We Repeat: A Very Short Intro on (Recent) Papal Teaching Concerning Socialism

We Repeat: A Very Short Intro on (Recent) Papal Teaching Concerning Socialism October 17, 2016

​But in the practice of capitalism the Church also rejects self centered individualism and an absolute primacy of the laws of the marketplace over human labor.

Yikes! Not only does the Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguish between forms of socialism, some of which are completely unacceptable, it strikes down capitalism in its essence.

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John Paul II: anti-socialist?

Taking John Paul II as anti-socialist is not a conclusion one should accept without qualification. John Paul II rejected, like his predecessors and successors, communism, or, forms of socialism that are atheistic or totalitarian.

In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II does two things that you would not know if you un-learned Catholic teaching from the American Enterprise Institute:

1) He qualifies his predecessor’s rejection of socialism (paragraph 12), and;

2) He qualifies his rejection of socialism as rejecting “Real socialism” (paragraphs 12, 13, and 35). For example, “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called ‘Real Socialism’ leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.”

John Paul II doesn’t reject socialism outright, in fact, it can be argued that he rejects some socialism in principle. Centesimus Annus builds on and presupposes, instead of correcting, John Paul II’s previous encyclicals (paragraph 10). It would also benefit us to note that Centesimus Annus affirms that a market economy, innovation, entrepreneurship, etc., none of which are exclusive to capitalism. In fact, the capitalism we reject, is rejected by the pope in the encyclical. When people mean to express a market system with appropriate private property, entrepreneurship, etc., but use the word “capitalism”, John Paul II explains that the appropriate term would be market economy, or free economy, or business economy. A system, like capitalism, which rejects the priority of labor over capital, among other things, is rightly rejected (see, for example, paragraph 42).

Laborem Exercens is especially troublesome for the pro-capitalist cause – indeed, some could say that the capitalist cause should have ended with Laborem Exercens (at least to the degree pro-capitalists wanted to be pro-Christian ethic).

It would be easier to provide a short quote from a section of Enrique Dussel’s study Ethics and Community covering Laborem Exercens​:

Surely a central place in the history of the social teaching of the church must be assigned to Laborem Exercens. This encyclical moves to a head-on criticism of capitalism-capitalism in its very essence- and approves of socialism in principle.

Now it is socialism that comes in for particular criticisms and a call for internal reform. The orientation conferred on the social teaching of the church in 1891 has been reversed. If the earlier “key” was private property, now “human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the entire social question” (Laborem Exercens, 3). The basic thesis of the document’s criticism of the essence of capitalism is enunciated in terms of “the principle of the priority of labor over capital ” (ibid., 12):

“This principle directly concerns the process of production: In this process labor is always a primary efficient cause, while capital, the whole collection of means of production, remains a mere instrument or instrumental cause” [ibid.].

“Further consideration of this question should confirm our conviction of the priority of human labor over what in the course of time we have grown accustomed to calling capital” [ibid.].

“We must emphasize and give prominence to human primacy in the production process, the primacy of humankind over things. Everything contained in the concept of capital in the strict sense is only a collection of things” [ibid., 13].

The social teaching of the church no longer held that work can be set in confrontation with capital or detached from it as an independent factor or aspect on the very level of production itself. Rerum Novarum had held: “Neither capital can subsist without labor, nor labor without capital” (no. 14). Now we are taught instead:

“This consistent image, in which the principle of the primacy of person over things is strictly preserved, was broken up in human thought. The break occurred in such a way that labor was separated from capital and set in opposition to it, and capital was set in opposition to labor, as though they were two impersonal forces, two production factors juxtaposed in the same “economistic” perspective” [Laborem Exercens, 13].

All capital is work. The creative source of wealth, of all wealth or value, is work , not capital. On the other hand, as we have seen, John Paul II basically accepts socialism: “In consideration of human labor and of common access to the goods meant for humankind, one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production” (Laborem Exercens, 14). But now there is more: socialism is criticized internally. Instead of being criticized from without, as before, it is corrected from within, as I indicated:

“We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of their work all persons are fully entitled to consider themselves part- owners of the great workbench at which they are working with everyone else” [Laborem Exercens, 14].

“If it is to be rational and fruitful, any socialization of the means of production must …ensure that in this kind of system also persons can preserve their awareness of working ‘for themselves’” [ibid., 15].


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