The Great Lie: Pope Benedict XVI On Socialism

One doesn’t usually expect a thorough-going reconstruction of the history of socialism in the late 19th century from the pope, but Benedict XVI delivered to us a wonderful–and oh-so-needed–reminder of what socialism was (and is), and why it went wrong. One can’t but marvel at his intellectual power: He has discerned the essential problem that has evaded vast numbers of academics for 100 years.

What’s more, he has done this in a time when socialism as an ideology seems to have been unfazed by the collapse of the communist experiment. Visit the philosophy and English departments on most college campuses, and you will still find intellectuals waxing eloquent on the glories of socialist theory. Students are still encouraged to imagine that it could work.

What about the Soviet Union? We are told that this wasn’t really socialism. And what about Nazism–the German word for national socialism? Oh, that’s not socialism either. What about the growing impoverishment in once-rich countries with social democratic governments? The failure of micro-socialism in the United States, where entire communities have lived on government subsidies and are plagued with frightening levels of social pathology? They say that this is not socialism either.

Large swaths of American academia are in denial. So too are major parts of the American and European clerical class, which is still under the impression that socialism represents a gospel ideal that has yet to be tried. One suspects that the entire history of the 20th century passed them by, for they have learned nothing from the poverty, despotism, and vast suffering wrought by the socialist ideology.

Not Benedict. He wants to talk about it. It fits his message of hope precisely. Are we to discover our hope in salvation from God or from some material transformation?

The passages occur in his great encyclical Spe Salvi (“in hope we are saved”). He addresses this core Christian virtue and explains what hope is and what it is not, what salvation is and is not.

History is strewn with intellectuals who imagined that they could save the world–and created hell on earth as a result. The pope counts the socialists among them, and Karl Marx in particular. Here was an intellectual who imagined that salvation could occur without God, and that something approximating the Kingdom of God on earth could be created by adjusting the material conditions of man.

History, in Marx’s view, was nothing but the crashes and grinding of these material forces. There was no such thing as a fixed human nature. There was certainly no God who is the author of history. There are no permanent themes that follow along moral lines. Rather, we are all merely pushed around by large and impersonal forces. But it is possible to wrest these forces within our control, to our advantage, provided we take the right steps.

And what are these steps, in Marx’s view? The expropriated working classes must take back what is rightfully theirs from the exploiting capitalist classes. Call it mass thievery, if you like–the point is to gain power over the production forces of society. This is where history is headed anyway, said Marx; we only need to give it a shove in the right direction to achieve the bliss of socialism. How will it work? Well, Marx never thought much about that. Why should he? The large and impersonal forces of history would hammer that out. It was only his job to describe the great events that lead to the revolutionary environment. What follows after is not really a matter of bourgeois science; we must simply accept on faith that somehow, somewhere, sometime, socialism will begin to work brilliantly.

Bizarre? It’s not so strange. We can look to the ancient world and see that many of the greatest intellectuals imagined that there would come a time when the problems of economics–scarcity, ownership, calculation, money–would vanish and utopia would appear. You might say that this is a longing for the Garden of Eden, but it neglects a critical fact: human nature is the same now as it always was. There will always be a need to advance beyond a state of nature. The economic problem is intractable. Simply asserting that the new world will magically appear begs critical issues, such as how we are to feed, clothe, and house people.

Benedict sums the problem up neatly:

Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another.

Socialism included no plan for the post-revolutionary world. Once economists discovered this central flaw, they seized on it and pointed out that socialism had no system in mind for solving the core economic problem of allocating scarce resources among unlimited needs, and certainly no system for creating the new wealth that would be needed to sustain a rising population.

Nonetheless, the revolution happened:

Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This ‘intermediate phase’ we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx . . . omitted to work out how this new world would be organized–which should, of course, have been unnecessary.

The “appalling destruction” referred to here is a reference to war that occurred soon after the revolution. Millions died in famine and wholesale slaughter. It became clear to Lenin that he had to back away, lest there be no one left to rule. That he did–and just in time, with the New Economic Policy. But the dictatorship continued. So too did the poverty relative to capitalist nations.

So why did Marx never explain how socialism would work?

His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

And so the pope has put the problems of economics exactly in the right light: the practical issue that needs to be settled within the framework of a sound morality and understanding of human nature. Socialism fails for a precise and practical reason: It has no system for pricing factors of production to make economic calculation possible. Prices come from the exchange of the very private property with which socialism dispenses.

And yet the moral problem with socialism is more profound: It exalts theft as an ethic and overlooks the human right of freedom.

