Can Pope Emeritus Benedict Save Socialism from Conservative Catholic Demagogues?

By: Michael Sean Winters

April 7, 2020

Ethical Questions for the Religious Voter

Until the Super Tuesday results put former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the prospect of Senator Bernie Sanders capturing the nomination raised a very interesting prospect: Would Catholics in the United States have to wrestle with the many ways Catholic social teaching and the tenets of democratic socialism overlap? In fact, it remains an interesting question because even if Biden is the nominee, he will need to unite the Democratic Party in order to win, and that will mean embracing at least some of Sanders’ ideas and vocabulary.

Socialism has meant different things at different times and places. The totalitarian version was rightly condemned by every pope who cared to write a social encyclical: It goes without saying that adoption of historical materialism, denying even the existence of spiritual forces in the world except to label them pernicious, is not reconcilable with the Catholic faith. Given the fact of human sinfulness, Catholic social teaching has long supported the right to private property as a bulwark of stability and freedom, albeit insisting on a social mortgage that attaches to all private property. Finally, the aggressive persecution of the Church in countries that adopted totalitarian versions of socialism created a deep and abiding animus. 

Sanders does not embrace totalitarian socialism and never has. The democratic socialism he does support contains many specific policies but also a general perspective that are quite obviously in line with Church teaching. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a quote from a leading Catholic theologian:

Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected. It also managed to appeal to various denominations. In England it became the political party of the Catholics, who had never felt at home among either the Protestant conservatives or the liberals. In Wilhelmine Germany, too, Catholic groups felt closer to democratic socialism than to the rigidly Prussian and Protestant conservative forces. In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness. 

Are these the words of some leftie liberation theologian? Probably a South American? No. These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI published in the conservative journal First Things in 2006.

Catholic social teaching has always prioritized labor over capital, as does democratic socialism. It has long supported the idea of public goods that should be achieved through the mechanisms of government seeking the common good: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation enacting old age insurance, federal jobs programs, banning child labor, breaking up monopolies, and supporting the right to organize were all anticipated in the writings of Msgr. John A. Ryan, the first director of the Social Action Department at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. The Church in Europe had no great difficulty working with postwar social democratic governments. 

Yet, in America today, religious believers tend to make their religion conform to their politics and not the other way around. And so, you have seen gross misrepresentations of Church teaching on the right from those who wish to stigmatize socialism and erect libertarian economic idols. Nowhere has this been more evident that in attacks on Medicare for All, one of Sanders’ signature proposals. 

Public Discourse, the magazine of the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton University, published a uniquely ridiculous article by Louis Brown. Setting aside the false claim that Medicare for All would represent socialized medicine, when it is only medical insurance that would be socialized, Brown frets that Catholic values would be irreparably harmed. “Patient freedom would not survive a single-payer federally controlled health care system. The right to life would not survive a single-payer health care system,” he thunders. “The right of religious freedom and faithfully Catholic health care would not survive such a federally controlled single-payer system.” Wow. Is Brown aware that most Catholic countries in the world—Italy, Spain, France, most of Latin America—have some form of single-payer system? That the United Kingdom really does have “socialized medicine” with its National Institute for Health (NIH), and that in the last election, the conservative candidate ran pledging to devote more resources to the NIH? 

One thing would be lost if the United States adopted Medicare for All: A prominent battlefield in the culture wars would vanish. Many arguments about cooperation with evil would evaporate. The professional right-to-life lobby might need to find other employment, which would not be a bad thing. Certain religious liberty champions would need to find other pastures for drawing their Manichaean lines in the sand. And, our nation might finally attain a basic social aim and bedrock Catholic principle: universal access to health care.

I wish Sen. Sanders had not brought the word socialism into public discourse because it creates a hurdle that any demagogue can erect, and that hurdle might be effective in frustrating efforts to make access to health care universal. Other public goods, like making college free or at least more affordable, might also be tainted by association with such a loaded word. But, to be clear, Catholic social teaching supports many of the policies democratic socialists have enacted in Europe and would likely be enacted if Sanders were to gain the White House. If Biden is the eventual nominee, he will need to adopt some version of these programs too if he hopes to unite the party. Like it or not, the word socialism is in the air, and anyone who is genuinely committed to Catholic social teaching should not be scared off by conservative apologists for libertarian economics. Catholics of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but some laissez-faire idols.

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