Often in America, the word “socialism” is used quite liberally. For example, if someone suggests a new government program to help some group, it often encounters the charge of socialism. Sadly, this misunderstanding not only falsely labels innocent and well-minded people as socialists but also undermines the Church’s teaching on the issue.
This mislabeling was best seen during President Obama’s administration. As the Daily Mail reported in its 2009 article, “A million march to U.S. Capitol to protest against ‘Obama the socialist,’” Obama was accused of promoting a socialist reform of healthcare. However, does this change — giving government support to citizens who need healthcare — really count as socialism?
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII promulgated “Rerum Novarum,” an encyclical addressing the working class in the modern world. He decried the abuse of the poor by the rich and the destruction of religion that took place in many nations. However, he also condemned the socialists who attempted to rile up the masses in their vulnerable state. Yet, the socialism addressed by Leo XIII is not what many Americans today call “socialism.”
Leo XIII established certain marks of the socialist, such as “striving to do away with private property” and “contend(ing) that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.” I do not of know a single serious politician in America who wants those things.
While many Americans call for a larger place for the government in society, they do not want to destroy private property. Instead, in limited and specific ways, they want to redistribute wealth through taxation — perhaps higher taxation — for the sake of those in need and for the common good. This is not a socialist ideal. Instead, it is based on Catholic principles.
For example, Pius XI saw the necessary role that the government plays in providing education to its citizens. In “Quas Primas,” Pius XI said that Jesus Christ will judge the nations according to both how well the state “ma(de) laws and … administer(ed) justice” and whether it “provid(ed) for the young a sound moral education.” This does not take away the role of the parents and the pastors in also providing education. Instead, it reinforces their importance by showing that every part of society — even the state — has an obligation to ensure it.
This position, shocking to some, is due to the fundamentally different view that the Catholic Church has toward government. The government, in principle, is not a dangerous entity to be kept at bay. Instead, it is a means of divine blessing to man and is essential to any human society, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1919-20 explains.
The government is this means of blessing when it functions well, ensuring the common good. This must include the social wellbeing of its citizens. As CCC 1908 explains, it is the government’s responsibility to “make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.”
It is this that really rubs the American mind the wrong way. America was simply founded on another philosophy, an Enlightenment philosophy that believed that the government simply needs to get out of the way. Contrariwise, Our Lord commissions the government to be a benefit to our lives.
As Americans, we ought not think that our country is the ideal country. Pope Leo XIII certainly did not think so. For example, in his encyclical “Longinqua,” while commending America for allowing the Catholic Church to function within its borders, he also teaches that “it would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the Church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for State and Church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced.”
In the same way, just because the American government has not assisted in various ways, such as in public access to healthcare, food, education, etc., does not mean that she should not now. It is good to recognize the faulty parts of the American tradition and seek to liberate this great country of ours from them.
This is why I believe that the American government should play a larger, though different, role in our lives. It is not perfect, and its despicable and evil parts which murder children, encourage sodomy and illicitly spy on its citizens should be destroyed. However, it should promote the common good and be that true blessing which Our Lord desires. It is on this foundation — and on the belief that, for example, single-payer healthcare, reasonable welfare policy and strong environmental regulations are the best ways to achieve that common good — that I am a liberal and not a socialist.
The early Church and almost every religious order follow a form of socialism or communism (holding things in common and not seeing red). Chapter 34 in the Rule of St. Benedict gives good insight into this. I bet if you ask any of the TOR brothers, they can tell you about similar ways they hold things in common too. 👍