The Church, since the mid-19th century, has warned of a great error to afflict human society
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“Come, let us build ourselves a city and make a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves.” — Genesis 11:4
Social micromanagement. No one likes being micromanaged in a task, much less in one’s job. It has the effect of constraining and suffocating one’s freedom to exercise and develop their creative gifts and talents in the work that they do.
In a sense, it robs one’s ability to personalize their labor and make it fruitful, leaving something of their own image within it and the satisfaction of a job well done. It stunts initiative and the desire to work hard and makes the experience of work sterile. But what micromanagement does to the individual, socialism does to a community of people.
The Church’s dire warning. St. John Paul II, having lived under the socialist rule of Soviet communism, explained that “Where society is so organized as to reduce arbitrarily or even suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline” (Centesimus Annus, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, 25).
And this is but one reason why the Church has so forcefully spoken out against socialism for 173 years, since almost its inception. Though we hear less within the ranks of the Church today about this grave error, all the warnings that the Church has sounded over the many past decades remain relevant and urgent to heed.
What the Church has said. In the relatively short space of this column, I wish to provide a very small sampling of excerpts from the magisterial teachings of the Church, beginning with Blessed Pope Pius IX, who first spoke out against socialism in 1849.
Excerpts, of course, should always be understood within the overall context and history in which the document was written. But with that said, it is my hope to help the skeptical to better understand why socialism poses such a great danger to our country and to the Church. So, let us take notice of how prophetic the words of the Church have turned out to be.
A prophetic warning. In its official magisterial documents up to the mid-20th century, the Church was much less conciliatory and much more direct about warning the faithful of the spiritual dangers that various teachings or movements posed.
And in 1849, Blessed Pope Pius IX (the Church’s longest reigning pope) offered a very blunt assessment of socialism, which was still in its infancy at that time.
“As regards this teaching and these theories, it is now generally known that the special goal of their proponents is to introduce to the people the pernicious fictions of Socialism and Communism by misapplying the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘equality.’ The final goal shared by these teachings, whether of Communism or Socialism, even if approached differently, is to excite by continuous disturbances workers and others, especially those of the lower class, whom they have deceived by their lies and deluded by the promise of a happier condition. They are preparing them for plundering, stealing, and usurping first the Church’s and then everyone’s property. After this they will profane all law, human and divine, to destroy divine worship and to subvert the entire ordering of civil societies” (Nostis et Nobiscum—On the Church in the Pontifical States, 18).
A look back. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, St. John Paul II looked back upon the wreckage and human suffering that socialism had left in its wake.
But he also knew this was not the end of socialism, and that it would only be re-imagined and re-packaged. Having lived under the dark pall of socialism, he understood the reality of what Pope Leo XIII had warned of a hundred years earlier.
“Pope Leo foresaw the negative consequences—political, social, and economic—of the social order proposed by ‘socialism,’ which at that time was still only a social philosophy and not yet a fully structured movement. It may seem surprising that ‘socialism’ appeared at the beginning of the Pope’s critique of solutions to the ‘question of the working class’ at a time when ‘socialism’ was not yet in the form of a strong and powerful State, with all the resources which that implies, as was later to happen. However, he correctly judged the danger posed to the masses by the attractive presentation of this simple and radical solution to the ‘question of the working class’ of the time…” (Centesimus Annus, 12).
Destroying charity. St. John Paul II also understood the incredible spiritual void that comes with socialism, observing that “Marxism had promised to uproot the need for God from the human heart, but the results have shown that it is not possible to succeed in this without throwing the heart into turmoil” (Centesimus Annus, 24).
And what dies within the hearts of people living under socialism is charity, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in 2005.
“The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything…. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human” (Deus Caritas Est—God Is Love, 28).
Sowing division. In 1937, Pope Pius XI asked of socialism’s appeal and growth, “How is it… that such a system spread so rapidly in all parts of the world?”
It comes down to one word—deception. “The majority,” he observed, “succumb to its deception, skillfully concealed by the most extravagant promises.” After reading the below excerpts from his encyclical, I found myself thinking, “This sounds all too familiar today.”
“The communist ideal wins over many of the better-minded members of the community. These in turn become the apostles of the movement among the younger intelligentsia who are still too immature to recognize the intrinsic errors of the system. The preachers of communism are also proficient in exploiting racial antagonisms and political divisions and oppositions.
