Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has surged in the polls by raising issues—income inequality, Wall Street reform, racism— that have hardly been addressed by other candidates. Sanders has led Hillary Clinton, the ultimate establishment candidate, in the polls in New Hampshire since the middle of July and last week jumped ahead of Clinton in Iowa polls for the first time.
What should Catholics make of Sanders’s rise? Is his vision one that Catholics can support at the ballot box? Certainly this is a complex question. He is an ardent supporter of abortion rights and a long-time advocate of same-sex marriage, stances that automatically disqualify him for many Catholics. As the United States bishops make clear in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, voters must weigh candidates’ stances on the issues against those issues’ relative gravity, the available alternatives, and the likelihood of the politicians’ taking significant action on those issues. Wading through all of these considerations is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I want to focus on Sanders’s self-proclaimed “democratic socialism.” Can a Catholic vote for a socialist candidate?
To answer this question, first we need to consider what we mean by the term “socialism.” Then we need to look at what Catholic teaching has had to say about socialism. Finally, we must look at Sanders’s own socialism and how it stacks up with Catholic social teaching.
What is Socialism?
Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, many people think they know socialism when they see it but struggle to explain what it is. Many Tea Party supporters, for example, would call any sort of government intervention, increase in federal spending, or government regulation “socialism.” But this is an excessively vague definition that fails to distinguish actual, historical socialist movements from others to which socialists were vehemently opposed (and also ignores the significant strand of libertarian socialism!). As I have written before, what matters is not how much the state is involved in the market, but what purposes both the market and state serve.
A helpful way of defining socialism comes from the political scientist Gøsta Esping-Andersen. The defining characteristics of socialism, in his view, are first the sense that the employer-employee relationship characteristic of modern capitalism, the commodification of one’s labor as a means of survival, is fundamentally alienating, and second that as citizens, we have a right to a decent livelihood independent of market relations. This definition fits both Marxist, authoritarian socialism and more democratic forms of socialism.
So what is the difference between “democratic socialism” and “social democracy”? Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is possible to distinguish them. Democratic socialism advocates for the fundamental transformation of the economy from one based on private ownership and the commodification of labor to one based on social ownership, either through the nationalization of enterprise or through establishing worker-owned cooperatives. Social democracy, by contrast, seeks to de-commodify labor by meeting people’s basic needs through a generous welfare state, to which they have access by rights as citizens. Unlike democratic socialism, social democracy leaves in place the private ownership of enterprise, recognizing it as a necessary generator of the wealth needed to fund the welfare state. Work is transformed into a form of self-expression as workers are no longer dependent on selling it to meet their basic needs.
Catholic Teaching on Socialism
Catholic teaching on socialism has evolved from outright condemnation to a more ambiguous assessment. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, for example, Pope Leo XIII condemns socialism because “it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit [i.e., the workers], is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal” (no. 15). Likewise, Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931) asserted that socialism “cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth” (no. 117). For both Leo and Pius, “socialism” refers to the abolition of private property; social democracy as I am using the term was not yet on the radar.
The experience of Catholic and socialist collaboration in anti-fascist resistance during the Second World War led to a transformation of Catholic attitudes toward socialism, and in many nations such as France and the Netherlands, Catholic and socialist parties formed coalition governments. Likewise, as the working class began to reap the benefits of post-war prosperity, many of the democratic socialist parties of Western Europe shifted toward a more social democratic stance, led by the Social Democratic Party in West Germany.
These shifts are reflected in John XXIII and Paul VI’s statements on socialism. In Pacem in Terris (1963), John makes clear that Catholics can collaborate with the exponents of “false philosophies” in shared social undertakings, justifying the closer relationships between Catholics and socialists in Western Europe. Paul more explicitly addresses Catholic collaboration with, or even identification with, socialists in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens. He notes that many have been drawn to socialism for vague, idealistic reasons without truly understanding its history or meaning. He then goes on, however, to suggest that Catholics may identify with socialism if they carefully discern the relationship between political aims and ideology.
