The Twilight of Socialism

Msgr. Francis J. Haas, the second of two prominent Right Reverend New Dealers during the presidency of FDR (John A. Ryan was No. 1), once told his Catholic University graduate students that the word “socialism” might well have been taken over by the Catholic Church to describe its political philosophy had the term not been preempted earlier by economic theorists with a statist and/or anti-religious bent. All that Haas meant was that Catholic social thought was truly “social”, not an uncritical supporter of the “liberal” and “capitalist” society to come out of the 19th century industrial revolution. It was this understanding that impelled most Catholic populists in the U.S. to become ardent supporters of the New Deal. For them, as for the Church, government intervention in economic affairs not only was ethically licit but was at times a moral necessity. In spite of this, however, more than a few prominent Catholics looked upon even FDR’s modest reform efforts as socialist or at least as tending to a welfare-statism.

So, when anyone tries to pigeonhole the Church (or a Pope) into a political category, he must first define his terms.

Catholic social doctrine deals with the complexities of institutional arrangements of society and its absolutes on these matters are few (e.g. “Thou shalt not take innocent human life”). Christian citizens have ample room within their faith and particular culture to determine how best to promote their society’s temporal welfare. As long as a Church member embraces neither the ideology of Marxism nor laissez-faire capitalism, he is free Qua Catholic to claim any pope as his own in constructing his preferred social order of peace and justice.

Spokesmen and women of the Church today, some in the hierarchy itself, may well be misleading the likes of a Ken Woodward to think the present Pope is leading the Church toward Socialism of one kind or another. Strange things are happening:

1. Many Catholic opinion-moulders today tend to baptize the secular social agenda with a Christian name, simply because it is offered as humanistic and practical. As any Christian knows, God-given moral norms are not so obviously humanistic or practical. Nor does the Church endorse all that a modern state could or would do on behalf of people’s proclaimed temporal needs.

2. Latter-day priests and religious are interfering in the political process as partisans of so-called “liberal” and “left” (in some countries, Marxist) causes. Not only does this com-promise their role as gospel teachers and/or sacramental instruments of salvation to all the people, but it disenfranchises the Catholic laity of their well-defined voice in determining how Catholic social doctrine can best be implemented, i.e. presuming they ever really learned it from the priest/religious social activists.

3. The present danger for the Church is an old one — to take the side in a worldly battle of a prospective winner just as the tide of battle has begun to go the other way. Stated differently: the Church sometimes adopts as its own a social science idea or program (on sex, catechetics, economics) because it seems to have popular support only to find out too late that insiders have lost confidence in the ability of that concept to make men better or happier. Socialism in any of its varieties (including Marxism) has always had a good press and still appeals as a panacea for poverty to certain intellectuals. Yet its practitioners (to be distinguished from theorists) never seem to produce the results they promised. Even so, the temptation that way is there for Catholics whose social gospel comes from Hans Kung or Gregory Baum or teachers of “the now generation”.

The Church has a lot of experience with all forms of social panaceas and isms. Popes will never oppose socialism as popularly defined, nor approve capitalism as preached by the National Association of Manufacturers. If, once upon a time, the Church was more vocal against ideological socialism, it was its anti-family, anti-private ownership, anti- religious biases which made that so. Today your secular capitalist state is just as likely to oppose the Church’s fundamental human value system and its other-worldly concerns.

What the Church does want from its leadership is balanced social doctrine taught to the faithful, the faithful reminded that their rights must be exercised in an ethically justifiable manner, clear understanding that certain political courses are impermissible regardless of the secular experience or the popular will, that personal virtue, above all other considerations, is the foundation of a sound social system, that we have here no abiding city to satisfy everyone, and that no single political system (or claque) represents the Kingdom of God or the Church.

Pope John Paul II is really indifferent to forms of government as such, although he is well aware that priests today are tying the Church into revolutionary causes as once their political-minded predecessors brought disarray to the Church by identifying her fate with that of Bourbon Kings, Land Barons, and Petty Dictators. It is an old temptation which the present pope is trying his best to get priests to resist.


A native of New York City, George A. Kelly (1916-2004) was ordained for that Archdiocese in 1942. After receiving a Ph.D. from Catholic University, he worked in parish life, administration, and academia in New York. He was one of the founders of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and author of many books, including The Battle for the American Church (1979). In the 1980s, Msgr. Kelly was at St. John's University in New York City.

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