Incompatibility of Socialism with the Doctrine of the Church




Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

with the collaboration of others

Part I , Section I, Subsection II, Chapter III – Consequent Incompatibility of Socialism with the Doctrine of the Church 

The last two chapters showed that socialism is incompatible with Catholic doctrine both by its conception of the universe and of man and because it attacks two institutions which are pillars of Christian civilization, namely, property and the family.

Simply by being averse to property and the family, socialism would be incompatible with Catholic doctrine even if it did not contain an erroneous conception of the universe and of man. While this fact immediately stands out, it has such importance that we will return to it in this chapter.

If the incompatibility between socialism and the Catholic Religion is so great, some reader may ask, how to explain that the Popes have said a great deal against communism but nothing or almost nothing about socialism?

That is not true. Papal texts against socialism are very numerous.

However, before transcribing some of them, it is fitting to make a distinction between the different meanings that the word “socialism” has acquired.

Today it has many different applications ranging from flaming red “Marxist socialism” to the highly diluted rose-coloured or almost white “Christian socialism” or “Catholic socialism.” Among those claiming the socialist label for their ideas, we not infrequently find declared Communists, other leftists who are much less radical, and finally also bourgeois of undefined political and social tendencies, but with a tranquil disposition and a humanitarian and naturalistic sensibility with some hues of Christian influence.

Since the affirmation that the Church condemns socialism may appear strange to this whole gamut of individuals, we are devoting a chapter to clarify the doubts which they may eventually encounter regarding this matter.

Enlightening Pontifical Texts

Socialism began to assume particular importance during the pontificate of Pius IX (1846-1878). We begin, then, with a text by that Pope.

“Absolute overthrow of the whole human order”

“But you know, Venerable Brethren that the main perpetrators of these despicable machinations are out to push the people, already stirred by every wind of perverse doctrines, to overthrow the whole order of human affairs and deliver them to the criminal systems of new Socialism and Communism.”25

Leo XIII, his successor (1878-1903), became immortal by the wisdom with which he dealt with the social question and the paternal affection he manifested toward workers, then in great part subjected to an unmerited poverty. The great pope is even said to have launched the foundations of so-called Christian socialism. But that is a blatant error. In his documents, Leo XIII condemns socialism very often and in serious and incisive terms. Let us see a few examples:

“Horrendous monster”

“Communism, socialism, nihilism, hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin.”26

“Ruin of All Institutions”

“The fear of God and reverence for divine laws being taken away, the authority of rulers despised, sedition permitted and approved, and the popular passions urged on to lawlessness, with no restraint save that of punishment, a change and overthrow of all things will necessarily follow. Yea, this change and overthrow is deliberately planned and put forward by many associations of communists and socialists.” 27

“Sect Destructive of Civil Society”

“We speak of that sect of men who, under various and almost barbarous names, are called socialists, communists, or nihilists, and who, spread over all the world, and bound together by the closest ties in a wicked confederacy, no longer seek the shelter of secret meetings, but, openly and boldly marching forth in the light of day, strive to bring to a head what they have long been planning – the overthrow of all civil society whatsoever. Surely these are they who, as the sacred Scriptures testify, ‘Defile the flesh, despise dominion and blaspheme majesty’ (Jude 8).” 28

Pestiferous Sect

“All have witnessed with what solemn words and great firmness and constancy of soul our glorious predecessor, Pius IX, of happy memory, both in his allocutions and in his encyclical letters addressed to the bishops of all the world, fought now against the wicked attempts of the sects, now openly by name against the pest of socialism, which was already making headway.” 29

Destructive Sect

The “socialists and other seditious sects, who have worked for so long to raze the State even to its very foundations.”30

Abominable Sect

“Labour hard that the children of the Catholic Church neither join nor favour in any way whatsoever this abominable [socialist] sect.” 31

Enemy of Society and Religion

“The condition of things at present proclaims, and proclaims vehemently, that there is need for a union of brave minds with all the resources they can command. The harvest of misery is before our eyes, and the dreadful projects of the most disastrous national upheavals are threatening us from the growing power of the socialistic movement. They have insidiously worked their way into the very heart of the community, and in the darkness of their secret gatherings, and in the open light of day, in their writings and their harangues, they are urging the masses onward to sedition; they fling aside religious discipline; they scorn duties; they clamour only for rights; they are working incessantly on the multitudes of the needy which daily grow greater, and which, because of their poverty are easily deluded and led into error. It is equally the concern of the State and of religion, and all good men should deem it a sacred duty to preserve and guard both in the honour which is their due.” 32

Danger for Material Goods, Morality and Religion

“We deemed it Our duty to warn Catholics, in unmistakable language, how great the error was which was lurking in the utterances of socialism, and how great the danger was that threatened not only their temporal possessions, but also their morality and religion.” 33

