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The Church and Socialism: The Fallacy that Will Not Go Away

Another report in the unfolding story of this pontificate:  The redoubtable Daniel Mahoney, who reads and sees everything, brought me the account of Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, who has been serving since 1998, and now under this pope, as the head Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences.   Just last year he told a reporter that, “at this moment, those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”  He focused his praise on the Communist regime for “defending the human person” – this in a regime that has taken compulsory abortion as one of its defining policies.

A former colleague of mine, from a wealthy family in Brazil, used to say that she was a Marxist and a Catholic. I thought that anyone who could say such a thing could not possibly understand either one.  And yet here we are in an age when young people in America have been credulous enough to be drawn to something called “socialism” – and drawn even with the examples still around us, in Cuba and Venezuela, of the impoverishing and lethal effects of these regimes.

Leo XIII and John Paul II put out ample warnings about the moral inversions that may settle in as people talk themselves into a concern for relieving the conditions of the poor. For they often detach themselves from the moral framework that puts in a central place the primacy of the “human person.”

The American Founders never used the word “capitalism.” They spoke rather of the “system of personal liberty,” and the way people made their livings simply provided one notable domain in which personal freedom was exercised, with legal and moral restraints.

John Locke saw the origin of property in the rightful claim that people have to the fruits of that labor they do with their own hands. But that in turn depended on the prior premise that they were the owners of their own hands.  They would not have that claim, say, if their hands were owned by someone else – if they themselves were owned as property, as slaves.

As Lincoln made his case against slavery, he had to make the case anew that people were the owners of themselves and their own labor.  And so, as he argued, a certain black woman may not be his social or intellectual equal, “but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands. . .she is my equal, and the equal of all others.”  Her right to work – and keep what she earns – he treated as a species of natural right.

Leo XIII had put the accent in the same place in Rerum Novarum: “when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own.”  That motive springs from the deepest inclinations of nature to sustain oneself and one’s family; it is a “natural right,” he said, and a critical support to one’s freedom.


The Socialists would transfer property to a collective or the community, and that move would, he said, “strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”  [Italics added.]

Leo XIII saw through the rhetoric that was as common in his day as in ours:  schemes were often offered under the banner of high-flown sentiments, seeking to deliver men from want and solve the problem of distribution; and yet, as he recognized, they work by removing or burdening the freedom of ordinary people to make their livings doing ordinary things.

In our own day, those ordinary things may be: braiding hair, shining shoes, or driving a gypsy cab from the subway to the safety of one’s own door (a fine scheme finally stifled by the unions in New York.)

John Paul II made the telling point that, when the Church talks about the “preferential option for the poor,” it doesn’t reduce the meaning of poverty to poverty in material goods.  The Church encompasses rather a sense of spiritual and moral impoverishment.

When we understand that the question of “the human person” remains the central question, then the foremost question, or the foremost “right,” is the right to life, including, as John Paul II says, “the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception.”

What is the Church’s doctrine, then, on the economy and the “social question”? John Paul II said that it reduces to this:  “[The Church’s] sole purpose has been care and responsibility for man. . . .the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake. . . .We are not dealing here with man in the ‘abstract,’ but with the real, ‘concrete,’ ‘historical’ man.  We are dealing with each individual, since each one is included in the mystery of Redemption. . . .This man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission.” It is “the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.”

“This, and this alone,” he said,  “is the principle which inspires the Church’s social doctrine.”  And that explains, at the root, with sufficient depth and reach, everything that the Church need say about “capitalism” – or anything else.


*Image: View of South Street, from Maiden Lane, New York City by William James Bennett, c. 1827 [The Met [1], New York]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.