I hear a good number of emotional outbursts about Obamacare saying that it is socialist. Maybe maybe not. The simplest definition of socialism is that it is the economic philosophy which advocates government ownership and control of goods and services. There are lots of variations on the theme, but let’s stick to that one for a simple definition, and add to it the underlying assumption that the government ownership would, necessarily include, an element of coercion. I don’t think Obamacare plans to nationalize all hospitals and health services, so in that respect it’s not strictly socialist. However, as it seeks to control the services offered and dominate the control of the finances for those services and mandate what services have to be provided it sure is ‘socialist’ and I’m as worried as my friends are about it.
Let’s say it is socialist then. The question still remains whether that is morally acceptable. A person may not like a particular economic or political solution–they may hate it with a passion–they may hate it with a passion for a good reason, but it might still be permissible. Is it possible to be a Christian socialist?
“Christian socialism” was most strongly promoted in Victorian Britain. The Christian socialists took as their starting point the necessity of caring for the poor and destitute. With a strong reaction against the blatant greed, oppression of the poor and exploitation of workers of many Victorian capitalists, the Christian socialist movement thought that the government should enact legislation in the defense of the poor, to provide for the poor through taxation and regulation of capitalism. More than that, some Christian socialists advocated an overhaul of the capitalist system they saw as intrinsically evil because it was rooted in greed and motivated by avarice. So an Episcopal bishop. Franklin Spencer Spalding, in 1914 wrote,
“The Christian Church exists for the sole purpose of saving the human race. So far she has failed, but I think that Socialism shows her how she may succeed. It insists that men cannot be made right until the material conditions be made right. Although man cannot live by bread alone, he must have bread. Therefore the Church must destroy a system of society which inevitably creates and perpetuates unequal and unfair conditions of life. These unequal and unfair conditions have been created by competition. Therefore competition must cease and cooperation take its place.”
However, thirty six years earlier Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris strongly criticized socialism, and it was denounced again in Quadreagesimo Anno in 1931. So Pope Pius XI wrote, “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist”. The reason socialism is inconsistent with Catholicism is specified in Rerum Novarum–the groundbreaking Catholic social teaching of 1891. This encyclical points out that the main tenet of socialism–community of goods–is faulty.
“Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonwealth. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”
It seems easy to jump on a Christian Socialist bandwagon out of compassion for the poor and anger at the injustice often seen in unrestrained capitalism. But this is to jump out of the frying pan into the fire. Taking away private property is a simple attack on one of the most basic human rights–the right to private property. Taking away private property invariably creates poverty–it does not alleviate poverty. This is because those who take from the rich not only do so by force, but they usually end up keeping most of it for themselves. Furthermore, when the right to private property is removed it also removes the one way the poor might claw their way up out of poverty–by acquiring private property and being good stewards of it.
Furthermore socialism is, at heart, a materialist solution to social inequality and financial deprivation. It assumes that poverty is cured by giving the poor more material benefits. While material needs should not be neglected, the Christian must remember that a merely materialist solution will be inadequate. Socialism, therefore undermines the dignity of man by depriving them of the basic right of private property and it lulls people into the illusion that their own private and public problems can be solved by a re-distribution of wealth. This utopianism then inevitably leads to a repressive, ideologically led materialist regime which further curtails individual freedom and responsibility.
Lest the capitalists march off in triumph, Rerum Novarum also criticized unrestrained capitalism. Read more.