“They take advantage of the lack of orientation characteristic of modern agnostic science in order to burrow into the universities, where they bolster up the principles of their doctrine with pseudo-scientific arguments…. It can surprise no one that the communistic fallacy should be spreading in a world already to a large extent dechristianized…. Few are aware of the poison which increasingly pervades their minds and hearts” (Divini Redemptoris—Atheistic Communism, 15-17).
Attacks upon marriage and family. As the socialist movement quickly began to grow in Italy, Pope Leo XIII dedicated an entire encyclical in 1878 on what he called the “plague of socialism.”
While defending the right of property and ownership, he particularly spoke out against socialist attacks upon marriage and family, knowing the great harm that would follow if this smallest and most essential cell of society were weakened or redefined.
“Family life itself, which is the cornerstone of all society and government… [as] the foundation of this society, rests first of all in the indissoluble union of man and wife…. You know also that the doctrines of socialism strive almost completely to dissolve this union; since, that stability which is imparted to it by religious wedlock being lost, it follows that the power of the father over his own children, and the duties of the children toward their parents, must be greatly weakened” (Quod Apostolici Muneris—Of our Apostolic Office, 8).
State rights over parental rights. Pope Leo would again warn in 1891 of the great harm that socialism would bring to marriage and family.
“The contention… that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error. True, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress, utterly deprived of the counsel of friends, and without any prospect of extricating itself, it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth.
“In like manner, if within the precincts of the household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due; for this is not to deprive citizens of their rights, but justly and properly to safeguard and strengthen them.
“But the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop. Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself…. The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home” (Rerum Novarum—Of New Things, 14).
Manifold differences. Pope Leo XIII also stressed that while all people are of equal dignity as children of God, not all have equal capacities and gifts, and this natural difference cannot be legislated away.
But this is what socialism tries to do. It is “a condition of human existence,” he said, “that the lowest in civil society cannot be made equal with the highest.”
“It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.
“Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition” (Rerum Novarum, 17).
More suffering, not less. Pope Leo XIII also recognized, as have other pontiffs since, that socialism, instead of elevating workers, would bring greater sufferings upon them, not less.
History clearly proves that any country where socialist measures have been forcefully implemented, instead of bringing an alleviation of suffering, has greatly increased it, mostly especially upon those it promised would be most helped.
“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. 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” (Rerum Novarum, 4).
Catholic socialism? Perhaps one of the first efforts to try to bring socialism and Catholicism into something of an arranged marriage as a political movement occurred in France with the “Sillonist” movement, beginning in the late 19th century. But the attempt to create such was like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
As St. Pius X pointed out in 1910, their “attempt to justify their social dreams” requires the Gospel to be twisted and “interpreted in their own way” (Notre Charge Apostolique—Our Apostolic Mandate). Twenty-one years later, Pope Pius XI would be very clear about this in his 1931 encyclical.
“Socialism… cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth…. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (Quadragesimo Anno—On the Fortieth Anniversary, 117, 120).
Incompatible with the Catholic faith. In his 1961 encyclical, St. John XXIII (the “Good Pope”) affirmed what Pope Pius XI had written three decades earlier, warning that even “moderate Socialism” is incompatible with Catholicism.
“Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even 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” (Mater et Magistra—On Christianity and Social Progress, 34).
The principle of social dignity. In 1931, Pope Pius XI introduced an essential principle of Catholic social teaching called “subsidiarity.” Very simply, it is the principle of “social dignity”—what human dignity is to the individual person, subsidiarity is to a community of people.
The principle expresses the proper relationship that should exist between that of a smaller community and that of the higher order—of what constitutes an appropriate versus an excessive or insufficient level of government (too big or too little). As further explained by St. John Paul II, “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving its functions, but rather should support it in case of need…” (Centismus Annus, 48).
A Nobel prophet. Having lived and suffered under Soviet communism, the Russian dissident and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, wrote, “Socialism seeks to reduce human personality to its most primitive levels and to extinguish the highest, most complex, and ‘Godlike’ aspects of human individuality.”
And 44 years ago, in his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, he warned Americans of what he found very worrisome.
“Many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current. I hope that no one present will suspect me of offering my personal criticism of the Western system to present socialism as an alternative.
“Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death.”
The Church’s right and duty. Pope Benedict XVI states very clearly that “It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions…. It is, however, the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law.”
He further stated that “Democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle.”
Babel repeated. St. John Paul II observed that “The tragedy of humanity today, as indeed of every period of history, consists precisely in its similarity to the experience of Babel.”
Though proponents of the socialistic architectural design have promised to pierce the heavens, it has never risen higher than any of the structures it promised to dwarf before collapsing in ruin.