Pope John Paul II, by contrast, almost exclusively uses the term “socialism” to refer to the economic systems of the communist bloc. Therefore while he decisively condemns this form of socialism, his writings lack a nuanced consideration of other varieties. When in Centesimus Annus (1991) he endorses “an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector” (no. 42), he seems to be decisively rejecting socialism. But this endorsement is capacious enough to include social democracy or an economy centered on cooperatively-owned enterprises. Could it also include Bernie Sanders’s economic vision?
Is Bernie Sanders a Socialist?
Bernie Sanders identifies himself as a “democratic socialist,” but is his economic agenda recognizably socialist? The answer can appear as ambiguous as the meaning of “socialism” itself. For example, although Peter Dreier expertly places Sanders in the tradition of American socialism, he avoids explaining what exactly makes Sanders a socialist.
Sanders has been a harsh critic of income inequality, proposing significant hikes in the capital gains tax and income taxes for the highest earners, as well as increasing the minimum wage. But neither of these is a particularly socialist policy, and both could be easily supported by Catholic social teaching. Likewise, Sanders has proposed breaking up the massive Wall Street banks whose financial practices put the American economy at risk and contribute to dramatic income inequality. And again, this proposal is not particularly socialist because it does nothing to fundamentally change the capitalist system; it in fact strengthens the market by promoting greater competition and strengthening the “real” productive economy over the financial economy.
Sanders has also long been an advocate of worker-owned enterprises, or cooperatives, and here we see a more clearly socialist side to his agenda. He believes that worker cooperatives will contribute to employment and productivity, and give workers a greater sense of fulfillment in the workplace. This position makes Sanders unusual among American politicians, but support for worker-owned enterprises is also an essential but underappreciated element of Catholic social teaching. Even the decidedly anti-socialist Pius XI proclaimed that so far as possible, “Workers and other employees [should] become sharers in ownership or management or participate in some fashion in the profits received” (QA no. 65). Likewise, in Laborem Exercens (1981) John Paul II advocated for “joint ownership of the means of work, sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of businesses, so-called shareholding by labor, etc.” (no. 14). And more recently, Pope Benedict XVI called for “commercial entities based on mutualist principles” in Caritas in Veritate (2009, no. 38). Catholic social teaching has supported worker-ownership not so much because the wage system is unjust, but because it makes the workplace, and ultimately society as a whole, more communitarian and participatory. Nevertheless, there is significant overlap between Catholic social teaching and Sanders’s brand of socialism on this issue.
Sanders has also advocated for a social democratic welfare state modeled on those of Scandinavia, and in particular for universal, single-payer health care where “everybody is covered as a right of citizenship.” Catholic social teaching also affirms the right to have certain basic needs met simply because of one’s dignity as a person. This right is most clearly articulated in Pacem in Terris, where John writes that each person “has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood” (no. 11). Moreover it is the primary responsibility of the state to ensure that these rights are promoted (no. 60). So there is certainly a strand of Catholic social teaching amenable to social democracy.
But Catholic social teaching does not see the individual as simply a citizen in relation to the state, as social democracy tends to, but also as a member of more “organic”, face-to-face communities. Therefore, Catholic social teaching has never fully embraced social democracy. We can see this in Pope John Paul II’s insistence on the important role of “intermediate communities” in contributing to human solidarity (CA no. 49) and Benedict XVI’s call for a “more devolved and organic system of social solidarity” (CV no. 60). Still, there is much common ground between Sanders’s social democracy and Catholic social teaching, especially in contrast to contemporary efforts to slash social spending.
Catholic social teaching offers an economic vision quite different from that of the mainstream of both American political parties. It is therefore encouraging when a politician like Sanders advocates for policies that resonate with that vision, and even more so when he surges in popularity. Should a Catholic vote for Sanders? In the Democratic primaries, Sanders’s principled economic vision clearly outshines Hillary Clinton’s mainstream liberalism. If the unreliably pro-life Donald Trump were to win the Republican nomination, then concerns over Sanders’s pro-abortion stance would diminish in salience were he to make it to the general election. If a more solidly pro-life Republican wins the nomination then things become more complicated. Nevertheless, Catholics have a responsibility to consider Sanders seriously, and regardless of how he fares as a candidate, Catholics should hope that his campaign successfully leaves the public conversation more open to the concerns of Catholic social teaching.