Would that every Catholic interested in economics would read this encyclical. Some are getting the message already: The Catholic Church in Venezuela worked against Hugo Chavez’s dangerous plan for nationalization and regimentation of economic life. Someday, the world will come to learn the lessons that the history of socialism has taught. In the meantime, Benedict XVI is proving to be a wonderful teacher.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico

By

Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

  • t.shipe

    I concur with the critique of Socialism- the State controlling every aspect of the economy is an obvious mistake- especially when the typical socialist recipe is an agnostic or even atheistic in philosophic underpinning. But socialism is hardly the fear here in the U.S., we are the great exporter of the “American Consensus” neoliberalism applied to global economics. What are the fruits? What is the relationship to Magisterium teachings? These topics seem pretty much off-limits in so-called “conservative” circles. I would love to have a serious self-proclaimed “conservative” intellectual deal honestly with Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “On Social Concern” written back in 1987 in the heat of the Cold War, he offered a stunning critique of the East and West- why is all the focus of his teachings only on his fight against atheistic socialism/communism? He has plenty to say about the ideologies related to consumerism and the neo-colonialism inherent in the Western prescriptions for the developing world. The “Washington Consensus” and the “IMF Conditionalities” seem to create or at least maintain horrible conditions of life for the majority of people in the Third World. The fact is that the CAtholic teaching is that the political authorities must be the guarantor of the common good, the economy must serve the people- not the other way around. To simply allow capital and corporation to move freely around the globe in search of speculative bubbles or the cheapest available labor and/or least restrictive environmental regulations, while keeping labor (actual people) trapped behind borders with walls and police- well this seems more than a little problematic.

    The Church calls for freedom in the marketplace, but not absolute or total freedom- there must a framework of laws and regulations the underpin every economy to ensure outcomes that fit with the universal common good. The universal destination of goods principle calls into question unbridled capitalism, and the principle of subsidiarity should lead us to question the power of the WTO, NAFTA et al which give multinational corporations more power than local communities could ever seriously challenge.

  • Bob

    The gravest error in this encyclical is the use of the word “socialism”. To begin, quite correctly, with the observation that socialism is impossible to define, is not likely to spark much debate. However, then to proceed to define it as it’s most extreme, utopian forms, is sure to anger and offend millions, and not just avowed “socialists”. Because the meaning of the word has become so vague and nebulous in these times, his use of it is an attack on a much broader front than he apparently realized.

    The word originated with John Stewart Mill. It referred to his experiments meant to demonstrate that more productivity could be achieved by treating workers humanely, not overworking them, seeing to their education and health. There is nothing un Christian about that. Since then it has been taken up by so many political movements that it has become almost meaningless.

    At present, especially in the United States, the word “socialist” has come to be a disparaging term hurled at advocates of any involvement of government in economic affairs. President Obamas policy on universal health care, for example, is “socialism” to millions of Americans.

    Perhaps something was lost in the translation, and the Pope realy meant “Communism”. I find it staggering he would have issued such an encyclical without apparently thinking through how this would be interpreted by different people in different countries, of different political persuasions. Because the way this will read in present day US politics, is that the Catholic Church is against public health care, and probably against the economic stimulus bill, too. By implication, the Pope and the Catholic Church, are neoconservative Republicans.

    If the word “socialism” means anything at all today, it would be the belief that free market economics are flawed, and will never produce the kind of society that Christians, and all kind, decent people want, without human intervention.

    In the US this encyclical will sound like Rush Limbaugh in a priests robes. This misguided foray from the world of moral and spiritual affairs into the secular world of human governance and economics is a perfect example of why the church should stay out of politics. He has done much harm to both.

  • Reader

    The word “socialism” does not appear anywhere in Spe Salvi. Your words here, not his. Your interpretation. Your politics.

    He is a wiser man than you. Read it again.

  • Joshua

    Rev. Father,

    I wonder whether you’ve read Benedict’s book
    (written before he was made pope) on Europe,
    in which he articulates socialism (in its
    PRESENT form in many European nations)
    one of the great remnants/effects of the
    Christian roots of Europe.

    Certainly the church condemned Socialism
    as it existed in earlier forms, and even
    now certain brands (those which espouse
    anti-religious politics). However,
    what of the Osservatore Romano position that, “‘Capitalism seizes, confiscates, and dries up wealth, i.e. reduces the numbers of those who may enjoy riches, holds up distribution and defies Divine Providence who has given good things for the use of all men. St. Thomas Aquinas says that man must not consider riches as his own property but as common good. This means that communism itself, as an economic system, apart from its philosophy — is not in contradiction with the nature of Christianity as is capitalism.

    “‘Capitalism is intrinsically atheistic. Capitalism is godless, not by nature of a philosophy which it does not profess, but in practice (which is its only philosophy), by its insatiable greed and avarice, its mighty power, its dominion.'”

    Why aim critiques strictly at the English and Philosophy Professors who espouse sometimes ridiculous utopian philosophies? Why not aim some of the Church’s teachings at the Business Schools, schools that encourage economic avarice
    and call it virtue.

    Love in Christ,

    Joshua

  • Joshua
  • Christine

    But I think that when you say

    St. Thomas Aquinas says that man must not consider riches as his own property but as common good. This means that communism itself, as an economic system, apart from its philosophy

  • Joe H

    While I agree fully with Pope Benedict’s critique of Marxism, it isn’t 100% accurate that Marx didn’t have anything to say about how to proceed.

    It’s in the Critique of the Gotha Program, and in Engels’ Anti-Duhring, which Marx approved of. Granted, it isn’t much.

