My readership and the traditionalists in my parish exploded at the recent Catholic Herald article, titled “The Catholic turn to socialism is something to celebrate.” I am surrounded by socialists at work and have a lot of time for those with their hearts in the right place, especially regarding social justice. That said, I thought I would give Jose Mena, the “young Catholic socialist” who is mainly known on Twitter, a fair hearing and a brotherly critique.
My political views have been described as a sort of medieval libertarianism, so I was delighted when I could say that I was of one mind with the Christ-like sentiment of Mena’s article. In fact, I was more annoyed by what the article didn’t mention. The problem Mena and most so-called Catholic socialists have is equating the centralized socialist state with the decentralized politics of Catholic social teaching. The Church is as much opposed to centralized political power as it is to monopolized economic power since both corrupt.
It was telling, therefore, that no mention was made of subsidiarity. Surely, Catholics cannot even begin to address economic issues without this crucial doctrine—it’s one of Pope John Paul II’s three cornerstones of Catholic social teaching, and socialism is not compatible with it. The Catechism defines the principle of subsidiarity thus: “neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.” Subsidiarist Switzerland and Liechtenstein, with their decentralized jurisdictions and opportunities for secession, are much more in-line with Catholic social teaching than, say, socialist Venezuela. It appears that this crucial distinction was lost on Mena.
The Catholic view of property rights can be seen as a perfected classical view of rights. Cicero uses the great example of a theatre: the whole is common property, but a particular seat is different—only realistically controllable by one person at any one time. One may be entitled to it, that is, apportioned a seat from out of the common property, otherwise no one could enjoy the show. The Church’s understanding is that we are all one body in Christ using all God-given things, including our own bodies, for the common good. This is done out of love, as one organism, the liturgy and power of the Eucharist binding us in an infinitely more powerful way than the body politic of the ancient Greek polis.
Mena is right that the Church’s position on the sacredness of private property must be viewed through this broader context of Catholic social teaching. Property rights were broadly understood by the pre-Scholastic Church as the right thing to do with property—those things in our orbit of control. Roman law had very little to say regarding natural rights in property, outside of any community or group, except animals one had caught in the wild or treasure troves, discovered. Contractarian property rights in all things are a much more modern and, indeed, modernist affair, in which title is secured by the Leviathan state, regardless of whether one uses their property for the common good or not.
According to Church teaching, private property and the negative right to be left alone to its peaceful and rightful enjoyment is sacred, yes, but so is the positive command to use that acquired property for the glory of God’s name and the good of all his holy Church. Christian charity, unlike coercive socialism, is a voluntary matter of conscience. Nevertheless, we should render to God what is God’s, knowing that even we belong to God (1 Cor. 6:19). We are all living on borrowed time, as it were.
From a Catholic perspective, Mena is right to question “the liberal, capitalist view of private property” as part of a larger, dehumanizing, globalist, liberal order, which
holds that all rights are absolute, and can be exercised independently of whether the action chosen is good or evil. Just as the right to free speech protects the most wicked blasphemies against Our Lady and the Holy Trinity, the right to private property is taken to protect any use of that property, independently of whether it serves the common good.
But the elephant-sized question in the room remains: why does Mena insist on calling this socialism? Socialism is a specifically modern political ideology which has been explicitly condemned by the Church. Pope John XXIII writes, in Mater et Magistra, that “no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism.” Even if Mena is referring to Catholic social teaching and wants to baptize the term, this is far from clear; he makes no contradistinction but, instead, writes,
Pope St Paul VI teaches of the positive role of public authority in expropriating “private” property where it is injurious to the common good; Pope St John XXIII teaches that the rights of man include the basic necessities of life—medical care, food and shelter, rest—independent of anyone’s ability to secure these through labor. Is this not socialism?
No. No, it’s not. Just as Mena accuses the more libertarian Catholics among us of “a lamentable tendency to read some magisterial defenses of the right to private property in an absolutist direction,” so, too, he is lamentably confusing Church teaching on a Christian use of authority, as part of the Church, with the modern centralized state, socialist or otherwise. For this reason, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, in which he states:
For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist.
I began by echoing Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on subsidiarity as vital to the common good. In light of this, consider the Church’s intervention in conflicts between the supposed authority of the modern state and that of the family, particularly since the twentieth century. Again, Pope Leo XIII puts it, in Rerum Novarum, “The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.” Here, we see the utmost significance of the cornerstone of subsidiarity, as well as the dangers of neglecting it: Catholics are called to the empowerment, through personal responsibility, of the individual, the family, the neighborhood, and the village, and thus the rejection of a centralized state qua middleman to all our interactions. Consider also the extent to which the charitable and institutional role of the Church has been usurped by the socialistic nanny state policy; do so-called Catholic socialists, like Mena, really suppose we are called to encourage the state’s growth and the Church’s diminution as instruments of social justice?
In short, the reason socialism isn’t Catholic is because it is part and parcel of the modernist heresy, which posits a modern administrative state apparatus to do a top-down, secularist job of social justice. We need to be proactively living out genuine social justice and encouraging it in the world, from our hearts and our homes outwards—a bottom-up process, in competition with the state, in spite of its constant temptations to relinquish our social responsibilities over to it. This is how we build up the body of Christ—as members of it—to make a more perfect world.
So, the question I pose to Mena and to you is: Who ultimately decides what the common good is? God or the modern state?