Socialism has once again made its way onto the political stage in the United States. Members of the Democratic party tout socialist agendas and policies, and often even refer to themselves explicitly as “Democratic Socialists.” This is not a new phenomenon, by any means. But it is certainly true that many Americans do not have a true grasp of what socialism really is, its implications, and how it has played out time and again in other countries and contexts. Catholics are no exception, and there are many Catholics who proudly wear the “socialist” label.
Trent Horn is staff apologist at Catholic Answers, and is a prolific writer, speaker, and podcaster. He is the author of numerous articles, and several books, including Counterfeit Christs, Made This Way (with Leila Miller), and The Case for Catholicism, among others. His latest book, written with Catherine Pakaluk, is Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?, which bears the subtitle The Answers is No – Here’s Why, is a knowledgeable but accessible examination of socialism and the Church’s response to it over the last two centuries.
Horn recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the book, socialism in this country, and the Catholic approach to socialism and related issues.
Catholic World Report: How did the book come to be? How did you and Catherine Pakaluk decide to write the book together?
Trent Horn: About 18 months ago I attended a retreat for supporters of Catholic Answers and one of the attendees suggested that I write a book on this subject. Studying socialism and economics has always been a hobby of mine, but I knew that if I were to write a book on the subject then I would have to collaborate with someone who was an expert on the subject. I then asked some of our Catholic Answers board members who they recommended and many of them came up with the same answer: Catherine Pakaluk.
I knew she was an associate professor of economics and was impressed with her “postcards for Macron” campaign from a few years ago where she launched a social media campaign against then French President Emmanuel Macron after he suggested that educated women don’t have large families (Catherine has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is also the mother of eight children).
After we spoke on the phone I knew we were on the same “wave-length” when it came to many of these issues and so we’d have good compatibility as co-authors. And, when I saw she had already written a peer-reviewed article on the papal encyclicals that criticized socialism I knew she would be a perfect co-author.
CWR: How do you account for the resurgence in socialism in this country in recent years?
Horn: It’s similar to when American communism reached its “heyday” in the 1930s during the Great Depression. During times of economic turmoil many people blame markets and capitalism for economic instability and are more inclined to think that government management of the economy would be better for everyone. Therefore, it’s no coincidence that so many young people have embraced favorable views of socialism after having lived through the “Great Recession” of the 2010s.
Previous generations vividly remember things like the bread lines of the Soviet Union and saw first-hand the misery that accompanies socialist policies. Modern generations, however, don’t associate socialism with these atrocities and younger readers of my book have told me they were shocked by the sections on socialist history in countries like the Soviet Union or Maoist China.
The other part of this resurgence can be attributed to not understanding the true nature of socialism. For example, many young people (and growing numbers of older people) mistakenly think socialism is the same thing as generous social welfare programs. But as we show in the book, economies that rely on such programs like Denmark or Sweden are not socialist ones. They require market-based economies to even exist at all and if they fully committed to socialism they would have suffered economic catastrophe.
CWR: Some people see socialism as the quintessentially Christian political system. What is so wrong about socialism? What is it that puts it at odds with Catholic Social Teaching?
Horn: Pope Pius XI dealt with this attitude in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which was published 40 years after Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on economic issues Rerum Novarum, which is probably the most famous papal denunciation of socialism.
He said that if socialism is defined broadly enough to just be “concern for the poor” then it’s not really socialism. He commends the “just demands” of these socialists (such as stronger unions and worker protections), but also said that 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” (115).
True socialism is wrong because it denies the natural right to own private property, the natural role of the family to provide for itself, and the natural order of the State existing for man’s flourishing rather than man existing so the State can flourish. That’s why Pope Pius XI categorically stated:
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 (117).
CWR: There is an interesting quote from Upton Sinclair in the book: “The American people will take socialism, but they won’t take the label. …Running on the Socialist ticket I got 60,000 votes, and running on the slogan to ‘End Poverty in California’ I got 879,000.” Do you think this reluctance of Americans to “take the label” speaks to the inherent problems in socialism, and the fact that people do recognize those problems?
Horn: I like to point out that certain intellectuals always condemn capitalism no matter how often it succeeds and they never condemn socialism no matter how often it fails. But for most people (especially older generations), the constant failure of socialism to lead to conditions that respect the dignity of the human person have been seared into their memory and so they are pre-disposed to reject it.
That’s why you’re seeing more people try to re-define socialism and say older forms of socialism were only wrong because they were practiced by authoritarian regimes. They claim we should now support a kinder, more democratic socialism. But Pope Leo XIII said the main tenet of socialism to be rejected is not its authoritarian nature, but rather the “community of goods” that rejects the right to private property. He says socialists
assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life (Quod Apostolici Muneris 1).
CWR: In 2019, America published an article titled “The Catholic Case for Communism.” Yet Pope Pius XI called communism “intrinsically wrong”. Is there a legitimate Catholic case to be made for communism?
Horn: No. The only way someone could make a case for “Catholic communism” would be if they redefined communism to be something it’s not through an overly-broad definition such as, “Communal living among members who share equally in the community’s goods.” But even among the groups where this might apply, like monasteries or single-family homes, there are “class structures” and authority figures, like the abbot of a monastery or the parents of a family, a communist would reject. There is no way to create a social unit, much less an entire whole, where there are no class divisions whatsoever. That’s why Pope Leo XIII said, “it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain” (Rerum Novarum, 17)
CWR: Is the socialism that is preached by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the same as the socialism Pope Leo XIII was writing against in Rerum Novarum? Is it different? How so?
Horn: Our book doesn’t weigh in on the policies of current U.S. politicians, but we do have a chapter on “democratic socialism.” Whether someone can support this kind of “socialism” depends on what they mean by a term that is highly malleable.
A Catholic can advocate for policies that cohere with Catholic social teaching, such as a preferential option for the poor or the right of laborers to form a union. But Catholics cannot pursue policies that result in de facto socialism, even if it’s called something else.
The Church’s condemnations against socialism would have remained the same even if Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other socialist leaders had been elected through a democratic process. Moreover, as we’ve seen, the Church has been aware of a peaceful “moderate socialism” and still rejects it as being a promotion of Christian values under the socialist banner with an eye toward enacting true socialism in the future.
CWR: We read in Acts of the Apostles that the apostles and first Christians held everything in common (cf. Acts 4:32). What’s the difference between this and socialism?
Horn: It’s the same as the difference between voluntarily giving your money to charity and having government seize your income to distribute it as they see fit. Just because the early Christians chose to live communally because they were rejected by most other elements of Jewish and Roman society doesn’t mean they were mandated to give up all their private property.
Indeed, that the first Christians did not practice a kind of socialism that required renouncing all private property is evident in the fact that St. Paul had to appeal to their generosity when funds were needed to support the Church (he didn’t just ask for funds from some kind of communal, apostolic fund made up of believer’s formerly held property).
Paul said he hoped his request would be seen “not as an exaction but as a willing gift. . . . Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:5,7).
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Horn: Both Catherine and I hope that this book will educate people about how faith and economic life intersect and show that socialism is not the means Jesus gave us to carry out his command to help the poor, but has been shown throughout history to be a disaster for the poor that, as Pope Leo XIII says, reaps a “harvest of misery.”
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