The Twilight of Socialism

The strange but suddenly popular notion that in John Paul II the Roman Catholic Church may have its “first socialist pope” (Kenneth L. Woodward, “The Vision of a Socialist Pope,” Newsweek, June 20, 1983, p. 47; cf. Gregory Buam, The Priority of Labor, Paulist Press, 1982, pp. 80-88) is based on a superficial reading of Laborem Exercens and a profound ignorance of the tradition from which it stems. Socialists nowadays come in many shapes and colors — so many in fact that one hardly knows what the term means any more — but I doubt whether any of them will derive much comfort from the able defense of private property contained in sections 14 and 15 of the encyclical.

One of the great merits of John Paul’s text is that it is not and does not claim to be “a brief treatise on economics or politics” (section 19). For that we can be immensely grateful, living as we do in an age in which bishops and theologians have so much to say about both of these subjects and so little to say about sin and salvation, topics once thought to be more germane to their profession.

Nor can the recognition that under certain special circumstances a greater “socialization” of the means of production might be more in keeping with the demands of the common good be construed as a departure from standard Catholic teaching. The Christian tradition has always been aware of the ambiguity that attaches to the notion of private property. In Thomas Aquinas’ view, the right to property was contingent on one’s ability to use that property well. Having lost sight of that sound moral principle, it was appropriate that we should be reminded of it and that the reminder should come from those whose duty it is to proclaim it.

The problem is that, although such matters ought to be of concern to governments, they cannot always be effectively legislated by them. Everybody knows there is something wrong with a system that enriches wealthy but idle playboys whose only generosity consists in handing out hundred-dollar tips to hatcheck girls. Unfortunately, nobody has yet come up with a proposal that would remedy such anomalies without creating new and more serious difficulties for the rest of us. To take another homely but perhaps less trivial example, if a big man owns a small coat and a small man a big one, an exchange would appear to be in order. Yet one cannot begin to imagine the chaos that would ensue were such an exchange to be prescribed by law. Thomas, who had read his Aristotle, had no illusions about that, and this is the reason for which he did not think that the abolition of private property was a good idea. There are other reasons as well but this is not the place to go into them. One can deplore the consumerism (John Paul’s word for “hedonism”) of the Western democracies without advocating their overthrow, just as one can admire to a certain extent the “asceticism” of the socialist countries without affixing one’s stamp of approval on the system as a whole. If the teaching of the encyclical is novel in any way, it is in its overwhelming emphasis on the dignity of the person, the rights of workers, and social justice, about all of which the least that can be said is that they are rarely honored anywhere today outside of the West.

Laborem Exercens does not tell us how to solve our problems; it merely tells us what we should be thinking about when we grapple with them and look for better solutions to them. Its ambition is not to mediate between capitalism and socialism but to set forth the general principles in the light of which both of them are to be judged. Woodward is right in thinking that capitalism is no longer as “rigid” as it used to be. The accomplishment is not a meager one, although one wonders whether the “delousing” process that it has undergone warrants the complacency that seems to have been engendered in the minds of some of our contemporaries. Capitalism needs to be improved as much as it needs to be defended. As for socialism, its record speaks for itself. No one realizes that better than John Paul, who, unlike most of us, has a firsthand knowledge of what it means to live under it.

Americans in general and American journalists in particular are great simplifiers. The world as they see it is divided between liberals and conservatives, socialists and capitalists, collectivists and individualists. Anyone who is not on one side or the other of the dichotomy falls between the cracks. This is why the thought of a Pope whose view of society is not exhausted by these categories seems so elusive or so “abstract” to them. We should all feel better if, instead of telling us what we most need to hear, Laborem Exercens had told us what we most want to hear. But that, as far as I know, has never been the function of papal pronouncements.

To be sure, there are some theoretical problems with some aspects of the doctrine expounded in the encyclical, but they are not of the kind that will entertain the readers and increase the circulation of our daily newspapers or weekly magazines. For one thing, I find it odd that all forms of human activity from the highest to the lowest should be described as “work.” In typically modern fashion, the whole sphere of leisure (as distinguished from work on the one hand and the rest or relaxation on the other), to which strictly intellectual pursuits were formerly thought to belong, has silently dropped out of the picture. Equally perplexing is what I take to be the encyclical’s occasional flirtation with the Lockean doctrine of labor as the origin of private right. Further questions arise when one reflects on the implications of the notion of social justice, the present-day substitute for what in the past would have taken the form of a discussion of the best regime.

Many if not all of these problems can be traced back to earlier encyclicals and particularly to Rerum Novarum, which appeared at a time when the Church was barely beginning to recover a long forgotten heritage. Now that the archives of the reign of Leo XIII have finally become available for public inspection, we shall soon be able to learn a bit more about the origins, and therewith the possible limitations, of modern Catholic social thought.


  • Ernest Fortin

    Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (1923 - 2002) was a professor of theology at Boston College. While engaged in graduate studies in France, he met Allan Bloom, who introduced him to the work of Leo Strauss. Father Fortin worked at the intersection of Athens and Jerusalem.

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