The Twilight of Socialism

Is Pope John Paul II a socialist? Despite the controversy and debate which swirl around it, the question is really jejune. The Pope is a pastor of souls, not a politician. Like his Master, his is not a rule over temporal regimes. I think that the Pope would agree with the judgment of Jacques Maritain, who said, “It is quite evident that the reforms and revolutions of temporal forms of government are not the affair of the Church, whose ends are not temporal, but eternal and spiritual, essentially above and beyond political and social concerns, and who jealously guards against becoming the vassal of any regime, class, or party.” Is the Pope a socialist? The very question so often masks an attempt to make the Church a vassal of some party, class, or regime. The attempt must be resisted; hence we will take up the question only because it has become popular in some quarters to suppose that the Pope is a socialist. The supposition is not only misleading as to the purpose of the Church, it is also most problematic in terms of specific concepts, principles, and arguments employed in the encyclicals.

The most audacious supposition is made by those who claim that the Pope’s thinking is result of a creative “Marxist-Christian” dialogue. In light of Poland’s cruel fate such a notion is an affront to John Paul II. It is based on a fallacious reading of the encyclicals, taking what are at best similarities between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine and attributing the Pope’s thought to a “dialogue” with Marx. It is as if it takes Marxist theory to recognize oppression of workers, the destructiveness of consumerism, and so forth. The Pope is indeed a man of much learning, wide interests, and respectful bearing. He undoubtedly learned very much from Marxist leaders and thinkers in Poland. But to elevate this facet of his life, imposed by necessity, to the status of a grand dialogue is misleading. A small incident may give some evidence of the Pope’s own view of the Marxist- Christian dialogue. Before the death of Pope Paul VI, the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla visited the Catholic University of America where he gave a philosophical paper on Aristotle and Kant. Afterwards a reception was given in his honor.

Many of us were struck at that time by the great charm, kindness, and depth of mind and spirit exhibited by the man. A few of us approached him and asked about the Marxist-Christian dialogue. He mused for a minute and then with a twinkle in his eye he responded, “Ah, it is more like a monologue.” How should one interpret this playful but diplomatic remark? We took him to mean there is no dialogue. The Marxists do not really listen nor are they willing to give the Church her due. Marxism is closed to Christianity in principle. Of course, any student of Marx should know this; Marx’s critique of earth follows upon his “critique of heaven.” The Marxist parties and regimes only follow their mentor in their disregard and hostility to the Church. , The Pope does not hesitate to state in his encyclical Laborem Exercens that his notions “diverge radically” from those of Marxism. Is the Pope a socialist? At least not on any supposed creative dialogue with Marxism.

What about the similarities between Laborem Exercens and socialist thought, specifically his call for central planning and worker co-ownership of the means of production? Yes he does recommend and elaborate these fundamental notions. But he more than frees them from many socialist connotations with which they are often associated. If anything, his elaboration of the notions shows greater affinity with existing liberal democracies, than with any existing socialist model. This is not to deny that he challenges very forthrightly the present theory and practices of liberal democracy. He is not their vassal either. John Paul’s notion of central planning is best understood in the light of his distinction between the direct and indirect employer. Indirectly, the whole society and especially the state is responsible for the condition of the worker and the productivity of industry. Obviously governmental policy is going to influence work in one way or another. Thus the state should attempt to coordinate and harmonize the many factors influencing work. Legislation protecting worker’s rights and security are examples. Only a die-hard libertarian would deny the state this right. But the Pope calls for a coordination that safeguards “the initiative of individuals and free groups” (No. 18) .This is no easy task. It is doubtful whether free and independent sectors of society can be safeguarded without a good amount of free enterprise. John Paul accuses the Marxists of seeking a monopoly of power and offending basic human rights in their pursuit of a vision of a rationally planned society (No. 14). Gregory Baum, in his supposition of John Paul’s socialism, speaks of a “creative tension” embodied in true socialism between rational planning and decentralization. But where can this be seen in practice in a socialist regime? Baum calls to mind Yugoslavia and Nicaragua. I do not know the Pope’s mind on the case of Yugoslavia; but I can surmise what he makes of the not so creative tension found in Nicaragua. I do not think it inclines him towards socialism. Socialism, by definition and practice, calls for greater state control.

What of John Paul’s call for worker joint ownership? His argument is part of larger whole concerning the issue of property ownership. First, he reaffirms the Thomistic formulation of private ownership and common use (No. 15; see Summa Th. II-II, q. 65, a.2). The proper care of goods and the good order of society require private ownership. But the right to property is not absolute. The common good and specific needs may require appropriation and distribution of property. Taxation and regulation do as much. Again, only an extreme libertarian would call these measures “socialist” in principle. They are not. Indeed, John Paul does challenge liberal regimes and ask that the right to ownership undergo a “constructive revision, in theory and practice” and be adapted to new conditions (No. 14), joint ownership by workers, as well as their sharing in management and profits are cited as examples. The concrete application he leaves to prudence; it depends on “suitable conditions” and “certain means of production.” Joint ownership is only one measure of many recommended as a means for achieving the goal of promoting the dignity of the worker. He also recommends “producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social, and cultural purposes” (No. 14). Such intermediate groups are the hallmark of liberal regimes. On the other hand, John Paul explicitly abjures an “a priori elimination of private ownership of the means of production” (No. 14). This would only give the state a monopoly of power. Yet socialist programs always involve a heavy dose of nationalization of business and industry and the “a priori” approach. Thus, the just purpose of promoting the dignity of the worker is not exclusively liberal or socialist. And the recommended means combine both liberal and socialist elements. John Paul should not be identified with either.

How then shall we characterize the thought and mission of John Paul II? He is a pastor of souls devoted to cultivating true freedom through God’s grace and the practice of true religion. He considers religious freedom as the basis for all other freedoms and as the test of “man’s authentic progress in any regime, society, or system” (Redemptor Hominis, No. 17). In this matter, freedom as the absence of restraint, especially state coercion, is no small trifle. Socialist regimes should pay heed. But this is not enough. Freedom is not an end in itself. Freedom must be cultivated and used for what is truly good, and “the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service” (Redemptor Hominis, No. 21). At this discipline for freedom the liberals always balk and show their libertarian colors. No, John Paul is neither a socialist nor a liberal. Perhaps his best title would be that which he gives to the Church in Redemptor Hominis — “Guardian of Freedom.” We should give him the freedom he deserves and not attempt to bind him to our partisan programs.



  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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