Three Mistakes Catholics Make Who Flirt with Socialism

By David Deavel Published on June 23, 2016

In a previous article, I listed seven ways in which Catholic teaching rules out socialism as a system.  Yet despite the Church’s concerns about the dangers of socialism, some politicians and other prominent Catholics have flirted with some sort of “Christian Socialism.”

Catholic social teaching does have a concern for distributive justice and does envision a limited role for the state in achieving such justice. Here are three ways in which modern Catholics have flirted with Socialism on that basis — despite the Church’s defense of private property and firm condemnation of that system which threatens it.

1. Confusing Inequality with Poverty

Socialist economic thinking is generally premised on the idea of a fixed pie of stuff from which everyone is taking. If I get more stuff (money, goods, services), somebody else must be getting less. That might be true on a lifeboat, but not in a free economy. Indeed, the whole point of economics is optimizing human cooperation through the division of labor, for the benefit of all.

Catholic teaching has never seen inequality as in itself bad, though it does insist that those who lack the means of living a decent life need to have those needs met by charitable groups and, where appropriate, government mechanisms.  But the sharp distinction between poverty and inequality vanishes in the minds of too many Catholic thinkers in recent decades.

In their 1986 document, “Economic Justice for All,” the U. S. Catholic bishops acknowledged this difference, but still spent three paragraphs on the growth in simple inequality in the U.S. without detailing the great material gains made by the poor in the U.S. in absolute terms. Because of that growth poor people in America are materially much better off than middle class people were just decades ago.

A 2014 bishops conference backgrounder continues this trend of worrying about relative inequalities and assuming that the gains in income for the top are the result of injustice. The paper only briefly mentions an issue that should stand at the very center of Christian concern: the tremendous progress made in reducing global poverty.  Even in the U. S., when we look not at income but consumption levels (do people have enough material goods?), true poverty has fallen tremendously and even the middle class has done better materially.        

2. Grabbing Government Remedies

The Church warns against the state unjustly usurping the functions of civil society and local governments, but has taught that in certain cases that the federal government might have the duty to intervene, when the rights of the vulnerable are not being protected. While such a statement by itself is generally non-controversial for all but anarcho-libertarians, too many Catholics use this reasonable willingness to delegate power upward when absolutely necessary as Church approval for a sort of government-directed economy. The Compendium of Social Doctrine talks about the necessity

for the market and the State to act in concert, one with the other, and to complement each other mutually. In fact, the free market can have a beneficial influence on the general public only when the State is organized in such a manner that it defines and gives direction to economic development, promoting the observation of fair and transparent rules, and making direct interventions — only for the length of time strictly necessary. …” (353)

Those eager to grow the government can use such a statement as license for the government hijacking control over huge sectors of the economy, so long as they can cite a existing “crisis.” Intellectuals (Catholic and otherwise) tend to prefer tidy-looking, state-imposed solutions, and the politicians who gain power over the economy this way rarely if ever will admit that a “crisis” is over, and it’s time for the state to step back.

Prudence may indeed dictate some interventions, but as many observers have noted, too often Catholic bishops and thinkers look for legislative solutions to every problem. Too often those “solutions” end up harming the Church itself, as well as the common good. Initially the U. S. Catholic Bishops supported the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”). They only withdrew their support when it was clear that the federal definition of “healthcare” would be somewhat different from their own, and that conscience protections would be withheld from those who opposed providing abortion and abortifacient drugs in employer insurance plans.  The Little Sisters of the Poor and many other groups have now spent years fighting the federal government on this topic.

But as Stephen Krason noted, there was a deeper problem with the U. S. bishops’ initial embrace of the Affordable Care Act:  the principle of subsidiarity states that larger and more distant authorities should only take over lower-level authorities when it could be shown that the lower levels could not solve their own problems. As Krason observed, in the case of health care, “Clearly, such a showing has not been made, and absent that the morality of the entire matter of a larger federal health care role must be called into question.”

3. Misunderstanding How Wages Work

This propensity to immediately jump to state-centered solutions is also present in discussion of wages.  The Catechism states:

Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages


Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good” (2434).

But the question is how to account for this “should.” Not every worker in low-wage jobs is capable of earning the kind of living wage called for in the Catechism. It is clear that employers and charities need to be involved in helping low-income workers develop the skills that will allow them to actually earn a wage that provides the dignified living called for rather than simply demanding that businesses give them what they need. The second might be demanded of Catholics as private persons through charity, but charity can’t be compelled from businesses.

Yet many Catholics have overlooked this issue of what wage justice really ought to mean in practice. At least since “Economic Justice for All,” the U. S. Bishops have continually advocated a federal minimum wage raise.  A 2014 Catholic bishops position paper  and a 2015 letter to Congress continue this tradition without acknowledging that many economists believe such wage increases, while helping some, will drive many low-skilled workers out of the job market. Businesses cease to be able to employ them, and this deprives them of opportunity the opportunity to learn the habits and skills associated with work.

Social Yes, Socialist No!

Am I suggesting that the Catholic Bishops Conference or that Catholics of a more liberal bent are consistent socialists? Not at all. But many Catholics are tempted by aspects of socialist thinking when they look at the issues. This leads to muddled views and counter-productive policies that actually hurt the poor. Just look at the elaborate anti-poverty programs in Venezuela, to cite just the most recent example of socialism backfiring on society. It’s not surprising that there are dangerous edges to Catholic social thought— after all, the truth is often a matter of balancing on an edge.  The trick for Catholic thinkers is to acknowledge and defend the truth that man is a social being with social needs without falling over the edge into socialism.

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