    As I’ve pointed out here before, a long time ago, Marx ultimately believed that socialism would come to different countries in different ways. He thought countries with long democratic or republican traditions such as Holland, Britain, or America could achieve socialism by the ballot box, while France, Germany and Russia would require violent revolutions due to their unique histories.

    As for this:

    “Socialism fails for a precise and practical reason: It has no system for pricing factors of production to make economic calculation possible.”

    Is that really what the Pope’s critique of Marxism can be reduced to? Economic calculus?

    I’ve never fully understood the so-called “calculation” argument of Mises; the Soviet Union and other communist states were functional, if inefficient, for much of the 20th century. It is arguable too what the key reason for the collapse of the USSR was – increased military spending is often cited as the catalyst.

    The truth is that the USSR DID have systems for “pricing factors of production”; it was precisely the rigidity of such systems that ended up making the economy weak. I’m not saying it was a good system, but it was a system…

    And there was this:

    “But the dictatorship continued. So too did the poverty relative to capitalist nations.”

    How about relative to nations completely under the thumb of Western colonialism? That’s what caused every other Marxist revolution in the 20th century. There’s a reason, too, that they called the Soviet bloc “the second world”; in economic terms it was ahead of the third world.

    My point with all this is not to defend Marxism-Leninism, which is an inhuman system, but simply to say that the materialist critique is not sufficient for dealing with it. John Paul II said as much on several occasions. In Centesimus Annus, he writes,

    Another kind of response, practical in nature, is represented by the affluent society or the consumer society. It seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.

    Materialism is what leads to the collapse of societies and the downfall of states. If we don’t think materialism can do the same thing to America as it did to the USSR, we’re kidding ourselves. A human society is comprised of more than consumers and producers. It has a culture, it has values, it has institutions which cannot be calculated in economic terms. That is why economic analysis, while useful, important, and necessary, cannot set the philosophical or political agenda by itself.

    • MattA

      The core of Mises’ socialist calculation argument is that socialism would not work on a worldwide scale because they would need prices to figure out how to allocate capital across the stages of production. Without prices, how do you know what to make, and which of the many possible methods to use without prices? Socialist countries can get by only by COPYING market prices for these goods, but if socialism was world wide there would be no market prices, therefore socialism would fail even more miserably than it did. Joe Salerno has some great lectures online, look them up. They should help a lot.

  • trace_9r

    The word “socialism” does not appear anywhere in Spe Salvi.

    Yeah, and neither does the word “Catholic”, but we still know what it means.

    Socialism is giving the power of charity over to the state, where it promptly dies.

    There is no charity without free will, and there is no way to love God and neighbor without free will.

    The godless states and political parties in this world will always be drawn towards socialism, because they are repulsed by free will. They hate their freedom, because through it, they have chosen to shun God.

  • theorist

    “A human society is comprised of more than consumers and producers. It has a culture, it has values, it has institutions which cannot be calculated in economic terms.”

    Still, there are economic aspects to life: If taxes on pornography increase, then there will be less consumers of pornography.

    “The truth is that the USSR DID have systems for “pricing factors of production”; it was precisely the rigidity of such systems that ended up making the economy weak. I’m not saying it was a good system, but it was a system…”

    This is part 4 of Mises’s calculation argument wherein he states that if a centrally planned economy could use money, this money would not reflect the true value of capital in society but only the value of capital vis-a-vis the central planners and their “managerial class”.

    “Pure capitalism is the absence of all laws regarding re-distribution of wealth. No successful government has a purely capitalistic process in place. As with this and other economic models, human sinfulness makes them fail. This is why we are to place our trust in God, and try to do well by others (avoiding sin).”

    Pure capitalism can exist even though human sinfulness will make it fail, just as the good man can exist although original sin will cause him to die.

    “However,
    what of the Osservatore Romano position that, “‘Capitalism seizes, confiscates, and dries up wealth, i.e. reduces the numbers of those who may enjoy riches, holds up distribution and defies Divine Providence who has given good things for the use of all men.”

    Obviously the effects of capitalism are matters of speculative economics and not faith or morals. As for the proposition itself, I argue that if capitalism really was about reducing the numbers of those who enjoy riches, then it would be natural to capitalism to reduce consumption and so the demand and value of money. But that is impossible since the definition of capitalism is “the system of voluntary exchange”. Hence there would be a logical and perhaps maybe a metaphysical contradiction between the two ideas.

    “The Church calls for freedom in the marketplace, but not absolute or total freedom- there must a framework of laws and regulations the underpin every economy to ensure outcomes that fit with the universal common good. The universal destination of goods principle calls into question unbridled capitalism, and the principle of subsidiarity should lead us to question the power of the WTO, NAFTA et al which give multinational corporations more power than local communities could ever seriously challenge.”

    The laws that regulate the marketplace and help to tend towards the common good are the laws of competition,comparative advantage,supply and demand,and the law of incentives. It especially moves towards the common good because aquinas says that people have a natural desire to know “why” and that it is this desire which leads to metaphysics and the knowledge of God. But incentives are “desires” or “felt unease”. Therefore the system which gives free reign to incentives allows people to know God. It also allows people to accumulate wealth which per aristotle in meta. allows the higher and less practical sciences to be attained. But political science and ethics are higher practical sciences and so capitalism is a tool to ethics or the common good.

