Are you a democratic socialist? You’re like some famous popes.

Economic and social justice are core principles of Catholic social teaching.

A popular website claiming to be able to peg a person’s political coordinates informed my oldest son and me that we are both left-leaning communitarians. 

My son, who is a captain in the US Army, was bit taken aback by our shared “radical” beliefs in social democratic values like you may hear espoused in a speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders.  

I quickly pointed out, “You shouldn’t be surprised. That is how we raised you.”  

You see, my wife and I raised our children Catholic. We worked hard to engrain social justice teachings of the Catholic Church in our four children. Specifically, we stressed the individual’s responsibility to be a positive contributor to society — to live for others. Success is a community metric, not a personal one.  

My point here is not to hold myself up as a model parent, but to take an opportunity to counter the political pundits who label communitarianism as radical or socialist with a capital “S.” These ideas are not new ideas — at least not to more than a century of popes. 

In 1891, Pope Leo XII extoled the importance of respecting labor in his watershed encyclical on the rights and duties of capital and labor titled Rerum Novarum. In particular, Pope Leo made it clear that while work was a necessity, it was not to be unjustly borne by the poor or a vehicle for exploitation. He argued for the protection of labor because every laborer is a person. He adroitly demonstrated that while private property was a necessary right for an orderly society — it did not supersede the fact that the earth and its bounty were given by God for the sustenance of all. 

A hundred years later, John Paul II in Centesimus Annus warned against “unbridled capitalism” and the exploitation of workers, while also disavowing Communism — a reality he had lived in Poland for much of his life. The pope, who is widely regarded for playing a significant role in the demise of Soviet Communism, also stated, “A workman’s wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children.” Quoting his predecessor whose encyclical he was honoring, he added, “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” (CA, p. 8)

Another portion of John Paul II’s treatise on labor and capital merits consideration for its early recognition of the issues created by a global economy that is not accompanied by global education and equal access to technology. 

The fact is that many people, perhaps the majority today, do not have the means which would enable them to take their place in an effective and humanly dignified way within a productive system in which work is truly central. They have no possibility of acquiring the basic knowledge which would enable them to express their creativity and develop their potential. (CA, p, 33)

What is common throughout the hundred year corpus of encyclicals by popes covering labor and capitalism is that the human being is always to be considered first. As John Paul II said often, “Work was made for man, not man for work.” 

It turns out my son and I are no radicals. Seeing health care as a public utility and wanting everyone to have work that provides sufficient earnings to meet the cost of living are pretty basic principles to any equitable community. We should all be communitarians.