The Twilight of Socialism

Kenneth Woodward titles a recent article on John Paul II in Newsweek (June 20, 1983), “The Vision of a Socialist Pope,” and provocatively contrasts John Paul’s purported socialism with Pius XI’s statement that “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.” In the body of his article, Woodward inadvertently shows how difficult it is to classify this pope’s — or his predecessors’, I would add — social ideas using terminology stemming from the last two centuries of “secular” political discourse. Woodward compounds the problem of classification by his own confused knowledge of the tradition of the social encyclicals. Thus he writes that “the pope advocates a modified socialism” because he holds the following: 1) opposition to unrestrained capitalism 2) advocacy of the rights of workers 3) the virtue of planned economies, and 4) “the priority of labor over capital.” In fact none of these advocacies are foreign to earlier encyclicals, and if being a socialist comes to no more than holding them, then we are virtually all socialists. But then we give the word no more meaning than “democracy,” and indeed Woodward goes on to attribute to the pope “democratic socialism.”

Woodward is not the first to call the pope a socialist. Last year in his commentary on Laborem Exercens, L.E., Gregory Baum in The Priority of Labor devoted a chapter to “Pope John Paul ll’s Socialism.” Indeed, the description of the popes since John XXIII as, politically and economically, men of the left, was not then new: it had been perhaps expressed most strikingly early on by William F. Buckley’s and National Review’s response to Mater et Magistra, namely “Master, si, Magistra, no!” Thus writes of the right and the left have felt that something has changed in the papal social teaching, and that we are no longer living in the age of Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno.

This feeling that something has changed is not without foundation, but we need not simply speculate about the nature of this change. John Paul II, as always, is highly conscious of what is happening, and has specified for us the nature of this change in Laborem Exercens, I, 2, “In the Organic Development of the Church’s Social Action and Teaching” (St. Paul Editions, p. 9):

… if one studies the development of the question of social justice, one cannot fail to note that, whereas during the period between Rerum novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno the Church’s teaching concentrates mainly on the just solution of the “labor question” within individual nations, in the next period the Church’s teaching widens its horizon to take in the whole world. The disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty and the existence of some countries and continents that are developed and of others that are not call for a leveling out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all. This is the direction of John XXIII’s Encyclical Mater et magistra . . . (and of later teaching)

One could hardly put the question more succinctly. In response to the concrete conditions of late nineteenth and early twentieth century society, especially of European society, the social encyclicals had addressed themselves to the problems, above all of workers, caused by the industrial revolution. Now, in response to a widening consciousness of the great variations in wealth and development among all the nations of the world, the encyclicals have shifted their attention to the problem of distributive justice. Whereas there was a great emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity in the older encyclicals, the more recent encyclicals, without abandoning this notion (see L.E. III, 14), have paid greater attention to a more proportionate distribution of wealth. Or again, without abandoning the older insistence on the legitimacy and necessity of private property. the more recent encyclicals explore more fully the notion of the common good in relation to property (see L.E. III, 14 and IV, 10), that is in terms of the social impact of great inequalities of wealth among nations, as well as among individuals. Principles that had always been present, such as the priority of labor over capital, now receive a more profound attention at the hands of John Paul II.

Is this shift sufficient to say that the pope now has become a socialist? There is an obvious sense in which we may say that, in their condemnation of both laissez-faire capitalism and of socialism because each saw man as primarily a material being rather than a union of the spiritual and the material, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century encyclicals advocated one aspect of what was then called liberalism (but see the continuing condemnation of other aspects in L.E. II, 8 and III), namely the notion that men possess rights against the state, and that every society should recognize a proper autonomy for the individuals and institutions which form it. Yet historically liberalism had concentrated its advocacy of these rights more for some classes than others, and socialism extended the logic of liberalism to the insistence on “the right of every man to live a full human life” (Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, New York 1942, p. 65). In this general sense, the recent encyclicals continue the historical task of socialism, although L.E. itself sees the possible “socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production” (III, 14, p. 35) as an application of principles going back to Aquinas.

None of this, however, seems to me sufficient reason for saying that the pope has become a socialist. The reservations of the earlier encyclicals about socialism remain. L.E. speaks of a “gradual solution of the social question” (I, 2, p. 10) and this would presumably be directed against any form of politics which would be principle — as opposed to circumstance — advocate class struggle (see also III, 13 and IV, 20) or revolution. All dominion over the world by man remains under the ordering of God (II, 14 and III, 13), so man is not wholly autonomous, and the end of politics not simply “humanistic” in the sense of the socialist ideal. Although great disparities in wealth are condemned, human work is still “rated and qualified” (II, 6, p. 17), so that the social ideal does not seem to be a pure equality. Still opposed are “the various trends of materialistic and economistic thought” (II, 7, p. 17), which do not value man primarily for his subjective dignity. The family remains the presumed economic unit (II, 8 and 10, and III, 19), and private property a right (III, 14). There can be no “a priori elimination of private ownership of the means of production” (III, 14). Thus, unless we empty the word socialism of most of its historic specificity, which of course those who speak of “socialism with a human face” tend to do, it does not seem very accurate or helpful to speak of the pope as a socialist. To call him a “modified socialist” is no more illuminating than to call him a “modified capitalist.” Such labeling tends to obscure the fact that all our political systems fall very short of embodying those social principles which reason and revelation can establish as best for man. Our task should not be to make the Church the partisan of this or that politics so much as to make our politics more adequately express the social teaching of the Church. Undoubtedly, as always, papal thought is influenced by and directed to the pre-occupations of the times, but its new development are better seen as John Paul II has described them, an extension of the tradition of Rerum Novarum (L.E. I, 2. p. 8):

The present reflections on work are not intended to follow a different line, but rather to be in organic connection with the whole tradition of this teaching and activity.

  • Glenn W. Olsen

    Glenn W. Olsen a Professor of History at the University of Utah, with a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He has contributed numerous articles to many historical journals, including Communio and Logos, and is also the author of the book Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (2001).

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