free markets, oppose government ownership of the means of production, and oppose a government-directed economy. What such people seem to mean by socialism is simply a large welfare state by which income is redistributed.
But perhaps we should take socialism to mean what its advocates and practitioners have really, historically meant by the word: a society in which “the major part of the means of production of goods and services is in some sense socially owned and operated, by state, socialized or cooperative enterprises”; where rights of private property and economic initiative are not acknowledged; where free markets are suppressed; and where the state usurps the God-given rights and duties of families and the Church. In these and other areas, the Catholic Church has firmly warned us that socialism exerts a de-Christianizing, even a dehumanizing influence.
Socialism’s Seven Deadly Sins
1. Socialism truncates the human person. Catholic teaching has at its heart a focus on the inviolable dignity and wholeness of every human person, as well as the need for personal transformation to transform society. While not all socialists have been atheists, the questions that socialists ask tend to focus on the care of the body instead of the soul — and the answers that they tend to give focus on systems, not people. In his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum (“Concerning New Things”), Pope Leo XIII taught that even the satisfaction of bodily and material needs was dependent upon the care of the whole person:
And since religion alone, as We said in the beginning, can remove the evil, root and branch, let all reflect upon this: First and foremost Christian morals must be reestablished, without which even the weapons of prudence, which are considered especially effective, will be of no avail, to secure well-being.” (82).
2. Socialism denies the rights of the family. Christian morals and natural virtues are taught and indeed “caught” most often in the family, which the Church has taught is the center of human society. The Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching affirms the “priority of the family over society and over the state.” (214) While socialists classically think in only two categories — the individual and the state — Catholic teaching emphasizes that “society and the State exist for the family” (ibid.). The omnicompetent socialist state supplants the functions of families and shatters society into tiny atoms whirling around a single nucleus: the federal government.
3. Socialism crushes civil society. The Church teaches that the state exists to protect and empower families and other parts of civil society — those “little platoons” of professional, local, cultural, artistic, religious and other associations that fulfill people’s material, social, and spiritual needs. (This key principle is called subsidiarity.) While prudence may dictate that in certain limit situations the state must step in and fulfill some needs that civil society or even a family or families cannot provide for, the Compendium of Social Doctrine observes that such “intervention” should always be seen as “exceptional” (no. 188). If someone outside the government can accomplish something without using coercion, it’s at best a dangerous lack of prudence and quite often simply a serious violation of justice to get the government involved.
4. Socialism tramples on the sacred human right to private property. Socialists assert that private property essentially belongs to the state to be used for the common good. While Catholics have always believed that the goods of this earth belong to the whole human race and are to be used by all, this does not mean that the state should control all of them. In Rerum Novarum Leo XIII defended not only the practical benefits of private property, but argued that those benefits came from the fact that private property was according to natural law: The human race, he said
has found in the law of nature itself the basis of the distribution of goods, and, by the practice of all ages, has consecrated private possession as something best adapted to man’s nature and to peaceful and tranquil living together.” (11)
This right is of course accompanied by the duties to use private property to provide for the needs of one’s family and those in need. But it is still a right even if it’s sometimes abused.
5. Socialism promotes class warfare. Because of its Marxist origins, socialism goads workers into the unrelenting “class warfare” which Marx himself saw as the engine driving human history. Instead of partners in productivity and human cooperation, owners and investors are seen as workers’ enemies — as if all wealth were a fixed, unchanging pie over which citizens should fight for their limited share. Pope Pius XI condemned this view of society, urged socialists to renounce the very concept of class warfare, and warned Catholics of the dangers of cooperating with socialists under any circumstances: “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.” (Quadrogesimo Anno, 117)
6. Socialism thwarts our right to take economic initiative. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states bluntly, “Everyone has the right to economic initiative; everyone should make legitimate use of his talents to contribute to the abundance that will benefit all, and to harvest the just fruits of his labor.” (2429) The abundance created by economic activity is clearly designed for the good of all, but this in no way negates the justice of entrepreneurs and inventors “harvesting” profits. Prevent them from doing that, and soon there will be no economic initiative at all — and perhaps no economy, as the unfortunate citizens of Venezuela are discovering.
7. Socialism replaces love with bureaucracy and class conflict.This right to economic initiative is also connected to the benefit of the human person. St. John Paul II observed in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis that to deny the right of economic initiative in the name of an “alleged ‘equality’” would be a violation of “the creative subjectivity of the citizen” (no. 15). Again, human persons don’t just have material needs, but spiritual ones that creativity and economic initiative help fulfill.
Socialism focuses on justice, but Catholic teaching emphasizes that for a good society, something much deeper is needed: love. Yes, justice is the main goal of politics, but political life is not all there is, because human persons are more than just material beings. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that even the most just society would require love, something that cannot be given by the state:
The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern. (Deus Caritas Est, 28).