How can a Catholic be a socialist?
Religion & Liberty Online

How can a Catholic be a socialist?

In a Turing Test, a computer tries to pass for human in a natural language conversation. During the test a human judge engages in the conversation but doesn’t know if it’s with a human or a machine emulating human responses. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

Several years ago, economist Bryan Caplan suggested a similar test for understanding ideologies, an “ideological Turing test”:

If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct. And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct. (See free trade). It’s not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views. But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.

Although I aspire to such objectivity, I find there is a frequent stumbling block in trying to pass an ideological Turing test: finding a clear and coherent statement of an ideological viewpoint that will be widely accepted. Oftentimes, the explanation comes from my own side of the political spectrum, and its unclear if it’s a perspective shared internally within an ideological opponent’s camp.

A prime example is on the issue of socialism and Catholic social doctrine. Although I’m not Catholic (I’m Southern Baptist), I’ve read enough Catholic social teaching to know that it appears Catholicism is incompatible with socialism.* For example, since the mid-1800s every pontiff—from Pius IX to Benedict XVI—has forthrightly condemned socialism.

Yet if they’re incompatible, why then are there smart and serious Catholics who self-identify as socialists?

The most recent high-profile example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic-Socialist and Democratic congressional nominee, who recently wrote about “her Catholic faith” in a Jesuit magazine. She rejects the church’s teachings on abortion, marriage, and sexuality, so perhaps it’s not surprising she also ignores the teachings on economics. Ocasio-Cortez seems to have a Protestant-style pick-and-choose attitude about which of the Catholic Church’s doctrines she agrees with.

But there are serious, faithful Catholics who also say they’re socialists, such as Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, and my friend and former boss Matthew Schmitz, a senior editor at First Things. How do they resolve the tension between their religious and political perspectives?

My reason for wanting to pass this particular ideological Turing test is admittedly ideologically motivated: I want to understand so I may form better criticisms of their position. But I’m sincere in wanting to criticize a view they truly believe, and not a strawman version they’d reject.

So I need some help from self-identified Catholic socialists in answering the question, “How can socialism be compatible with Catholic social teaching?”


*I think socialism is incompatible with Protestant social teaching too, but that’s an argument for another day.

Note: Any responses I get to this question from self-identified Catholic socialists will be below.

On Twitter, Matthew Schmitz responds:

See this essay by my friend C.W. Strand.

For the record, I object in the strongest terms to [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]’s social views. I also adamantly oppose free tuition, which is simply a WPA for academic progressives.

In a follow-up question I asked: “If your use of the term ‘socialism’ differs so radically from the understanding of the popes, why even use the term? Why use a term that is bound to lead to confusion about their compatibility?” Schmitz replied:

Good question. In point of fact, I have only used it once, in a context where I knew it would be particularly helpful. I do not insist on it.

I appreciate this clarification, and it leads me to add a clarifying question: “Would most Catholic socialists say that Strand’s articles represent their own views?”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).