“Octogesima adveniens” and socialism after the Iowa Democratic caucus

We have so far refrained from discussing secular politics. (We have not refrained from discussing Church politics, though perhaps we ought to have done.) As of the time of writing, CNN reported that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State (and New York Senator) Hillary Clinton tied in the Iowa caucuses, 50-50. Later in the day, CNN reported that Clinton beat Sanders. That’s consistent with the reporting of the Des Moines Register that Clinton beat Sanders, 49.86% to 49.57%. The New York Times reported early today essentially a tie, though that became a narrow victory as the day wore on. In any event, Sanders did very well in Iowa, considering Clinton’s commitment to winning the caucus and the fact that, at one point, she led him in polls by nearly fifty points. And Sanders will likely do well in New Hampshire, barring some unforeseen shift in that state’s electorate. Recalling that Sanders is a self-professed democratic socialist, it seems like a good time to mention again Paul VI’s Octogesima adveniens, which we have discussed previously at some length.

We mention this largely because Sanders’s economic policies seem at least not inconsistent with some of the traditional teachings of the Church on economic matters. (Notwithstanding the Actonistas’ insistence that the free market is de fide tenenda, if not de fide credenda, and notwithstanding some of the frankly hysterical criticism of the Holy Father for suggesting that the rising tide of capitalism has not yet lifted most boats, much less all boats.) Consequently, there are many sharp Catholics of our acquaintance, very traditionally minded, who are at least open to supporting Sanders. Now, there is another very serious issue with supporting any Democratic candidate (who is likely to receive any serious support from Democratic primary voters), but the resolution of that issue is generally fairly complex and we will accordingly pass over it quickly. Given Sanders’ self-identification as a democratic socialist (whatever that means, and we’ll come back to that in a minute), it is appropriate to consider the extent to which Catholics can support a self-identified democratic socialist.

And that is the question that Paul VI addresses briefly in Octogesima adveniens. In some sense, as we may have noted previously, Octogesima adveniens was Paul’s attempt to walk back some of the more extreme interpretations of Populorum progressio, his encyclical commemorating Rerum novarum. (Octogesima adveniens was not, in point of fact, an encyclical letter.) At any rate, he discussed the extent to which Christians may cooperate with “socialist currents”:

Some Christians are today attracted by socialist currents and their various developments. They try to recognize therein a certain number of aspirations which they carry within themselves in the name of their faith. They feel that they are part of that historical current and wish to play a part within it. Now this historical current takes on, under the same name, different forms according to different continents and cultures, even if it drew its inspiration, and still does in many cases, from ideologies incompatible with faith. Careful judgment is called for. Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated. Distinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man. Nevertheless, these distinctions must not lead one to consider such levels as completely separate and independent. The concrete link which, according to circumstances, exists between them must be clearly marked out. This insight will enable Christians to see the degree of commitment possible along these lines, while safeguarding the values, especially those of liberty, responsibility and openness to the spiritual, which guarantee the integral development of man.

As we have noted before, none of this necessarily forbids a Catholic from cooperating with socialist currents. However, such cooperation involves a serious, intelligent consideration of the “various levels of expression of socialism,” recalling, of course, that one cannot really separate the broad-stroke, solidarity-and-equality stuff from “an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man.” Thus, a Catholic interested in supporting Sanders must consider the level of expression of socialism that Sanders himself articulates. And it is unclear to us that Sanders’s notion of socialism extends beyond “a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society,” though a society that is still terrifyingly unjust to some people. (Recall that the right to private property is not absolute, whatever else it may be.)

However, due to broader currents in American politics, it is awfully difficult to get an understanding of how Sanders conceives of his socialism. To put it another way, Sanders does not seem especially interested in running as an ideological socialist. (Even when it would be to his benefit to do so: for example, a Marxist would have a more coherent answer to the nagging attacks from Sanders’s “left” on race relations.) And without that ideological element, it is hard for a Catholic to get a good read on just how far Sanders’s democratic socialism runs. And without that good read, it is hard to conduct the careful analysis called for by Octogesima adveniens.

In other words, it is possible for a Catholic to come, in good conscience, to the conclusion that Sanders can be supported due to his economic positions. (Other positions he has marked out are, of course, a different story.) However, given the difficulty in having a discussion about socialism, the process of coming to that conclusion remains murky. But that Catholics are forced into sort of complicated situations like this at all is to be deplored. We recall, of course, the great Divini Redemptoris of Pius XI, in which Papa Ratti, the great prophet of the twentieth century, noted,

Procul dubio asseverari potest Ecclesiam, acque ac divinum eius auctorem, « bene faciendo » aetatem suam traducere. Neque socialistarum, neque communistarum errores usquequaque serperent, si Ecclesiae praecepta maternaque eius adhortamenta populorum moderatores non detrectassent; qui quidem, cum Liberalismi ac Laicismi, ut aiunt, principia ac normas complexi essent, ad istiusmodi placita atque fallacias, publicae rei ordinationem temperationemque ita instruxere, ut, quamvis primo oculorum obtutu aliquid magnum se effecisse viderentur, evanescere tamen pedetemptim finita ab se consilia ac proposita cernerent; quemadmodum quidquid in uno illo non consistit primario lapide, qui Christus est, necessario oportet miserrime collabi.

(Emphasis supplied.) We give the Latin here at least in part because the English translation of this passage is really—weirdly—unsatisfactory:

It may be said in all truth that the Church, like Christ, goes through the centuries doing good to all. There would be today neither Socialism nor Communism if the rulers of the nations had not scorned the teachings and maternal warnings of the Church. On the bases of liberalism and laicism they wished to build other social edifices which, powerful and imposing as they seemed at first, all too soon revealed the weakness of their foundations, and today are crumbling one after another before our eyes, as everything must crumble that is not grounded on the one corner stone which is Christ Jesus.

(Emphasis supplied.)