The Twilight of Socialism

Ken Woodward remarks casually that Pope John Paul II is a socialist. This is quite true, if he means that the pope supports some positions that are in some way related to the word social: e.g., that he holds that man is a social being, that the socialization of productive property is in some cases wise, and that social diseases are to be avoided. Most living capitalists are socialists in this sense also.

But Woodward seems to mean more. He gives the impression that the Pope favors socialism in some of the senses in which that position has regularly been condemned by Catholic teaching. Clearly this is antecedently improbable, for the Pope, unlike Woodward, has regularly held that he himself and other Catholics are required to hold all the insistent teaching of the Catholic magisterium, not least of all teaching in the field of social morality. The Pope begins his encyclical on human work with a clear profession of his solidarity with the received Catholic positions, that he knows so well.

To say that he is a socialist because he acknowledges limits to the right of private property, and the advantages in some exceptional cases to collective ownership of productive goods, would imply that virtually all Catholic social thinkers are socialists. This would be rather like saying that Ronald Reagan is an anarchist because he does not believe in excessive government power, just like other anarchists.

The Pope lives in an intellectual universe very different from the ideological world of Woodward. His mind was nurtured in the classical world of Christian realism. He believes that the intelligence of man is able to grasp the truth of things, and to know authentic human goods, both by natural intelligence and by the gift of a faith that speaks the enduring truth. He does not believe that human thought is always expressed in concepts created by the interests of cultures or classes, that its grasp of reality is so culturally conditioned that the moral and speculative positions people defend must speak only of their world, and not of the world.

With Catholic tradition, the Pope believes that some teachings on the social order are unchangingly true, and that some statements about the social order are relative to temporary states of affairs. Against typical socialist theory, he holds firmly the transcendent dignity of each human person. The dignity of the persons, not the importance of the proper social organism, is the root of all his social teaching. Yet, with tradition, he certainly teaches that the human creature is essentially social. His thought, which reflects so frequently the creative work of Maritain in Christian social theory, knows well the rich variety of aspects that need to be gathered into a coherent whole in proclaiming what faith teaches about the social order.

A socialism distinctively holds that the means of production should be owned by the collectivity. Pope John Paul II makes it clear that he does not believe this is so, although there are exceptional cases in which it might be right to have collective ownership in certain special areas. Many people who appear to be capitalists hold exactly the same thing; so this would hardly qualify the Pope as a socialist. He does point out very plainly that the private ownership of the means of production is a very good thing for man, and that the “personalist argument (for such private ownership of means of production) still holds good both on the level of principle and on the practical level” (Laborem Exercens, n. 15.Italics his). The cases where collective ownership is to be supported are clearly said to be exceptions to the “principle of private ownership.”

This does not make him retreat from the traditional position that private ownership is far from absolute, that ideological capitalism of the classical liberal type — together with the collectivism of socialists — is radically divergent from the personalist position of the Church. Private ownership of the means of production is not to be surrendered to collective ownership. Quite the contrary: every effort is to be made to increase the number of people who have some ownership of the tools with which they work.

Everywhere the personalist principle is to rule. Private property is to be upheld, because private ownership guards the autonomy, the freedom, the dignity of the person. But such ownership is not absolute: material goods were made for all, and even when there is private ownership, they should serve the good of all. He has no love for “‘rigid’ capitalism”, just as none of his papal predecessors did. But he knows from bitter experience that collectivism is not a good remedy. “A system of excessive bureaucratic centralization . . . makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above” (L.E., n. 15).

Catholic social teaching is nuanced, balanced, human, sane. How grand it would be if Catholic journalists and activists would study it whole, and draw light for social renewal from sources far more rich than the ideological systems that charm so many of them.


  • Ronald D. Lawler OFM Cap.

    Father Ronald D. Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., was one of America’s leading theologians, as well as a teacher and a prolific writer. He died in 2003.

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