    And so, anarchism or the lack of a nation-state is the finest system of political organization.

  • theorist

    The WTO is a government institution while NAFTA is a nexus of tariffs and subsidies with deregulation -which is different from total deregulation.

  • georgie-ann

    it seems, from reading the Bible, that the problem of God and government(s) was never really resolved with an ideal solution,…we are told to pray for kings & government leaders, so that there may be peace in the land, and so that God may be able to influence the hearts of the leaders,…and to grant unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s,…

    we also have so many examples (Biblical and historical) of those in power–(hey,…even those not in power)–“going wrong” in myriad ways,…but certainly power & greed play into the “selfish” and spiritually blinded side of mankind, making corruption & intrigue almost foregone conclusions,…

    the framers of our Constitution even said that its ability to shape a good democratic society depended very much on the good character of the individuals making up that society,…certainly this is an important factor in any situation,…

    God didn’t make us any guarantees in this area,…and i seriously doubt that there are any,…& that should be enough to keep us on our knees!,…reading our Bibles,…rosaries in hand,…& being thankful for each & every peaceful day,…

  • R.C.

    Given the problems of fallen human nature, “The Economic Problem Is Intractable.”

    Again: Given the problems of fallen human nature, “The Economic Problem Is Intractable.”

    AGAIN: Given the problems of fallen human nature, “The Economic Problem Is Intractable.”

    We face two difficulties in absorbing this bit of information.

    The First Difficulty

    The first is that we are tempted to think that our idealistic imaginings of improving the our collective economic lot, which God offers to us as a heavenly vision of His paradise, justify extreme measures in pursuit of that vision.

    But this is to misunderstand the vision. It is offered to us as a goad towards Him, not towards it; Paradise was lost because we offended Him and death was unleashed in creation, not because we merely misplaced the GPS coordinates of Eden.

    A man thinks back on a vacation or a moment with friends and feels a pang; he mistakenly concludes that the vacation or the gathering was the source of the remembered joy.

    So, he revisits the vacation spot, or he reassembles the group of friends…and finds that it is not the same. The soaring joy which was expected was never there to begin with: But his memory did not deceive him, either; instead, God is coaxing him, whispering: “That earthly moment was put there not so that you should seek it out to worship it, but as a foretaste of My love, so that you should seek Me out. The heavens tell My glory, and earth is afloat in the heavens I made: Thus do rocks cry out and trees clap their hands. All good things on earth are given to lead you not towards the things, but towards the Giver of all good things.”

    Now the doctrinaire socialist — or even the doctrinaire libertarian or conservative idealogue — has seen in his mind’s eye a glimpse of possible justice, of possible mercy: A foretaste of the kingdom. He associates this foretaste (so shining a jewel!) with the outcome of his policies. And so he throws his heart behind implementing these policies, and decades later, if he is not too psychologically invested to admit his error, he discovers too late that the shining jewel is not the outcome of his policies in a fallen world. The shining jewel is the only possible outcome in the world remade…but that is a world where no policy is ever needed.

    In all this I judge the doctrinaire socialist or welfare-statist more at fault than the libertarian or conservative, but only because he breaks more moral laws in implementing his policy: It is heavy on government intervention, which is necessarily intervention by force. But its outcome will inevitably, in a fallen world, fail to justify such means. Tilting at windmills trying for unreachable goals is not adequate justification for the use of force either internationally or in domestic policy.

    But welfare-statists and libertarians and conservatives (of every species) all sometimes fall prey to the temptation to see heaven as the outcome of their earthly systems. It is not. It never will be until parousia. Christ comes to make all things new; but prior to His Second Coming, most things will remain old, and broken.

    To Summarize: None of our economic systems ever produce heavenly outcomes, not even the best ones. They only produce flawed earthly outcomes; and that kind of outcome is inadequate justification for uprooting the Constitution or the whole social order in its pursuit;

    We tend to forget this, which leads us to the second difficulty….

  • R.C.

    …continuing from Pt.1, above…

    The Second Difficulty

    We have faulty expectations about what life will be like in a just society, when that society is just by the standards of a fallen world.

    For we are called to collectively make our society “just,” but we are absolutely, utterly, incapable of making it “just” in the sense that the New Jerusalem will be “just.”

    We transition from medieval guilds to mercantilism, from gentry to populists, from classical liberalism to progressive liberalism to neo-liberalism to post-liberalism. Elsewhere people do even worse, passing through the conjoined twins Nazism and Marxism into autocratic personality cults and the chaos of failed states. In all this, we repeatedly see that each system has huge problems with it.

    When we finally persuade (or force) all our countrymen to adopt the system that best grips our personal fancy we are often too invested in its success to notice that it fails to meet expectations, but everyone else notices. Some philosopher, when queried, once offered the phrase “this too shall pass” as a statement to be true of all things, on all occasions. Not a bad answer: But if he were speaking of economic systems, “this too plainly sucks” would also have been a good answer.

