In Quadragesimo Anno (“40 Years Later”), Pope Pius XI reflected on themes Leo XIII put forward in Rerum Novarum, including the debate between capitalist and socialist economic systems. Like his predecessor, Pius XI had strong words for capitalists who hoarded wealth and treated workers as dispensable commodities. But he also said, “This [capitalist] system is not to be condemned in itself. And surely it is not of its own nature vicious” (QA 101).
He went on to say, “When it comes to the present [capitalist] economic system, we have found it laboring under the gravest of evils.” But while these evils could be remedied, the same was not true for socialism. Pius bluntly declared, “We have also summoned communism and socialism again to judgment and have found all their forms, even the most modified, to wander far from the precepts of the gospel” (QA 128).
The seductive poison of socialism
Jose Mena claims, “The Church’s condemnations of socialism tend to focus on other facets of left-wing political tradition: its thoroughgoing materialism and atheism, its hatred for God and for the natural family, and its totalitarian historical aspect.” He insists the Catholic tradition still allows for a moderate socialism that orders private property to the common good through governmental oversight.
First, it is not a coincidence that the major socialist states throughout history—the U.S.S.R, China, North Korea, Albania, and Cambodia—have always been atheistic or have suppressed religious freedom. Lenin said, “Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organization, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class” (“The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion”).
In order to complete their revolt against the upper class, their rivals in religion had to be done away with as well. 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, recalled, “We [were like] chickens in a shed, from which the cook snatches out her victim in turn” (The Soviet Union on the Brink, 83). The much smaller Catholic Church fared no better; by 1926, there were no Catholic bishops in the country, and by 1941 there were only two Catholic churches.
Second, Pius XI was aware of a socialism that “not only professes the rejection of violence but modifies and tempers to some degree, if it does not reject entirely, the class struggle and the abolition of private ownership” (QA 112). He commends the “just demands” of these socialists (such as stronger unions and worker protections) but says their advocacy is unnecessary because there is “nothing in them now which is inconsistent with Christian truth, and much less are they special to socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become socialists” (QA 115).
Pius then spells out the matter to Christians who wait “in suspense” to see if Christianity and socialism can ever be compatible with one another:
We make this pronouncement: whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, socialism, if it remains truly socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth (QA 117).
Even if it doesn’t reject the existence of God or send dissenters to the gulags (e.g., Siberian prison camps) or terrorize the population with secret police, true socialism is not compatible with Christianity. One reason is because socialism rejects the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. This is the belief that a central authority should subside or “sit back” and intervene only when lower, local authorities cannot address a problem.
Pius formulated this principle that “cannot be set aside or changed,” this way:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do (QA 79).
Even Brianne Jacobs in her defense of democratic socialism admits that Catholic social teaching “has a clear warning about socialism” that is “related to the principle of subsidiarity, which states that individuals’ needs should be met by local government or civil society whenever that is feasible.”
The problem for socialism, be it radical or moderate, is that it says local authorities can’t routinely provide for their own welfare and so a central authority (such as the federal government) must do it for them. This rejection of subsidiarity is especially evident in socialism’s scorn for the most fundamental local unit of authority in society: the family.
Abolish the family?
In 1930—nearly coincident with his economic encyclical and not for nothing—Pope Pius XI wrote Casti Connubi, an encyclical on Christian marriage and the family that upheld the Church’s teaching on contraception when many people were justifying it in light of the Great Depression. But he also spoke of another sin against the family that seemed appealing to the economically disadvantaged: communism.
He gives as one example “the daily increasing corruption of morals and the unheard of degradation of the family in those lands where communism reigns unchecked.” Pius also cites Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on Christian marriage written fifty years earlier, which declared that “unless things change, the human family and State have every reason to fear lest they should suffer absolute ruin” (Casti Connubi, 92).
Both popes were repudiating the modern acceptance of divorce and warning how the destruction of the family leads to the destruction of the State because the family is the foundation of the State. But for socialists, a collective State could not exist without the destruction of the family. That’s why The Communist Manifesto declares, “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical [men] flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.”
In 1880, Friedrich Engels argued in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State that families bound together in matrimony were a modern invention created for the purpose of consolidating wealth. Wealth could be redistributed only once the family unit was broken apart and dissolved into society as a whole.
The early Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called ‘family hearth’” and replace it with a “complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society.” This absorption included the indoctrination of children in government schools, or as Pope Pius XI described it:
There is a country where the children are actually being torn from the bosom of the family to be formed (or, to speak more accurately, to be deformed and depraved) in godless schools and associations, to irreligion and hatred, according to the theories of advanced socialism; and thus is renewed in a real and more terrible manner the slaughter of the Innocents (Divini Illius Magistri, 73).
Another early Soviet revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, said marriage isn’t needed because, through “the collectivism of spirit” as she calls it, “the ‘cold of inner loneliness’ from which people in bourgeois culture have attempted to escape through love and marriage will disappear” (The Stalin Era, 154).
