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Father Nick Nelson: Are socialism and Catholicism compatible?

"Socialism” was the most looked-up word at in 2012 and is currently second all time. Recently, especially among the young and idealistic, socialism has developed a more favorable opinion. It has become increasingly popular and trendy to call oneself a socialist or espouse socialist ideas and goals.

Father Nicholas Nelson
Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

This is understandable considering what socialism promises — equality, a good standard of living, solidarity. And at first glance, socialism can seem to be very compatible with our Catholic faith. We are called to care for the poor and to help those in need.

But when we consider the fundamental principles of socialism, we see that it is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, our Holy Fathers since Pius IX in 1849 have repeatedly condemned socialism. Here are just a few examples:

Pope Leo XIII wrote, “They [socialists, communists, or nihilists] debase the natural union of man and woman, which is held sacred even among barbarous peoples; and its bond, by which the family is chiefly held together, they weaken, or even deliver up to lust. Lured, in fine, by the greed of present goods, which is ‘the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith’ (1 Timothy 6:10- 13), they assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life” (encyclical “Quod Apostolici Muneris,” 1878).

Pope St. John XXIII wrote that no Catholic can even subscribe to moderate Socialism, “The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority” (encyclical “Mater et Magistra,” 1961).

St. Pope Paul VI emphasizes the real historical failures of socialism. “Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity, and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated” (apostolic letter “Octogesima Adveniens,” 1971).

History has shown that socialism doesn’t work even as an economic theory. See the current situation in Venezuela. It doesn’t work because incentive is so important to the economy, and socialism minimizes or eliminates incentive. In his 1995 essay “Why Socialism Failed,” Mark Perry wrote that incentives are based on the three Ps: 1) prices determined by market forces; 2) a profit and loss system of accounting;and 3) private property rights which are a natural human rights. When you don’t have these three Ps, you don’t have an incentive to work hard, and the economic system fails.

And maybe most condemning of socialism is St. John Paul II. He wrote, “We have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of theperson there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property” (encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” 1991).

St. John Paul II gets to the heart of the matter. Socialism’s only measure of well-being is material well-being and production. The good of the individual is subordinated to the good of the economy. Socialism sets up a system and envisions a world where everything is equally distributed, and therefore there is no need for voluntary human acts of justice, charity, compassion, etc. The human person isn’t called to make morally upright choices because there is no room for them, no need for them. But as we know, part of being a good human person is exercising our free will and autonomy for the good.

We must not be fooled by the utopian promises of socialism. Socialism has failed over and over again. Its fundamental principles contradict the truths of our faith regarding the nature of the human person, the family, and natural rights. Abortion, contraception, sexual license, and non-traditional family structures are hallmarks of socialism.

Yes, there are inequalities in the world, and that is where the Gospel challenges us personally. “Those of you who have two cloaks should give one to him who has none” (Luke 3:11). But it’s not for the state to demand and orchestrate at the expense of the dignity of the human person.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]