Yes, democratic socialism is compatible with Catholic social teaching

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, June 26, 2018. (Corey Torpie / Courtesy of the Ocasio-Cortez Campaign)

There is a wave of millennials running for office this fall, and many are running as democratic socialists. The most popular may be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional nominee in New York whose clarion voice has already made her a national leader. From Hawaii to Tennessee, from county to federal positions, dozens of members of the Democratic Socialists of America are on the ballot. But can Catholic millennials intrigued by socialism find a warrant for it within our tradition? Or do we find a restraining check?

Catholic social teaching gives us a strong rubric to turn to for answers. It does not throw its weight behind any particular economic or governmental structure. Instead, it promotes principles of justice and asks the faithful to adjudicate whether and how a policy promotes them.

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The fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the reality and vitality of God in creation and each human individual. We can judge all social action against this simple criterion: Does it promote that dignity? Here are four specific principles derived from this criterion that help us evaluate what is now being called democratic socialism.

What do we serve? Is God alive in the market or in the person?

People over markets. In 1986, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter in which they said: “Every perspective on economic life that is human, moral, and Christian must be shaped by three questions: ‘What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And how do people participate in it?’” Too often, Americans serve the market as if it were its own end, its own good. But the market must exist to promote human flourishing. What good is the market if it rots one’s ability to flourish, whether we are speaking of a father who cannot find work and health care to support his family because the market does not “value” his labor or an executive who works 100 hours a week to keep productivity up with shareholder demand? What do we serve? Is God alive in the market or in the person?

People over labor. In our capitalist society, many value a person based on the wealth their labor generates. (Economists call this “human capital theory.”) This often means we do not respect the person who does low-wage labor, while so-called wealth generators, from small-business owners to titans like Steve Jobs, are venerated. But C.S.T. says that we, made in the image of God, are ourselves creators. Our labor is valuable precisely because it is human. What if the seams sewn in Bangladesh, the appliances assembled in China and the food delivered via phone app burned for us with the sacredness of the unseen hands who made them?

If we do not base a person’s value on their output but on their dignity, then regardless of what one makes or does, one’s work should be safe and it should garner a secure life.

People over profit. The corollary to “people over labor” is that human creativity must be dignified. If we do not base a person’s value on their output but on their dignity, then regardless of what one makes or does, one’s work should be safe and it should garner a secure life. This is why, from the first papal encyclical of Catholic social teaching in 1891, the church has expressed unequivocal support for the formation of labor unions. The dignity of one’s life—whether or not one is safe from the violent arm of a boss or a machine; the ability to buy a good breakfast, clothes and school supplies for one’s children; the possibility of retirement; the care of one’s body; healing in a time of sickness—should not depend on whether or how one was able to turn a profit.

Subsidiarity. C.S.T. has a clear warning about socialism: The rights and dignity of the individual must not be violated or diminished, even in service of the greater good. This warning is related to the principle of subsidiarity, which states that individuals’ needs should be met by local government or civil society whenever that is feasible. Democratic socialists have their eyes on big problems and are suggesting big solutions at the national level. In some cases, this may be what we need, but voters should be sure that one-size-fits-all proposals do not diminish individual liberty and expression.

Since no two democratic socialist candidates have identical platforms, each should be analyzed on their own terms, using these four guidelines.

Baby boomers tend to associate socialism with Communist nations such as the Soviet Union and Cuba—brutal, bloody, authoritarian regimes. But millennials do not much remember the Cold War, the “red” threat to religious freedom and democracy or hiding under desks for fear of nuclear annihilation. Our generation’s crisis is the financial collapse of 2008, the ensuing economic recession and the explosion of inequality that now persists. We feel it devaluing our labor, making it hard to own a home, get married, have children or pay off student debt. We came of age as Social Security, voting rights, workers’ rights, public schools and our infrastructure have been allowed to deteriorate in the name of freedom and capitalism.

We tend to associate socialism with democracies: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland—countries that have low economic inequality and a high quality of life, achieved through universal social programs and financed through high tax rates. By my analysis, democratic socialists’ economic policy proposals are compatible with Catholic social teaching. But each voter must judge with his or her own conscience, moved by the promises of Oslo or the warnings of Stalingrad.

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John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

Memo to Brianne: Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are largely market economies.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

These are all small homogeneous free market capitalist societies and Sweden which is changing in composition is having massive social problems. Malmo has become the murder capital of Europe. Norway has 6 million people and large oil deposits. It also has free electricity as large hydro electric plants capture water coming off the mostly mountainous country. Not very transferable.

