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Tuesday, November 10, 2009



It was precisely government intervention and the threat of government intervention in the financial markets, ostensibly to "help the poor," that led to the current economic meltdown.


Thanks for posting this... it strikes me as a good, measured review, and I think he is pretty fair to Moore's Catholic intentions (I haven't seen the movie, btw, just going on what I know of Moore more generally).

One aspect of the review that I think is rather unfair: the idea that Catholic teaching says consistently that "socialism, in its essential structures, is repugnant to human dignity and human freedom" (Barron goes on to reference certain socialist regimes of the 20th century that were clearly repugnant to said dignity).

I think we can probably all safely assume that Moore isn't interested in establishing mid-century German national socialism or Russian Stalinism... likely he is talking about the democratic socialism typical of many European countries today. I think that Barron should have recognized this sort of distinction, in the same way that he's quick to recognize a distinction within capitalism as he quotes JPII's statement of support for capitalism "if by capitalism we mean x, y, z" and condemnation of capitalism "if by it we mean a, b, c".

I don't see why the same distinctions can't be made about socialist structures, or why Barron's assertion that socialism's essentials are repugnant to human dignity is any less off the mark of Catholic Social Teaching than Moore's similar remarks about capitalism.

Carl E. Olson

From Centesimus annus, by Pope John Paul II:

The commemoration of Rerum novarum would be incomplete unless reference were also made to the situation of the world today. The document lends itself to such a reference, because the historical picture and the prognosis which it suggests have proved to be surprisingly accurate in the light of what has happened since then.

This is especially confirmed by the events which took place near the end of 1989 and at the beginning of 1990. These events, and the radical transformations which followed, can only be explained by the preceding situations which, to a certain extent, crystallized or institutionalized Leo XIII's predictions and the increasingly disturbing signs noted by his Successors. Pope Leo foresaw the negative consequences — political, social and economic — of the social order proposed by "socialism", which at that time was still only a social philosophy and not yet a fully structured movement. It may seem surprising that "socialism" appeared at the beginning of the Pope's critique of solutions to the "question of the working class" at a time when "socialism" was not yet in the form of a strong and powerful State, with all the resources which that implies, as was later to happen. However, he correctly judged the danger posed to the masses by the attractive presentation of this simple and radical solution to the "question of the working class" of the time — all the more so when one considers the terrible situation of injustice in which the working classes of the recently industrialized nations found themselves.

Two things must be emphasized here: first, the great clarity in perceiving, in all its harshness, the actual condition of the working class — men, women and children; secondly, equal clarity in recognizing the evil of a solution which, by appearing to reverse the positions of the poor and the rich, was in reality detrimental to the very people whom it was meant to help. The remedy would prove worse than the sickness. By defining the nature of the socialism of his day as the suppression of private property, Leo XIII arrived at the crux of the problem.

His words deserve to be re-read attentively: "To remedy these wrongs (the unjust distribution of wealth and the poverty of the workers), the Socialists encourage the poor man's envy of the rich and strive to do away with private property, contending that individual possessions should become the common property of all...; but their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that, were they carried into effect, the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are moreover emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community". The evils caused by the setting up of this type of socialism as a State system — what would later be called "Real Socialism" — could not be better expressed.

Continuing our reflections, and referring also to what has been said in the Encyclicals Laborem exercens and Sollicitudo rei socialis, we have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call "his own", and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.

In contrast, from the Christian vision of the human person there necessarily follows a correct picture of society. According to Rerum novarum and the whole social doctrine of the Church, the social nature of man is not completely fulfilled in the State, but is realized in various intermediary groups, beginning with the family and including economic, social, political and cultural groups which stem from human nature itself and have their own autonomy, always with a view to the common good. This is what I have called the "subjectivity" of society which, together with the subjectivity of the individual, was cancelled out by "Real Socialism". (pars12-13; emphasis added)


I assume this overly long quote is directed at my response?

Well, sure. Whatever. But if other people mean something different by "socialism" than JPII means here, it's not fair to say that this settles it.

The next step would be to go to Moore and ask:

"By the term 'socialism', do you mean and support a system within which the individual person is simply an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism [etc., etc.]"

Right? Or are you saying that "capitalism" is a complex issue, for which we need to clarify exactly what we do and don't mean, but "socialism" is not similarly complex or similarly in need of clarification?


