What’s Wrong with Socialism? (Part One)

What’s Wrong with Socialism? (Part One) July 20, 2018

“Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” (Quadragesimo anno, §120) [1]

These words of Pope Pius XI seem plain enough, and one might think that the subject is now closed. But today we see many Catholics calling themselves “socialists.” Are these people just “cafeteria Catholics”?

Before we rush to judgment, we should consider that Quadragesimo anno was written in 1931, and while truth doesn’t change with the times, the meanings of words do change. In the days of Pius XI, “socialism” had a specific meaning. Nowadays, it is difficult to discern one. Bernie Sanders ran in the 2016 primaries calling himself a “democratic socialist,” but there really isn’t much, if any, difference between his views and those of any New Deal Democrat. The appellation is catching on, however. As Harold Meyerson writes in the Los Angeles Times,

“American socialism is having one hot summer. In New York, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, running as a Democratic Socialist, upset Rep. Joe Crowley, favored to succeed Rep. Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, in the Democratic primary. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, running in the September primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has proclaimed herself a Democratic Socialist too.

“Its numbers surging in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory, the Democratic Socialists of America now claims 45,000 members. That’s a nine-fold increase over the 5,000 members…it had before Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders began his presidential run in 2015.” [2]

Catholics may wonder if it is consistent with their faith to get on board with this. In search of the answer some might feel inclined to ask self-designated socialists what they mean by the term. Yet those who decide to educate themselves in this manner might only add to their confusion when they find that they gets a variety of answers from different people, which are sometimes not consistent with one another. Often one group of people calling themselves “socialists” will denigrate the socialist bona fides of other “socialists,” who, presumably, return the sentiment.

It seems that we have come upon days where “socialism” can mean any number of things. We can no longer be satisfied when people call themselves socialists. We have to ask them what the word means to them before we can make any assessments.

Webster’s online dictionary defines “socialism” this way:

“1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental  ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods

“2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property

b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

“3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done” [3]

That is how “socialism” was classically defined. It involved abolition of private property in the means of production, what distributists call “productive property.” But those calling themselves “democratic socialists” nowadays would deny that they have any such intention, but instead are in favor of “a form of government in which state regulation (without state ownership) would ensure economic growth and a fair distribution of income.” [4] There are other “socialists” who favor worker-owned enterprises, which is nearly the opposite of classic socialism.

It appears then, that if we’re interested in determining what the Church has to say about the socialist phenomenon in the United States, we will have to deal with individual proposals rather than political labels. That means that we will have to explore exactly what the popes were condemning when they condemned socialism. This your humble servant will endeavor to do in a series of posts, of which this will serve as the first installment.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ancalagon

    I remember when the likes of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh were (rightly) criticized for calling anyone who advocated for expanded entitlement programs and more regulation “socialist.” Well, it seems they might have been prophetic in their errors.

    For another layer of irony, these new “socialists” seem to be pushing policies that the socialists of yesteryear decried as stymieing true socialism. Wasn’t that the basis of Dorothy Day’s criticism of the welfare state?

  • onlein

    What Jesus called for was essentially socialism, meeting needs before all wants are satisfied, even selling your home to do so. Pooling money and goods to accomplish this. Accumulating individual wealth was frowned upon; greed was seen as the root of all evil. How else to redistribute wealth without some political organization in a community of over 300 million people?

  • He called for it out of the freedom of one’s heart – charity. A social system that compells people to pay is not what Christ called for. If you can’t see the difference, then what can I say, you’re an ideologue.

  • onlein

    People vote for socialism. It is not imposed on them. If it’s in your heart, it is not imposed on you. A government following Jesus’ call is following Jesus’ way. How else Jesus’ way in a land or 300,000 million people? If I vote for socialism it is from the freedom of my heart–charity. what is wrong with charity? Jesus was for a social system not based on greed and selfishness but love and compassion. Was he an ideologue?

  • I don’t vote socialism. It’s imposed on me! And forcing people through taxation is not love. It doesn’t come out of the heart.

  • onlein

    I didn’t vote for Trump but he is our president. That’s democracy. It can veer in various directions depending on who wins elections. And who wins can do some imposing, as Trump is doing daily. My point is that socialism has become a dirty word. And it can be used as an excuse for not following Jesus’ way of helping the poor and not judging them, putting others’ needs before our wants.

  • You just don’t get it. I pay my taxes but it is not charity or even out of the heart. That is not what Jesus wants. He wants the human heart changed, and it doesn’t get changed through compelled taxation. He praises the old widow (Mark chapter 12) because she gave from her heart. She wasn’t compelled to give.

  • onlein

    Things seem to be going your way–lower taxes and more needy people and unborn without adequate nourishment. I hope you tax haters are able to feed all these people and their unborn when programs are slashed even more. How can we possibly feed all the hungry without some central organization? Currently 95% of food for the needy comes from government programs. Is it better to cut these programs and let them starve–including the unborn?
    It is possible to give from charity through taxation when we realize that our individual efforts leave many without. We aren’t all saints. We need to fill the gaps. I’ve seen signs in some Minneapolis neighborhoods: “Raise taxes. Help our schools.”