Trent Shannon
2 months 2 weeks ago

You got a link to those facts?

From a reputable source?

I wont hold my breath...

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

I was in each of these countries last year and the locals were discussing growing problems with their system. Each Scandinavian country is like a large tribe that takes care of their own. They are ethnically very homogeneous. But the model does not extend beyond the tribe. Norway has been particularly gifted with free energy that Sweden, Denmark and Finland don't have. Their economies are mainly free Market capitalism and are not transferable anywhere else.

Joseph J Dunn
2 months 2 weeks ago

Let's not be confused about sources of funds for Norway's vast social programs. It's oil (And baby, are they DRILLING) plus capitalist markets. As one example for Trent Shannon, https://www.nbim.no/en/the-fund/.
There is much to like about the Scandinavian countries, but to rely on their programs to support some measures or programs recommended by the U.S. version of democratic socialists is to ignore a great deal.

K Byrne
2 months 1 week ago

What scares me is that Brianne is a post doc at Fordham -- maybe emblematic of what is happening to "higher" education. Free speech and disrepute in the marketplace of ideas are the only pluses to this article. Rigorous thought , common sense and scholarship are the best antidotes.

Dick Wolven
2 months 2 weeks ago

WoW!!
Where to start? Your generation's crisis is the financial collapse of 2008? Really? Let's look at Financial Crisis of 2018, in case you have not noticed: (c/o Lincoln Financial) Let's look at People OVER Markets, Labor & Profit...your pillars of CST
- Current Ratio of Working Americans to Jobless Americans = 25:1..there are 155.5M working Americans vs 6.2M jobless
- There are 6.9M Job Openings in America today ... that is more than number of jobless people
- There were 3.6M Americans who QUIT their jobs in August to move to a higher paying job showing that Americans have high confidence in their ability to continue to grow their compensation. That is also over 50% of the number of jobless. So, half as many people voluntarily quit their job for another as who are actually jobless. That is a worker's right in America.
- The Median Income is the highest it has ever been in America at $61.4M per annum. It is rising.
So, exactly what People over Markets, Labor, Profit and workers rights problems are these Socialists trying solve?
So what crisis are they trying to fix? By looking at the Financial Crisis (or, lack thereof) of 2018, it appears that the current Capitalism System also is in line with CST.
Just asking.

Paul Cadrin
2 months 2 weeks ago

Why not look first just up north of the border in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, where democratic socialism has played a significant role in shaping social policies for the past 75 years? Just to give a striking example, I am currently undergoing a medical treatment that would cost me $8000 a month in the USA, and here it's fully paid for by our public medical insurance. Of course, we pay higher taxes, but social inequalities are just a fraction of what they are in the USA.

John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

and you go to Buffalo or Cleveland for a hip, knee replacement, University of Pittsburgh for a kidney transplant. this isn't a bad thing, it's wonderful.

Will Niermeyer
2 months 2 weeks ago

I'll stick with free market capitalism. Do not try to fix what works.

John Sharpe
2 months 2 weeks ago

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has never signed the front of anyone’s psycheck, only the back of one funded by taxpayers.
Preaching victimhood is a cottage industry today. Playing robin hood is a comic book hero not a biblical hero, it’s very telling that Jesuits don’t know the difference!

Randal Agostini
2 months 2 weeks ago

I am sure that Brianne has good intentions. It is just unfortunate that she has little experience. The problem lies within the "ism" - that place where a person loses their dignity by giving their conscience to others. Human dignity and happiness flourishes in an environment of freedom. The ill in our society is that we have transferred the wellbeing of our souls to ourselves, when we should have given them to God - to whom they belong.

Renee Jimenez
2 months 2 weeks ago

I am the niece of four Dominican Nuns one of whom just celebrated her Jubilee year. I have taken their words of advice and wisdom to heart all of my 54 years. I had planned on enrolling my daughter in a Catholic University next fall. The school shares many social activities with the neighboring Jesuit University. This article made me halt all plans. I don't want a Socialist Indoctrination as a part of her higher education. After sharing this article with my Aunts they have agreed that a Catholic University is not a good place for an impressionable young woman at this time. If ideas like these are currently the way the Church is leaning then I'm not sure that the Catholic Church is a good place for my family at this time either. My daughter will be attending a conservative Christian University because as a family we stand with Democracy.

