A Catholic Socialism? Part 2

The following was published on 29 September 2016 by “C.W. Strand” as the second essay in a three-part series on the possibility and nature of Catholic socialism. Part I can be found here and Part III here. It has been republished on Tradistae not as a full endorsement of its ideas but to provide an archive of the Tradinista project.

In Part I, we examined the popes’ condemnations of “socialism” in several key encyclicals and saw that they conceive of socialism as marked by some or all of ten different features, none of which in fact need be present under socialism according to our definition. That definition attempted to capture what is common to the various senses of socialism, from that of Proudhon to Lenin, resulting in a formulation inspired by Karl Polanyi: “socialism” refers to a society which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.

The popes, however, offer not merely negative rejections of “socialism,” but also positive articulations of moral principles that should inform a just society; and it might be wondered whether, even if our definition of socialism escapes the popes’ explicit condemnations, it is nevertheless out of tune with the moral principles that they have outlined.

In what follows, therefore, we will list and comment upon eighteen salient principles expressed in various encyclicals – a list by no means exhaustive of all the principles contained in these encyclicals, but merely containing some of those most relevant to the question of socialism. While some of these principles will be obviously compatible with socialism, some may appear less so prima facie; but we will see that even these latter are in fact consistent with socialism, both in its generic definition and in some of its concrete forms.