    Our problem is that when we see the outcome of any system, it has flaws. More: The flaws of the best system yet suggested will still fall far short of the glory of God. No society will be “just” as Heaven is.

    The conclusion: We should never spend our time merely stating what is wrong with a given system, as an argument for choosing another system. Because when we state that there is something wrong with it we are comparing it not to an alternative earthly system, but to Heaven, where nothing is wrong. That is useless: No effort of ours will produce Heaven.

    Instead, we should be comparing systems implemented in a fallen world to other systems implemented in a fallen world: That is the fair comparison.

    And while we sort out which system is best, we should be prepared to lower our expectations of how it will work out. There will be large income inequities: Always! There will be people without food and medicine: Always! There will be Paris Hilton, or her spiritual twin: Always! There will be tough thankless jobs: Always! There will be people doing nothing and living off everyone else: Always! There will be no cure for that disease, or no cure your loved one can afford: Always! You or your neighbor will spend some time jobless: Always! That unexpected expense will come just when you could least afford it: Always!

    To Summarize: Even the best system has such flaws in it that, if we neglect to compare it to other systems and instead compare it to heaven, we are shocked at how bad it is and come to the (false) conclusion that “this MUST be changed; we must DO SOMETHING!”

    The best system is that which is marginally better than the others at keeping these problems as low as possible. But “the Economic Problem Is Intractable.” If you remember that, you can keep your expectations in line with reality.

    …continued…

  • R.C.

    …continuing from Pt. 2, above…

    Great. Now What?

    If anyone has read the above and concluded, “Ah, a cynic” then that’s forgivable, but incorrect. This is not a call to cynicism. It is a call to arms: More specifically, tired arms.

    C.S.Lewis said (I paraphrase) that he more trusted, and expected real benefit from, those who labored in obscure ways, on a local or personal level, to better the lives of the needy nearest them, than those who offered grand schemes for improving the nation or the world all at once.

    I think he was right. But do you see the implication? We have been repeatedly tricked into throwing great fervor behind political solutions — roughly every four years, if memory serves.

    But if we understand the two problems outlined above…

    1. Our systems never produce heavenly outcomes, but only flawed earthly ones; and that kind of outcome is inadequate justification for uprooting the Constitution or the whole social order in its pursuit;

    2. Even the best system has such flaws in it that, if we neglect to compare it to other systems and instead compare it to heaven, we are shocked at how bad it is and come to the (false) conclusion that “this MUST be changed; we must DO SOMETHING”;

    …if we understand those problems, then we can avoid the trap of acting foolishly, and conserve our efforts for acting constructively.

    Don’t overthrow the constitution. Don’t utterly remake the social order. It’s (a.) a lot of work; (b.) a lot of upheaval; (c.) a lot of misery and confusion; and (d.) results, when the dust settles, in an outcome not much better than that you left behind.

    If you’re in a communist dictatorship and the alternative is a constitutional republic with a democratically elected stable government, then, okay, yes, in that extreme, go for it. But otherwise? It may not help much.

    Instead, feed folk at a soup kitchen. Love your family and friends. Work for better legal representation for those who can’t afford their own attorney. Build a house for Habitat. Give blood. Give canned food and clothes.

    That kind of thing works. (And smacks of less hubris.)

    And if we must debate policy, fine: That’s not evil, and good can come from it. But we’d all best keep in mind that the good which comes of it will almost certainly not be an order of magnitude better than the status quo, when all is said and done. Things will be better in some ways, worse in others.

    There will be wars and rumors of wars, and “the poor ye shall always have with you”: As it was a few years after the Fall, is now, and ever shall be.

    (Until He comes again. But after that, none of these policies and systems will matter a bit, except to give us a good laugh. And at that feast, there’ll be plenty better things to laugh about.)

  • R.C.
  • Deacon Ed

    government creates the problems and therefore we ought not look to it to solve them (and therefore should stop funding it).

    Let’s face it, if we were to have taken all the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the government on all sorts of entitlement programs in the past 60 years, we are likely to have been able to give every man, woman and child a million dollars – enough for their healthcare, retirement, private schooling, etc.

    We have been sending hard-earned dollars down a black hole and what do we have to show for it…
    the Post Office.

  • georgie-ann

    that was SO true,…reminds me a little bit of “Murphy’s Law”–(appropriate for up-coming St. Patrick’s Day!)–which i’m afraid to try to quote, but has to do with things inevitably “going wrong,”…

  • Martial Artist

    As to understanding “the ‘calculation’ argument of Mises,” it is all quite clearly laid out in great detail in Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, and summarized in The Fatal Conceit: the Errors of Socialism. These also offer a clear explanation of precisely why attempts to plan a state’s economic activity lead inevitably to both scarcity and dictatorship.

    Beyond those recommendations, I doubt that I can improve on what R.C. has written in his comments above.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith T

  • I am not Spartacus

    Smashing piece. Kudos.

  • I am not Spartacus

    The gravest error in this encyclical is the use of the word “socialism”.

    There is not even a minimal error, say nothing about a grave one.

