Capitalist Casuistry: A Review of Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?

A recent book purports to be an authoritative demonstration of the impossibility of being Catholic and socialist. Instead, it is a poorly argued apologia for an economic system that violates the common good and misconstrues Catholic tradition.

The recent volume Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? by Trent Horn and Catherine Pakaluk (hereafter: H&P) purports to be a defense of unchanging and infallible magisterial teaching about economic organization on the scale of entire societies. What it really amounts to is a seemingly endless exercise in proof-texting and rhetorical sleight of hand, one that might go over well in an insular high school debate circuit populated by creationist homeschoolers whose peppy, clean-cut coaches display the kind of enthusiasm and illiteracy that bodes well for future careers in car sales or the ministry. It is less a book to be read and considered than an intellectual teddy bear, full to bursting with fluff and capable of providing comfort to children or the childish who have yet to develop the courage to face the world as it is.


H&P’s introduction seems to make their project clear. After the industrial revolution, “Christians…had access to more wealth and political power than they had ever possessed in the history of the world, but it wasn’t clear how those things should be used to help the poor” (H&P 8). This motivated the publication of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical that is commonly cited as the beginning of Catholic Social Teaching. It is this social teaching that H&P propose to apply, first to the theoretical underpinnings of socialism and then to the historical development of socialist thought and practice before, so they say, turning that same attention to capitalism. This is, in a way, a useful project, because it ultimately demonstrates the inadequacy of Catholic Social Teaching as a response to the great evils of the 20th century, revealing it to be a series of strategic compromises that articulate the Catholic tradition’s gentlest criticisms of liberalism and profiteering while failing to take seriously its much older, more radical, and more realistic articulation of the civic and moral dangers of wealth stratification.


H&P begin their argument with an account of the early years of the Plymouth Colony settled by the Puritans. By their telling, “in the spring of 1621 the Plymouth colonists were in danger of starving to death and, despite what you were told in elementary school, it wasn’t harsh weather or ignorance about farming that led to these circumstances. Instead, it was the pilgrims’ policy of sharing communal plots of land that nearly led to their ruin” (H&P 19). This is an old right-wing tale that became prominent during the heyday of the Cold War, but it suffers from several glaring omissions that will become paradigmatic for their argument as a whole. The first and most alarming is that the colonists had just emerged from an epidemic that killed half of their number and left many of them incapacitated during February and March; that H&P trace the colonists’ dire economic circumstances to collectivization rather than mass death and a prolonged labor shortage suggests a strong tolerance for distorting the historical and scholarly record in favor of their argument, so long as they do not print outright falsehoods and merely withhold vital information. This sort of casuistry seems more appropriate to the most licentious 17th-century Jesuits than to a supposedly straightforward primer of Catholic political theology, but the diligent apologists at Catholic Answers will doubtless be able to apologize for this as well.


The second paradigmatic omission in H&P’s account is that the Plymouth colonists were not utopian dreamers attempting collective farming out of a belief in universal harmony. On the contrary, there was no “collective ownership” at all: the land, houses, and farming tools were all the property of a joint-stock company that had invested in their expedition in the hope of turning a profit. It was this corporate owner that imposed a counterproductive and inefficient farming system that had very little “collective” character at all. Rather, all farming profits remained private, but the plots of land farmed by each household rotated annually, so that improvements did not really benefit the community as a whole, but only improved the private harvest of the families who later cycled through the improved plots. This was not sound farming practice, as many colonists well knew: even before their contact with the Abenaki and Wôpanâak peoples, they had come from villages and towns in England that had practiced both tenant and communal agriculture for centuries. But H&P ignore both the history of collective agricultural management in England and the actual origin of the Plymouth Colony’s farming arrangement, inaugurating a pattern of argument in which they consistently refuse to hold capitalism responsible for the various crises and disasters that have arisen due to its systemic contradictions.


These systemic contradictions are, in fact, entirely lost on H&P, as it is evident that they have not made a serious attempt to understand the socialist criticisms of capitalism. “According to [Marxist socialists], inequalities are the source of all conflict between human beings and so, once classes like rich and poor are a thing of the past, then conflict between human beings will cease as well” (H&P 28). They would do well to take their cues from that great exponent of contemporary Thomist thought, Fr. Herbert McCabe. As McCabe clearly explains,


“The class struggle is not, in the first place, a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It has very little to do with what people in England call ‘class distinctions,’ meaning a peculiarly English kind of snobbery. It is not differences of wealth that cause class differences, but class differences that cause differences of wealth. The worker by his labor creates a certain amount of wealth, only part of which is returned to him in the form of wages, etc. The rest is appropriated by the employer, or capitalist, so called because his function is to accumulate capital in this way. The capitalist receives from a great many workers the extra wealth which they produce but do not need for their subsistence and minimal contentment, and bringing all this wealth together he is able to invest, to provide the conditions under which more work may be done — and so on.”