Socialism and some papal principles

  1. Universal destination of goods. There is a “universal destination” of goods prior to private property (Centesimus annus, ¶6). Since the goods of the earth were given by God to humanity in general, the claims of humanity (and of the common good) can, under certain conditions, override the claims of individual property rights. Of course, a specification of these conditions is a trickier matter, but the general principle holds true, and it is obvious how this principle is maintained under socialism.
  2. Natural, but not absolute, right to property. The right to property, while “natural,” is not absolute (Rerum novarum, ¶15; Centesimus annus, ¶6). Although one may wish to shy away from talk of “natural rights,” socialism is nevertheless consistent with an affirmation of the natural (but not absolute) right to private property. Some socialists, it is true, do indeed deny this principle, but there is no reason why a socialist must of necessity do so. For socialism need not involve the total abolition of private property, but only (i) the abolition of some kinds of private property (e.g. large-scale productive property) or (ii) the abolition of certain uses of some kinds of property – or both. The socialist, then, can be happy to affirm the right to property in the case of non-productive property (toothbrushes, shoes, etc.) and in that of some productive property (e.g. small-scale).
  3. The law should favor maximally-distributed private ownership. “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (Rerum novarum, ¶46). As the context suggests, Leo presumably has in mind productive property here. With this ideal, a socialist need find nothing objectionable; but two points should be noted. First, from the idea that all people should privately own productive property, it does not follow that all productive property should be privately owned. For everyone to have their own small enterprise would be a wonderful thing; but there is nevertheless a need for some kinds of production to be non-privately owned. Second, supposing (probably falsely) that Leo instead means that “all productive property should be privately owned,” everything hinges on how we understand what he means by “possible.” For this principle must be taken in concert with others, such as that “collective goods” should be safeguarded (see [4] below); and it is possible to argue, in this case, that such collective goods can be safeguarded only by means of a certain degree of “socialized” industry.
  4. The state should control some kinds of property. “[C]ertain kinds of property…ought to be reserved to the State” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶114). (The reason, Pius says, is that such kinds of property have a “dominating” power that no individual should possess.) Similarly, there are “goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold,” and it “is the task of the State to provide for the defence and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces…[T]he State and all of society have the duty of defending those collective goods which, among others, constitute the essential framework for the legitimate pursuit of personal goals on the part of each individual” (Centesimus annus, ¶40). This point is strongly affirmed by a socialist. What remains to be determined is the nature of those “common” or “collective” goods that constitute the “essential framework” of a free society – a determination that will largely depend upon our concrete analyses of the nature of capitalism, its logic and tendencies, etc.Such state ownership as exists must be truly “socialized,” as John Paul says, and that occurs “only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else” (Laborem exercens, ¶14). A bloated bureaucracy like the Soviet Union, with the entire economy planned centrally without the input of ordinary workers, is therefore to be rejected. The state must be transparent and accountable to people, who in turn must have a genuine say in how state-owned productive property is used. All of this involves a radical decentralization of power and a form of government quite different from that of the modern nation-state.
  5. The state should safeguard equality in exchange. Another task of the state is “safeguarding the prerequisites of a free economy, which presumes a certain equality between the parties, such that one party would not be so powerful as practically to reduce the other to subservience” (Centesimus annus, ¶15). This principle is quite consonant with socialism; but again, which practical policies follow from it depend largely upon our concrete assessments of capitalism. A socialist might say, for instance, that so long as there is a large class of persons without any means of production and who are therefore economically compelled to sell their labor-power to persons who do own means of production, then there is no “equality” between the parties – so that the way to embody this principle would be to furnish everyone with the basic necessities of life (and, perhaps, access to means of production of their own), thereby eliminating their compulsion to sell their labor-power.
  6. Taxation should not be unfair. Taxation should not be so severe as “to deprive the private owner of more than is fair” (Rerum novarum, ¶47). This is correct, and a socialist can agree. But everything hinges upon how we understand what is “fair.” This requires concrete judgment and depends upon one’s particular view of social reality.
  7. Humans are owed something by virtue of their humanity. “[P]rior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity” (Centesimus annus, ¶34). Here a socialist will agree: certain basic goods (material and non-material) are due to people simply because they are people – not because they are functioning as “productive” members of society. Such basic goods include the ability to contribute to, and participate in, the common good.
  8. Charity is no substitute for justice. “[N]o vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶137). While “charity” is an excellent thing (and commanded by God), it cannot replace justice. Justice is, in fact, more foundational, and one cannot leave to charity what belongs to people by justice. It is evident how this principle coheres with socialism; what is left to be specified is what, precisely, people are due in justice, and how best to enact such justice.
  9. Profit-making can be legitimate. There is a “legitimate role of profit” (Centesimus annus, ¶35) and so profit-making is not intrinsically wicked. Taken abstractly, this principle is true, and a socialist has no need to disagree with it. But the problems with capitalism emerge once we discard this abstract view and look at things more concretely: while fine in themselves, profits become bad (or intimately linked to [moral and non-moral] ills) when they systematically encourage pleonexia or acquisitiveness, turn workers into ever more perfect instruments of capital, are used to exert political domination, justify low wages to workers who are economically compelled to accept them, and so on. When we analyze the ills of profit-making in capitalism, we are viewing profits not in isolation, but rather as they are concretely integrated in a network of vicious activities. Here profit serves not as a mere aspect or result of production, but rather as its guiding aim – an aim that subordinates all else to itself.
  10. Hiring or being hired is not intrinsically unjust. Pius denies that “a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶64). As in the case of profit-making, a socialist can also agree that a contract of hiring is fine, taken abstractly, but that the matter is once again different when we move to a concrete level. For instance, by and large, those hired are productive-property-less workers who often enter into labor contracts under duress – at least because one typically has no genuine “choice” to be a worker and the capitalist system is predicated on there being a mass of such property-less persons. Even if one thinks that there is nothing intrinsically immoral with a contract of hiring under such circumstances (and a socialist need not think so), contracts of hiring are nevertheless causes and effects of – and are closely bound up with – many social evils like those mentioned in the preceding point.Contrast the case of a capitalist hiring a worker with that of someone paying a kid down the street to mow one’s lawn. In the former case, the worker’s livelihood is market-dependent, and this means that he is economically compelled to sell his labor-power, accept low wages, etc.; in the latter case, the kid’s livelihood is not market-dependent (but rather parent-dependent) and his lawn-mowing is motivated simply by the desire to get some money to purchase things that he wants. A “contract of hiring” in this latter case is certainly not unjust; but in the former case it may be, and so long as the system of wage-labor still exists, we agree with Pius that, “so far as is possible, the work-contract [should] be somewhat modified by a partnership-contract” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶65).1 (However, even if we regarded every particular “contract of hiring” under capitalism to be just, a general structural injustice would still remain – the injustice that one must sell one’s labor-power to some capitalist.)
