A Just Society: It Cannot Be Drawn on a Balance Sheet

April 1995By James K. Fitzpatrick

James K. Fitzpatrick teaches in a public high school in the suburbs of New York City.

The quote from Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, that "no one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist," has been much favored by conservative Catholics. However, Pius was also clear that sincere Catholics could and should work for legislation designed to correct the injustices of unrestrained capitalism. Nonetheless, Pius stated that Catholics must not buy into the full socialist agenda, especially the totalitarian and atheistic elements. There was no reason to become a "true socialist."

His adjective "true" was not used in a casual manner. Pius recognized that because there were moderate socialists who had rejected doctrinaire calls for "class warfare and the abolition of private property," there were spokesmen for the working classes, especially in the trade-union movement, who "were tending toward the truths which Christian tradition has always held in respect," and, as a result, were advancing "opinions sometimes closely approaching the just demands of Christian social reformers."

Indeed, he was optimistic enough to assert that if "these changes continue, it may well come about that gradually these tenets of mitigated socialism will no longer be different from the programme of those who seek to reform human society according to Christian principles."

But there was cause for great caution in this matter. "Just demands and desires" for social legislation "contain nothing opposed to Christian truth; much less are they peculiar to socialism. Those therefore who look for nothing else, have no reason for becoming socialists" -- i.e., socialists of any type. Pius knew that socialists had more in mind than government intervention in the economy. Catholics leaning toward socialism ran the risk of collaborating with a movement fundamentally hostile to the faith, one which, said Pius, is "entirely ignorant of and unconcerned about" life beyond the grave, and which believes that "human society was instituted merely for the sake of material well-being." Indeed, when one sees how moderate socialists nowadays -- and near-socialists like certain Clintonites -- champion legal abortion and the ubiquitous distribution of condoms, one cannot help but note that Pius was remarkably perceptive about the dangers of socialism as a worldview.

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