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Through an even darker glass: On knocking the popes for socialism....

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 07, 2015

If I have to read one more email explaining that modern popes have failed the Church by preaching socialism instead of the Gospel, I will not be held responsible for my reply. This complaint surfaces from time to time in orthodox Catholic circles for the simple reason that most politically conservative Catholics are orthodox. Such persons sometimes react as if political and economic conservatism is a Divine standard for judging Catholicism. But the reality is just the opposite.

One also tires of the protestations of the ignorant. The word “socialism” has a clear and specific meaning. It refers to a system in which all things are held in common. In practice, this always means that the State owns all the means of production and private property is denied. The supposed goal is to cause all human rivalries and differences (and classes) to disappear, after which the State will wither away, and the result will be an earthly utopia. In the socialist mind, religion only impedes this progress.

The Church has condemned socialism because at its root it denies the very nature of the human person, for whom private ownership and economic activity are an expression of the personality, an incentive in pursuing the proper ends of human life, and a means of participating in God’s work of creation. Every pope from Pius IX through Benedict XVI has repeated this condemnation. Pius XI put it very succinctly in 1931, when he wrote in Quadragesimo anno that socialism

is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist. [#20]

But to advocate certain political restrictions on otherwise privately held property and businesses is not socialism. No society has ever existed which has not had some such restrictions. These policies and laws (a) are to be aimed at the common good; (b) must be determined within moral limits by prudence; (c) can vary legitimately with time, place and culture; and (d) in their specifics are always debatable.

So no pope has ever even come remotely close to advocating socialism.

The Myth of Private Morality

Unfortunately, some Catholics denounce any interest in Catholic social teaching as betraying a mindset of socialism. They argue that the Church must concern herself not with the common good but with private morality. Let her teach the truths of the Faith and the requirements of the commandments as they affect our personal decisions about right and wrong. Let her “get back” to preaching the Gospel.

Now everybody knows that some of this arises in reaction to philosophical and social liberalism. The “liberal” mind tends to see everything in terms of social adjustments, with little regard for what we might call “personal morality”. The liberal mind is therefore preoccupied with politics. It has a penchant for using the power of the State to ensure salutary social conditions, as if these are in the power of the State to bestow, and do not depend greatly on the habits of personal virtue which are necessary for a healthy culture. In short, any committed Catholic or sincere conservative has, over the past fifty years, grown tired of this constant emphasis on worldly “conditions” coupled with a near total refusal to examine the question of personal sin.

For the liberal, it is almost as though, if society can be properly orchestrated, then personal growth in virtue will require no particular attention. Unfortunately, this same blindness can affect the “conservative” from the opposite direction—as if what is social will automatically sort itself out properly if we will only be privately virtuous. Thus liberals will often speak as if only the Church’s social teaching matters, and conservatives as if the Church’s social teaching is both unnecessary and a distraction from the true requirements of a moral life.

The Social Dimension of Life

To the contrary, each person is at once a single being in relationship with God, a member of a family, and a member of the larger society or social order. Just as human life is incomplete without a well-ordered relationship with God, and just as it is impoverished in the absence of a well-ordered familial life, so too is it incomplete or impoverished without the exchange of gifts and opportunities characterized by participation in a well-ordered society.

It is, in fact, the contention of Christianity—the contention of the Gospel—that God Himself has serious and binding principles to impart regarding the regulation of our relationships with Himself, our families, and society at large. Attention to God, to the bonds of family relationships, and to the common good are all required of the Christian, and each region of interactivity is governed by its own set of interlocking moral principles. Just as it is ultimately impossible to play a truly positive role in society while ignoring the moral demands of personal integrity, it is also impossible to effectively concentrate on so-called “personal morality” without reference to the common good.

But if the Church does not formally address all three areas—personal, familial and social—it becomes very easy for persons (depending on their “world view”) and for whole societies (depending on their cultural “blinders”) to accept as normal and even good many common patterns and arrangements in life which, examined carefully in the light of Christ, would reveal themselves to be selfish, one-sided, debilitating to many, and even grossly unfair. It is the task of the Church’s social teaching to awaken us to the social deformities we tend to take for granted. The Church accomplishes this by reflecting on social moral principles such as the universal destination of goods, solidarity, subsidiarity and the demands of the common good.