  11. Labor should not and cannot be a commodity. Labor “cannot be bought and sold like a commodity,” writes Pius (Quadragesimo anno, ¶83). A socialist will concur with this, and also with Pius’s suggestion that guilds could be a good way of achieving the aims of this principle. Nevertheless, this principle can be fully embodied only in socialism, since labor is bought and sold like a commodity (even if a “fictitious” one) because workers’ livelihood is market-dependent. If, as under socialism, the state were to provide citizens with the basic goods and services necessary for life, the economic compulsion to sell one’s labor would cease. Insofar as livelihood remains bound to the market, labor will continue to be commodified.
  12. The results of labor belong to the laborer. “[T]he results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor” (Rerum novarum, ¶10). This is a principle that a socialist can likewise affirm, although he might wish to add: “…in proportion to the labor bestowed.” But three points should be made. First, this principle is not absolute, or else taxation would be immoral. Second, Leo does not seem to contemplate that this principle might in fact undercut capitalism, precisely because it is highly dubious that capitalists’ profits are the (proportional) “results of [their] labor”; profits are also very much the consequence of the greater power of capitalists over workers. Third, we must temper our adherence to this principle with what Pius says in a different context: “the Apostle in no wise teaches that labor is the sole title to a living or an income” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶57), and so a socialist society must certainly provide materially for those who are unable to work.
  13. The product cannot be ascribed to labor or capital alone. “Leo XIII… wrote: ‘Neither capital can do without labor, not labor without capital.’ Wherefore it is wholly false to ascribe to property alone or to labor alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶53). Once more, this principle – that “whatever has been produced” should not be ascribed either to labor or to capital alone – is certainly compatible with socialism. A socialist can grant not only that the value of the product is justly (if partly) due to capital, but also that, since the capitalist was in some sense responsible for the product being produced, he may get a share of the profit – enough to live on, but not an exorbitant amount. In any case, this principle primarily concerns capitalism, not socialism – which would in fact abolish capitalists qua capitalists (though not, of course, qua human beings).2
  14. Economic life should not be based on free competition. “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶88). This certainly is consonant with socialism – not merely the second clause, but also the first. For a central socialist criticism of capitalism is that it is founded upon the opposition of classes, and so must be abolished; and by doing away with classes, we do away with the opposition between them.By “classes,” we mean, roughly, non-state groups of persons identified by their roles in how the surplus-labor of society is coercively appropriated and allocated – whether through forms of dependence that are “personal,” as in a slave economy, or through those that are “impersonal,” as in capitalism. Classes in this sense should be abolished. But if we take classes in the sense of mere social strata, then we can agree that these should be harmonized as much as possible, while recognizing that conflict between social strata – based on ethnicity, religion, etc. – will persist. Such conflicts are inevitable in any society (which is part of the reason why law will still have to exist under socialism), but we should nevertheless strive to ameliorate them.
  15. Cooperation should replace class conflict. The “State and every good citizen ought to look to and strive towards this end: that the conflict between the hostile classes be abolished and harmonious cooperation of the Industries and Professions be encouraged and promoted” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶81). Further, the opposition between capitalists and workers must be “abolished and well-ordered members of the social body – Industries and Professions – [must be] constituted in which men may have their place, not according to the position that each has in the labor market but according to the respective social functions which each performs” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶83). Agreeing with this, a socialist would nevertheless make four points.First, that classes should be “harmonized” does not mean that one cannot also seek to do away with them. If we are to follow St. Paul, for instance, masters and slaves should live in harmony, but that does not mean that we cannot or should not seek to abolish slavery. Second, the abolition of “class conflict” will not occur – unless by some miracle – until classes themselves are abolished, which in turn involves abolishing capitalism. Third, this elimination of classes will require the abolition of the state in its current form, which functions de facto (and perhaps de jure) as an instrument of capitalist power. Finally, only under socialism (or at least not under capitalism) would the “place” of each member of the social body be determined not by the market but by “social functions.” Markets may and should certainly exist in a socialist society, but one’s livelihood would no longer be market-dependent.
  16. Subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity states: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its own nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶79). So, Pius concludes, “[t]he supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands” (¶80).Socialists can strongly uphold the principle of subsidiarity, but a few clarifications must be made. First, the principle is not tantamount to “localism is good,” but rather means that, if some lower level can perform some function, then it ought to; and if not, then a higher level may be justified in performing it. Second, Pius seems to assume that it is matters of “lesser importance” that are left to lower levels; more socially-important functions should be carried out by the state. Third, subsidiarity is violated only if the state takes away from individuals a function that they themselves could perform (an interpretation confirmed by Centesimus annus, ¶48). So, if the state were, for instance, to produce food sufficient for all citizens to live on, that would not violate the principle of subsidiarity if the state also allowed individuals to grow their own food; assigning a function to a higher level is condemned only if it involves taking away that function from lower levels.3 In any case, of course, the application of the principle of subsidiarity requires a concrete appraisal of a given social situation – to determine which functions need to be performed, whether a lower level is capable of performing them, whether these functions are of “lesser importance,” and so on.So a socialist, affirming the demands of subsidiarity (and solidarity), can also firmly agree with John Paul when he writes that there ought to be a variety of intermediary associations between the individual and the state: “society, the family, religious groups,” etc., “all of which enjoy their own spheres of autonomy and sovereignty” (Centesimus annus, ¶45). While socialisms of the past have indeed attempted to submerge these associations in the state, there is no reason why socialism as such should do so. Many forms of socialism – like guild socialism or mutualism – leave plenty of room for intermediary associations of this sort.
  17. Creative initiative is good. “Creative human work,” “initiative,” and “entrepreneurial ability” are all good and noble things (Centesimus annus, ¶32). Although recognizing the truth of this point, a socialist would urge that capitalism in fact encourages initiative only for the few people who become productive property owners, consigning the mass of workers to fairly mechanical obedience to bosses. “Private property” or “business” or “the market” may promote individual initiative, but those are not features unique to capitalism, and the capitalist arrangement of private property, business, and the market very often squashes such initiative, creativity, and entrepreneurialism. Socialism could better achieve those ideals, by providing the framework – and the material (and non-material) conditions – for their realization.
  18. Work should be free, personal, and participatory. We should “struggle against an economic system… [which] uphold[s] the absolute predominance of capital, the possession of the means of production and of the land, in contrast to the free and personal nature of human work”; and, in place of such a system, we should establish “a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation” (Centesimus annus, ¶35). A socialist should be in profound agreement here. What a socialist fundamentally objects to is not capital or private ownership of means of production or of land in themselves, but rather the ways in which these are used to dominate and exploit others; he rejects the “predominance” of these things. But, crucially, such a socialist will contend that the predominance of capital and private property cannot be abolished unless capitalism as a system is also abolished. What would be instituted in place of capitalism? “A society of free work, of enterprise and of participation” – recognizing “the free and personal nature of human work” – could sum up socialism nicely.


