Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?

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Against a rising river of pro-socialist sentiment, mainstream liberals and libertarians have been stacking sandbags on the banks in an attempt to disabuse younger generations of what they see as a potentially disastrous political mistake. The latest sandbag on the bank is Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk’s “Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?”

Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?, by Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk (210 pages, Catholic Answers Press, 2020)

There is no question that socialism, at least in name, has become quite popular in the last 10 years, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. Politicians and media personalities, no doubt with the help of college professors and school teachers, have convinced a large swath of the public that “Democratic Socialism” is the best way forward for the U.S. and the West in general.

Against this rising river of pro-socialist sentiment, mainstream liberals and libertarians have been stacking sandbags on the banks in an attempt to disabuse younger generations of what they see as a potentially disastrous political mistake. Efforts to enhance and diversify liberal and libertarian extracurriculars at universities are well-funded and popular press books on the problems of socialism and government intervention have enjoyed a boost in popularity.

The latest sandbag on the bank is Trent Horn and Catherine R. Pakaluk’s Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk are a compelling pair to make this case. Mr. Horn is a popular Catholic apologist and Dr. Pakaluk is an economics professor with a Harvard pedigree. Based on these credentials, the reader can be confident that Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk present a compelling case based on Catholic teaching and economic theory.

The book combines standard right-liberal and libertarian arguments against socialism and in favor of capitalism with references to papal encyclicals that make up the social teaching of the Church. Readers can expect a fairly conventional perspective on socialism, namely that its implementation causes far more harm than the intended benefit of its policies. This conventional perspective is bolstered with references to explicit condemnations of socialism in all its forms by popes going back to the late 19th century.

The book lays out a convincing case that no Catholic can in good conscience support socialism, but beyond short references to papal encyclicals, there is very little Catholic social teaching. Their specific critiques of socialism refer to its effects on economic growth and economic incentives rather than its effects on solidarity of families and communities. While there are plenty of references to papal documents, the arguments themselves would be at home in any right-liberal critique of socialism.

Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk mention the doctrine of the “universal destination of goods” twice in the book. They define it simply as the fact that “God gave the earth to all of humanity” and state that it can “be twisted to sound like socialism.”[1] They cite Pope Leo XIII writing positively of private property in Rerum Novarum, leaving out Leo’s calls for government protection of wage-earners in another section of the same encyclical. Given the importance of the doctrine of the universal destination of goods in Catholic Social teaching, Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk would have done well to cite Pope John Paul II’s clear description of the universal destination of goods:

It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.[2]

It is difficult to see how this description of the universal destination of goods justifies socialism or liberal capitalism.

The second half of the book is a defense of capitalism using, as they do in their critique of socialism, references to the social encyclicals of the Church. Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk address the need, for example, for the family wage consistently found in the Church’s social doctrine. The family is so crucial to Catholic social teaching that Pope Leo XIII started Rerum Novarum with a lengthy discussion of the importance of family and the husband’s provision of his family by means of his labor.

Citing the negative consequences of a radical shift in compensation predicted by liberal economic theory, Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk claim that a family wage is simply too difficult to implement today and that workers should only seek just compensation through labor unions or other non-state means, and only through the state as a last resort.

However, more recent papal writing contradicts their thesis, leading the reader to think once again that Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk are more beholden to right-liberal politics than the recommendations of the Church. In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Execrens, Pope John Paul II is quite clear about the primacy of a just wage in ensuring economic justice:

Hence, in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly. It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particularly important one and, in a sense, the key means.[3]

Before providing a critique of the notion of a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk refer to a quote by Pope John Paul II quite popular in liberal Catholic circles in which he praises a market economy which is tamed by a strong framework of laws. This quote from Centessimus Annus is used frequently by right-liberal and libertarian Catholics to justify a range of political systems including the Friedmanite night watchman state in which the state acts merely in a negative role.

Though Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk make it clear that the state is free to restrain business activity more, they rely heavily on liberal economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Thomas Woods to make the case that the state is, at most, a last resort in the search for economic justice. Pope John Paul II has harsh words for the laissez-faire position in the very same document cited to support the market economy:

Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.[4]

It would be too much to accuse Mr. Horn and Dr. Pakaluk of attempting to fit the Church’s social doctrine into the mold of right-liberal capitalism. Still, the book does little to make a case for a policy regime that might serve as a just and realistic alternative to socialism.

In economics, we often say that it takes a better model to beat the one you’re criticizing. Trent Horn and Catherine Pakaluk provide a solid critique of socialism, but the reader is left wondering what precisely the Church can tell us about how to deal with the real problems today’s “democratic socialists” identify.

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[1] Horn and Pakaluk, Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?, pp. 103, 926.

[2] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, p. 42.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Laborem Execrens, p. 19. Emphasis in original.

[4] Ibid., 42.

The featured image is “The Great Socialist” (1906) by William Balfour Ker (1877-1918) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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