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A Rome Charmed with Democratic Socialism?

An odd event is underway in the Vatican yesterday and today – odd even in this odd time for the papacy and Church. The Pontifical Council for the Social Sciences is running a conference [1], celebrating – perhaps – the twenty-fifth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesismus Annus (1991). In that rich text, he reviewed the 100 years (hence the title) since Leo XIII inaugurated “modern” Catholic Social Teaching (CST) with a great encyclical of his own, Rerum Novarum (1891). But JPII not only looked backward; he looked forward, analyzing how – after the fall of Communism – the nations of the world should make proper use of freedom.

You might expect that the Pontifical Council would have invited people in tune with JPII, who had seen Nazism and Communism (and the vices of unfreedom) first-hand. Instead, they’ve organized something quite distressing – and perhaps telling. Our American media are buzzing because presidential candidate and self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders was invited, or in some tellings, invited himself. Either way, there was some door that he opened. (In a charming dust-up, emblematic of much in the Vatican these days, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo and Margaret S. Archer, who head the Pontifical Council, have been disputing one another’s accounts.)

[Morning update: Though spokesmen said it would not happen, Pope Francis met briefly with Sanders – a strange thing to do given that we are in a bitterly contested election season – before flying to the Greek island of Lesbos this morning. They discussed refugees and a “moral economy.”]

But all that’s just for starters. If you wanted to invite political figures, there are people like the electrician, Solidarity leader, and later Polish president Lech Walesa who helped bring down Marxism in the annus mirabilis, 1989. He’s still alive and – I can personally attest – kicking. Many in that generation have gone to their rewards; many others might have been present, living links to a proud tradition.

Instead, the Vatican invited what can only be called ideological cronies – parochial ones at that: Evo Morales, the Bolivian president who gave Pope Francis the crucifix of Christ on a Communist hammer-and-sickle cross; Ecuadorean president Rafael Correa, another “democratic socialist,” like our Senator from Vermont.

And Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute and fervent promoter of population control and abortion.

Some Catholics believe that the closest approximation to CST among modern political parties is democratic socialism. This is a dangerous error. Socialism as such has been the target of CST ever since Leo XIII.

Leo XIII by Franz von Lenbach, 1885 [Frye Art Museum, Seattle]

Most people think the Church opposed socialism because of ties to the ancien régime. In fact, Leo had carefully worked out positions that draw deeply on the natural-law tradition:

There’s more, but you see the general tenor. Socialism and socialists tend to supplant family, property, even spiritual authority by misguided appeals to equality, collectivism, and above all state power.

But what of more recent incarnations of “democratic” socialism? Have they moved beyond those drawbacks? We’d have to see the full program of a specific socialist regime to judge. But generally speaking, socialism still has great, blind faith in the state, which virtually everywhere damages civil society, from the family to economics to religion. We probably don’t much notice this because our own, allegedly non-socialist, democracies are engaged in much the same sort of things.

John Paul II quoted passages like these from Rerum Novarum, and added an insight all his own: “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil.”

Leo and JPII were also critical, though not systemically, of “liberalism” and “capitalism,” particularly if they ignore moral and spiritual values. Some of the academics speaking at this weekend’s conference – Rocco Buttiglione (a close collaborator of Wojtyla’s) and Russell Hittinger in particular – are faithful interpreters of JPII’s vision.

But the world doesn’t much notice academics. It takes cues from leaders and celebrities. The conference program talks a great deal about a “changed world” since 1991, and seems to forget both Catholic tradition and recent history. What many will take away from this event is that American socialists – North and South – have been asked to rethink the Church’s social witness and practical success against an evil system that killed 100 million people, and counting.

And that their vision of politics, economics, as well as environment and development, are the blueprint for the Catholic Church and the world in the twenty-first century.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.