“Fatal Germ”

“For ‘the Church of the living God, which is the pillar and ground of truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15) hands down those doctrines and precepts whose special object is the safety and peace of society and the uprooting of the evil growth of socialism.” 34

Dangerous Serpent

Communists, socialists and nihilists are a “deadly plague that is creeping into the very fibres of human society and leading it on to the verge of destruction.” 35

Negation of Human and Divine Laws

Communists, socialists and nihilists “leave nothing untouched or whole which by both human and divine laws has been wisely decreed for the health and beauty of life.” 36

Socialism Diverges Diametrically from the Catholic Religion

“Although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist: ‘for what participation bath justice with injustice or what fellowship bath light with darkness’ (2 Cor. 6: 14)?”37

These texts leave no room for doubt as to the opposition between socialist doctrine in its philosophical, social, economic principles etc., and Church doctrine. They constitute a condemnation of socialist doctrine in all its extension.38

However, from the time of Leo XIII to our day, the meaning of the word “socialism” has gradually broadened to include systems that accept something akin to what we would call total socialism but are nevertheless distinct from it in some aspect.

For example, there are socialist schools whose followers seek to stick to the social and economic sphere and abstract from any religious or philosophical premises. These schools deal only with problems of production and consumption, pretending to give their followers complete freedom of opinion as to the rest. In reality, however, this type of socialism is also incompatible with Catholic doctrine. While appearing not to take a philosophical or religious position, deep down it shows materialism by seeking to organize society and the economy as if only matter existed and only material problems were important.

Other schools calling themselves socialist differ from socialism as presented at the time of Pius IX and Leo XIII in two aspects:

  • As far as their objectives are concerned, they do not aim for complete socialization of all spheres of human existence but only some of them, at times very few;
  • As far as their methods are concerned, they do not seek abrupt or violent social transformations but gradual and peaceful ones.

Compared to radical and total socialism such as Marxist socialism, these schools or currents obviously have an attenuated aspect. Nevertheless, they too (including notably that of Henry George, which pleads for the socialization of lands while preserving private initiative in other sectors of the economy) are irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine.

The reforms proposed by these nuanced schools of socialism — some more moderate, others less

— aim, if not at the total abolition of private initiative and private property, at least at the limitation of both to a degree incompatible with the nature of man.39

The same censure can be made of the socialist variant with a distributist character and a Christian label, which considers society as the end of man. According to that school, instead of forming a family patrimony, all production exceeding the needs of a family would go to the community. As can be seen, adherents of this system believe the family, considered a unit of production, aims only at subsistence; an error that prevents it from saving, as the surplus of its production belongs to society. This system socializes production.

In general, so-called Catholic or Christian socialists agree to dissociate the philosophical foundations of socialism from its economic and social aspects. They reject the former and accept the latter at least to some degree. And, trusting that a victorious but moderate socialism will not entail persecutions of Religion, they long for the coming of a socialist and Christian order of things. We already pointed out the errors of this system.40

The Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was very valuable to confirm Catholics in their rejection of socialism in its “moderate,” “Christian” or “Catholic” versions. In it Pius XI enunciates with complete clarity the problem arising from the multiple meanings that the word “socialism” has acquired since Leo XIII.

Two-pronged Socialism

Relating the history of the term “socialism,” the Pope writes: “Socialism, against which Our Predecessor, Leo XIII, had especially to inveigh, has since his time changed no less profoundly than the form of economic life. For Socialism, which could then be termed almost a single system and which maintained definite teachings reduced into one body of doctrine, has since then split chiefly into two sections, often opposing each other and even bitterly hostile, without either one however abandoning a position fundamentally contrary to Christian truth that was characteristic of Socialism.”41


“One section of Socialism has undergone almost the same change that the capitalistic economic system, as We have explained above, has undergone. It has sunk into Communism. Communism teaches and seeks two objectives: Unrelenting class warfare and absolute extermination of private ownership.” 42

Moderate Socialism

After various considerations regarding Communism, the Pontiff continues, speaking of the moderate faction of Socialism: “The other section, which has kept the name Socialism, is surely more moderate. It not only professes the rejection of violence but modifies and tempers to some degree, if it does not reject entirely, the class struggle and the abolition of private ownership. One might say that, terrified by its own principles and by the conclusions drawn therefrom by Communism, Socialism inclines toward and in a certain measure approaches the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred; for it cannot be denied that its demands at times come very near those that Christian reformers of society justly insist upon.

