What Is Wrong With Socialism?

COMMENTARY: All one has to do is turn to three great papal encyclicals.

(photo: Shutterstock)

“America will never be a socialist country,” President Donald Trump declared in his State of the Union Address Feb. 5.

His strong repudiation of socialism naturally evoked the response, “What is wrong with socialism?” After all, does not socialism embrace the virtues of equality, justice and the fair distribution of wealth?

For the informed Catholic, this question is not difficult to answer since it has been adequately answered in three great encyclicals:  Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (Capital and Labor), Pope Pius XI’s 1931 Quadragesimo Anno (Reconstruction of the Social Order) and John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum).

All three pontiffs agree that socialism, in general, carries at least a strong impetus toward extreme governmental control, including the confiscation of private property, a disregard for the true nature of the human being, an exaggerated emphasis on material things and a lack of recognition of the importance of charity, personal motivation and the family.

It would have been impossible for Pope Leo XIII not to have recognized the grave injustices that were going on in his time.

“To remedy these evils,” he stated in Rerum Novarum, “the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, endeavor to destroy private property, and maintain that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the state or by municipal bodies.”

Here is a case where the attempt to achieve social justice results in a far greater form of injustice. Moreover, since all human beings are tainted by Original Sin, there is no reason to believe that socialist government officials would be anymore trustworthy than those whom they replaced from a non-socialist regime.

Leo went on to say that “the state must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammeled action as far as is consistent with the common good and the interests of others.” “Thus it is clear,” he concluded, “that the main tenet of socialism, the community of goods, must be utterly rejected; for it would injure those whom it is intended to benefit, it would be contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and it would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonwealth.”

Rerum Novarum (also called “The Spirit of Revolutionary Change” and “The Condition of Labor”) has had a far-reaching effect on the world in the 100-plus years following 1891, evident in social-security reforms, pensions, health insurance, and, in general, a greater respect for workers. During the year of its centenary, 4,000 conferences were held worldwide to reflect on the impact the Church’s most important document on social justice had on various countries.

Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, written 40 years after Rerum Novarum, reaffirmed much of what Pope Leo XIII had stated.

“The riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be distributed among individual persons and classes,” wrote Pius XI, so that “the common good of all society will be kept inviolate.”

He referred to the twofold character of private ownership, namely, the right to own and the duty to share. Therefore, he stated, “men must take into account in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good.”

Pius XI was critical of the “rash reformers” who believed that “justice alone” without the “assistance of charity” could solve the prevailing problems that beset society. He understood the primary importance of the family in society.

In accord with the “principle of subsidiarity,” he insisted, “Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.”

The social-justice thinking of Leo XIII and Pius XI is consistent with that of St. Thomas Aquinas. For the Angelic Doctor said, “It is lawful for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of his life.” At the same time, “man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty with others in need.”

In Centesimus Annus, written on the centennial anniversary of Rerum Novarum, John Paul II spoke of the poor asking “for the right to share in enjoying material goods and to make good the use of their capacity for work, thus creating a world that is more just and prosperous for all. The advancement of the poor constitutes a great opportunity for the moral, cultural, and even economic growth of all humanity.”

The decisive factor, for John Paul II, in working out social-justice problems is not land, capital or material goods. It is “man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge, his capacity for interrelated and compact organization, as well as his ability to perceive the needs of others and to satisfy them.”

All three of these great encyclicals stress the dignity of the human person and our ability to use our God-given talents to make something of ourselves and to share with others the fruits of our accomplishments. Therefore, personal initiative, responsibility and creativity are of utmost importance.

The danger lurking in various forms of socialism is to render these personal initiatives unnecessary and to give the state too much control. Thus, what seems reasonable and tempting to the advocates of socialism can stultify the individual.

The mouse does not know why the cheese is free, nor does the fish suspect that the worm dangling from the hook is obtained at a great price. It is far better for charity to motivate giving to others than the government to provide handouts that come with hidden personal costs. In this regard, the Catholic Church has a most important role to play.


Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at

St. Jerome’s University in Canada and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in

Cromwell, Connecticut.

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