Socialism Among the Socially Distanced

Anna Abbott,

Socialism goes against human nature. It’s no surprise that today’s socialists call for an end to the family.

With record numbers unemployed, “nonessential” businesses shuttered, livelihoods shattered and rioting in major cities, apologist Trent Horn and economist Catherine R. Pakaluk’s Can a Catholic be a Socialist? (The Answer is No — Here’s Why) (Catholic Answers, El Cajon, 2020) is eerily prescient.

The opening chapter, “The Return of Socialism,” explains why economic distress leads to support for socialism. One can see why “Medicare for all” and “universal income” look like lifesavers in a time of crisis.

The value of this book is its discussion of Catholicism and socialism. Catholics, who in good faith, believe socialism and Catholicism are compatible will be given arguments that flatly contradict their theory.

The authors define socialism as “government ownership of the economy and the abolishment of private property.” They further elaborate, “Under socialism, governments create and sustain the production of goods and services by running businesses and employing individuals.”

Can a Catholic Be a Socialist? addresses whether the early Christians were socialists, and if Jesus preached against capitalism. The controversial quote is Acts 2:44-45, which states, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” Horn and Pakaluk clearly explain that this was about voluntarily helping the poor, rather than a communal utopia. They show that historical Christianity enjoins freewill offerings, instead of coercive “wealth redistribution.”

They also show that in the case of Ananias and Saphira, it was dishonesty that was deadly (Acts 5:4-6,9-10). St. Peter clarifies their property belonged to them (Acts 5:4). They had broken the Ninth Commandment on lying.

It would be redundant to renounce evil; that is assumed. As Christians, we are called to renounce all evils at baptism. But members of religious orders renounce the good of private property because its renunciation fosters humility and charity.

But between the chapters “The False ‘First Socialists’” (about the early Christians) and “The Real ‘First Socialists’” (about Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), there is a significant lapse of time. They mention the Middle Ages, only to leap forward several centuries to 1844, when Marx met Engels in Paris. In an unusual lacuna for them, socialism comes across like Athena, spontaneously born from Zeus’ brow.

However, delving into history beyond the book, shows the early Church Fathers and St. Thomas Aquinas defended private property. St. Clement of Alexandria penned “What Rich Man May Be Saved?” He argued that the wealthy can have the virtue of being “poor in spirit,” and that it is the right use of riches that is important. Saints Ambrose, Basil, and Cyprian called on the wealthy to be charitable, rather than for “class warfare.” St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, saw private property as integral to societal order. He called for wise stewardship.

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Aquinas discussed this in-depth in Question 66 about theft and robbery. He wrote:

It is lawful for man to possess property… Every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens when there is a great number of servants… Human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately… A more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.

Aquinas concludes, “The ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.” The Angelic Doctor not only built on the Church Fathers and Scripture, but natural law and reason.

In a sense, the Church defended capitalism before it came to the forefront in the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. The authors mention the Middle Ages, explaining that serfs owned property.

Further back, the Old Testament saw private property as a God-given right. Stealing and coveting another’s property go against the Decalogue. This shows that socialism is opposed to God’s will. The book discusses the New Testament, but its predecessor is omitted.

However, socialism was coming into its own before Marx and Engels met in 1844 in Paris. There was the Brook Farm commune in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, that lasted from 1841 to 1847 and immortalized by author Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance. Author Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, had the short-lived Fruitlands commune at Harvard that lasted from 1843 to 1844. The Hopedale Community in Milford, Massachusetts, lasted from 1842 to 1856. There were Fourier Phalanxes (inspired by socialist Charles Fourier), Icarians (inspired by socialist Etienne Cabet) and Owenite communities (inspired by utopian socialist Robert Owen) sprinkled throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Horn and Pakaluk briefly mention the Icarians, whose colony in Iowa lasted from 1860 to 1898. They note that a generational divide spelled its end.

All that remains of the Icarian-Speranza Utopian Colony in Cloverdale, California, is a historical marker. The Owenite community in New Harmony, Indiana, fell when one of the members stole the profits. Fruitlands’ agricultural enterprise collapsed because of New England’s harshness.

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The point is that the idea of socialism was in the air before 1844; the founders needed time to plan, get converts, land and money, to raise the socialist utopias they later established.

All these utopian communities ended because the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be realized on Earth. But also, it is why the socialists fail to sell the idea of “utopias” today, even though they are built on socialism. Failed utopias do not give socialists successful examples. The authors disprove the “Nordic Myth.” Socialist countries like North Korea, Nigeria, Nicaragua and Cuba hardly inspire confidence.

In addition, socialism calls for the abolition of the family; the authors demonstrate this persuasively. They cite Pope Leo XIII’s lesser-known 1880 encyclical Arcanum Divinae in which he denounces Communism for denigrating marriage. They also cite Engels’ “Origin of the Family” (1884) in which he claims the traditional family is about power.

Engels’ condemnation of the family was hardly new; other reading shows he had inspiration. The French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and the Welsh socialist philosopher Robert Owen (1771-1858) deemed marriage oppressive. Socialism treats family as the ultimate inequality.

It is no surprise that today’s socialists call for an end to the family, supporting causes such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage. Redefinition of the family replaces it with the State.

Socialism goes against human nature. Horn and Pakaluk argue this strongly in “Leo XIII and Human Nature.” Socialism’s reductive view of humanity leaves people at the mercy of central planners. The authors demonstrate this with the terrible famines in Ukraine and China, as well as Venezuela’s current plight. China’s bungling of the COVID-19 crisis shows socialism’s fatal flaws.

Finally, socialism goes against religion, even if some take up the mantle of “Christian socialism” or “liberation theology.” The book cites the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1984 “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation.’” The Instruction warns, “Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights, are the core of the Marxist theory. This theory, then, contains errors which directly threaten the truths of the faith regarding the eternal destiny of individual persons.”

In this time of economic tribulation, the siren song of socialism sounds appealing. Horn and Pakaluk’s book is compelling not only for those who already agree but for those who have socialist sympathies. They show that socialism, far from ending poverty, exacerbates it. As Our Lord said (Luke 12:34), “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

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