As an economic system, socialism may be justified on any number of grounds, some consistent and some inconsistent with the Catholic faith. The foregoing considerations have indicated the lines along which socialism could be, at the level of moral principles, harmonious with the faith. We can see, then, that socialism in our generic, Polanyi-inspired definition not only escapes the popes’ condemnations of “socialism,” but also coheres with the positive principles that they articulate in their encyclicals.

Any existing form of socialism, however, will have to give concrete content to that generic definition of socialism. Which parts of the economy will be subject to communal control? How will it be controlled? What mixture of private and non-private property will there be? Questions like these need answering. While we have already sketched out some answers to them in this and the previous essay, what remains is to provide a fuller outline of what a Catholic socialism might look like. This will be our task in Part III.


  1. We also agree with Pius in denying that “labor is worth and must be paid as much as its products are worth” (Quadragesimo anno, ¶68), at the very least because the value of the product is due both to labor and capital – or, in Marxian terms, “living” labor and “dead” labor.
  2. This and the preceding principle are reconcilable because, while the results of labor belong to the laborer, the product is not wholly the result workers’ “living” labor.
  3. In this case, however, the functions are in fact distinct. The state provides food security for its citizenry, while individuals provide food for themselves. These are different functions, although at an abstract level – “providing food” – we may regard them as the same.