/ theory

A Catholic socialism? part I

This essay is the first in a three-part series on the possibility and nature of Catholic socialism.

May a Catholic be a socialist? For many Catholics, the answer to this question is firmly negative. What could be clearer, after all, than Pope Pius XI’s statement, in Quadragesimo anno, that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist”? With similar sentiments populating other encyclicals, the Catholic case against socialism might seem definitively closed. But this is not so – for what the popes mean by “socialism” is not always what socialists mean by “socialism.” “Socialism,” in fact, possesses a variety of senses, and only some of those senses fall under the condemnations of “socialism” articulated in papal encyclicals. From this it follows that a Catholic may indeed be a socialist – but only of the sort not condemned by the popes.

The meaning(s) of “socialism”

Historically, “socialism” has borne a wide range of meanings – from the decentralized ideals of Proudhon or Kropotkin, to the worker-managed guild system of G.D.H. Cole and other “associational socialists” like Otto Neurath, to the centralized bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. Equally broad, too, are the senses of “socialism” today: libertarian socialism, Scandinavian democratic socialism, and so on. The meanings of “socialism” are therefore quite diverse, lying on a continuum from near anarchism at one end to totalitarianism at the other.

Within this semantic diversity, however, can a central meaning be discerned – some generic definition that unites the various senses? Several definitions could perhaps be offered, but a modified version of that given by Karl Polanyi will suffice for our purposes here. On this view, “socialism” refers to an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.[1]

Several points about this definition should be noted. Socialism, first of all, is here distinguished from capitalism not primarily by property relations, but rather by how economic life is regulated – by means of a more-or-less autonomous market or by the community. All that follows from our definition is that property rights are not absolute. Second, the nature of this “communal control” is likewise quite open-ended, from worker councils in a stateless society to a highly centralized nation-state. This definition, third, implies nothing about the existence of markets, but only about the absence of self-regulating markets in relation to significant parts of social life. Hence socialism can certainly include markets, but only markets that are put in their proper place. Left unspecified is also the nature of this “subordination,” which could entail regulation by either a bureaucratic state, direct democracy, or a loose confederation of workers’ cooperatives; and such regulation could be either formal (setting limits to the market) or substantive (such as in central planning). Finally, this definition conceives of socialism only as an economic system, not as a comprehensive philosophy.

To round off this discussion of definitional matters, “capitalism,” as we will be employing the term, refers to an economic system in which, by and large, one class of persons, lacking means of production, sell their labor-power to another class of persons who possess means of production. So capitalism is not merely a “market economy,” but rather one characterized by a particular, dominant social relation – that between capital and wage-labor.

Papal criticisms of “socialism”

With our generic definition of “socialism” outlined, we can now examine the nature of the “socialism” discussed and criticized in several papal encyclicals. In looking at the statements by the popes, we will be drawing primarily upon Leo XIII’s Quod apostolici muneris (1878) and Rerum novarum (1891), Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (1931), and John Paul II’s Centesimus annus (1991).

“Socialism,” in these encyclicals, is characterized by the presence of some or all of ten broad features, and our approach here will be to enumerate and comment upon each of them. From this discussion, it will emerge that none of these features need be present in socialism according to the generic, Polanyi-inspired definition given earlier. (Note that, when we refer to “socialism” or “socialist” as such below, that generic definition will be employed.)

A preliminary methodological note is in order. In our discussion, we will be assuming that papal encyclicals – as far as faith, morals, and matters closely related are concerned – are strongly binding and authoritative, that what they teach must be believed by Catholics. The reality is slightly more complicated – in truth, encyclicals must be read in the light of Tradition – but we will assume this stringent view for the sake of argument. Let us now turn to the ten features that the popes attribute to “socialism.”

  1. Rejection of authority. In Quod apostolici muneris, Leo writes that socialists (or “communists” or “nihilists”) “refuse obedience to higher powers” (¶1). But there is nothing intrinsic to socialism that leads to a rejection of all authority. One can advocate for socialism while yet obeying authority, whether secular or religious: the former, because one can strive to implement socialism through social and legal reform, rather than by violent revolution; the latter, because one can certainly be a socialist and a faithful Catholic. (The truth of this claim, however, will fully emerge only in the course of this article – and in Parts II and III.) Unjust authorities, of course, may be disobeyed – for sufficiently serious reasons – but that, too, is something consonant with the faith. Nothing about the nature of authority, in any case, is implied by our generic definition of socialism.