    Obviously, The Pope is speaking fully in line with Catholic Social Doctrine on Socialism beginning with Rerum Novarum..

  • G.R. Mead

    I agree with everything R.C. so carefully set forth. Scale matters. The Church’s position on subsidiarity is founded on, among other things the premise that great power is subject to great error, and the corollary, that smaller powers are subject to smaller errors. So the problem of large governments is of a piece with the problem of large economic corporations. Scale matters.

    There is both theological wisdom as well as natural economic wisdom in doing everything possible to keep economic decisions at the lowest level possible, and, yet also without offending that general principle. We should strive to enable (NOT to provide for) individuals and families so that they produce MEANINGFUL economic goods to meet their basic needs. Efforts to enable too easily become temptations to simply provide — which must be resisted in every way to the extent that a person has any meaningful way to provide for themselves.

  • Joe H

    As usual, I don’t really disagree with what RC says. That’s not the problem. It’s sometimes what he doesn’t say.

    I’d be interested to know, for instance, what he thinks of JP II’s thought that I originally quoted, especially the part about capitalism:

    “insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs”

    That said, there are some things he says that are simply wrong. For instance:

    Because when we state that there is something wrong with it we are comparing it not to an alternative earthly system, but to Heaven, where nothing is wrong.

    Perhaps a re-wording is in order? Because it is certainly possible to compare any currently existing system to another currently existing system. The problem of course is when people assume that “system” and “national system” are the same thing. There are many different economic models within many different countries at different levels, from households and local communities to policy planning at the national level.

    I do agree with RC that we must avoid utopian fantasizing. But I think RC almost goes a little too far in his, lets say, pessimism about the prospects of achieving at least a semblance of social justice. God wouldn’t have said the following to the Israelites if it were completely beyond man’s scope:

    16 Wash yourselves, be clean, take away the evil of your devices from my eyes: cease to do perversely, 17 Learn to do well: seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge for the fatherless, defend the widow. 18 And then come, and accuse me, saith the Lord: if your sins be as scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow: and if they be red as crimson, they shall be white as wool. 19 If you be willing, and will hearken to me, you shall eat the good things of the land.

    Skepticism cannot become misanthropy. I don’t accuse RC of misanthropy but it is a branch in the particular road he is on. Because I agree with the practical aspects of his argument, I have become more of a localist – a more just society can only begin at a local level where people share the same values and the same vision. Then, by the example of their success, can they spread that idea through persuasion.

    This is what is happening now with distributism. In the 1950s, a Spanish priest – inspired by the social teaching of the Church, by Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno – got together with some like-minded people and founded the Mondragon. Today it is the world’s largest and most successful cooperative. And now that model is being adapted in the US by communities that have been most devastated by the economic crisis, in the Rust Belt, where industry has been hollowed out by outsourcing, by the dictates of impersonal economic forces.

    Instead of responding to these forces with calls for more government involvement, people are beginning to experiment with new models, local models, voluntary models. And these particular models were inspired by the teaching of the Church. If they continue to flower and bloom, it will have been because of the Church.

    We may not be able to “control” economic forces through government involvement, anymore than regulations can control the weather. But local communities can build levees that work. They can build communities that are not based upon the law of the jungle but love of neighbor, not simply as an abstract ideal, but because it really is in everyone’s interest to do so, especially in today’s global economy. People have all the more reason to band together at the local level.

  • Michael Keloisim

    I just read a story written by a Jesuit that is quite scary.Glenn Beck is calling for all people to examine their church and if they hear the words “economic justice” or “social justice” that they are really code words for communism!! He is telling them to leave those churches while they still can…this is a direct assault on the Catholic faith for seldom any other church stands up for the poor as ours does. This man is dangerous and you should think twice when you nod your head when he talks. By the way the cathechism states that socialism and communism are condemned,but so to is the laissez-faire brand of capitalism aka free markets for people should not be subject only to the will of the market place,for not all human needs can be met that way.(catechism 2425)Read “A Essay on the Restoration of Property” by Hilaire Belloc the catholic historian for the churches social teachings put into effect. But beware of Beck.

  • theorist

    The church has no position on property qua its economic,political, or technical aspects. Therefore it offers no models or systems but allows the laity their natural rights to determine what relations of property are most just. In attacking “capitalism” and “communism” the church really meant by this to attack the theory that man is really essentially like property and that any wage was a good wage as long as it was voluntary, or that the rights of individuals was supreme or the only rights existing. By attacking communism the church also only intended to attack atheism and the theory that the community and the state had rights which were supreme or antecedent to individuals -basically totalitarianism. Therefore the laissez-faire theory that society is best organized by property based-incentives is not contradicted nor is christian communitarianism.

  • theorist

    I agree with your localism but I still disagree with the truth value of the theory of economics you stated earlier, “We may not be able to “control” economic forces through government involvement, anymore than regulations can control the weather. But local communities can build levees that work. They can build communities that are not based upon the law of the jungle but love of neighbor, not simply as an abstract ideal, but because it really is in everyone’s interest to do so, especially in today’s global economy.”