This is as good a summary of the Marxist critique as anyone has ever written, from a respected and orthodox theologian. Note how H&P have dramatically mistaken both the definition of “class” and the central problem with capitalism. Class is not simply having more wealth than another person, but having a different relationship to economic production: this relationship means that those who own things and enter the market as capitalists have, in fact, no choice but to behave in the most immoral and scandalous way toward their workers, because that is the only way to keep the process of capital accumulation going. In order for a capitalist to compete in the market, they must cut their costs to the maximum extent that the law and the economy will allow.


H&P employ a similarly ham-fisted reading strategy when approaching the various encyclicals that make up Catholic Social Teaching. The base of their criticism is that socialism abridges a natural right to private property, and they understand this as roughly encompassing the contemporary liberal legal regime of absolute use. For any Catholic, this ought to be alarming: what we understand as private property only came into existence in 1788, when Steel v Houghton was decided by the British House of Lords and empowered landowners to ban gleaning, the practice of foraging crops left over from the harvest that had been a right of the poor under Biblical and common law for over a thousand years.


The unrestricted right of use or disposal has never been part of the teaching of the Church, and when ecclesiastical sources say “private property” it is absolutely vital to take this into account. Rather than being a natural individual right of unrestricted use, it is instead a right rooted in the common good, as H&P acknowledge, and is therefore always a secondary concern. Aquinas specifically defines private property as a right of use: “In this way the human being has a natural dominion over exterior things, since by reason and will he is able to use exterior things for his own benefit as things made for him” (IIa-IIae q. 66 a. 1 co.). This right is always subordinate to human need, since “things which belong to human right cannot set aside natural right or divine right” (IIa-IIae q. 66 a. 7 co.), and therefore “if…the need is so urgent and obvious that the present need must obviously be met by whatever means happen to be at hand (for instance, when a person is in immediate danger and cannot otherwise be helped), then someone may lawfully meet their own need out of someone else’s property, whether they take that property secretly or openly, and this action does not properly have the character of theft or robbery” (ibid.). 


With this understanding in mind, one of the distinctions employed by socialists and anarchists becomes much clearer and more useful: the distinction between personal and private property. It is personal property—the things we use to carry out the immediate tasks of our day to day life, to make our living, and to satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter, company, and play—that hews most closely to the right of property outlined by Aquinas. What the left calls “private property” is distinguished from personal property precisely by a lack of use: its owner neither uses it themselves nor turns it toward the benefit of others, but rather keeps others from it except on the condition that those others use that property primarily for the owner’s benefit. That is the absolute doctrine of private property that was only fully realized in 1788, and this is the form of property that socialists want to abolish while emphatically preserving people’s right to the necessities and enjoyments of life.


This distinction is vital, because H&P’s defense of private property rests on a reading of Leo XIII which attempts to import an alien understanding of property into the foundational documents of Catholic Social Teaching. They quote his letter on socialism, which complains that socialists “assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law” (Quod Apostolici Muneris 1). This, they contend, means that “he condemned socialism because of its lack of respect toward the natural right to private property” (H&P 65, emphasis original). But private property as private use is not a natural right: it arises out of human law and is not contrary to natural law but supplementary to it (ST IIa-IIae q. 66. a. 2 ad 1). And indeed, Leo does not refer to a natural right to property, but rather to “the right…sanctioned by natural law,” that is, the sort of private right of use that natural law neither forbids nor mandates. This cannot be underscored enough: the natural right that socialists supposedly disregard does not exist in the Catholic tradition. This essential fact is obscured sometimes by the language in which Leo XIII articulates his definition of property:


“Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life’s well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill. Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates – that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right.” (Rerum Novarum 9)


This draws heavily on Locke’s justification for liberal private property rights, in which one acquires an absolute right to property precisely by “mixing” one’s labor with the land, although what it means to “mix” one’s labor is left wildly unspecified. This is, however, an articulation of property rights formulated explicitly in contrast to Catholic natural law, and it would be extremely dangerous to assume that a pope was breaking with centuries of established doctrine in order to align himself with a deliberately anti-Catholic formulation.  Hence, we must read Leo as perhaps poorly articulating but maintaining traditional doctrines of property: the right to property belongs to human law and must always be circumscribed by human needs and the common good, both of which belong to more fundamental tiers of law. The criticism of socialists is that capitalist property arrangements, whereby vast quantities of property can be held by someone who uses it neither personally nor in common with others, do not serve the common good and must therefore be abolished. One can dispute the truth of the premise, but the reasoning is the very soul of Catholic orthodoxy.