...and I will add in another comment, for fear that the following gets lost in moderation (although I must say you've always been fair to let opposing sides speak, Carl):

I daresay that this was a significant weakness of John Paul II's pontificate. He was not nuanced enough about socialism the way that he was willing to be nuanced about other things. And I think that this might be largely a result of his personal background in a Soviet situation, so I'm not saying that he was ignorant or irrational or not well-intentioned. But I do think that statements such as the one you quote above have the weakness of a slant that the Church would do well to correct.


Far too neglected: Subsidiarity.

What it is. Why it is important. How it works. And, when it is followed, how it encourages forms of charity and thus virtue.


How unfortunate, Evan, that John Paul II didn't have you to lead him to more "nuance" regarding socialism.

"O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee."

-Shakespeare, Macbeth


Just read an article out of Jerusalem Post that in the UK a Jewish school lost an appeal in courts on how to define what makes one Jewish and then entitled to an entry in a Jewish education. Since Jewish people define who they are by ethnicity they cannot deny a right for a mother who is not ethnic Jewish or a convert from having her child in their school. A socialist liberal government not communist reflects exactly the thinking of Germany 1920-30's when they started to enact laws that took away Jewish rights in society. They came for me and no one stood up and when they come for you who will be left to stand up for you?


Actually, I'd agree with you W.- but this goes back to my point- if we're assuming that what Moore or I or anyone else might advocate when they use the word "socialism" constitutes a dismissal of personal dignity by subordinating it to the collective dignity, then I think we're either willfully or ignorantly misunderstanding what's being conveyed by the term "socialism" in these instances.


By its very nature, socialism usurps the rights and duties of individuals and/or local communities, therefore showing a disrespect to human dignity.

The intentions may be noble and all, but the fact is the same: Socialism robs the individual of many things he can and should do. This stunts his moral growth and makes it very hard for him to not become dependent in an inordinate way on the state.

Socialism is a system that does not encourage virtue and the proper use of freedom; rather, it is a system that tends to rob humans of the full experience of what it means to be human.

And I am not saying that capitalism or the free market by themselves are the answer. Subsidiarity is a start. Socialism turns subsidiarity on its head and reverses the order of right.


"How unfortunate, Evan, that John Paul II didn't have you to lead him to more "nuance" regarding socialism."

There's no need for this sort of retort, Jackson. To disagree with your intellectual betters is not to say that you presume to be their equals, but only that you disagree with certain stances that they take. I realize that populist pissing contests have led a lot of people to think that we can school whoever the hell we've got a personal problem with, but don't project those assumptions on me.


By its very nature, socialism usurps the rights and duties of individuals and/or local communities, therefore showing a disrespect to human dignity.

So now socialism has a "nature"? I was thinking more in terms of a "definition" or a "semantic range". You're just resorting to rhetorical short-cuts by asserting that it has a "nature".

I mean, if in its very essence it squelches dignity and does all that other nasty stuff you mentioned (of course backed up by references to Hitler and a token recent court case about religion in the schools... the plural of "anecdote" being "data")... in that case then sure! I'm on board! Down with socialism!

But seriously? I'm no more denying the dangers of socialism than John Paul II denied the dangers of capitalism. What I'm trying to avoid, however, is defining any sort of abstract political theory- practiced in all sorts of different ways throughout history- in terms of a single "nature", either pejorative or praiseworthy. To do that would just strike me as sloppy thinking and ideological co-opting of dialogue.



Why don't you offer a clear definition/explanation of what you mean by "socialism"? That would probably help focus this discussion.

I think many critiques of socialism all imply that socialism, perhaps not in theory but in fact, ends up disrespecting personal freedom and dignity through its attempts to provide goods and fulfill needs through the state apparatus. I would add that doing this when a more local entity can is the key to the problem many have with socialism. We see socialism as giving to the state certain duties and rights that the state does not have or that the state does not have yet (till it is clear that a more local entity cannot fulfill the need).

Socialists might not say socialism disrespects the person; it seeks to help the person, just in a different way.

This is not about intentions. Let's say socialists have the best of intentions. I will give you that. The point of the critiques is that the problem with socialism is one many socialists don't intend and some don't even see. Anthropological in nature, as said above.

Perhaps socialists and their critics have a different understanding of what it means to be human. JPII and the Catholic tradition have a view of man that places rights and duties in his sphere first. Subsidiarity says that a larger entity can fulfill those duties or needs only when the more local community cannot. Socialism, as most have understood the term, usurps that local priority. Socialism takes those duties, some of those rights, and some functions of charity that attempt to fulfill human needs and gives them to the state.

If this is not what you mean by socialism, then my comments and perhaps most of the others do not apply to your idea of socialism. Please explain what you mean by socialism.