    Technically it is state action (taxes,interventions)that is the law of the jungle while buying and selling has to be inherently peaceful. The reason is that taxation is just the ability to take, we recognize why this is bad for us when a fellow citizen takes from us because this redistribution doesn’t seem to have any good effects. But when politicians do this, it seems like taking is beneficial. But the benefit is only apparent because the state doesn’t make any profit on the things it provides -it merely consumes past profits and sinks it into its projects forever.

    But buying and selling is peaceful since, in order to gain something you decide to pay a price. When most people buy or sell they feel totally different then when they give to the gov. They feel jipped and cheated and demand to know why item A costs so much. Yet the apparent bad deal is truly good since businesses need to make profits on their products, they generate the net money to continue production and to increase it on the whole.

    A long post but our extreme positions need extreme proofs.

    • t-dahlgren

      “The reason is that taxation is just the ability to take, we recognize
      why this is bad for us when a fellow citizen takes from us because this
      redistribution doesn’t seem to have any good effects.”

      Even if the effects were good the act is still problematic, since it denies the moral agency of the actual producer of the resultant good.

  • Joe H

    This is one of those rare fruitful discussions on an Internet message board – and its no coincidence that RC is involved. His gentlemanly behavior and composure never ceases to inspire.

    Let me address some points.

    “Technically it is state action (taxes,interventions)that is the law of the jungle while buying and selling has to be inherently peaceful.”

    I don’t think it “has to be”; I think it simply works better when it is. In any case, the jungle is not invoked merely to paint an image of violence and coercion. Jungles are complex eco-systems and there is a great deal of cooperation involved as well as violence, but ultimately, in the end, the strong dominate the weak. They don’t necessarily do so by direct force; they may do so over time, by outbreeding the competition in an entirely ‘peaceful’ way.

    This is not how a human society ought to operate, because man is a higher order of being than animals. His society ought to be run according to principles higher than those that govern jungles. This view of course is anathema to materialists, and to economists who are materialists. But it is a cornerstone of Christian social thought, and especially Catholic social thought.

    This does not mean – absolutely does not mean – that man can “control” nature in a manner envisioned by the Marxist materialists, either human or non-human. And I will be the first to admit that there are many Catholics who deeply misread the social teaching, and interpret it as a concrete guide to economics, and suggest that there is little or no room for variation in the implementation and achievement of Papal recommendations. The Papal teaching is not a rival theory of economics. It is Christian political philosophy.

    In any case, we are not helpless before forces of nature, even economic ones. That is why comparisons to the weather are entirely apt. We cannot make a storm go away, but we do not submit, blindly and hopelessly, to its consequences (as animals, lacking imagination, must – they can only adapt to weather through the process natural selection).

    Instead we study and record. We build with the elements in mind, we plant with the season in mind, we navigate by the stars. We do not subordinate nature to our will, but through our will, the effects nature are mitigated. Natural selection is defied. Human reason triumphs.

    There are limits to human reason, of course. The course of history from the French Revolution, through Marxism, and down to the present day cannot be ignored as the product of minds who literally deified human reason. Marx hated the idea of man’s subordination to nature and to God far more than he hated capitalism (which he saw as a necessary historical step). So too do the extreme materialist individualists on the other side, such as Mises.

    As always, in keeping with Aristotle, with Aquinas, with the political philosophy of the Church since 1891 as well, we must invoke

    mesotes

    = the middle path between two extremes. It is a problem we have been struggling with for centuries. Machiavelli’s summary is apt:

    IT is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

    I have to agree with him – so as not to extinguish our free-will. And maybe even on the proportions – “half, or perhaps a little less” is under our control. Even so, that little less than half is far more than materialist and misanthropic economists will allow us.

    Let me wrap it up: I don’t believe like some apparently do that you can snap your fingers and make human nature disappear. But I cannot go as far as some others and argue that we are essentially powerless before either the human propensity for sin, or economic forces. Free-will, reason, imagination and spiritual values all combine to provide us with ample means to defend ourselves against these things, even if they cannot be overcome.

    Mesotes, mesotes, mesotes!

  • Deacon Ed

    should we approach the State’s taking over large segments of our economy with its resultant confiscatory taxation with some kind of theoretical purity of mind. Like all such experiments in the most recent 100 years, it will proceed toward increasing repression, abridgement of God-given rights, and totalitarianism. There will be increasing secrecy and distrust of government. Cynicism will be rampant as people witness the inability of Big Government to deliver. In such an environment, people will become increasingly dishonest and a barter economy will spring up where it is at all feasible. My guess is that people will actually seek out work where they can actually barter because they will be better able to sidestep government control. The government will become increasingly repressive as it then relies on neighbor spying upon neighbor. Church entities will be infiltrated by agents of the government (as did happen in the Soviet Union with the Orthodox Church). The free exercise of religion will be eroded. Some within the Church with an actual lust for powere will actually be collaborators with government to help promote their political agenda. Some Churchmen and Churchwomen will be feted at the White House because they are following the party line. The three distinct branches of government with its checks and balances will be merged into a single autocratic regime (notice the disdain that Obama treated the Supreme Court Justices at the State of the Union because he politically disagreed with one of their decisions). Notice, too, how Congress is being run from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    If these are just the musings of a paranoid, then start asking around among your friends and see if these and similar notions are not beginning to seep into our consciousness.

