The Twilight of Socialism

Everywhere in the world, socialist populations face inefficiencies, shortages, mean salaries, and endless hours waiting in line. Once one of the richest nations of South America, Cuba, e.g., depends every day on enormous Soviet subsidies. Indeed, the most lively experiments within the socialist world — in Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, China, and even the Soviet Union — are experiments in free markets, profits and incentives, and at least thinly disguised forms of private property. Even the great welfare democracies are discovering that too much concentration upon security diminishes the virtues of creativity, invention, and economic dynamism. Under Mitterrand, socialist nostrums have wreaked disaster; and abuses of liberty are multiplied under increasing state controls. The socialist idea, as an idea, is dead. The entire world, suffering under ideology and beginning to note what actually works, is moving away from excessive statism.

Thus, Cardinal Arns said not long ago: “We are against capitalism and for socialism: we believe each farmer should be able to own his own lands and keep his profits for himself.” Call it what you will. Private property and incentives are vindicated everywhere as natural law. This is not the philosophy of laissez-faire, but something quite different: a philosophy of those relatively independent systems, economic, political, and moral-cultural, which together propel human development toward the common good.

In this international context, with Orwellian timing, the Catholic bishops of the U.S. are planning to issue a pastoral letter on the American economic system — apparently in disjunction from the political system and the moral-cultural system — during the election year of 1984. Its partisan echoes, whatever they may be, should be worth a cover each of Time and Newsweek for the leader of the drafting committee, Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Early reports say that the letter is to take as its subject, “Catholic Social Teaching and the American Economic System.” Various scholars have been told the letter will proceed under four headings: economic planning; unemployment; poverty and welfare; and international trade.

I, for one, would be delighted to be able to praise our bishops for moral and religious leadership in this project as in others. But their beginning, once again, is not auspicious. Since only the subject headings of the document are now (and perhaps wrongly) known, and not the substance under each, one cannot be certain. Yet in the subject headings chosen, one sees nothing distinctively moral, religious, or Catholic, on the one hand; and one notes the stark absence of many strikingly important American contributions both to economic life and to social virtue, on the other hand. For example, Pope John Paul II has opposed “creation theology” to “liberation theology” and thus placed a firm foundation under the American ideal of inventive intellect and creative economic imagination. The values involved owe a great deal to a special Jewish-Christian orientation to the world and to specific American proclivities. America has from the first been a project, always incomplete, both religious and practical.

Nations are not alike in virtue. The virtues of the Irish are not those of the Italians, nor those of the Germans those of the Hispanics; those of Africa are not those of China. Virtue is social and cultural as well as individual. Do the American Catholic bishops recognize the distinctive virtues of the people of the United States?

Indeed, a radical thesis must be faced. In the world of fact, the American social system is morally superior to any historical Catholic social system, whether of the Vatican or of any Catholic state. In the world of theory, American social teaching, in all its rich pluralism and radical depth, is both morally superior and far more highly developed than Catholic social teaching. This is not to say that Catholic social teaching has nothing to teach our culture; but it is to say that it has even more to learn from it.

One of the best pieces of work to emanate from the Vatican Peace and Justice Office is Bishop Roger Heckel’s Self-Reliance. Bishop Heckel sees self-reliance as an antidote to dependency, which is so damaging both to individuals and to nations. Great American moralists (one thinks of Jefferson, Emerson and Lincoln among many others) have much to say about this important, but often neglected, Catholic virtue, which is after all one of the keys to personal dignity. Will the U.S. bishops do less well than Heckel? Self-reliance is not a merely Protestant notion.

Catholic social teaching is not finished and perfect. By the clear account of Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, it has been developing gradually and partially since Leo XIII’s Rerum Nouarum in 1891. Its perspective has been changing. Until Paul VI in Octagesima Adueniens (1971), as Father Joseph Gremillion points out, Catholic social through mainly originated from and was focused upon the experience of a quadrant of cultures bounded by “Paris, Brussels, Munich, and Milan.” Under Paul VI, it leapt from that small quadrant to the Third World. Its chief architects have been German: Ketteler, Pesch and Nell¬Bruening. This social teaching has never explicitly considered the economic system of the United States, which is designed to be checked and balanced by an active and vibrant political system and powerful institutions of morals, culture, and ideas. Throughout American history, political and moral-cultural institutions have transformed the economic system, and been transformed by it, too.

Will the U.S. bishops teach the Vatican anything new about political economy? (The very conception “political economy” has barely penetrated Catholic social thought; the conception “social justice” is quite different.) Will they discern some of the flaws in classic Catholic social thought, as these have been revealed in the light of historical experience? Will they express any humility at all about the comparatively dismal economic record of dominantly Catholic countries during the past one hundred years of Catholic social thought? Catholic countries (Ireland, Poland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Latin America) have certainly not led the way in alleviating poverty, solving questions of unemployment, and adding dynamism and liberty to international trade. Must not Catholic social teaching share some little of the blame?

Has Catholic social thought nothing to learn? Has it nothing to learn from the American experience? Does the novus ordo seclorum count for zero, and less than zero, in the universal Catholic patrimony? Have the U.S. bishops no sense whatever of the grand experiment in political economy which has lifted up their own families, and millions of others, from dire poverty in so short a time? Do they see no intellectual substance whatever in the traditions of their own people? This is the great substantive test they will pass or fail.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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