What “Deep Christian Convictions” of “Democratic Socialism”?

Voiced by Amazon Polly

I do my best to avoid The New York Times. Truly, I try not to read it. Doing so invariably ruins my day and wastes my time. It not only frustrates me but pains me. On countless thousands of occasions I’ve found myself reading a Times piece that leaves me barking at the page about something utterly crucial that was magically excluded from the piece in order to advance whatever flawed thesis was being forwarded in the name of some left-wing position. It’s maddening.

This happened again when a friend this week sent me a widely circulated op-ed piece from last weekend’s Times, titled, “Can We Please Relax About ‘Socialism?’” It was written by David Bentley Hart, who—and this particularly caught my eye and prompted me to write here—is a scholar of religion and (according to the tagline) “an affiliated scholar of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.”

Ironically, I just spoke at Notre Dame, where I lectured on the differences and confusion regarding what is “socialism,” what is “democratic socialism,” what is communism, Marxism, etc. Above all, I laid out what the Catholic Church has said about these things. Drawing the necessary distinctions is never easy, as they are constantly blurred by the very people advancing the terms and telling us that those who are concerned about socialism and communism are the big problem. Socialism and communism aren’t the problem, you see—it’s the anti-socialists and anti-communists who are the menace.

Dr. Hart, in his defense, was raised under what he refers to as a “British variant” of socialism, which he defines as “exemplified by F.D. Maurice, John Ruskin, William Morris, R.H. Tawney and many other luminaries (including, in his judiciously remote way, C.S. Lewis).”

I would unequivocally object to putting Lewis in any such category. (Lewis was a critic of progressivism, let alone socialism and Marxism.) As for British “socialism,” well, which variant—and how far back? How about the Fabian Society type, the H.G. Wells variant, the George Bernard Shaw slop, or the Labour Party’s 1918 Clause IV-style that called for “common ownership of the means of production,” which Tony Blair repudiated in 1995? What about the disastrous Attlee administration that nationalized everything under the English skyline between 1945-51 (much of which Margaret Thatcher mercifully de-nationalized)? Even today’s Labour Party, long the home to presumably the type of “socialism” that Dr. Hart approves (incidentally, what kind of “socialist” is Jeremy Corbyn?), will not dare re-do what Clement Attlee did. Maybe Dr. Hart sees Britain’s NHS as constituting the best of British “socialism,” but it would be simplistic to say that that makes Britain “socialist.” Certainly, when Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky wrote of socialism and democracy (Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin were initially members of the Social Democratic Party of Russia before the party split between Bolsheviks and Menshaviks in 1903), they would not have considered contemporary Britain socialist.

And so, what is socialism? What is democratic socialism? Ask 10 self-described socialists or democratic socialists and you’ll get 10 different definitions, few of them grounded in a firm historical understanding of the term. What we tend to get from people on the left is ridicule of conservatives who legitimately fear what the left wants to do when it prattles on about the glories of “socialism” and “democratic socialism,” and how we should all take a deep breath and sit back and enjoy the vast fruits of what would await us if we would simply submit to taking the road to state utopia. Google the phrase “21st century socialism.” That’s what Hugo Chavez championed in Venezuela, and I could show you article after article from left-wing sources (People’s World especially) on how this was touted just a decade ago as the great new “democratic socialist” thing.

In that sense, none of what Dr. Hart wrote—in a snooty way that made fun of everything from Fox News and Ben Stein to conservatives understandably troubled by the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—surprised me. (What’s troubling about Ocasio-Cortez is less her personality than what she represents: the sudden shocking support for a failed ideology now being blithely embraced by millions of millennials oblivious to its history.)

But what really got me about Hart’s piece, particularly given his affiliation with Notre Dame, was this passage:

Democratic socialism is, briefly put, a noble tradition of civic conscientiousness that was historically—to a far greater degree than either its champions or detractors today often care to acknowledge—grounded in deep Christian convictions. I, for instance, am a proud son of the European Christian socialist tradition, especially in its rich British variant … but also in its continental expressions (see, for example, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, with its prescient warnings against the dangers of unfettered capitalism).

This demands a response—not the “British variant” part but the assertion that “democratic socialism” is “grounded in deep Christian convictions” and that “the European Christian socialist tradition” has “continental expressions” in the likes of “Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.” (The original piece by Hart had apparently attributed Quadragesimo Anno to Pius IX, as noted by a correction at the end of the Times piece: “An earlier version of this article misidentified the author of Quadragesimo Anno. It was Pope Pius XI, not Pope Pius IX.”)

Hart adds, in that same vein:

Well—only in America, as they say. Only here is the word “socialism” freighted with so much perceived menace. I take this to be a symptom of our unique national genius for stupidity. In every other free society with a functioning market economy, socialism is an ordinary, rather general term for sane and compassionate governance of the public purse for the purpose of promoting general welfare and a more widespread share in national prosperity.

First off, that’s not actually socialism, traditionally understood or defined—i.e., market economies by definition are not socialist systems. This is a highly elastic and misapplied definition of socialism. So why call it “socialism”?

Getting Quadragesimo Anno Completely Wrong
But that aside, let’s focus on Hart’s other key claims: Only in America? Well, what about in Rome? What about at the Vatican? And indeed, what about Pope Pius XI and Quadragesimo Anno, not to mention numerous Church encyclicals dating back to Pius IX’s Qui Pluribus, published in 1846, two years before the Communist Manifesto? What about even modern (perceived) liberal popes, like John XXIII?

