Socialism Has Been Condemned For 20 Centuries

One would be hard-pressed to find an error that has been condemned more often, more strongly, by more popes, for more serious reasons, than socialism.

Graffiti praising socialist dictator Hugo Chávez is seen on a house in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The International Monetary Fund projects that Venezuela’s inflation rate will hit 1,000,000 percent in 2018.
Graffiti praising socialist dictator Hugo Chávez is seen on a house in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The International Monetary Fund projects that Venezuela’s inflation rate will hit 1,000,000 percent in 2018. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Recently in America magazine, there appeared an article titled, “Yes, democratic socialism is compatible with Catholic social teaching.” While it may be exasperating to see pro-socialism columns like these appear again and again, it’s not surprising. As it turns out, the core philosophy we now call “socialism” has been one of the most persistent errors in Church history.

While the word “socialism” only found its way into common parlance in the 19th century, its underlying philosophy dates back several millennia. Though it has taken different forms over time, the constant and most identifiable thread of socialism—from the ancient Greeks to the present day—has been the denial of man’s natural law right to private property. Thus, being a great defender of private property rights, the Catholic Church and her saints have found the need to speak out against socialistic theories since her infancy.

In the second century, for instance, the heresy of Gnosticism was spread by Epiphanes who maintained a Platonic version of socialism, for which he was censured by Saint Clement of Alexandria, a Father of the Church.

In the third century, Church Father Lactantius warned that while private property allows the possibility of both virtue and vice, a “community of goods” disallows the possibility of some virtues and “contains nothing else than the licentiousness of vices.” Clearly, Lactantius was aware that some early Christian communities held things in common, but he also understood something else: there is a fundamental difference between a man freely giving up his possessions for the love of Christ, and denying anyone else the right to own property.

In the fourth century, the Eustathian heretics espoused the view that private property was immoral—a view for which they were censured at the Synod of Gangra.

In the ninth century, the Fourth Council of Constantinople re-affirmed private property in two ways. First, it reaffirmed that bishops “have the right to apportion or bestow their own property on whomsoever they wish and choose, in accordance with their own powers and rights of ownership.” Second, it forbade bishops to seize the private property of others, declaring:

So, if any bishop…confiscates any property from anyone, thinking he is protecting his own church, let him be suspended by his patriarch for a time, having first restored what he took away. If he persists in his disobedience to the decision of this holy universal synod, he must be completely removed from office.

In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of the anti-property Apostolici heretics in the Summa Theologiae. Thomas writes:

 Now the reason why these people are heretics was because severing themselves from the Church, they think that those who enjoy the use of the above things, which they themselves lack, have no hope of salvation. Therefore it is erroneous to maintain that it is unlawful for a man to possess property.

St. Thomas clarifies that the Apostolici were heretics, precisely for the reason that they espoused the position that private property was unlawful.

In the 14th century, some held that the ownership of property signified an imperfection; thus, they maintained that neither Jesus nor his disciples owned—nor could Jesus have owned—property. This position was formally condemned as heretical by Pope John XXII in Quum Inter Nonnullos.

In the 19th century, the heresy of modernism contended that the Church did not possess the right to own private property, a view that was formally condemned by Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura in 1864.

Twelve years later, his successor, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, in which he stated:

For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist…

This brings us to the 20th century and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, which states that socialism is “irreconcilable with true Christianity.” He continues with a powerful magisterial condemnation: “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

The Church has consistently maintained that socialism, in addition to its other problems, violates the rights of the family. As Pope Leo XIII put it in Rerum Novarum, “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.” If those words are harsh, reality has proven far harsher: the fact that the most outspoken socialists often beat the loudest drum for abortion would come as no surprise to Pope Leo XIII. In Leo’s view, because socialism gets God wrong, it gets man wrong; because it gets man wrong, it gets the family wrong.

Of course, some will object at this point and say that while all of these condemnations of socialism may be valid, they apply exclusively to totalitarian socialism rather than “democratic socialism” (the reassignment of money through progressively higher tax rates). After all—they might point out—even some high-ranking prelates have endorsed “democratic socialism.” Clearly, if the term “democratic socialism” is meant to simply refer to a program of progressive tax rates to provide genuine assistance to the poor, the essential problem lies not in the philosophy, but in the ambiguous terminology.

That said, there comes a point at which creeping taxation becomes socialism. It matters little whether it takes the form of outright state confiscation of property or confiscatory taxation; either way, the rights of private property have been encroached upon and injustice has been committed by denying a person his or her due. As Pope Leo wrote in Rerum Novarum: “The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.” One might call this system “moderate socialism,” but Pope John XXIII wrote in Mater et Magistra that “no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism.”

Moreover, let’s be clear: the discussion we are now having in America goes far beyond a progressive tax code that seeks to send a few extra dollars to feed the poor. The current icon of American socialism, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whose photo headlines the America article), is campaigning on the promise that tax dollars—plenty of tax dollars—be collected to fund abortions. Bernie Sanders, whose name is almost synonymous with socialism, has voted in favor of federal funding of abortion as well as the international funding of abortion. In practice, this means that American fathers and mothers of families will be disallowed the liberty of making some decisions for the material betterment of their own children, so that others can scare up the tax money to abort theirs. If that’s not an example of “acting against natural justice,” and “destroying the structure of the home,” what is?

The notion that the form of socialism now being advanced in America is somehow compatible with official Catholic teaching requires one to ignore or reject a great deal of Catholic social and moral doctrine. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an error that has been condemned more often, more strongly, by more popes, for more serious reasons, than socialism.