    And we thought the days of the gulag were over!

  • LivingInWingnuttiavilleTX
  • Bob Stone, CM

    My question to Fr. Sirico: how do you square this negative reading of history with that in “Mater et Magistra,” which suggests many openings to collective efforts on many fronts while maintaining human freedom, human dignity, and self-determination? The famous case of Pope John XXIII’s staying out of the Italian discussion about the nationalization of electricity in 1962, even though Cardinal Siri and Cardinal Ottaviani wanted to enter this fray against nationalization, comes to mind.

  • theorist

    First off Good Post…

    Secondly, this idea of what markets are and how they operate

    “Jungles are complex eco-systems and there is a great deal of cooperation involved as well as violence, but ultimately, in the end, the strong dominate the weak. They don’t necessarily do so by direct force; they may do so over time, by outbreeding the competition in an entirely ‘peaceful’ way.

    This is not how a human society ought to operate, because man is a higher order of being than animals. His society ought to be run according to principles higher than those that govern jungles.”

    Is wrong. The reason being that even if you choose higher principles you would still 1) be choosing those principles(production) 2)Implementing those principles (entrepreneurship)3)Satisfying your needs for higher principles (consumption). So in this case, as in all cases, you are still acting within economic principles and so we see that economic principles are not set against human society but rather that both are equal to each other.

    None of this means that big business is good or bad but it does mean that there is no such dichotemy between economic laws and higher laws. But secondly:

    “So too do the extreme materialist individualists on the other side, such as Mises.”

    Economics doesn’t have an official ontology like materialism or idealism. Even the least theistic economist, qua his profession, is only required to believe in incentives -a priniciple that everyone believes in.

    • t-dahlgren

      Excellent point. When we speak of an economy, or even the economy, also harken back to the root of the term – the oikos the home, or particularly for the religious the family. In such considerations the final analysis may still come down to one of incentives, but in that context there exist incentives that can only be evaluated in moral terms.

  • Samwise Gamgee

    Michael K.

    A Jesuit has something to say on how the term ‘social justice’ is used in our society… interesting. Probably a very reliable source…

    Beck’s point, which is true even within the Catholic Church, is that various individuals hijack the term social justice and distort its true meaning. Thus they can justify support for violent pro-aborts like President B.O. People confuse themselves, under the guise of ‘social justice’ many confused individuals (lay and religious) say things like, ‘well, he may advocate for the slaughter of millions of the unborn, but hey, look at this nice lolly pop government program X where they give money to such and such. See he’s not such a bad guy. He’s advocating for a kind of social justice.”

    Your point does have validity that the term ‘social justice’ should not be rejected in its entirety. But, its proper use, Magisterially founded and coming from an authentically Catholic identity, is rarely found… especially among Jesuits.

  • Jane Marple

    With his latest expose on the dangers of socialism, the Pope is stating what most of us know already through being proved time and time again.

    How much more timely it would have been if he’d spoken against the multi-national corporate tyranny that has become the real danger, at least here in the United States. With resources they’ve never enjoyed before, corporate interests can buy and so control elections, judges and, effectively, engulf a society in ways that the most wild-eyed Marxist would never have dared to imagine in his wildest dreams. These behemoths will, I fear, engulf not only the material interests of the world’s humanity but its spiritual ones, also.

    • t-dahlgren

      Agreed, look at how the Wall Street axis gave us Obama, with all of his Goldman Sacks cronies stuffed into positions of power.

      And let’s not forget the ‘greens,’ I’m also reminded of Al Gore’s horrible hubris in stating that the rule of law could be “used as an instrument of human redemption.”

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  • http://twitter.com/joey89924 joey

    to our advantage, provided we take the right steps.
    AT24C02

  • djpala

    If you admit ‘communism’ is bad then why advance the beatification of Paul VI who advanced his pro-communist agenda at every opportunity ? The priest that investigated ecclesiastical freemasonry his entire life just died on 18 Nov 2012. When the beatification was first presented by John Paul II, the evidence & documentation discovered by that priest quashed it. Now that he has died, the head of the beast is raised again ?

  • Paul

    Just saw this excellent article & it’s music to my ears. If I may add, Socialism as an economic or political system aims to replace a feudal system that it so much deplores but ends up being nothing more than a neo-feudal system in itself. And if history informs us at all, Socialism is ruled by the so-called proletariat class – assuming there’s such an uniformity and consensus on who or what the proletariat class is in the first place ? – who is more than often the most muderous, genocidal bunch of all. One only has to look at the French Revolution, which is taken to be the first Socialist revolution, where in a short period of 2 years thousands died and for what ? Only to see the so-called revolutionaries themselves took their turns being guillotined & later ushered in another tyrant (Napoleon Bonaparte). The history of Socialism is littered with purges, man-made famines (collectivisation) & cultural extermination that have resulted in over 100 million lives lost so far and is still on-going.

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