Dick Wolven
2 months 2 weeks ago

Brianne, you may be interested in the following:

"Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, on the job for only 8 months, is rightfully upbeat. Powell recently said that “our economy is strong, growth is running at a healthy clip, unemployment is low, the number of people working is rising steadily, and wages are up.”

Maybe you have exaggeratedthe Fiscal Crisis in which we find ourselves. Perhaps, with new information, you may refine your thought process. Maybe.......

Chuck Kotlarz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Wolven, left behind millennials perhaps are the canary in the coal mine. The stock market hit a record high on October 3rd. Time will tell.

Chuck Kotlarz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Millennials…the word reminds me of a high school student that went to college for class. The student, however, went not to take the class but to teach it. An empowered millennial generation perhaps could turn dreams we have yet to dream into reality.

Millennials, and many of the rest of us, have one matter to attend to first, “Democracy in Chains.” Nancy MacLean’s book, “Democracy in Chains”, reveals a disturbing reality.

Many may recall the saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Wendell Phillips in 1852 followed those words with, ”Power is ever stealing from the many to the few.”

Ray Kaliss
2 months 2 weeks ago

Sorry .. Catholic teaching has ALWAYS condemned 'collectivism' (socialism).

https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id…

The Church has always recognized private property and wealth as a person's right and compatible with the Church's doctrine of Providence and free will.

Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland are NOT socialist economies or governments, they operate as capitalist (market) economies.

The Myth of Scandinavian Counties (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MerkGUx-2V4)

Charles Erlinger
2 months 2 weeks ago

These kinds of discussions often stall at a point where both sides peek above their respective ideological ramparts just long enough to hurl a few macroeconomic statistics and a few suggestions for further reading, then duck back into their digital and paper libraries to prepare for the next encounter. There is little attempt to persuade by a reasoning process. Yet the issue is worth expending serious and sincere effort, the issue of whether or to what extent capitalist theories and practices and socialist theories and practices can be or should be forever and unconditionally separate and apart in practice, as they are in the purity of their ideological formulations.

It might be tedious to plow through a few basic premises before we advance to our respective conclusions so that we might determine whether some kind of synthesis makes sense, or is reasonably persuasive. But unless we do that, we often end up just talking past each other, rather than with each other. First, it is worth while to examine what sort of anthropology each protagonist assumes as a premise. If we detect that we are assuming that we humans are determined as to our aspirations and motivations by the laws of economics, we at least ought to explicate what assumptions are necessary in those laws in order to make our conclusions relate logically to the premise.

Economic laws are conclusions and inferences about human motivation and behavior in economic decisions. These decisions pertain to an area of activity having to do with a human’s drive to satisfy natural wants and needs with limited resources. The laws are both inexact and conditional. The conditions boil down to considerations if certain assumptions are true. The main anthropological assumption is that the overriding motivation to act is what is defined to be economical rationality. Economic rationality typically does not correspond to the rationality that includes consideration of a human’s transcendental motivations affecting social interaction outside the bounds of economic motives.

Both of the “isms” most commonly presented in mutual opposition are economic ideologies, namely capitalism and socialism. To the extent that they are proposed as ideologies, that is, proposed as answers to everything, to the exclusion of any other considerations, they tend to produce outcomes that are partially true and partially false, as guides or rules of behavior in reference to Christian anthropology. And attempts to follow either of the contending ideologies to the exclusion of all other considerations about human nature is really playing with fire, if we take seriously the costly consequences observable in historical examples.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

I suggest you ask questions to see what are the foundations for each position. Let me provide some observations from years of reading and analysis, one system is based on freedom and the other is based on equality. The supply/demand curve which is the essence of economics is based on freedom. Too many positions taken here on America are based on emotion and wishful thinking not evidence or reason.

Vince Killoran
2 months 2 weeks ago

The U.S. Catholic Bishops' "Economic Justice for All" (1986) pastoral letter supports Jacobs' argument.

John Walton
2 months 2 weeks ago

...and it is in error.