Moreover, if the above is not what you mean by socialism (whether in intention or as it is practiced in fact), since we are working with a common and longstanding view of socialism, then I wonder how what you are referring to is socialist in any key way.

The way I think about socialism (and much of recent history has) is a system of government where there is state ownership and/or control of the means of production and their distribution as well as of services that fulfill human needs and goods.

Not perfect and perhaps not complete, but that is a working definition of socialism that matches what I think of when I discuss it and attempt to critique it.

As a result, there are some things that a government does that I would accept are better left to it, such as military defense, the enforcement of contracts (through courts), public safety, and things like that. If my definition of socialism is somewhat correct and if these services are examples of it, then I would say that certain services I think should be provided may be performed through some form of socialism, albeit a very limited and defined one.


The way I think about socialism (and much of recent history has) is a system of government where there is state ownership and/or control of the means of production and their distribution as well as of services that fulfill human needs and goods.

Not perfect and perhaps not complete, but that is a working definition of socialism that matches what I think of when I discuss it and attempt to critique it.

I think I would add to this definition that it doesn't necessarily need to be the state (or only the state) that owns the means of production, distribution, services, etc. Again, this is where I think maybe Soviet images unduly give us a picture of all socialism as a quite centrist affair. But there are mixed systems where only certain industries are centralized and others are private (think lots of European states, or the U.S. in a very weak sense)... there are libertarian models that would be against government ownership (think Chomsky)... then there are odd situations like China, where you've got a free market style situation playing a big role in a socialist structure.

What "Real Socialism" was a few decades ago in the Eastern Bloc states is not obviously socialism as it exists today- there or anywhere else. It seems to me that JPII (and by extension all of CST? You folks seem to want to fuse the two) was talking about a specific sort of socialism, in a specific context. What I don't understand is why this specific target of critique is now being exploited to identify all sorts of socialist structures and carry the critique to that wider set.


It would help if you gave a definition or explanation of what makes a government or society socialist.

I am not sure what you mean when you say, "I think I would add to this definition that it doesn't necessarily need to be the state (or only the state) that owns the means of production, distribution, services, etc."

To the extent that the state (or any government structure) is involved in the owning and distribution of means of production, etc., to that extent a country is socialist. To argue otherwise seems to me to be arguing some other issue.

To say that it doesn't need to be the state, if I understand you correctly, is to suggest something non-socialist. Then, why all the defense of socialism?

If your point is mixed economies, then I do agree that there are many mixed economies, our less so than many European countries. And the results are mixed. The more long term you look at mixed economies, you will see that usually the more socialist a country is, the less dynamic their economy, the less ingenuity there is, the less incentive there is to earn more, the less incentive there is to invent and create new technologies, etc., and, perhaps most important, the less the state leaves its people to be free and make their own choices with their own property.

When this latter scenario is the case, then the less opportunity there is for choosing the good and charity. The state takes that role and a society is often left with many people dependent on the state for things that could have been provided, and I would add more effectively provided, by individuals or local communities.


Most definitions of socialism that I've seen allow for community or worker ownership of the means of production... I don't see why you insist on restricting bona fide socialism to situations of government ownership. I'm also, again, perplexed by this essentialism that you keep pushing- you act as if true socialism isn't achieved until we travel all the way across the spectrum to not only government ownership, but complete government ownership. I don't see why that's justified. It tends not to be how the concept of socialism is used.

On your last two paragraphs, about incentives, freedom, and dependency: to begin, if we're talking about the relationship between socialism and personal human dignity, I don't see why the dynamism of an economy is at all relevant. I realize that you've (perhaps) privileged voluntarist opportunity over economic prosperity or technological innovation, but I don't even see the reason to bring up economic prosperity in the first place as at all related to one's personal dignity.

On to the idea of free choice, however, which I do agree is closer to the point... First, this only strikes me as at all a concern if we accept that socialism only implies government ownership. In the case of worker's unions, however, I don't think that restriction of freedom over property is quite as obvious-- the whole point of workers' ownership of the means of production is to regain this freedom from a situation where workers do not enjoy this ownership. That sort of thing seems to be exactly what you're advocating.

But even given a situation where socialism creates dependency on larger communal or governmental structures to the exclusion of workers and community members-- how would this prevent someone from choosing the good and charity? Is one not allowed to give charitably of what one has received through communal welfare or distribution? Is one not allowed to pursue just legislation with regard to the production and distribution of goods? Is one not allowed to undertake personal responsibility for one's work, simply because there is a lack of certain incentives that you deem to be important? (and I'll insert here- one may not be allowed, but that would be a problem of totalitarianism and not of socialism itself)

At the heart of it, I'm suspicious of how you are associating our ability to freely choose the good with certain economic incentives that accompany ownership of the means of production. That strikes me as utterly oxymoronic. This goes back to perennial disputes about the grounds of the possibility of altruism.

