Although the term itself remains largely undefined, calling Democrats “socialists” has suddenly become a common invective hurled by Republicans. For their part, many Democrats have welcomed the accusation, recognizing that it serves as a compliment in the current political environment. Because this much is sure: socialism is gaining in popularity in America. And from a Catholic perspective, it’s time we start asking why.
In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII sought to answer the question about why socialism was gaining traction in late 19th-century Europe. What in the world would drive man to reject — whether in totality or in large measure — private property and man’s right to it?
Leo posited that a chief attraction of socialism was the sin of envy. Though some people are motivated by the notion that a socialist structure will somehow provide them more, some are also driven by the promise that, under socialism, the currently-wealthy would have less. To that end, Leo observes that socialists advance their cause by “working on the poor man's envy of the rich.” Apparently, there was no shortage of activists and politicians stoking envy in others for their own gain. (Turns out, modern-day progressives in America weren’t the first to use the tactic; rather, it has been used in some form for much of recorded history.)
Pope Leo recognized that envy, which Saint John Damascene defines as “sorrow for another’s good,” could prove a frightful weapon in the advance of socialism. Leo warned that socialism would produce brutal poverty, widespread “discord,” and a “condition of misery and degradation” for the masses. The following century saw Leo’s warnings realized as socialism came to power in the form of communism and Nazism, and the words of The Wisdom of Solomon were actualized, “(T)hrough the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it.” Never before had history seen the death tolls brought on by this wave of “progress.”
But if envy can lead to socialism, we need to ask a prior question: what causes envy?
And another question arises: Am I doing something that is instigating envy—perhaps causing temptation in a person with that weakness? When we start to apply these questions to ourselves, they might lead to answers we’d rather not ponder. Greed — one’s disordered desire to possess material goods — can lead to envy, another’s disordered desire for me to not have goods. Greed and envy feed upon each other in many ways, as we have seen over and over again since the advent of socialism. (For evidence, look at the bank accounts of the “champions of the poor” who run socialist nations.)
Clearly, there can be an orderly desire to possess material goods. There are those material things that we truly need; in addition, there are those wants we are rightfully allowed. Material things are good. The problem is that the marketing kingmakers of our consumerist culture have intentionally blurred the line between economic “needs” and “wants” to advance the idea that wants are needs. We need bigger houses, flashier cars, second homes, newer smartphones, third houses, shinier golf clubs and first-class travel. So goes the argument.
And once everything is viewed as a need for ourselves, the true needs of others go out the window. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote that “the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the exaltation of the individual and the selfish satisfaction of personal aspirations become the ultimate goal of life. In this outlook, the negative effects on others are considered completely irrelevant.” But many people, not content simply to have more and more, flaunt their wealth — further inciting envy, further inviting socialism.
There are those who will object that if someone has a problem with envy, that’s his problem and it doesn’t have a thing to do with me. Well, that’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it would be that seven commandments of the Decalogue directly relate with our relationships with one another and that we have duties in justice and charity to help each other on the road to salvation. And while it is true that someone might be envious toward us through absolutely no fault of our own, it is also true that the flames of envy could be fanned by avarice, if we ignore the temptations and perils of the less fortunate.
None of this is meant to excuse the sin of envy, but simply to highlight the fact that we must avoid leading others into temptation by flaunting our wealth. Lest we forget, greed is termed a “capital” sin, so called because it leads to other sins. And we need to start recognizing how damaging this can be. On that score, it is noteworthy that the Catholic Rite of Exorcism contains this powerful prayer: “I cast you out, unclean spirit… you root of all evil and vice, seducer of men, betrayer of the nations, instigator of envy…” If the rite of exorcism recognizes the danger of instigating envy, maybe we should too.
On a human level, if the problem is the attractiveness of socialism, the answer for both rich and poor — the counter to both greed and envy — is the virtue of poverty coupled with solidarity. Holy poverty requires material detachment and paves the way for solidarity. Considered as an abiding friendship between and among people that is founded on their dignity as beings loved by God, the Catechism states that solidarity “is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood.” The Catechism boldly professes that there is no substitute for human solidarity, stating: “Socio-economic problems can be resolved only with the help of all the forms of solidarity: solidarity of the poor among themselves, between rich and poor, of workers among themselves, between employers and employees in a business, solidarity among nations and peoples.”
Ultimately, it is not a better argument in favor of free market capitalism that will answer the vicious onslaught of socialism in the hearts of men and in rapidly fracturing societies; rather, it is the triumph of solidarity that we all must seek.
And it begins with each one of us.