Sam Zeng
2 months 2 weeks ago

Jesus said: My kingdom is not of this world.
There is no perfect system in this world. Comparing to Socialism, Capitalism is still the lesser of the the two evils.
"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries"
-Winston Churchill

Lewis Tabor
2 months 2 weeks ago

Hi Brianne, don't let the negative comments discourage you. I am a conservative but I am happy that there is room for differing opinions in the rich culture of the Catholic Church. Capitalism has indeed raised more people out of poverty than any other system of government, but it is not perfect. It has an ugly, greedy underbelly.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2015/11/20/how-activist-hedge…
The corporate raiders suck the money out of a company leaving a shell that cannot survive and putting people out of their jobs. Unfortunately, if our government leaders will not put an end to such predatory practices then we are doomed to go down the road to socialism. The financial market is self adjusting and so is the political market. When our current political system does not correct what is unjust then the people will opt for something new.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 2 weeks ago

Lewis
You are correct...there is an ugly underbelly in Capitalism but that underbelly is not nearly as large and ugly as that "sported" by socialism. Frequently, as in Venezuela, Cuba And the Soviet Eastern block countries, there is nothing but underbelly!

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

I constantly harp on free market capitalism. It is free only when both parties to a transaction are free to make their choice and can walk away if they want. Many associate free with survival of the fittest and the ability of the strong to impose their will on the weak. That is not free market capitalism. When controls are enforced that guarantee freedom of both sides then everyone is better off. The scenarios described are not free market capitalism.

Sam Zeng
2 months 2 weeks ago

R.I.P, the millions died in the name of Socialism reform

Sam Zeng
2 months 2 weeks ago

"As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire"
-The Gods of the Copybook Headings

Andrew Strada
2 months 2 weeks ago

I would not support a legal system where 51% of the people could vote to take away my freedom. Why would I support an economic system where 51% of the people could vote to take away my property?

John Mack
2 months 2 weeks ago

Really? Is a capitalism that produces grave income inequality, survival by debt, denial of health csre to milions, a political party dedicAted to ending Social Security (by eliminating FICA taxes and employer matching contributions, the funding sources for Social Security), free or affordable day care, affordable higher education, vast homelesness, an array of soup kitchens throughout the country, and endless foreign undecklared wars compatible with Catholic Social Teaching. Apparently prominent Catholics think so: Brownback, Erik Prince (of Blackwater infamy(, Roger Ailes founder of Fox News), Paul Ryan, funders of the Action Institute, et al, think so.

Andrew Strada
2 months 2 weeks ago

Do you have a name and date on which a Republican politician proposed eliminating FICA taxes?

LuAnn O'Connell
2 months 2 weeks ago

I think Ms. Jacobs is correct. To compare democratic socialism to classical Soviet era communism (Marxist-Leninist socialism), as some commentators do, is missing the point--it's within a DEMOCRATIC system which rejects a central command economy and authoritarian government--a very different system!

A better source of information on Catholic Church's teachings are documents of the Church itself, not conservative Catholic websites. Just a few gleanings from Centennus Annus 1991:

“We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called "Real Socialism" [ no private ownership] leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization. It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies which leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development.” Centesimus Annus 35

"The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another. For such a task the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good. This teaching also recognizes the legitimacy of workers' efforts to obtain full respect for their dignity and to gain broader areas of participation in the life of industrial enterprises so that, while cooperating with others and under the direction of others, they can in a certain sense "work for themselves" through the exercise of their intelligence and freedom." 43

All human systems are inherently imperfect and corrupt because of the human factor! Has democratic socialism truly been tried? How do we know it doesn't work until we try it?

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

You have to address the fact that variations of one system is raising the world out of squalid poverty after 10,000 years of it while variations of the other system sends them back into squalid poverty. Until that is done any advocate of Democratic Socialism should refrain from making statements that it just hasn't been done right. There was all sorts of praise for Venezuela but now I guess that wasn't done right either. Any form of socialism cannot work because it is against the natural law.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Everyone should read "Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism" by Joshua Muravchik

Socialism succeeded only once and was repealed after one generation. It was in the Kibbutzs in Israel. You wonder why Israel is a pariah of the left. It is because it rejected socialism after initially adopting it. One of the original funders of Israel was the Soviet Union.

Phillip Stone
2 months 1 week ago

Pardon my ignorance, but is it not a pillar of the New World colonisation and reinvention of civilisation that Church and State are separated - permanently.

From over here in Australia it looks to me like the Republicans seek to abide by the law of Moses for everybody to follow individually and the Democrats seek to homogenise the masses and legislate their moral perfection by human laws and means.

One Catholic, Indian-American since moving there when he was 17, is Dinesh D'Souza who has made documentaries and written books on the origins and evils of the Democratic Party. https://www.regnery.com/books/the-big-lie/

The short reply to the headline is "It Is NOT!"

