Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
This year marks the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new political star in New York, is making Marxism glamorous again. When she first hit the media circuit, her choice of lipstick was the crucial issue.
Yet for Ocasio-Cortez personally, “democratic socialism” is her real agenda and she credits her Catholic background for her devotion to it. But historically, the Catholic Church has denounced socialism, from Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical “Rerum Novarum” to the latest Catechism of the Catholic Church to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Liberation Theology” in October 1984. So how have several generations of Catholics, in this country and elsewhere, decided that socialism is harmonious with Catholicism?
The Church has repeatedly warned that socialism endangers not only the faith, but family. Ocasio-Cortez is selling socialism with promises of government provided health care and college which seem superficially helpful to the family. Yet the current economic and societal unrest in Venezuela and Nicaragua can be traced to socialism: and that has been no help to families. The milder forms of socialism has led to economic crises in Europe, with the debt crisis in Greece and high unemployment in Spain.
There are two levels on which socialism and Catholicism are antithetical. One is at the practical level of the family, and the damage socialism wreaks on it. The other is at the level of basic moral principles that shape a culture. They are necessarily connected.
Socialism has been alluring in economically difficult times, and previous economies have been worse than we are experiencing now. In “Rerum Novarum,” Leo XIII says, “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 municipal bodies.” Yet Ocasio-Cortez Tweets about abolishing profit and capitalism, whose purpose is to provide the individual with the means to have personal property. This allows individuals to provide for themselves and their families independently.
Leo XIII, who established the Feast of the Holy Family in 1893, warns against socialism actively destroying the family. He says, “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.” While Leo XIII defends the natural family, socialism is about the state’s redefinition of family. Friedrich Engels, whose “Origin of the Family” was published seven years before “Rerum Novarum,” claimed that capitalism was the “defeat of the female sex… The woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for breeding children.” Marx and Engels claimed that in an ideal socialistic society, divorce would be easy, there would be “open marriages” of a sort, and the state would be in charge of childrearing. The state would supplant the family. The weakening of the family unit leaves people vulnerable to socialism’s seduction.
A common claim among socialists is that they are somehow “striking down the patriarchy.” Engels in his “Origin of the Family” denounced patriarchy, despite his own misogyny; he condemned prostitution as an exemplar of exploitive capitalism, though he frequented houses of prostitution. Ocasio-Cortez, in her current campaign, claims socialism is female empowerment. The Church has historically taught that socialism not only undermines the family, but women and children in particular. In “Rerum Novarum,” Leo XIII warns that the abolition of the family leads to even worse enslavement.
Socialists are utopians. When Ocasio-Cortez was questioned in July on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah about how to source the taxes for state-provided education and health care, her response was “Somewhere.”
Leo XIII warned against the utopianism of socialists, saying, “That ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation… 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… To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity… If any there who pretend differently- who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose and constant enjoyment — they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present.”
Leo XIII contrasts Aquinas’ understanding of natural law with Marx’s revolt against it. He warned that the Marxist notion of “class struggle” is destructive, that it “necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” When he wrote “Rerum Novarum” in 1891, Stalinist purges, the genocidal horrors of National Socialism in Western Europe, the Cultural Revolution in China and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were far in the future. Long before there were concepts of “fair trade,” Leo XIII exhorted employers to treat their employees fairly, and he backed labor unions. He called for harmony between employers and their employees.
Much later, in 1984, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote “Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation.’” He warned pastors against liberation theology, reminding them of Jesus’ words (Matthew 4:4), “Man cannot live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” By referencing Scripture, Jesus’ rebuke of the Evil One, Benedict was highlighting the severity of the choice between a superficial good, and the genuine good that resides in authentic Catholicism.
The Decalogue — divine and natural law — is relevant here, because of the principles it embodies. These principles are “written on the heart.”
The rising popularity of socialism, as well as its successes at the ballot box, should be concerning. Young people are susceptible to the appeals of “education for all” and “Medicare for all.” Ocasio-Cortez is hardly alone in her age group; many self-identify as some sort of socialist. That anyone sees socialism as a solution, while it robs people of their individual dignity and rights, is a critical turn to a post-Christian worldview, rather than its perfection.
The contrast between Christianity and socialism stands out clearly on the subject of human rights. From the Christian perspective, rights come from God. They are intrinsic to human nature, they can neither be taken nor given by others. In the socialist philosophy, rights are conferred by and subject to the State. This makes the individual not a citizen, but a slave of the state, whose value is determined by the state.
In the Catechism, atheistic Communism is equated with socialism as forms of theft. Paragraph 2425 says, “Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds.” Centralized government planning deprives individuals of their dignity and choice. It also reduces societal relationships to “struggle,” depriving people of peace. Society is no longer various cooperative groups of differing people but “oppressors” and “oppressed.”
The Catechism begins its section on the seventh commandment saying (CCC 2403), “The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.” The balance that Catholicism demands for the individual and society at large ensures that both parties retain freedom, so that true virtue is possible.
But socialism violates the right to private property; recall the famous Marxist quote, “Property is theft.” This approach ensures constant jealousy, envy and revolution.
Pope Leo XIII condemns the enviousness fostered by socialism, rooting in the Decalogue where the coveting of another’s spouse and possessions is a sin. The “struggle” between the bourgeois and proletariat, or what is now sometimes cast as a “struggle” between the “managerial/corporate elites” and the working class, is rooted in the envy which the 10th commandment specifically condemns.
Above all, socialism violates the “Great Commandment” when it comes to love of God and love of neighbor. In his “Instruction,” Benedict XVI warns against liberation theology that clothes an atheistic socialism in Christian language. Liberation theology claims Christian identity while lacking Christian belief. Christianity is reduced to an “identity.” Socialism claims love for neighbor, but under compulsion. This violates free will and negates the ability to do good from the heart.
Socialism supplants God with the State. The State becomes all-powerful, almighty, the source of all values and blessings. It is idolatry.
The Catholic Church’s stand against socialism is relevant in this current political climate, especially in light of the upcoming canonization of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who spoke strongly against Communism. What has happened between his day and ours?
In tolerating socialism, what other revolutionary ideas repugnant to Catholic orthodoxy, have been accepted? This climate of “tolerance,” for all its claims of standing with the powerless, fostered a culture of abuse. Archbishop Sheen warned against the seductive glamor of socialism. He said, “The appeal of Socialism, Fascism and communism was principally negative; they were protests against a live and let live anything goes liberalism, a spineless indifference to causes, a failure to recognize that nothing was evil enough to hate, and nothing was good enough to die for.”
This indifference is a form of cynicism that reflects a decadent culture. We see this filth in the present scandals infecting the Church. The current socialist chic is troubling, with Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez held up as secular saints. In our baptismal promises, we are called to renounce the devil’s pomps and empty promises so we can put on Christ. In these times, such a renunciation of the glamor of sin is necessary for the Church’s renewal.