Socialism, Catholicism, & the Common Good
In response to a prior post in which I expressed some support for higher taxes and more wealth distribution, a commenter suggested that “no thinking Catholic can support socialistic solutions to the problems of our fallen world,” on the grounds that such solutions limit “authentic freedom.” Darwin has already ably addressed the comment as it pertains to freedom. The Catholic understanding of freedom (i.e. freedom to do the good), is very different than freedom understood as the absence of government interference with individual choice. The former describes the freedom to be virtuous; the latter the freedom to do as we wish with private property.
But I think the commenter was correct in noting that the Church recognizes a right to private property. And this suggests that there is a tension between socialism and Catholic thought.
To prevent confusion, I should probably define my terms. I understand socialism to mean the following (with thanks to Webster’s):
a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.
It seems fairly clear to me that the Church does not call for socialism. See, for instance, the Catechism:
2402 …The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge…
However, the Church, is quick to acknowledge that this right to private property is not absolute:
2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.
2405 Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.
2406 Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.189
Apologies for the lengthy block quotations, but its easy to over-emphasize one side or the other. It seems clear to me the Church says both that 1) Individuals have a right to private property; and 2) That political authorities can regulate this right (i.e. through taxes) for the common good.
The Church’s emphasis on the primordial universal destination of goods, and admonition that those who hold goods should use them “with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor,” is an important corrective to the pervasive materialistic individualism in the U.S. Conversely, the Church’s insistence that people have a right to private property serves as a rebuke to the experiments in state-owned property which deprived so many of their freedom and dignity in the twentieth century.
Notice, though, that the Church provides a basic framework here, rather than a series of detailed instructions. Most of our domestic policy debates about health care, social security, unemployment insurance, etc. are not directly addressed by Catholic Social Teaching. Private property rights are well protected in the United States, and the Catechism says that the government has the right to place limitations on private property “for the common good.”
In one sense, then, I agree with the commenter above that Catholics should not support entirely socialistic solutions to our problems. But neither should we support unfettered property rights that privilege individual consumption at the expense of the poor. Depending on the issue, I tend to favor more redistribution of wealth rather than less in our current political circumstances. I favor this not because I like paying more taxes, but because I think that it is more consonant with Catholic Social Teaching and the preferential option for the poor (to be clear, my conception of ‘the poor’ does not include the Big Three).
Admittedly, the government does few things well, and many things poorly. But, to quote G.K. Chesterton, anything worth doing is worth doing badly. The alternative to a poorly run government program is often no assistance at all. And a society as wealthy as ours has serious obligations to the less fortunate. At the same time, I recognize there are plenty of situations in which wealth redistribution can harm the common good (in darker moments, it seems to me that Congress was invented specifically to identify and exploit such situations).
There is room for disagreement about whether additional spending will or will not help the common good. But it is important to recognize the scope of the disagreement. We are (or should be) arguing about what will best serve the common good in a particular circumstance. This is a prudential dispute rather than an argument about who is more Catholic. Socialism isn’t Catholic. Neither is the unrestricted right to private property. Concern for the common good is.