Christian Democracy, an online publication to which I have contributed, appears to have fallen temptation to what I would call the “socialist seduction” prevalent in certain Christian—including Catholic—circles. Rightly dissatisfied with contemporary capitalism (which finds no support in the Church’s authentic social magisterium), socialist Catholics are in pursuit of a socio-economic order which, broadly speaking, is more just, equitable, and stable then the present ordo. Instead of looking to Catholic-grown theories like distributism or solidarism, these Catholics believe that socialism—or at least some form of socialism—can cure our present woes. The problem facing socialist Catholics is that numerous magisterial statements, including Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, appear to condemn socialism outright. What is a good socialist Catholic to do? Christian Democracy authors Jack Quirk and Doran Hunter think they have the answer. In two separate articles (see here and here), both men attempt to lay forth a version of socialism which does not run afoul of the magisterium. So long as socialism isn’t atheistic and hell-bent on destroying the family, private property, or social hierarchies then the conflict is resolved, or so Quirk and Doran opine.
The problem with both men’s analyses is that they largely ignore the central role subsidiarity plays in Catholic social teaching. Although forms of socialism more compatible with subsidiarity have been proposed over the past two centuries, Doran’s preferred brand of socialism seems awfully top heavy with its vision of large social safety nets, agricultural subsidies, and state-aid for select business enterprises. While Doran is right to decry the economic injustices found within our capitalist system, he fails to account for how a socialist system with a large regulatory apparatus can lead to equally problematic injustices such as a “picking winners” approach to industrial policy which can deaden entrepreneurial initiative and waste resources. Although Catholic social teaching contemplates some role for welfare programs and regulation, these ought to be “last resort” measures intended to insure that gross injustices do not befall the least fortunate in society. They should not be prioritized.
Quirk doesn’t deal with subsidiarity at all. He simply defends a type of socialism which “expand[s] ownership of the means of production to working people,” a system Quirk believes “enjoys specific papal approval.” But the mechanism of expansion is key. For decades, neoliberal/libertarian Catholics have accused distributists of simply wanting to capture state power in order to strip people of their wealth and redistribute it across the board. Although distributists have vehemently denied this, Quirk appears to have no problem with it. But that raises all sorts of questions, such as who decides who gets what and under which circumstances? How much wealth is “too much”? And if the means of production are to be forcibly transferred, which means go where and to whom? There seems to be too much top-level guesswork involved, and besides, it’s far from clear that the Church’s magisterium comes close to supporting such a radical, command-planned reorganization of the economy in the first place.
None of this is to say that Quirk and Doran do not have their instincts in the right place. Clearly they do. Economic liberals, such as those housed at the Acton Institute, no longer even try to square their tenets with the Church’s magisterium; their “rigorous economic science” is “above” mere papal pronouncements. To Quirk and Doran’s credit, they try hard to make sure that their brand of socialism is compatible with Catholicism. And even though their respective accounts are not entirely convincing, hopefully they will lead thoughtful readers to explore the Church’s social magisterium more deeply and, from there, to seek out more grounded approaches to restructuring the economy in a thoroughly Catholic manner.