The Virtue of Socialism

The Virtue of Socialism February 12, 2016
Cosmos The In Lost is hosting an insightful guest post on the difference between Democratic Socialism and totalitarian socialism, particularly as it relates to Church teaching. It very clearly lays out the problem with a notion that I see constantly in Catholic right-wing spaces that “socialism has been condemned by the Church” — an argument that is invariably leveled against forms of “socialism” which are neither Marxist, nor atheistic, nor totalitarian and which, far from being at odds with Church teaching, actually have a great deal in common with Her social doctrine. Even very reasonable expositions of the conservative position, as in Father Longenecker’s excellent post on why young people are cheering for socialism, tend to equivocate between forms of communist socialism that have proven disastrous and forms of social welfare that have been effectively enacted in most of the developed world.
There is one point the article addresses that I’d like to expand on: that’s the argument that social welfare programs destroy charity, that there is no virtue in being forced to provide for the needs of others through taxation. This argument is based on an excessively individualistic misapprehension of how civic virtue works.
In Popularum Progressio, Paul VI writes, “Each man must examine his conscience, which sounds a new call in our present times. Is he prepared to support, at his own expense, projects and undertakings designed to help the needy? Is he prepared to pay higher taxes so that public authorities may expand their efforts in the work of development?” Far from seeing a discontinuity between private charity and public works, he demands of Christians *both* the willingness to give voluntarily, *and* the willingness to accept taxation for the sake of the poor. In other words, both individual charity and institutional social justice have a roll to play in the exercise of Christian virtue (a point made not only by Paul VI but also by Benedict XVI, among others.) Just as we are generous in the former, we are called to be cooperative in the latter.
To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”. The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate)
The use of taxes to secure justice for the poor does not deprive people of the opportunity to act virtuously because:
a) deliberately voting for social justice initiatives is an act of civic virtue and an exercise of solidarity and compassion
b) freely providing for the needs of the state, including the public good and the good of the poor, through taxation is an exercise in the virtues of obedience and honesty
c) the acts of a community or polity may be just and virtuous, in which case each individual who willingly participates, without rancor, in the virtuous activity of the state exercises virtue in doing so.
It is also worth pointing out in this connection that providing for the basic needs of the poor — needs including housing, food, and medical care — is not a form of gratuitous charity according to the teaching of the Church:

St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.” “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2446)

Just as the state may rightly regulate and compel justice in other matters, so too is it perfectly in accord with Catholic teaching, and with the “universal destination of goods” (cf. CCC 2402) for the state to regulate social justice through law and taxation.

Photo credit: pixabay

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