EDITOR’S NOTE: In the second of this three-part series, Dr. Brooks examines Catholic and Protestant responses to the social justice movement, particularly in the last century. Both Catholic and Protestant responses are examined in the background of the rising tide of socialism in the early twentieth century.

As has been alluded to in Part 1, socialism was also on the rise during a time when various definitions of social justice were being examined by the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Leo XIII started examining the term “social justice” during a great shift in human history. The end of the agrarian age had been met by industrialization and urban growth. Families no longer depended upon a plot of land (which they probably inherited) to grow their food. Now they were dependent upon urban life to provide for them.

At the same time, two different social ideologies were growing: the socialism of Marx and the individualism of John Stuart Mill. While England was influenced by Mill, there was still a politeness that was exhibited in English culture. The continent, however, leaned toward the influence of Marx. It was in the environment of the continent that Pope Leo had the most concern. Mill propagated the ideas of liberalism (meaning in the political sense the liberty of individuals and free markets).

Leo saw that new institutions and new structures were being erected and this called for a new statement of virtues. On the one side he feared the socialist state and the false idea of equality created by the socialist state. On the other side, he also feared rampant individualism that he felt would push the undefended individual into the arms of the Leviathan.

To this end, Leo published several reasons why Socialism would eventually fail. He first reason relates to the issue of the natural right of a person to own property. If an individual is not able to own his or her own property, this incites envy among citizens, and expands the functions of the state without clear boundaries. He writes:

It is only too evident what an upset and disturbance there would be in all classes, and to how intolerable and hateful a slavery citizens would be subjected. The door would be thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord; the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation. Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, is one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.[1]

Leo also proposes that socialism diminishes any hope that an individual may have to improve his or her life. He writes, “Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”[2] This also means that the fruit of all labor is owned by the state, socialism also allows one person’s labor to be enjoyed by another person without the laborer’s consent.

At the root of the evil of socialism is forced equality, according to Leo. He believed that great mistake of socialism is built on the false metaphysic of conflict and enmity and that one class is naturally hostile to another class. Rather, the opposite is true. Leo writes, “Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State it is ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each need the other…Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict produces confusion and savage barbarity.”[3]

Leo argues that each person may contribute to the common good, but do so in their own individual giftedness, talents, and capacities, but not everyone should be expected to contribute in exactly the same way. How could persons best use their giftedness and talents? By free associations of persons for causes such as labor and the common good. While Leo was critical of socialism, he did not give a free pass to capitalism (or liberalism, as he called it). He believed that both utilitarianism and individualism did not place enough emphasis on community. Leo rooted much of this political view in the parables of Jesus Christ:

As for riches and the other things which men called good and desirable, whether we have them in abundance, or are lacking in them…it makes no difference; the only important thing is to use them aright. Jesus Christ, when He redeemed us with plentiful redemption, took not away the pains and sorrows which in such large proportion are woven together in the web of our mortal life. He transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit and no man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow the blood-stained footprints of his Saviour.[4]

Protestantism, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Socialism

Nietzche famously declared (or at least culturally observed) that “God is dead.” By declaring the statement, Nietzche also warned that reason would die. No longer was there one Intelligence that was infusing meaning into every aspect of life or creation. Everything became disconnected and impersonal. There was no longer a divine Logos that was filling the cosmos with comprehension and beauty. Now there was a new isolation, a loss of the sacred, and a pointlessness to life. The sexual revolution and other cultural movements rushed to fill the void.

Reinhold Niebuhr responded to such cultural movements by acknowledging the pervasiveness of sin in society. Coming from a Midwest family with Lutheran and Evangelical roots, he wrote about humanity’s capacity for sinfulness is evident in social systems, as exemplified in his famous quote from his book The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[5]

Niebuhr’s helpful critique of the Marxist utopianism is helpful in understanding the weaknesses of a Marxism-based social justice. Utopianism pictures a perfect world without self-seeking powers and ultimately a world without sin. The Nazis’ propaganda taught that the Third Reich would last for a millenium and that arrogance and greed would be extinguished once and for all. Underneath such utopian dreams were the realities of a harsh and heavy-handed government that marginalized groups based upon racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Neibuhr’s critique of socialism and embrace of liberal democracy would eventually separate him from some of those whom he had influenced. Students of Niebuhr, such as George Kennan, and John Foster Dulles, would become major players in United States foreign policy, enacting a “realist” stance against communist forces in the rest of the world. To be a Christian would mean that one believed in democracy and in the United States. To be a communist meant one was an atheist and a denier of individual freedom.

In one of his later books, The Irony of American History, Neibuhr protested that his ideas were being used to justify the type of self-righteousness that he opposed. He pointed out that the United States, in claiming to rid the world of sin, acted in sinful ways. In order to protect the free world, the United States would often act in unjustified ways toward other states. He would eventually go on to criticize the Vietnam War as being an example of the best intentions of the United States gone wrong.