  2. Absolute equality. Socialists, according to Leo in Quod apostolici muneris, “proclaim the absolute quality of men in rights and duties” (¶1) and hold that “nature has made all men equal, and that, therefore, neither honor nor respect is due to majesty, nor obedience to laws, unless, perhaps, to those sanctioned by their good pleasure” (¶5). In Rerum novarum, Leo stresses this point again, writing that socialists attempt “to reduce civil society to one dead level,” a uniform equality that ignores “manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition” – an inequality that is “far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community” (¶17).

A few points here merit response. No socialist, first of all, must believe that “majesty” deserves no honor or respect (socialism is certainly compatible in principle with monarchy, for instance), or that laws should be obeyed only if one consents to them. Further, as for all men being made “equal,” a socialist can instead accept the Christian understanding of equality that Leo delineates: “all, having inherited the same nature, are called to the same most high dignity of the sons of God, and…as one and the same end is set before all, each one is to be judged by the same law and will receive punishment or reward according to his deserts. The inequality of rights and of power proceeds from the very Author of nature” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶5). Inequality as such should not be condemned, but rather inequalities that are unjustly caused and that are injurious to the common good.

So socialism, finally, need not reduce all individuals to some “dead level” of equality, ignoring the crucial contributions made by the natural inequalities of people. This is true first of all because socialism can allow for a great amount of individual initiative, in which the varying talents and capacities of individuals can be expressed. (The state, for instance, could provide for basic needs like healthcare, housing, or food security, leaving individuals free to start their own productive enterprises on the market, now liberated from the threat of destitution.) Moreover, socialism need not embody an abstract or uniform conception of justice, but rather one that is attentive to natural (not unjust!) inequalities. Socialism might reflect that non-bourgeois conception of “right” (akin to Aristotle’s geometrical or proportional equality, i.e. “equity”) articulated by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program.[1:1]

  1. Debasement of marriage and the family. Leo maintains that socialism “debase[s] the natural union of man and woman” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶1), “exercis[ing] intimate control over the family and the household…setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision” (Rerum novarum, ¶14). On the contrary, while some socialists have, historically, been hostile to marriage and the family, nothing in socialism itself mandates that hostility. Certain socialists may reject marriage because they see it, falsely, as a form of domination in which a husband “owns” his wife, or as something inescapably bourgeois; but to see marriage in that way requires additional assumptions that go beyond the narrow limits of the definition of socialism that we gave earlier. Socialism, in that generic sense, concerns economic relations, not marital ones, and so it is certainly possible to be a socialist while subscribing to the Church’s teachings on marriage and the family.

  2. Denial of a right to/abolition of private property. Of the socialists, Leo writes in Quod apostolici muneris that they “assail the right to property sanctioned by natural law” (¶1) and “would destroy the ‘right’ of property, alleging it to be a human invention altogether opposed to the inborn equality of man” (¶9). Writing of “socialism as a State system – what would later be called ‘Real Socialism,’” John Paul similarly mentions socialism’s “opposition to private property” in Centesimus annus (¶13). But however opposed some socialist regimes have been to private property, socialism as such does not require the denial of a right to or the abolition of private property. Even if one believes that there ought to be some kinds of public or common property (say, collective ownership of large-scale means of production), that is perfectly compatible with a belief in a general right to private property, both (small-scale) means of production and means of consumption. To say, for instance, that healthcare – or education, transportation, etc. – should be run by the state does not abolish private property in general, nor does it deny a right to it.

Socialists need not oppose private ownership as such, but only, as Pius says, the “kind of sovereignty over society which [some forms of] ownership [have], contrary to all right, seized and usurped” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶114). Here, some form of “expropriation” may be necessary, but it should be as minimal as possible and always aimed at the common good. Total expropriation of the wealthy would be unjust. Such non-total expropriation may be justified, because the right to private property is not absolute. As Paul VI writes in Populorum progressio, “the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional” (¶23), and so if, for instance, “certain landed estates…are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation” (¶24). Any such expropriation, of course, should be done as peacefully as possible.