Cloudy or clear?

Whatever might be said for particular bishops, priests, deacons, religious, catechists and regular folks like the rest of us over the past couple of generations, if you scan the topics of the encyclicals and apostolic exhortations of the popes over this same period, I do not believe you will find an exclusive or excessive emphasis. Instead, we find again and again this tripartite spiritual and moral conception of an authentically Catholic life, interwoven from level to level—and always rooted in the Word of God. The Church teaches from what we might call the incarnational perspective.

Thus we have multiple teaching documents from every pope who has been in office for more than a very few years. These touch on theological and philosophical issues relating to God, man and society; questions of intensely personal morality, including sexual morality; family obligations, problems and solutions; and, yes, significant social problems and the need to remedy them according to the applicable moral principles. However else we may fault the popes, it is hard to fault them for a failure to elucidate the implications of the Gospel both broadly and deeply throughout the last century and more.

While there is always room for debate over particular policy suggestions proposed in the Church’s social teaching, it is just as disappointing to hear Catholics passing judgment on papal teaching based on their own “conservative” prejudices (which we at hear too often) as it is to hear Catholics passing judgment on papal teaching based on their own “liberal” prejudices (which our audience is less likely to share). Such reflexively prejudicial judgments indicate a person who is far less Catholic than he or she thinks—someone who sees the Faith through a particular ideological or cultural lens which distorts the view.

Obviously I am not speaking here of rose-colored glasses. But neither am I referring to the inevitable difficulties, in this life, of seeing “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). I am talking about our own serious responsibility to constantly grow in self-knowledge, to become more aware each day of the limitations of our own recognition patterns. We do this precisely by subjecting them again and again to prayer and reflection based on the teaching Church. This is called polishing the glass. Without it, we will not see anything at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: JDeFauw - Jul. 08, 2015 9:09 PM ET USA

    I would never accuse any Pope of being a socialist. What bothers me is that Pope Francis is not at all cautious about making specific policy recommendations. It seems to me his two immediate predecessors were more cautious, and spoke mainly about principles, values, and goals, allowing for debate among Catholics on how best to reach these goals and apply these principles.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 08, 2015 5:07 PM ET USA

    To FredC: I'm not at all sure that there was ever a form of non-communist socialism in which ALL the means of production were owned by the State, and certainly even under Communism, there was a total exclusion of private property. People could buy their own food and acquire some personal possessions, etc. But I would say that Communism was a thoroughgoing implementation of Marx's socialist theory even to the point of stamping out anything that interfered with it, like religion, in as much of a totalitarian manner as possible. In some other countries, like England, there was what was known as Fabian Socialism--a slow, gradual socialization which over time would lead to a pure and total socialism, but of course didn't.

  • Posted by: FredC - Jul. 08, 2015 1:51 PM ET USA

    Please contrast socialism and communism. In the 1950's, under socialism the state controls the means of production, but private property is allowed. Under communism the state controls the means of production and owns all of the property.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 08, 2015 9:59 AM ET USA

    An excellent commentary. As usual, well-thought out and theologically helpful to those of us who struggle with some of these issues.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Jul. 07, 2015 11:01 PM ET USA

    When I attended Catholic H.S. In the 1950's, we were required to study RERUM NOVARUM, LEO XIII and QUADRAGESIMO ANNO, PP XI as well as a 1930's book titled COMMUNISM, CAPITALISM AND CATHOLISM, (author ?). Your article is right on target of what we were taught. Too bad modern Catholic's, both "Liberals" and "Conservatives" have forgotten these valuable truths.

  • Posted by: vboast4348 - Jul. 07, 2015 7:13 PM ET USA

    Thank you for a clear exposition of socialism versus conservatism; and I like your exhortation to polish the glass(es)! I was listening to EWTN Fr Mitch Pacwa on Veritatis Splendor while working in my kitchen yesterday. It was spiritually uplifting and also helped me get on with the job in hand. In reply to a question, he also gave a heartfelt insight into Laudato Si.