The Twilight of Socialism

Is the pope a socialist? Which would serve Marxist propaganda better, that he is perceived to be a socialist or that he is perceived not to be a socialist?

If he is perceived to be a socialist, the perception alienates him from capitalists, including those in democratic countries, who argue that only capitalism can create new wealth, and only new wealth can generate solutions to the growing problems of the world poor. To perceive the Pope as socialist might also make him sufficiently anti-Marxist to be credible as a Christian while he seemingly subsumes Marxist doctrine into Christianity. To perceive the Pope as socialist also encourages those who move toward liberation theology as an economic system and stretches too thin for the untutored the line between Marxism and Christianity.

Who is served best by this? There is no clearer way to destroy an organization than to split its defenders from its supporters and its supporters from those who defend it. Marxism in its extreme cannot allow Christianity to exist. Capitalism, in its extreme, can allow it to exist but can equally debase the human person. Socialism, especially in socialist democracies, does not fall as much in the middle as many would have us believe, and has the added hazards of both systems in its potential for stifling human development.

Still, for some time now journalists and others have looked at Laborem Exercens as an encyclical on socialism. When the encyclical was first published, Gregory Baum wrote in The Ecumenist (Vol. 20, No. 1, 1981, p.3):

. . . Catholics who have followed the recent shift to the left in Church teaching and have therefore acquired socialist sympathies are delighted with the encyclical and understand it as a confirmation of the direction in which they have moved.

Baum neglects to distinguish between the serious dialogue of phenomenological philosophy with eastern bloc economics and a criticism of the abuses of capitalism elsewhere in the world. The recommendations for co-determination of labor and capital in Poland are clearly a different case than such a recommendation lifted whole and superimposed on General Motors.

The Pope has said that work is made for man and not man for work, but his perspective is not that of a socialist (or a capitalist or a Marxist) but of a Christian. This is difficult for many to perceive, because his Christian criticism of economic systems might seem to preclude his “approval” of one or another of them. Yet it is not the systems themselves that Christianity can best criticize, it is their abuses. Labor, in any society, must bring about human dignity and may not subsume the worker to the work. Laborem Exercens speaks of the objective and subjective ends of work — the objective ends being the goods and services produced and the subjective ends being the positive movement toward continued creation of the human person through work. In this view, private property is clearly allowed in so far as it does not become destructive, either of the human spirit or of the possibility of others’ continued development and dignity. Public or basic industries in many countries might best be nationalized, yet only in the service of the common good. And the state is to provide stability in economics to allow persons to create their own histories in the process toward their own salvation.

Is this socialism? Kenneth L. Woodward, writing in Newsweek (June 20, 1983, p. 49), seems to think so. “What the Pope seems to be calling for,” he writes, “is a cooperative form of socialism in which workers share in the ownership of productive means while state planners ensure a just distribution of goods and services.” In Poland, yes. In the United States, hardly.

For the Marxist, human work is the primary factor in the creation of history, but it is the creation of history which is the end of work. For the Christian, it is the creation of a personal history which is the most important reason for work. So the criticisms the Pope has and will have of various economic systems are based mainly on those systems’ ability to either increase or decrease the potential of the human as he engages in his lifelong project. Clearly, for the Marxist, the end of the human is his being subsumed into history, for only history, not his personal reality, exists after his death. For the Christian, the end of the human is his ultimate personal salvation in accord with the history he has helped create. Liberation theologians, whose economic system attempts to combine both of these ends, see that the end of the success of the person in history must be immediately attained, and by only one means. They therefore reject the Christian notion of fidelity in favor of success, when necessary.

And who is served by these perceptions? Clearly, the power of propaganda has been much studied by Soviets and others who would find it most helpful if the Church were to either implode under the stress of economic theology or find itself compromised by its seeming approval of one or another specific economic praxis in one or another specific economic system.


When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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