  1. Common ownership of all property. Socialists, says Leo, “strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life” (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶1) and are “endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large” (Rerum novarum, ¶5). Hence the “main tenet of socialism” is “the community of goods” (Rerum novarum, ¶15). Yet a socialist is not obliged to believe in the common ownership of all property, but might instead believe only that some property should be communally owned, leaving other sorts to be owned privately. To say that some types of property should be communally owned, however, does not run afoul of the popes’ teachings. Indeed, Pius comments in Quadragesimo anno that “certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals” (¶114). Common ownership, moreover, can take many forms – from property owned and managed by worker cooperatives or by the state, to common lands over which individuals can have use-rights.

  2. Violent class struggle unconstrained by ethics or law. The socialists “argue that poverty should not be peaceably endured,” writes Leo (Quod apostolici muneris, ¶9), and John Paul, speaking of “Real Socialism,” condemns the socialists’ “means of action” – a “class struggle…not constrained by ethical or juridical considerations, or respect for the dignity of others” (Centesimus annus, ¶14). While “Real Socialism” (e.g. the Soviet Union) did indeed involve “class struggle” in the sense rejected by John Paul and Leo, socialism as such need not involve it. Socialism, as we have defined it, implies nothing about the particular means used to realize it. One can therefore struggle for socialism – “struggle for social justice,” as John Paul mentions – while emphasizing that that struggle must be guided by ethical and juridical (and religious) norms; that it must respect human dignity; that it must truly aim at the common good and not at partisan interest; and that it must not entail “total war” and all its attendant ills. If armed resistance does occur, it must first meet the conditions specified by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2243).

  3. Envy of the rich. In Rerum novarum, Leo criticizes the socialists for “working on the poor man’s envy of the rich” (¶4). Now, to be sure, this perhaps describes certain strands of socialist thought, as well as tactics employed by actual socialist regimes of the last century. But there is no necessary connection between socialism and envy. Advocacy for socialism may just as well be motivated by opposition to the injustices perpetrated by capitalism, by the desire for a more humane economic system, or by any number of other considerations.

  4. Society as existing only for “material advantage.” This alleged feature of socialism is articulated most clearly by Pius in Quadragesimo anno. While noting that socialism may be modified so as to become largely consistent with the faith, Pius writes that “Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism,” nevertheless has a “concept of society [that] is utterly foreign to the Christian truth” (¶117). What is this misguided view of society? Pius tells us: “Socialism…wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone” (¶118), with the result that “the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a second place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods,” typically by means of an “excessive use of force” (¶119). In conclusion, Pius proclaims that “[r]eligious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (¶120).

Now, if we accept Pius’s understanding of socialism as involving a merely materially-focused society, then to be “true” to socialism is indeed contrary to the Catholic faith. (In that case, we ought to become untrue socialists.) But there is no reason why we should accept this understanding of socialism, for nothing in socialism as such entails seeing society as existing only for “material advantage.” It is certainly possible to justify socialism solely on the grounds that it would lead to a greater abundance of material goods, but nothing need compel a socialist to accept that justification, and indeed a great many socialist thinkers, including Marx, have not adopted the materialistic view of society that Pius condemns.[1:2]

In fact, one of the key reasons for favoring socialism is that, by releasing society from the structural compulsion to compete and make a profit, an increase in free time thereby becomes possible, and the point of such free time is that it enables one to pursue more fully those “higher goods” that Pius speaks of – especially the contemplation of God. A socialist society can and should aim not only to provide citizens with sufficient material goods, but also to promote virtue and the Catholic faith among its citizens, with God rightly recognized as the “sublime end of man and society.” True liberty, too – which of course is not mere license, but is rather always the liberty to pursue the good – could likewise be present under socialism, which would seek to encourage the development of creative abilities, instill virtue, and ensure that individuals possess the basic material and non-material goods that are the preconditions for virtue.

  1. Man as only a molecule in the social organism. John Paul lays this charge against socialism in Centesimus annus, and it is worth quoting him at length (¶13):

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. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice…Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears…From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own”, and the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.

John Paul contrasts this false view of man and society with the Christian one, according to which “the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups…always with a view to the common good” (¶13).

Plainly, it is true that, if socialism were to rely on the faulty view of man and society that John Paul ascribes to it, it would be fundamentally in error. While this mistaken view certainly characterized “Real Socialism,” it does not characterize all forms of socialism. Given our definition of socialism above, it is possible to be a socialist while recognizing that (i) the individual is not simply a “molecule” in the social organism; that (ii) free choice is a crucial component of an individual’s good; that (iii) law ought to respect the freedom of the individual; and that (iv) private property is not intrinsically evil and should not be abolished tout court, but only certain kinds or uses of property should be.