It’s no wonder Pope Leo XIII denounced those who “think that the inherent character of marriage can be perverted with impunity; and who, disregarding the sanctity of religion and of the sacrament.” He warned that both private families and public society risked being “miserably driven into that general confusion and overthrow of order which is even now the wicked aim of socialists and communists” (Arcanum, 32).
The intrinsic evil of communism
While moderate socialism should be lauded for its rejection of class warfare, Pius XI points out that it either adopts the same pro-social ideals of Christian social teaching (and is thus a redundant aberration that only confuses things that are not the same) or it “sinks into communism.” If it does the latter, then it is beyond any hope of salvaging because, as the Pope wrote in Divini Redemptoris, “Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever” (58).
To say that something is intrinsically wrong means that it is never permissible under any circumstances. War can become wrong if it is waged unjustly, but genocide is wrong because it is always wrong to violate an innocent person’s right to life. Likewise, capitalism can become wrong if it allows evils like wage-theft to take place, but it’s not always intrinsically wrong.
Communism, on the other hand, is wrong by its very nature because it violates a person’s right to private property. Instead of respecting people’s freedom to form families and associations for their good, socialists “hold that men are obliged, with respect to the producing of goods, to surrender and subject themselves entirely to society.” Pius explains how this goal naturally leads to oppression:
Indeed, possession of the greatest possible supply of things that serve the advantages of this life is considered of such great importance that the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a secondary place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods (QA 119).
This inherent infringement of liberty can be seen in the common tactic of using secret police to maintain order in socialist states. Since socialism relies on central planning, it cannot tolerate the existence of any kind of market, including informal ones. In most countries, the black market deals with illegal products such as drugs and weapons. But in a socialist country, the exchange of any product outside government venues constitutes an illegal black market that must be eliminated lest it disrupt the central planners’ carefully laid “plans.”
In socialist East Germany, the secret police, or Stasi, assigned one spy for every six citizens. Hundreds of thousands of part-time “informers” were also tasked with keeping tabs on the activities of their neighbors. According to John Koehler, a reporter who worked in East and West Germany, “It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests” (Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police, 9).
Indeed, this same pattern of oppression and disrespect of human rights can be seen in the corpses socialism left behind as it swept the globe in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Back in the U.S.S.R
In 1971, Pope Paul VI lamented Christians being deceived into supporting an unrealistic socialism over sound Catholic social doctrine. He wrote, “Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity, and equality” (Octogesima Adveniens 31). He pointed out that support for the dignity of workers and human rights is properly found in Christian moral teaching. An example of this during the Cold War was Poland’s solidarity movement.
In the 1980s, Polish workers formed the first non–state-controlled trade union in a communist country and called it Solidarity. It used nonviolent tactics in order to oppose communist oppression of workers and received significant support from the Catholic Church. For example, when communists imposed martial law in order to disrupt union activity, Catholic Masses became one of the few safe places for people to gather in public.
This wasn’t just for political show; many members of Solidarity were devout Catholics who kept images of the Blessed Virgin at their factory work posts. One outspoken priest, Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, not only offered Mass but preached against the government’s socialist policies.
He knew such actions were dangerous but considered them better than doing nothing in the face of evil:
To preserve one’s dignity as man is to remain interiorly free even in external slavery, to remain oneself in all situations of life, to remain in the truth, even if that is to cost us dearly. Because it costs a lot to speak the truth. Only the weeds, in other words, petty, mediocre things, are cheap. But for the wheat of truth, as with all great and beautiful things, one must pay the demanding price of self-sacrifice (Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko: Truth versus Totalitarianism, trans. Michael J. Miller, 110).
Fr. Popiełuszko paid this price on October 19, 1984, when three members of the country’s security service kidnapped the thirty-seven-year-old priest, beat him to death, and dumped his body into a reservoir. Far from crushing the movement, Popiełuszko‘s death galvanized Solidarity, and the Church has declared him a beatified martyr.
In May 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall but four months before the Soviet Union officially dissolved, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical called Centisimus Annus (“One Hundred Years Later”) in honor of Pope Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum. He said, “By defining the nature of the socialism of his day as the suppression of private property, Leo XIII arrived at the crux of the problem” (CA 12). He then says “the Marxist solution has failed” because
A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own,” and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person and hinders progress toward the building up of an authentic human community (CA 13).
The fall of communism did not mean that the answers to man’s economic problems were suddenly clear. It “certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems,” but the pope makes it clear that the problems of poverty and corruption still remain. While some people may say that capitalism can now take over and address those problems, the Church takes a more nuanced approach. The saint pope even warned of a radical capitalistic ideology that “blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces” (42).
This does not mean capitalism is an opposing evil to socialism. Instead, it means that any science that aims to increase human well-being, be it medicine, politics, or economics, must be guided by sound principles ordered toward our ultimate well-being as human beings made in the image of God.