Let’s leave aside communism and stick to “socialism.” The Church perceived socialism, too, as a menace. I could go on and on with examples, but here are just a few that stand out—again the kind of stuff that The New York Times has a maddening habit of leaving out of its left-wing op-ed pieces:

Section 120 of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno states bluntly: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

This is stated quite clearly. Imagine then—truly, imagine the amazing affront—of a New York Times piece citing Quadragesimo Anno in defense of “democratic socialism” being “grounded in deep Christian convictions” and of a “European Christian socialist tradition” with “continental expressions” in the likes of “Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.” Could there be a more inappropriate source to have cited for that assertion?

Sure, Dr. Hart also cites Quadragesimo Anno for “its prescient warnings against the dangers of unfettered capitalism.” Fine, no problem there, but Quadragesimo Anno is completely against socialism. In fact, there are some 50 references to “socialism” or “socialist” in Quadragesimo Anno, and they’re pretty damning.

Quadragesimo Anno stated that the “characteristic of socialism,” including a more modern form that had developed since the time of Leo XIII, was “fundamentally contrary to Christian truth” (section 111).

Section 55 of Quadragesimo Anno spoke of “the Socialists who hold that whatever serves to produce goods ought to be transferred to the State, or, as they say ‘socialized,’ is consequently all the more dangerous and the more apt to deceive the unwary. It is an alluring poison which many have eagerly drunk whom open Socialism had not been able to deceive.”

The encyclical gives careful thought to this. Sections 113 to 124 of Quadragesimo Anno constitute an extended discussion of the “more moderate” form of socialism that some more recent “socialists” had sought to develop as distinct from communism. Some of these socialists, states the encyclical, might even try to “incline toward” or “approach the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred.” Nonetheless, the Magisterium here recommends that if one is seeking “demands and desire” consistent with Christian truth, these are not unique or “special to Socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become socialists.” It advises: “Those who want to be apostles among socialists ought to profess Christian truth whole and entire, openly and sincerely, and not connive at error in any way. If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity” (sections 115-116).

This is a clear rejection of socialism, whether “moderate” or “modified,” and certainly of any conception of “Christian socialism.” Socialism, asserts Quadragesimo Anno, cannot be reconciled with Catholic teachings because its concept of society itself is “utterly foreign” to Christian truth.

I could cite example after example from official Church teaching, long before and after Quadragesimo Anno.

A Consistent Anti-Socialist Tradition
In his 1849 encyclical, Nostis Et Nobiscum, Pius IX calls both socialism and communism “wicked theories,” “perverted theories,” “perverted teachings,” and “pernicious fictions.” They are linked together throughout the encyclical.

Pope Leo XIII, in his second encyclical, Quod Apostolici Muneris (On Socialism), issued December 28, 1878, lumps socialists and communists together as part of a “wicked confederacy.” He writes: “We speak of that sect of men who, under various and almost barbarous names, are called socialists, communists, or nihilists, and who, spread over all the world, and bound together by a wicked confederacy, no longer seek the shelter of secret meetings, but, openly and boldly marching forth in the light of day, strive to bring what they have long been planning—the overthrow of all civil society.” He says, “They leave nothing untouched.” Not only do they attack the right of property, but they “debase the natural union of man and woman, held sacred even among barbarous peoples; and its bond, by which the family is chiefly held together…. Doctrines of socialism strive almost completely to dissolve this union.”

Quod Apostolici Muneris speaks of the “pest of socialism,” the “plague of socialism,” and the “evil growth of socialism,” warns of the “recruits of socialism,” and accuses socialists of “stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary.” These socialists “distort it [the Gospel] so as to suit their own purposes.”

So much, again, for “Christian socialism.”

In 1891, Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, which was the basis for Quadragesimo Anno 40 years later. This classic encyclical is a favorite of liberal Catholics, who seem to forget its staunch rejection of socialism. The encyclical chastises socialists for cultivating the “poor man’s envy of the rich” and depriving the worker of his just wages through redistribution schemes that violate the right to private property. These policies empower the state at the expense of the wage-earner who ultimately suffers from the loss of his financial autonomy (sections 4-5).

Rerum Novarum notes that socialists “strive against nature in vain.” They even undermine the family and the home: “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” (section 14). Rerum Novarum adds: “Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal” (section 15).

Even more liberal modern popes, like St. Pope John XXIII, states in Mater et Magistra: “No Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism.” That passage actually quotes Pius XI: “Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority.”

I could go on and on with such citations. Clearly, the teachings of the Church reject the notions of a moderate socialism that’s allegedly infused with or grounded in the Christian faith. The article by Dr. Hart not only leaves all of this absent but suggests something fully to the contrary, particularly by invoking Pius XI and Quadragesimo Anno. And again, his affiliation is with Notre Dame, which concerns me about the situation at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame recently lost a well-known professor, Joseph Buttigieg, father of Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Joseph Buttigieg was an expert in “critical theory” and was no less than president of the International Gramsci Society. Yes, the society is named for the infamous Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, not only accepted this but hailed Buttigieg as a profound scholar. In fact, Buttigieg ran the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program at Notre Dame. Pius XI would roll over in his grave if he knew that the head of the International Gramsci Society was a tenured professor at a college named for Our Lady.

In sum, I intend no ill will to Dr. Hart. But it’s troubling to see assertions like this in major op-ed pieces that receive a lot of attention and have a significant impact. To see socialism described not only cavalierly, benignly, but even as a product of deep Christian conviction, and in the name of encyclicals like Quadragesimo Anno, simply should not stand without rebuttal. People are being terribly misinformed. We fail repeatedly to teach the truth about not only communism but socialism.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) listens during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on April 10, 2019, in Washington, D.C. Seven CEOs of the country’s largest banks were called to testify a decade after the global financial crisis. (Photo credit: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.