One reason, indeed, for advocating socialism is precisely that it would realize individual freedom (as well as promote the common good) better than capitalism does. Whereas under capitalism individual economic initiative is the privilege only of a few (i.e. owners of means of production, to whom workers are compelled to sell their labor-power and, for the most part, to give up creative control over their labor), socialism could give people more say in their productive activities and would encourage the “building up of an authentic human community” through cooperation. And there should still certainly be space in socialism for small, privately-owned enterprises – just not market-influencing large-scale ones, or those that involve the opposition between capital and labor.

  1. Atheism. John Paul, in reference to “Real Socialism,” says that the “source” of socialism’s “mistaken concept of the nature of the person and the ‘subjectivity’ of society…is atheism” (Centesimus annus, ¶13). But while John Paul is correct that a major problem with twentieth-century “Real Socialist” regimes was their atheism, socialism as such – as an economic system – implies nothing about religion, and is capable of being argued for on either religious or atheistic grounds. For instance, atheistically, one might argue that human autonomy is the highest good and that socialism would best maximize it. Or, religiously, one might contend that the common good requires that the state ensure that the basic needs of citizens, who have dignity and are made in the image of God, are satisfied. Whether or not socialism involves atheism depends critically upon the kinds of reasons adduced in support of it, but atheistic reasons are not the only ones that can be so adduced. From the proposition “a significant part of the economy ought to be communally controlled,” it does not follow that “God does not exist.”

Socialism and the Catechism

By way of digression, it may be useful here to say something about how socialism coheres with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In sections 2424-5, the Catechism makes three basic points relevant to the issue of socialism. First, a “system that ‘subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production’ is contrary to human dignity.” Second, the “Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with ‘communism’ or ‘socialism.’” Third, “[r]egulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds.” Three things, therefore, are condemned by the Catechism: (1) the subordination of “basic rights” of individuals to collective production; (2) the atheism and totalitarianism associated with actually-existing socialist regimes; and (3) an economy run only by central planning.

But none of these points must hold true under socialism in our sense. This is so because individuals’ basic rights (life, religion, [some forms of] property, freedom of association, etc.) could be maintained; because the state could be as decentralized as possible and promote virtue and obedience to God; and because small private productive firms, independent of any central plan, could be welcomed. It is true, of course, that the Catechism also says that “[r]easonable 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” (2425). But what counts as “reasonable” is a subject for disagreement, and a socialist would stress that it is not reasonable to let the majority of humanity be compelled to sell their labor-power on the market.


When the popes condemned “socialism,” what they condemned was a socio-economic system marked by some or all of the following features: rejection of authority; absolute equality; debasement of marriage and the family; denial of a right to/abolition of private property; common ownership of all property; violent class struggle unconstrained by ethics or law; envy of the rich; society as existing only for material advantage; man as only a molecule in the social organism; and atheism.

While certain forms of socialism may indeed contain some or all of these features, other forms of socialism need not – and, importantly, socialism as such need not. Articulating a definition of “socialism” that captures what is common to its many species, we said that “socialism” refers to an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control. In this generic definition, socialism falls under none of the popes’ condemnations. Any actually-existing socialism, of course, will have to give concrete content to this definition; but, as we have already indicated, there are many ways of providing such content that do not run afoul of the popes’ criticisms of “socialism.” So yes – a Catholic may be a socialist.

But the popes do not merely reject “socialism”; they also outline the moral principles that should shape any society. Even if socialism escapes the popes’ rejections, then, is it still consonant with those moral principles? We will take up this question in Part II.

  1. For instance, Marx laments that, under capitalism, work no longer “involves the fulfilment of [one’s] personality, the realization of all [one’s] natural talents and spiritual goals” (Early Writings, transl. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton [London, UK: Penguin, 1992], p. 269), and he wants a communist society that involves the “free development of individualities” and “the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc. development of the individuals in the time set free” (Grundrisse, transl. Martin Nicolaus [London, UK: Penguin, 1993], p. 706). Free time is important for Marx because, as he says in Value, Price and Profit (§XIII.3), “[t]ime is the room of human development.” ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