Mr. Ely Black

Great points Evan, and as a Catholic who loathes communism but is interested in a more nuanced response to politics by the Church, I applaud your efforts however small on this site. You may be interested to know that a similar discussion went on with Father Barron himself and a user by the moniker of "spraguelt" on the Youtube site for this video (in the comments chain). I have copied and pasted the most relevant bits of it below to give you an idea of Father Barron's well meaning (but to my mind very inadequate) response to this very criticism. You can read the whole exchange, if you like on the Youtube comment chain.


SPRAGUELT: Father Barron, your use of "socialism" is way too broad brush. Socialism (non-market allocation and ownership) is the principle behind the FDA, CDC, even the US army. The US Bishops have backed health overhaul that has socialistic (i.e. non-market, collectively owned) elements, & the Pope recently favored socialistic checks on the market. But perhaps our disagreement is simply over usage of words like "profit motive" & "socialist."

FATHER BARRON: Well, it's the language of the church's social teaching. Take a look at Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, both of which contain explicit condemnations of socialism.

SPRAGUELT: I think you risk giving people the wrong idea and creating misunderstandings by saying the Catholic church supports the "profit motive" and condemns "socialism". Communism, of course, is monstrous. But your political lexicon is too Cold War and too broad brush.


"The attempt to marry the faith with a form of culture or mode of society is ultimately doomed to frustration and even threatens to turn into its opposite. That's because human society inevitably involves coercion, the pressure to conformity, the confiscation of highest ideals by narrow interests and a host of other imperfections. There can never be a total fusion of the faith and a particular society, and the attempt to achieve it is dangerous for the faith." -Charles Taylor "A Catholic Modernity"

Evan, altruism is a fine means to the end of relieving the misery of the poor, so long as coveting doesn't creep in. For then you are tempted to usurp another's means that they are perfectly able to apply morally to the same end of relieving the misery of the poor, indeed God in his infinite Wisdom may even have gifted the person with more material goods the talents to multiply them (the parable named after the coins of the same name) for the benefit of the common good. That means doing evil that good may come of it, setting a precedent that is both irrational and impious, see my further comments below.

Good points, Carl "Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism." and W. "To the extent that the state (or any government structure) is involved in the owning and distribution of means of production, etc., to that extent the country is socialist. "
that identify IMHO the reason for our current political difficulties, ie not the market economy per se, but the central planning socialism we are subjected to under the Federal Reserve mechanism of money production.

The mechanism of "wealthcare" has replaced the common good teachings of old, reversing subsidiarity. Our betters get to trade debt obligations in aggregate (as mortgage backed paper or Treasury bonds, its all 'credit' not real savings) at our expense. Moral hazard is another term for the same error in prudential judgment. The public authorities' interference in the market economy is what's at root of the rot, confusing the true meaning of capital and property (what is "proper" to man or to quote Papal wisdom "the needs of propriety(*)") and Barron (all ecclesiastics, indeed) would benefit from reading "The Ethics of Money Production" by Austrian Catholic Jorg Guido Hulsman [ free SCRIBD at: blog(dot)mises(dot)org/archives/008833.asp ]

As an amateur accountant let me remind folks: a house is not capital in the assets column, it is an expense to a homeowner. For a farmer land is not capital but a liability in need of a tiller, fertilizer, water supply and seeds, These expenses he must first invest as "capital" before his field yields any meaningful income. Where does he find the means to invest? By economizing in earlier years and saving a surplus (Joseph's tale of saving in the seven years of plenty). We are in the deepest of deficits, one of biblical proportions, and the heirarchy need to wise up to the moral implications. "Thou shalt not covet" means we cannot crave ends for our loved ones we have not the means to effect. We are to eek out the resources we have at our own disposal, not seek to eek out those at the disposal of others, which is what socialism amounts to.

