Should Catholics Be Socialists?

By Dennis Behreandt

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s entry into the ranks of Republican presidential contenders has raised questions about both his religious beliefs and, more broadly, about the political and economic consequences of Christianity. Writing for the Atlantic, former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend raised the issue from a specifically Catholic perspective, taking Perry to task for what she sees as his opposition to the welfare state.

“Christ teaches us to feed the hungry and care for the sick, not to abandon them. Perhaps Gov. Perry hasn’t read that part of the Bible where Christ admonishes us to care for ‘the least among us’,” Kennedy Townsend wrote. Later, citing a conversation she had with Pastor Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Life fame who she says told her that he had “‘missed the 2,500 passages’ in the Bible that called on him to care about other people,” she continued:

Does Rick Perry acknowledge those 2,500 passages? That’s the second question I’d like the press to ask him. Maybe he believes, like some socially conservative evangelicals, that these passages refer only to personal charity, not government programs. But I don’t see any place in the Bible that says we shouldn’t use all the tools we have at hand to help the poor, the sick, and the hungry.

Finally, she brings in the Catholic Church. “If you’re running for president in a democratic country, it’s not enough to proclaim that the Bible says something is right or wrong,” she writes. “You must have reasoned positions. Catholics have been taught to inquire into God’s will by using our reason, examining nature, and listening to Church teaching — as well as by interpreting the Bible.”

Presumably, one message to take from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s essay is that the Catholic Church teaches that “all the tools we have at hand to help the poor, the sick, and the hungry” include, primarily, government power (i.e., government redistribution of wealth). The question is, what do reason, nature, and the Catholic Church have to say about such socialist policies?

Christian Anthropology
Christians generally and the Catholic Church in particular believe that mankind is to be understood in terms of its relationship to God. Specifically, God created man in His image. In Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), the Second Vatican Council explained the meaning of this essential foundation to Christian anthropology.

For sacred scripture teaches that women and men were created “in the image of God,” able to know and love their creator, and set by him over all earthly creatures that they might rule them, and make use of them, while glorifying God. “What are women and men that you are mindful of them, their sons and daughters that you care for them? You have made them little less than angels, and crown them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps 8:5-8).

But God did not create men and women as solitary beings. From the beginning “male and female God created them” (Gen 1:27). This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between people. For by their innermost nature men and women are social beings; and if they do not enter into relationships with others they can neither live nor develop their gifts.”

Important points follow logically from this foundation. First, God created men and women in His image. In other words, humankind, while not equivalent to God, has been give faculties that are of a kind with God’s. As God must have perfect free will or else he cannot be God (i.e., God cannot be compelled or controlled), so too is mankind created in God’s image endowed with free will and able to exercise it within the temporal sphere. Through the exercise of this free will, mankind is able to carry out the commission assigned by God to maintain dominion “over all earthly creatures that they might rule them, and make use of them, while glorifying God.”

Second, God, having granted mankind free will and having made mankind male and female, demonstrates, as Gaudium et Spes asserts, that men and women are social creatures who should “enter into relationships.” The grant of free will necessitates, however, that men and women should choose to enter into these relationships — they cannot be compelled. In the event that these relationships are compelled, then God’s creative intention and will is being denied and thwarted. As a matter of fact, this points toward the Christian doctrine of original sin. As Gaudium et Spes notes, mankind did in fact turn away from God “and tried to attain their goal apart from him.”

Thus, in a state of nature, a Christian anthropology guided by Gaudium et Spes asserts that mankind has free will and as a consequence has dominion over the earth and should build relationships. From this the doctrine of natural rights, so familiar from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, arises.

The Natural Rights
The Declaration correctly points out, summarizing in a few words what Gaudium et Spes takes many paragraphs to examine, that God endowed mankind with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The latter is often read traditionally as meaning “property,” through which mankind gains those material items necessary to the maintenance of the first right, that to life. These things — food, shelter, clothing, tools that make the acquisition of the others easier, and so on — are made available to the industrious who exercise the dominion over the earth granted by God. But this is a subset of the total meaning of the right to pursue happiness which really points to a greater understanding of Christian ethics — the effort to live a life most in keeping with the Good. Here Gaudium et Spes has an eloquent message, given under the heading “The Excellence of Freedom”:

It is, however, only in freedom that people can turn themselves towards what is good. The people of our time prize freedom very highly and strive eagerly for it. In this they are right. Yet they often cherish it improperly, as if it gave them leave to do anything they like, even when it is evil. But genuine freedom is an exceptional sign of the image of God in humanity. For God willed that men and women should “be left free to make their own decisions” so that they might of their own accord seek their creator and freely attain their full and blessed perfection by cleaving to God. Their dignity therefore requires them to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by their own blind impulses or by external constraint. People gain such dignity when, freeing themselves of all slavery to the passions, they press forward towards their goal by freely choosing what is good, and, by their diligence and skill, effectively secure for themselves the means suited to this end. Since human freedom has been weakened by sin it is only by the help of God’s grace that people can properly orientate their actions towards God. Before the judgement seat of God everybody will have to give an account of their life, according as they have done either good or evil.”

