Is it possible to be Catholic and agree with Socialism? Every pope from Pius XI to Benedict XVI has clearly said “no.”
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
13 February, 2021
A 2019 Gallup poll found that four-in-ten Americans embrace some form of socialism, seeing it as a cure for their concerns. The poll found that 43% of Americans believe socialism would be a good thing, whereas 51% disagree. This is a precipitous change from Americans’ views in 1942, in which only 25% of Americans thought socialism was beneficial.
Why is it becoming more common to find Americans who believe that socialism is the answer to their economic woes? There are lots of factors involved. In combination with the manner in which socialism and communism are presented in a neutral or even favorable light in government schools, as well as colleges and universities, and the socio-economic situation today in which young Americans feel increasingly disenfranchised and unable rise to the upper middle-class, Americans of various age ranges are giving it the nod.
In large part, our political environment is a major contributor. Leftist politicians like Bernie Sanders and others present socialism as a solution. Then there’s the problem of an absence of historical consciousness, which is due to a failure in our education system. People are often oblivious to the dangerous pitfalls of socialism and the manner in which it’s a slippery slope leading into the jaws of communism.
Many Americans, young and old alike, now have the view that socialism, “if done right,” will provide them with the things they need and want: Free healthcare, free education, free or low-cost housing, and low job stress. It’s the appeal of an imaginary utopian society. People often cite “democratic socialism” as the preferred mechanism to accomplish these goals, holding up countries like Sweden and Norway as models. However, a close study of the situation in Norwegian countries reveals that they had to walk back their socialist practices as job creation came to a halt, taxation reached its peak level, and the economy faced steep downturns and failure.
After examining the data, Jean Chen concluded that countries like Sweden realized it couldn’t sustain its current welfare system. Welfare reform was required, and a gradual return to a more solidly free-market system was implemented. She writes:
The Nordic nations are returning to their free market roots. They have learned their lessons through their forays into welfare states or even tentative socialism, and have turned around from a dead end. We Americans should not fall for leftist propaganda and rush into a future that is doomed to failure.”
But why is socialism a problem?
Socialism is an economic system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange is regulated or owned by the State. It kills businesses and squelches entrepreneurship. Democratic socialism brings about to true socialism by gradually increasing tax rates on businesses and individuals to the point that they are no longer in possession of any wealth. Ultimately, it leads to the abolishment of private property.
It’s dangerous because it’s based on collectivism, which means it’s a lead-in to communism, and communism is the most heinous, evil economic system ever devised. It’s responsible for the murder of about 100 million people in the 20th century. Communism is atheistic and anti-Christian. People in communist countries have zero religious liberty. Furthermore, with the abolishment of private property, man has little to motivate him and no chance of building a better future for his family. Communism crushes human dignity.
We need look no further in history than the former Soviet Union to see the bloody, dehumanizing effects of communism, or to the Chinese Communist Party today, with its forced abortion policies and large-scale genocide wielded against the Uighurs.
It’s not uncommon to run into Catholics who are willing to try on socialism, so long as it’s the so-called democratic style of “soft” socialism. Unfortunately, such an idea is like saying it’s fine to eat a small amount of poison each day, or dabble willingly in sin so long as you don’t get too carried away with it.
Which raises the question, why is socialism incompatible with Catholicism? It’s at odds with the rights of the individual and human dignity. Again, socialism is based on collectivism, even if the adjective “democratic” is inserted to distinguish it from its more radical forms, such as it was presented by Karl Marx. Every pope from Pius XI to Benedict XVI has strongly condemned it.
The Church’s Official Position
Pius XI wrote that socialism is “irreconcilable with true Christianity…. [N]o one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 120).
Pope Leo XIII wrote that the main tenet of socialism is “community of goods,” or collectivism. It therefore “must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property” (Rerum Novarum, 15).
In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII reaffirms the position of Pius XI, writing that “no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority” (Mater et Magistra, 34).
Pope John Paul II clearly condemned socialism in Centesimus Annus:
[T]he fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. 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, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. 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 of 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. (Centesimus Annus, 13)
In summary, it’s helpful to recognize that both socialism and communism are forms of collectivism. Each leads to and/or is based on the abolition of private property, the loss of the rights of the human person, and creates conditions in which man becomes a subject of the State. We must never think even “soft” forms of socialism are a good idea or that they can be sustained in the long term. As the Norwegian countries discovered, even so-called democratic socialism is in no way a permanent solution. It was necessary for them to take steps toward returning to a free-market system in which the rights of the individual are respected alongside the rights of the group. Collectivism, in all its forms, must be opposed.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.