(*) according to one's God-given station in life, ie a professional -- butcher, baker, candlestick maker -- needs the tools and accoutrements of his profession; a family man/soccer mum a roomy residence and minivan equipped with car-seats; a senile shut-in may retain the savings of a lifetime to pay for an attentive companion, whereas her attentive companion has her needs and propriety of room & board met. The State may not determine your station in life, you are at liberty (and bear the responsibility) to do that for yourself Evan. The State is charged only with socialized care of those unable to care for themselves (ie those not reached by private initiatives from churches or charities). Propriety in care includes self-determination: it is "proper" to man's dignity to guarantee free will in electing the means he employs to pursue his end (including the consequences inherent in that choice). Any society that eradicates the moral playing field of choosing a good end and avoiding a bad end for oneself and one's loved ones is not a human society but an inhuman one. That's why papal teachings are so adamant - its a theological precept of being a Papist! The insidious mission-creep of the Reformer's denial of free will (their dehellenizing tendencies to use Pope BXVI's term) has led many of us to confuse the State with all that is good and true when nothing could be further from the truth. The bigger the State (or social structure, global corporations also qualify) the smaller the moral stature of the human beings comprising the Leviathan! A contemporary of the author of Rerum Novarum, who aided that Pope's predecessor in navigating the choppy waters of the "new things" that threatened the Vatican's territorial existence under the revolutionary forces sweeping Europe of the 1840s, Antoni Rosmini wrote a good introduction to the ideas that brought about the Church's opening at Vatican II (ie recognizing the features advantages and benefits of the 'English model' of political economy, a separation of Church and State, an heretical idea at the time -- and still is in RadTrad circles, chuckle!): The Constitution under Social Justice [ restricted online access at books(dot)google(dot)com(slash)books?id=y63Mggc2irEC ]

oops failed to sign off
(comments rejected unless I signed in with Openid)
the last two are from me:
Clare Krishan


Thanks for the comments, Ely, I'll have to follow back to the YouTube conversation.

Clare, I'm not sure I follow all of what you're trying to say here, but my point in bringing up altruism was simply to say that social control of certain economic means and the effect that this might have on certain economic incentives, presumably does not do violence to one's free choice of the good and of charity unless such choice is not actually free at all, but rather tethered to personal economic or other incentive. Insofar as such reliance on incentive is problematic for a Catholic vision of the good, I think an opposition to socialism on these grounds is also problematic.


Ely, looking back at your YouTube comments, I think this point of yours gets at the heart of it, and I hope can be seen as an the adequate defense of John Paul II that it is rather than an attack on his statements:

"In the long run it will appear as an historically contingent (perhaps tactically necessary) response by the Pope to the Cold War."

The error of many supposedly Catholic criticisms of socialism, I think, is to ignore the contingent nature of these past responses. And I think that recognizing the contingent nature of them does not constitute disagreeing with them or with Church teaching more generally.

Mr. Ely Black

Thanks, Evan. Yes, I quite agree.

Mr. Ely Black

The Problem with Fr. Barron’s definition of ‘Socialism’

The problem with Barron’s treatment of the capitalist-socialist distinction is capitalism receives a fair analysis of its multiple meanings while socialism is simply equated with the odious communism of the Soviets et al. But the term socialism is more complex than this. How would he explain the thousands of Catholics who are part of Christian-Socialist parties today in Europe & Latin America? By his terms this should be an oxymoron.

Socialism (collective ownership & non-market distribution) is the principle behind the US police dept, national park system & US military. How many would like to see these privatized & reduced to profit motive? The Catholic Bishops recently backed health measures many Republicans rightly call socialist. Does this make the Bishops socialists? Of course not. We need a better explanation of Catholic teaching than the one Barron gives us here.

I have heard Fr. Barron wonderfully advise people to not read the Bible w/ “too clunky” a set of lenses. Yet this is precisely what he does with JP II. In Centesimus annus JP II is clearly talking about “socialism” in the Soviet sense as the Marxist total abolition of private property. Hence, JP speaks of a “person deprived” of anything he can call "his own." Like it or not this is not the socialism advocated by Moore & the US Left.

The worst consequence of Fr. Barron’s overly simplistic extrapolation of JP II’s politically contextual language is that he risks underwriting a specific political ideology of the present w/ the sacred & eternal life of Christ. The US has many virtues but from the Catholic perspective it is still all-too-human and all-too-earthly. Christ did not sign the Declaration of Independence and did not die for the Republican or Democratic Parties. Let's not lose the insights of Augustine to the missteps of Fr. Barron.


I have heard Fr. Barron wonderfully advise people to not read the Bible w/ “too clunky” a set of lenses. Yet this is precisely what he does with JP II. In Centesimus annus JP II is clearly talking about “socialism” in the Soviet sense as the Marxist total abolition of private property.

I'm also suspicious that people are reading the technical term "Real Socialism in Centesimus Annus and interpreting it as the non-technical idea of "real" Socialism. (Perhaps Palin's "real" America has conditioned them for this sort of reading?)

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