Through Gaudium et Spes, then, the Catholic Church, through Vatican II, plainly asserts that mankind has been created in God’s image with a grant of free will, has dominion over the earth, should utilize that dominion to maintain life and give glory to God by “freely choosing what is good, and, by their diligence and skill, effectively secure for themselves the means suited to this end.” Furthermore, mankind should neither be ruled by its base and unconsidered passions, nor by “external constraint.”

This is a clear and unambiguous teaching against socialist government wealth transfer programs. The use of the power of government to take away and transfer to others those things originally “effectively secured” by individuals “by their diligence and skill” is essentially an external constraint on individuals. It limits or prevents individuals from using their free will to work toward the Good. As such it places artificial constraints on the ability of individuals to properly orient their actions to God. And it is itself a blasphemy in that it stems from a group of individuals banding together to use the power of government for the express purpose of denying the intention of God’s creation, as defined by the Catholic Church in Gaudium et Spes.

Catholic Tradition
Gaudium et Spes is not the only time the Catholic Church has sought to uphold and explain the natural rights of mankind in opposition to socialism. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII penned the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor) in which he considered the socialist solution to the problem of poverty. In Leo’s judgement, socialism presented a great evil.

Noting that the poor deserve relief and should not be forced to live under wretched conditions, Leo argued that socialism offered additional evil, rather than a solution.

“To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies,” Leo wrote. “They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”

Leo continues to further develop the idea that the socialist program both hurts the poor and is unjust besides.

First, he points out that private property gives workers hope that they may better their condition. He writes:

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.

But, anticipating Gaudium et Spes by repeating the long-standing Catholic understanding of natural rights, Leo points out that socialism commits a great injustice.

What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation, for the brute has no power of self direction, but is governed by two main instincts, which keep his powers on the alert, impel him to develop them in a fitting manner, and stimulate and determine him to action without any power of choice. One of these instincts is self preservation, the other the propagation of the species. Both can attain their purpose by means of things which lie within range; beyond their verge the brute creation cannot go, for they are moved to action by their senses only, and in the special direction which these suggest. But with man it is wholly different. He possesses, on the one hand, the full perfection of the animal being, and hence enjoys at least as much as the rest of the animal kind, the fruition of things material. But animal nature, however perfect, is far from representing the human being in its completeness, and is in truth but humanity’s humble handmaid, made to serve and to obey. It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human, and distinguishes him essentially from the brute. And on this very account — that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason — it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.

This becomes still more clearly evident if man’s nature be considered a little more deeply. For man, fathoming by his faculty of reason matters without number, linking the future with the present, and being master of his own acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God, whose providence governs all things. Wherefore, it is in his power to exercise his choice not only as to matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come. Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.

Leo, in his monumental defense of private property and natural rights is here working from a long Catholic tradition.

No less a theologian than St. Thomas Aquinas asserted the natural right to private property ownership on the same basis as Rerum Novarum and Gaudium et Spes in his magisterial Summa Theologica. Regarding the question of whether it is natural for man to possess external things, he answered:

External things can be considered in two ways. First, as regards their nature, and this is not subject to the power of man, but only to the power of God Whose mere will all things obey. Secondly, as regards their use, and in this way, man has a natural dominion over external things, because, by his reason and will, he is able to use them for his own profit, as they were made on his account: for the imperfect is always for the sake of the perfect, as stated above (Question 64, Article 1). It is by this argument that the Philosopher [Aristotle] proves (Polit. i, 3) that the possession of external things is natural to man. Moreover, this natural dominion of man over other creatures, which is competent to man in respect of his reason wherein God’s image resides, is shown forth in man’s creation (Genesis 1:26) by the words: “Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea,” etc.

Contrary to the notion, fashionable amongst modern liberals, that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular requires the implementation of socialism in the political sphere in order to achieve the Good, long Catholic tradition, the teachings of one of the Church’s most notable leaders, of one of its greatest theologians and of the Second Vatican Council as expressed in Gaudium et Spes, teach instead that private property and natural rights are the foundation of a proper Christian approach to justice.

Those who prefer to call for the use of the power of the State to redistribute wealth propose a vast injustice and one, as Leo XIII pointed out, that leads to the distortion of the functions of the State and to the creation of chaos in the community. Given the recent riots in Britain and elsewhere, the self-evident truth of Leo’s teaching should be apparent to everyone, even to liberals.

Note: Quotations from Gaudium et Spes from: Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations — A Completely Revised Translation in Inclusive Language. Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P.; New York: Costello Publishing Company, 1996.

Self-Educated American associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald, and former long-time contributor, serving both as Senior and Managing Editor, to The New American magazine, writing hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. Mr. Behreandt’s research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.