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Yes, everyone should read D'Souza's new book, "Death of a Nation" to understand how evil the Democratic Party is. Because they own the press, academia and popular entertainment - or do they own the Democrats, they have an outsized effect on popular opinion. Their objective, mostly unstated, is a world government under socialism to create a heaven on earth. The Jesuits have been all in since Arrupe in the late 60's.

Hence the huge following of the Democratic Party in the United States. If the press, academia and the arts were neutral, the Democratic Party would disappear or morph into something different.

Charles Erlinger
2 months 1 week ago

It would be much more satisfying to a reader, I would guess, if discussion on this topic would proceed from premise to conclusion in an orderly narrative, which would include, as has been suggested, an exploration of assumptions embedded in the premises. Included in this orderly process, I would hope, would be the acknowledgement of rational distinctions. One such distinction, in my opinion, is between ideologies as economic constructs and theories of governance which concern matters that include economics, but purport to assume much broader responsibilities regarding human lives and livelihoods than does economics alone.

It is understandable that these two different things, one a useful branch of social science, the other a development of a much older and broader effort to confront a moral challenge directly related to our survival in more complex, power-related ways, can be conflated. Politics has historically tended to co-opt economic ideologies for its own purposes. Along the way, the economic ideologies tend to become less and less influential as political powers tend to solidify their positions and make what are sometimes decisions affecting the economic structure that that are different from what they once publicly deemed to be ideal.

Another area of explication, I would guess, is that of the assumptions within each of the contending economic ideologies. For example, the supply/demand curve itself embeds the assumption of a market-clearing mechanism to achieve equilibrium, but we know that this is a very lumpy or sticky process which often leaves some pockets of the population in misery while putting other segments of the population in quite satisfactory circumstances. A similar observation can be made when applying the supply/demand curve to labor economics, when labor is considered strictly within the constraints of economics, as a factor of production. We also know that macroeconomic laws are meant to apply on average over the long term, and that macroeconomic statistics are meant to be applied with that tacit understanding.

Further, modern readers might usefully be reminded about the consequences of the socialist foundational concept about property, whether it be technically termed a factor of production or not. Some have remarked that younger generations have not lived long enough to witness graphically the failure in practice of political movements espousing the socialist doctrine about property. They should know that the proponents of socialism in the late 19th and early 20th century who devoted their lives to the political implementation of their ideas knew almost from the start that their doctrine of common ownership was an ideological loser, a doctrine that the populations that they had hoped to convince regarded as idiotic. People figured out very soon that common ownership meant no ownership, and so the political leadership knew very well that maintaining power required the propagandistic trick of transferring the identity of the common people to the identity of the state. And to maintain power while pretending to uphold the banner of socialism meant one thing—
force applied by authority.

I don’t know whether this kind of detail is judged to be journalistically boring, and perhaps not suitable to a periodical magazine, but I sure would enjoy reading it a lot more, especially if it persuasively challenged some of my previously held ideas.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

would proceed from premise to conclusion in an orderly narrative

Step 1 -freedom leads to innovation which leads to productivity which leads to prosperity. If freedom leads to domination that restricts others freedom, channel freedom so it doesn't lead to domination.
Step 2 - freedom leads to satisfaction. Satisfaction leads to happiness.
Obviously simplified but this basic pattern is eliminating poverty from the world.

K Byrne
2 months 1 week ago

I am trying to be charitable, but this article is so plainly devoid of reality that it is shocking. I was looking for a reference to Venezuela when you speak of modern socialist countries. Funny, for a country that is starving, brought to ruins and a total social mess, I would have thought you would have addressed it. Mistake or intentional? Surprise, but Cuba is still a brutal socialist society where economics serve the state. Remember, socialism is not some altruistic utopia. It is control of the means of production by the state (that means the dictatorial government). Lately, those purveying socialism (like yourself) have conveniently changed the definition to "social" ownership and "democratic control" of the means of production as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Nice try.
Socialism does not work. Catholic theology is NOT a political ideology. You and your colleagues (i.e. Ocasio-Cortes) are again obfuscating the truth. Remember, render unto Caesar and render unto God. Catholic theology DOES NOT dictate the form of government or the form of the economy. It is up to each country to live and actualize the principles as they see best.
As such, your article is unfortunately propaganda.

Jon Kleve
2 months 1 week ago

"34. Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority." - Pope St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra

James Haraldson
2 months ago

Responsibility, efficiency, and solvency (profits) are synonymous with caring for people and Christianity. A utilitarian interpretation of the human condition (socialism) is synonymous with the culture of death and satanism.

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