“Some of the most vocal advocates for socialism are Christian theologians and committed Catholics. The Tradinista! Movement identifies itself as “a small party of young Christian socialists committed to traditional orthodoxy, to a politics of virtue and the common good, and to the destruction of capitalism, and its replacement by a truly social political economy.” In 2019, Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart published an editorial in the New York Times with the provocative title, “Can We Please Relax About Socialism?” Not to be outdone, the Jesuit magazine America published a feature-length article later that year entitled, “The Catholic Case for Communism.”
There’s no small irony in this new enthusiasm for socialism among young Christians, when you consider that socialism served as the “founding heresy” that spurred the development of Catholic social teaching.
Between the 1840s and the 1940s, the papacy released eight major encyclicals that dealt with the subject, all in critical ways.
In 1849, Pope Pius IX referred to “the wicked theories of this socialism and Communism” and how they plotted to “overthrow the entire order of human affairs” through the haze of “perverted teachings” (Nostis et Nobiscum ). At the end of the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII called socialism a “deadly plague” (Quod Apostolici Muneris) that reaps a “harvest of misery” (Graves de Communi Re). Thirty years later, Pope Pius XI said, “Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever” (Divini Redemptoris ).
Many socialists, when confronted with the moral and economic failures of countries like the Soviet Union, are quick to respond, “Oh no, I don’t want that kind of socialism” or, “That wasn’t real socialism, that was Communism.” They don’t want a totalitarian government that controls everyone; they just want a benevolent government that helps everyone. In polling, this leads to a mixed bag of preferences.
For example, two-thirds of millennials support free college tuition, government-provided universal healthcare, and a government guarantee of food, shelter, and a living wage. But the majority of them also oppose state ownership of private businesses and tax increases on anyone but the wealthy. Another survey shows that whereas only 56 percent of people have a positive image of “capitalism,” 86 percent have a positive image of “entrepreneurs.” One Atlantic writer ably summarizes this paradoxical attitude toward economics: “They’d like Washington to fix everything, just so long as it doesn’t run anything.”
Hart evinces a similar attitude when he claims of the United States:
Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.
So who’s right?
Is socialism a deadly plague that reaps a harvest of misery? Or is it a sane and compassionate economic policy that everyone, especially Christians, should support?
There are a lot of things that are wrong in Hart’s op-ed, but he does make one good point. He writes, “In this country we employ terms like ‘socialism’ with wanton indifference to historical details and conceptual distinctions.” Indeed, critics who cry wolf and describe every form of governmental economic intervention as “socialism” numb people to the unique evils that occur in a truly socialist system.
That’s why in order to determine if Catholics can be socialists we have to first understand “real socialism.””