And H&P do attempt to contest this premise and argue that capitalist doctrines of property and the ensuing social arrangements serve the common good. They make this argument primarily through a fairy-tale description of capitalism that resembles nothing so much as a children’s book published by the Cato Institute, replete with such tawdry libertarian canards as “in a free market, no one can force you to buy what a business is selling; the business has to persuade you to enter freely into a mutually beneficial exchange” (H&P 117-8) or “capitalism also flows from our natural human creativity” (ibid.).


They contend that “it’s also a fallacy to compare real-world capitalism…to an idealized socialism that never has and never can exist because of our fallen human nature” (H&P 121-2), but the reverse is apparently fair play, because the many genuine abuses of humanity that have been carried out by regimes calling themselves “socialist” receive detailed (though still unreliable) coverage, while the horrors of capitalist industrialization and the atrocities committed in the name of economic liberalization (e.g. the ongoing environmental and human catastrophes of coal mining, the production of bottled water at the expense of nearby communities’ access to running water, or police responding to small-scale property crimes with state-sanctioned murder) are brushed aside as individual moral aberrations. This is not the approach of people attempting a serious exposition of Catholic thought, or indeed of people attempting thought at all: it is a series of comforting stories couched in pre-digested clichés, designed to reassure people who buy cheap coal power, consume cases of bottled water, and call police when they see a Black person that nothing is wrong with them and nothing needs to change. It is a moral soporific for the idolatry of Mammon.


To take the question seriously would mean asking why capitalism refuses to be humanized and continues to be an engine of misery. Answering that question demands a serious and systemic critique of capitalism, and since H&P largely limit their doctrinal sources to the encyclicals that lay out Catholic Social Teaching (setting aside their mercifully brief foray into biblical philology, a field in which they display little training and less aptitude), this is not something their volume can accomplish, because Catholic Social Teaching itself does not, except in rare instances, offer systemic critiques of social systems. As T&H note in their introduction, it was articulated as a series of responses to contemporary social problems, reminding Catholics of the moral issues and principles that must guide any Catholic response and providing contemporary guidance. But these responses exhaust their use when capitalism itself stymies our attempts to impose the principles of justice demanded by our faith on the economic order, and we must look beyond them to see our world as it is now in order to formulate a truly Catholic response.


Pope Francis has begun some of this work in decrying the “structurally perverse” economic relationship of wealthy countries to the economies and resources of countries in the Global South, in which “developing countries…continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future” (Laudato si’ 52). His encyclical draws on the work done in social and natural sciences that illuminates how closely connected our economic and environmental problems are and how far-reaching the necessary changes will need to be. Most importantly, it warns those of us living at the heart of global capitalism that our personal acts of piety are not enough. By contrast, H&P suggest in their final chapter that a moral existence within capitalism can be accomplished by occasional fasts from shopping and a few half-hearted attempts at paying more than the minimum wage; if this is impossible (and on page 137 they admit that paying a just wage in all occupations is impossible under modem capitalism), then they seem content to write it off as the consequence of someone else’s sin.


This book was written and printed in response to the growing and unavoidable awareness that our economic system does not serve the common good, and its project is to quell this uneasiness by assuring its audience that nothing is fundamentally wrong. In doing so, it asks readers to defy their basic moral sense and to close their eyes and hearts to the suffering of the poor on which American prosperity depends. It offers lip service to labor unions but says nothing about the duty of Catholics to oppose union-busting measures by employers or the state, and rejects out of hand the possibility of even a strong welfare state to temper capitalism’s excesses. Its treatment of history ranges from shoddy to flatly dishonest, and it spends an unconscionable number of pages covering people with whom Trent Horn has fought on Twitter rather than grappling with the serious critiques of capitalist order from within the Catholic tradition.


Prospective readers will receive a far more thorough and humane education in Catholic social and economic doctrine from putting in regular shifts serving and talking with guests at their parish soup kitchen, and they will be doing work to ameliorate some of the evil of capitalism, rather than trying to convince themselves that God has made the suffering of the poor somebody else’s problem.


Daniel Walden is a writer and doctoral candidate in Classical Studies. He spends his non-work hours thinking about Thomistic Marxism, musical theatre, and the Michigan Wolverines.


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