Volume > Issue > Cultural Socialism & the Culture of Capitalism

Cultural Socialism & the Culture of Capitalism


By Thomas Storck | March 1996
Thomas Storck is a librarian in Washington, D.C., and author of The Catholic Milieu.

To most people it probably seems the height of folly to spend any more time talking about socialism. After all, since old-style Communism in eastern Europe has disintegrated and socialist parties in the West have generally not done too well at the polls lately, is not socialism a matter of interest only to historians? And is not socialism irrelevant to Catholics, since papal social teaching has long made it clear that the socialist world view is not an option for Catholics? Is it not time, then, to get on with our celebration of capitalism? I suggest that there is still a major problem to be considered, for the same papal statements that criticize socialism also criticize capitalism, and for the same basic reason.

In Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius XI said: “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.” It is likely that most Catholics acquainted with this remark conceive that the main reason for this incompatibility is the antagonism between socialism’s doctrine of state ownership and the Church’s defense of private property. When Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the socialism of his day advocated a complete confiscation of private property. Such enforced common ownership is without doubt contrary to Catholic teaching on the right to private property. But by 1931, when Quadragesimo Anno was issued, a different socialism had arisen which no longer called for a complete abolition of private property. As Pius XI wrote, this socialism

is much less radical in its views. Not only does it condemn recourse to physical force: it even mitigates and moderates to some extent class warfare and the abolition of private property…. It would seem as if socialism…were moving toward the truth which Christian tradition has always held in respect; for it cannot be denied that its programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers.

To understand what is wrong with capitalism we must understand what is wrong with socialism. If, as Pius XI said, the economic proposals of moderate democratic socialists are often quite close to Catholic social principles, why then cannot Catholics be socialists? The answer, given by Pius XI, is interesting, and is a rebuke to two kinds of Catholics: to those who desire to be socialists, and to those (so common in America) who consider calls for worker ownership or state regulation or ownership of certain industries (an idea explicitly approved of by Pius XI) to be socialistic and as such condemned by the Church. Why, then, is socialism not compatible with the Faith? It is because socialism is “entirely ignorant of or unconcerned about [the] sublime end both of individuals and of society” and asserts that “living in community was instituted merely for the sake of advantages which it brings to mankind.”

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