The Twilight of Socialism

Gregory Baum thinks that Pope John Paul II is a socialist (so, too, does Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek). Baum argues that in Laborem Exercens the Polish Pontiff “permits himself to be impressed by certain Marxist insights,” which he “opens up” and “expands toward new meaning,” thus producing “a social philosophy that transcends Marxism from within” (The Priority of Labor, P.3).

More specifically, Baum claims that John Paul II, by emphasizing in this encyclical both the objective sense of work as a product or human world brought into being by human agency and the subjective sense of work as self- fulfillment, enters into an “intellectual tradition closer to Hegel and Marx than to Aristotle and St. Thomas” (pp. 17¬18) . He further argues that Pope John Paul, by focusing on the centrality of human subjectivity, proposed that morality “be measured by the fidelity to man’s call to be subject” rather than by conformity to a set of principles objectively discernible in human life as a given (ibid.). These specific claims, together with the general thesis that John Paul II is a socialist whose thought, “transcending Marxism from within,” is in a significant way shaped by a creative dialogue with aspects of Marxist philosophy, need to be challenged.

That the Pope should consider the human world brought into existence by human labor as the fruit of man creativity is hardly surprising, and it surely does not introduce us to an intellectual tradition more akin to that of Hegel and Marx than to that of Aquinas. It was, after all, St. Thomas himself, an author much appreciated by John Paul II (explicit reference to several of his writings is provided at four critical passages in Laborem Exercens), who clearly distinguished, remarkably in the very first lectio of his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics(!), four distinct orders with which human intelligence is concerned. One, of course, is the objective order that human intelligence itself does not bring into being but only considers, that is, the order of the natural world created by God. But another is the order that intelligence imposes upon what lies within human power; this is the order of objective culture, which results from human work. Thus the Pope’s stress on this sense of human work seems much more a rich development of an intellectual tradition profoundly Thomistic in its origins than an idea imported into Christian thought only after a creative confrontation with Hegel and Marx.

It is surely true that in Laborem Exercens John Paul II provides probing and challenging analyses of the subjective sense of work, clearly showing the primacy of this side of work, in and through which human persons determine themselves and become, in a sense, more fully human, to its objective aspect. Yet is this powerful teaching, so deeply manifesting the Pope’s concern for the truth and dignity of the human person, a Marxist “insight” that the Pope opens up and expands? The key texts to which John Paul refers in developing this theme are taken from the Scriptures, in particular the Genesis accounts of human origins, and from Gaudium et Spes (see LE, nn. 6, 7, 9, and in particular n. 26, where Gaudium et Spes, n. 35, is cited at length). The Pope’s concern here is with freedom of self- determination and with work as a human act in and through which human persons make or break their lives and give to themselves a moral identity. In developing this theme, both in Laborem Exercens and at much greater length in The Acting Person, Part Two, especially pp. 149-152, John Paul II is basically developing a cardinal truth of Catholic faith, namely, that alone of all material creation human persons have the capacity to give to themselves a definitive identity by choices freely made. What makes a human act human and personal, the Pope teaches with St. Thomas, is that an act freely chosen abides within the person and constitutes his/her self until contradictory sorts of choices are freely made (here compare, for instance, The Acting Person, pp. 149-152 with Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 57, 4, where Aquinas insists that “agere . . . est actus permanens in ipso agente“). The inspiration for John Paul’s thought here, far from being a creative expansion of a Marxist insight, is rather a rich deepening of a central truth of revealed religion and of intelligent inquiry.

Does the Pope propose, as Baum claims, that the moral value of an action be “measured by the fidelity to man’s call to be subject”? It is true that for John Paul II, as for the entire Catholic tradition, there can be no moral value whatever to actions unless they are free. Hence, as Ronald Lawler has noted in a fine study of the Pope’s personalism as set forth particularly in The Acting Person, the ” ‘personalistic value’ precedes by nature the moral value of ethical goodness or badness in the action, and even if an act is not morally good, there is a certain basic value in an act’s being personal and free.” This Catholic idea is central to Laborem Exercens and to the total thought of Pope John Paul II. But one can freely, as a human subject, choose wrongly and can choose one’s own eternal death. For human choice to be morally and ethically good John Paul II, with the whole Catholic tradition, insists, especially in The Acting Person, pp. 158-169 and in Love and Responsibility, pp. 125-139, that it be made in accord with objective norms of morality, norms grounded on a recognition of objective goods truly perfective of human persons. A normless fidelity to a call to be subject, that is, to be self-determining, does not suffice.

Since Baum’s claims that the central themes of Laborem Exercens are a result of a creative expansion of some basic Marxist insights are so specious, what can be said of his contention that John Paul II is basically a socialist? It is true that the Pope recognizes that under certain conditions the socialization of property may be legitimate. Likewise, with the Catholic tradition he insists that the right of private property is a limited right and that resources, both natural and humanly produced and developed, are intended for the use of all human persons. Yet he insists that human persons must, in accord with their dignity, have a sense that in working they are laboring “For Themselves,” in re proprie, (cf. LE, n. 15). The social thought of Laborem Exercens, with its brilliant critique of economisms of all kinds, whether capitalistic or socialistic, is not a socialism “transcending Marxism from within.” Rather it is a carefully thought out expression and deepening of the Catholic tradition in social thought, a tradition grounded firmly on the biblical understanding of human persons and communities.

Readers interested in this topic can profitably compare Baum’s reading of Laborem Exercens with the analyses of John Paul Il’s thought provided by the essays in Catholic Social Thought and the Teaching of John Paul II (Proceedings of the Fifth Convention (1982) of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars), in particular the essay by Ronald Lawler, “Personalism in the Thought of John Paul II,” pp. 2-18 and that by John M. Finnis, “The Fundamental Themes of Laborem Exercens,” pp. 19-31.


  • William E. May

    William E. May is the Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and Senior Fellow at The Culture of Life Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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