“For if the class struggle abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, it gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice, and if this is not that blessed social peace which we all seek, it can and ought to be the point of departure from which to move forward to the mutual cooperation of the Industries and Professions. So also the war declared on private ownership, more and more abated, is being so restricted that now, finally, not the possession itself of the means of production is attacked but rather a kind of sovereignty over society which ownership has, contrary to all right, seized and usurped. For such sovereignty belongs in reality not to owners but to the public authority. If the foregoing happens, it can come even to the point that imperceptibly these ideas of the more moderate socialism will no longer differ from the desires and demands of those who are striving to remould human society on the basis of Christian principles. For certain kinds of property, it is rightly contended, ought to be reserved to the State since they carry with them a dominating power so great that cannot without danger to the general welfare be entrusted to private individuals.

“Such just demands and desire have nothing in them now which is inconsistent with Christian truth, and much less are they special to Socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become socialists.” 43

False Conciliation

“Yet let no one think that all the socialist groups or factions that are not communist have, without exception, recovered their senses to this extent either in fact or in name. For the most part, they do not reject the class struggle or the abolition of ownership, but only in some degree modify them.

Now, if these false principles are modified and to some extent erased from the program, the question arises, or rather is raised without warrant by some, whether the principles of Christian truth cannot perhaps be also modified to some degree and be tempered so as to meet Socialism half-way and, as it were, by a middle course, come to agreement with it. There are some allured by the foolish hope that socialists in this way will be drawn to us. A vain hope! Those who want to be apostles among socialists ought to profess Christian truth whole and entire, openly and sincerely, and not connive at error in any way. If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity.” 44

The Illusory ‘Baptism’ of Socialism

“But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be “baptized.” That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.

“For, according to Christian teaching, man, endowed with a social nature, is placed on this earth so that by leading a life in society and under an authority ordained of God (Rom. 13:1) he may fully cultivate and develop all his faculties unto the praise and glory of his Creator; and that by faithfully fulfilling the duties of his craft or other calling he may obtain for himself temporal and at the same time eternal happiness. Socialism, on the other hand, wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone. Because of the fact that goods are produced more efficiently by a suitable division of labour than by the scattered efforts of individuals, socialists infer that economic activity, only the material ends of which enter into their thinking, ought of necessity to be carried on socially. Because of this necessity, they hold that men are obliged, with respect to the producing of goods, to surrender and subject themselves entirely to society. Indeed, possession of the greatest possible supply of things that serve the advantages of this life is considered of such great importance that the higher goods of man, liberty not excepted, must take a secondary place and even be sacrificed to the demands of the most efficient production of goods. This damage to human dignity, undergone in the ‘socialized’ process of production, will be easily offset, they say, by the abundance of socially produced goods which will pour out in profusion to individuals to be used freely at their pleasure for comforts and cultural development. Society, therefore, as Socialism conceives it, can on the one hand neither exist nor be thought of without an obviously excessive use of force; on the other hand, it fosters a liberty no less false, since there is no place in it for true social authority, which rests not on temporal and material advantages but descends from God alone, the Creator and last end of all things (Enc. Diuturnum).” 45

Catholic Socialism, a Contradiction

“If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” 46


The consequence could not be clearer. Even the most moderate Socialism is incompatible with the doctrine of the Church, albeit disguised under a Catholic label.

This consequence has real practical importance in what concerns “Agrarian reform.” Indeed, depending on the obstacles its proponents encounter in their path, they will come up with projects that may appear more “moderate” and more cautious or less alarming to farm owners though still damaging to the right of property in one way or another. If our camp lacks very clear principles on the several modalities of socialism and the awareness that “moderate” socialism should also be condemned, it can easily accept suggestions of a diluted socialist stamp as harmless and even conciliatory.



25 Pius IX, Encyclical Noscitis et Nobiscum, December 8, 1849 at [our translation]

26 Leo XIII, Encyclical Diuturnum Illud, June 29, 1881 no. 23 at

27 Leo XIII, Encyclical Humanum Genus, April 20, 1884 no. 27 at

28 Leo XIII, Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, December 28, 1878 no. 1 at muneris_en.html

29 Idem, no. 3.

30 Leo XIII, Encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum, June 20, 1888 no. 16 at

31 Leo XIII, Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, December 23, 1878 no. 11 at muneris_en.html.

32 Leo XIII, Encyclical Graves de Communi, January 18, 1901 no. 21 at re_en.html.

33 Idem, no. 2.

34 Leo XIII, Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, December 23, 1878 no. 4 at muneris_en.html.

35 Ibid., no. 1

36 Ibid., no. 1

37 Ibid., no. 5

38 Cf. summary in Chapter II of this Title.

39 Cf. Title II, Chapter II.

40 Idem.

41 Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 111 at

42 Idem, no. 112.

43 Idem, no. 115.

44 Idem, no. 116.

45 Ibid., no. 119.

46 Ibid., no. 120