Pope Leo XIII on Capitalism and Socialism

In response to attacks against religious freedom the American Catholic bishops have risen in defense of the church. However, many of the bishops, and many Catholics, have come to accept along the road the basic socialist principles that it is the government’s role to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care to its citizens. Thus, much of the Catholic community talks about how Obamacare’s attacks on religious freedom are wrong, but there’s some really good things in there too! Much of this sentiment is a reaction to our unfortunate corporatist system (which, sadly, too many Catholics – like Paul Ryan – support as well) in which the rich and the government cooperate to take from the poor and benefit the wealthy. The problem, however, is that the only way the government can provide services to the have-nots, either directly or indirectly, is through coercion, plunder and the destruction of liberty. This view is not in defense of the rich; socialism is not wrong primarily because it takes from the rich but because, like corporatism, it brings down society at large and harms the underprivileged most of all.

In The Law, 19th century political economist Frederic Bastiat explains that, if the privileged classes use the government for “legalized plunder”, this will encourage the lower classes to revolt or use socialist “legalized plunder” and that the correct response to both the socialists and the corporatists is to cease all “legalized plunder”. Bastiat also explains that the law cannot defend life, liberty, and property if it promotes socialist policies. When used to obtain “legalized plunder” for any group, he says, the law is perverted and turned against the very thing it is supposed to defend.

While many Catholics embrace socialist principles thinking that “capitalism has failed” they fail to recognize what capitalism even is. I think that many of our bishops make the same mistake and its not scandalous to say so. After all, they are priests – not economists – and while we would do well to always respect their authority we must also recognize their limitations. Those are the areas, not for rebellion, but for discussion. “Capitalism” is a broad term that refers to any economic model based in the individual ownership of property, a non-capitalist economy in contrast finds its basis in collective (that is, government) ownership of property. “Capitalism” may refer to both “good” and “bad” economic models: there’s corporatism mentioned above which probably best describes the United States (it is also the worst form of capitalism, combining the worst aspects of capitalism with the worst aspects of collectivism) but there’s also a hundred other variations like the classical liberal economic model embraced by Bastiat and even Chesterton’s distributism is fundamentally capitalist even though some distributism beg to differ (in fact, I would argue that distributism is even more capitalist in nature than many other capitalist models like corporatism in that property rights are more jealously protected for everyone, whereas corporatism demands systematic government seizure of property from the non-privileged).

So, while we must defend capitalism for the sake of our rights, we need not defend our nation’s particular model of capitalism. This idea, however, that we must embrace capitalism and reject collectivist models like socialism (or corporatism which is a rather special case, combining both capitalist and collectivist aspects) is not purely secular, it is not amoral and it certainly is not immoral or in any way contrary to Catholicism. While the American bishops have suggested that capitalism may be at least in part contrary to Catholic social justice teaching, Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, had the following to say on capitalism:

“Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”

“Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.”

“Private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature.”

“They assert that it is right for private persons to have the use of the soil and its various fruits, but that it is unjust for any one to possess outright either the land on which he has built or the estate which he has brought under cultivation. But those who deny these rights do not perceive that they are defrauding man of what his own labor has produced.”

“As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”

“The laws of nature, the foundations of the division of property, and the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquillity of human existence.”

“Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State.”

“Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.”

“”It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.””

And here’s what he had to say on socialism:

“the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community. “

“The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.”

“The sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.”

“Class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth.”

“At the present day many there are who, like the heathen of old, seek to blame and condemn the Church for such eminent charity. They would substitute in its stead a system of relief organized by the State. But no human expedients will ever make up for the devotedness and self sacrifice of Christian charity. Charity, as a virtue, pertains to the Church.”

Corporatism has failed. Every flavor of centrally planned government around the world has failed. Capitalism remains largely untried.

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2 thoughts on “Pope Leo XIII on Capitalism and Socialism

  1. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Christians serving in politics, ditto politicians serving the public while remaining devoted to their faiths. Much attention have been devoted to the choice of Mr. Ryan as the Catholic candidate (an alternative to Mr Biden who happens to be a Catholic also). If the outcome for this coming election pivots into who is the better Catholic VP candidate (wishful thinking though) then it’s not something Americans should worry about.

    I think much can be accomplished when more Americans abandon the narrative that the country can’t lead the world as a Christian community. Should there be a reason Christian Americans must all of a sudden think-twice of their religion’s role in promoting liberty even to themselves and their neighbors? Christianity was part of that flowering of liberty in America, I think it’s good that America once again is promoting their faiths during an election cycle.

    Please read my post Devotion in Faith is Just What Adam Smith Ordered http://onetenthblog.wordpress.com/tag/adam-smith/

    Thank you.

  2. Well, if you’ll read the whole encyclical, you’ll see that the state should aim for the welfare of its citizens like working wage and guarantees such as clothing, food and a place to live. A welfare state is not the same thing as socialism.

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