Over the course of the past year, several attempts have been made by well-meaning Catholics to effectively baptize socialism. For instance, Keith Michael Estrada, writing for Patheos, tried his hand at it last December (unsuccessfully, I might add). And though Jack Quirk took umbrage with my analysis, Christian Democracy jumped into the mix as well. For the most part, I think these Catholics have their instincts in the right place. Given that there is a noticeable contingent of Catholics who believe that almost all forms of taxation, redistribution, and regulation constitute socialism, it is necessary to show that the Church’s magisterium expressly contemplates all three under certain circumstances. (I have, on numerous occasions, defended this fact, e.g. over at Ethika Politika.) None of that represents socialism, either as it is commonly understood by socialists themselves or by the Church in her numerous condemnations of socialist ideology.
Now comes a new group, the self-proclaimed “Tradinista Collective,” which is comprised primarily of Ivy League priv-kids who hide under pseudonyms out of some outrageously misplaced fear that they will be persecuted for espousing a less coherent form of Bernie Sanders’s political platform. (You can peruse their half-baked manifesto here.) In addition to annoying people on Twitter, one of their members has also produced the first installment of a three-part defense of “Catholic socialism” [sic]. The argument of the piece is pretty simple: First, cherry pick certain papal statements condemning socialism (or some aspect of socialism); second, line them up in a row; and third, proclaim that you hold to a form of socialism which escapes all of these condemnations, albeit without much in the way of evidence or argument. Never once does the author deal with the papal decrees of Pope St. Pius X, particularly his motu proprio Fin Dalla Prima Nostra or his encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique, no doubt because of statements like this:
But stranger still, alarming and saddening at the same time, are the audacity and frivolity of men who call themselves Catholics and dream of re-shaping society under such conditions, and of establishing on earth, over and beyond the pale of the Catholic Church, ‘the reign of love and justice’ . . . What are they going to produce? . . . A mere verbal and chimerical construction in which we shall see, glowing in a jumble, and in seductive confusion, the words Liberty, Justice, Fraternity, Love, Equality, and human exultation, all resting upon an ill-understood human dignity. It will be a tumultuous agitation, sterile for the end proposed, but which will benefit the less Utopian exploiters of the people. Yes, we can truly say that the Sillon [the movement Pius X is condemning in the document], its eyes fixed on a chimera, brings Socialism in its train.
Still, perhaps the author of the piece would maintain that the Tradinista brand of socialism is “exceptional” insofar that it is not built upon the intramundane ideologies that Papa Sarto and the whole Catholic tradition has no time for. And what is this exceptional form of socialism, this so-called Catholic socialism which the author wishes to defend? Leaning on Karl Polanyi, the author defines his version of socialism as “an economic system which, transcending the self-regulating market, subordinates a significant part of it to communal control.” To call this definition open-ended and vague would be an understatement.
For instance, what does it mean in the concrete to subordinate a “significant part” of the economy to “communal control”? It doesn’t take a lawyer’s bag of interpretive tricks to conclude that sectors ranging from airlines to agriculture could be susceptible to nationalization. Further down in the article, the author maintains that his form of socialism does not fall under papal condemnations concerning the denial of a right to or abolition of private property because some forms of property rights will be left alone. Noticeably absent from the article is any mention of the word “subsidiarity” nor a meaningful account of when it would be appropriate to nationalize a particular industry or hand it over to “communal control.” Instead of taking the position long maintained by advocates of Catholic social teaching that a wide distribution of ownership is the best means to meet the demands of justice and charity in society, the author of this piece—and the Tradinistas as a whole—want to start from the top and work down, instituting a command-planned economic order without any direct magisterial support (despite the claim that theirs is a “Catholic socialism”).
Of course, there are two more parts coming in this explication of Catholic socialism and so it is possible that the author will endeavor to take fuller account of the Church’s social magisterium while speaking more candidly about what he means concerning the institution and operation of his Catholic-socialist chimera.