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Refuting a Catholic Case for Communism

Why do communists always use their border security to prevent escape rather than entry?

In his article “The Catholic Case for Communism” Dean Dettloff tries to show, in spite of 150 years of papal condemnation, that communism “can build better ways of being together in society.”

Based on what he quotes in his article, Dettloff seems to defend an economic system that replaces free markets and private property with communal ownership and centrally planned economies (or what has also been called socialism). In such a communist system, that which is produced through work becomes the property of the State until it is redistributed to people based on their need.

But here’s why his arguments fall apart.

1. Good communists don’t make communism good

While Dettloff makes a passing reference to communist persecution of the Church, he never explains in detail the torture, imprisonments, exiles, forced labor, mass famines, and systematic murders communists have unleashed against humanity and especially against Christians throughout the 20th century. In 1922 the Soviet Union murdered twenty-eight Eastern Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests. A friend of Sergius I, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, grimly recalled, “We [were like] chickens in a shed, from which the cook snatches out her victim in turn.”

Instead, Dettloff trots out a gentler communism with the ­tired claim that the first Christians practiced communism, a claim Trent has debunked in a previous article. He also cites Dorothy Day’s judgment that many communists she knows are motivated by noble goals like the desire to end poverty. Pope Francis agrees that not all communists are brutish atheists, saying “I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.” But, he prefaced that remark with a condemnation of Marxism itself saying: “The Marxist ideology is wrong.”

In the entire body of Catholic social teaching beginning with Pope Leo XIII, one can find no heresy so strenuously and unequivocally denounced than communism and the socialist fictions that propped it up, dubbed “wicked,” “pernicious.,” and fatally flawed from the start. Pope Pius XI said that socialism “cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.”

This condemnation is rooted not merely in communism’s tendency to be atheistic or authoritarian, but in its violation of people’s rights when “men are obliged, with respect to the producing of goods, to surrender and subject themselves entirely to society.” Communism’s goal of a “classless society also contradicts human nature, or as Pope Leo XIII put it, “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.”

2. Dettloff misunderstands the right to private property

The only papal teachings Dettloff cites are those related to limits on the right of private property. He says communists don’t want to abolish personal property like toothbrushes just private property that creates wealth, like toothbrush factories. He says this is compatible with Catholicism because the Church teaches that, “private property is always subordinate to the common good.”

But the Church has never said that this subordination refers to the State deciding how every piece of private property should be used; rather, it refers to a limit on how people can use their own private property. For example, if I own a store and a starving person breaks in to steal food, my right to property hasn’t been violated because God gave the goods of the earth to all people. Pope Leo notes this but then says, “The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property.”

Saying the right to private property only entails the right to own personal property is like saying freedom of religion only entails the right to offer personal prayers. Such restrictions would make these “rights in name only.”

The right to private property is not absolute just as free speech is not absolute—each can be restricted if it causes immediate harm to the community. But those restrictions don’t justify abolishing these rights through things like government speech codes or the seizing of private property. That’s why Leo affirmed that

The main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal.

3. Capitalism’s benefits are ignored

Most of Dettloff’s argument for communism is really just a critique of capitalism. But while capitalism’s failures in things like the promotion of the slave trade are proof to Dettloff that it should be done away with, communism is considered “an unfinished project that depends on the recognition of its real and tragic mistakes.” Like most critics, Dettloff operates under the assumption that communism is a success worth refining no matter how many times it has failed whereas capitalism is a failure to be abandoned no matter how many times it has succeeded.

Dettloff criticizes capitalism as “a specific way of organizing wealth, one that did not exist at the creation of the world and one that represents part of a ‘culture of death.’” But from the creation of the world until the year 1800, one third to one half of all children died before they reached the age of five. But by 1950 global child mortality dropped to 19.5% and today it’s at about 3.4%. Capitalism’s ability to provide countless more people with food and medicine has allowed millions to live long lives who would have otherwise died in bassinettes as their parents listened helplessly to their feeble cries of hunger.

In addition, until the year 1800, 94-99% percent of all people lived on less than two-dollars a day, so one wonders why Dettloff is so nostalgic for this kind of wealth distribution (or lack thereof) that existed from creation. Only 10% of people endure this kind of extreme poverty today. That’s still hundreds of millions of people who are suffering, but capitalism should be given credit for doing in two hundred years what the human race couldn’t achieve in the previous 20,000.

It’s true that as capitalism succeeds a wealth gap emerges and the rich get richer, but the poor are also getting richer. Indeed, areas of extreme poverty around the world need more capitalism, not less. In 1990, 60% of East Asia lived in extreme poverty, higher than even sub-Sahara Africa; today, however, only 4% of East Asia experiences extreme poverty. Respect for private property allowed these “Asian tiger” economies to thrive, while socialist policies and corruption still keep 40% of sub-Saharan Africans in extreme poverty.

Dettloff rails against billionaires developing things like personal space travel, but one of capitalism’s strengths is its ability to turn luxuries for the rich into common items for the poor. Even if most people never go to space, research from private enterprises like Tesla is often used to produce things like water filtration systems and solar power technologies that improve living standards for the poor. Indeed, without competition and free collaboration in the private sector to spur innovation, communist societies have only been notable in producing exploding televisions and bread lines.

Indeed, if capitalist countries really are so exploitative and communist countries are actually “worker’s paradises” then why have communists, from the Soviet Union to North Korea, always used their border security to prevent illegal escape while free market countries use border security to prevent illegal entry?

4. Communism, rather than capitalism, is intrinsically evil

While Pope Pius XI said “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” he also said the free market, “is not to be condemned in itself” and the State should make sure it adheres to “norms of right order.” Pope St. John Paul II also affirmed that capitalism can be practiced morally in Centesimus Annus while saying, “the Marxist solution has failed.”

Free economies are fundamentally about the voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services—exchanges that arise in societies long before sophisticated capital markets. A motto for it could be, “Give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want.” Obviously this isn’t a profound altruism like, “Give to those in need regardless of what you want,” but capitalism isn’t meant to be a profound moral system.

Capitalism, in spite of its flaws, is an economic tool that encourages people to channel their God-given self-interest in a way that indirectly brings about good for others. When it comes to economic systems, it’s far superior to communism, which we can define as:Give the State what you have and the State will give you what it thinks you need.” That’s why Pope Leo XIII said this system reaps a “harvest of misery” and Pius XI condemned it in terms that ultimately leaves Dettloff and others like him with a dead end for their “Catholic communism:”

Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever.

Portions of this article are adapted from Trent Horn and Catherine Pakaluk’s forthcoming book, Why Catholics Can’t be Socialists, published by Catholic Answers Press.

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