Is Catholic Socialism Back?

Is Christian socialism making a comeback in Catholic circles? Intellectuals on the religious left seem to think so. They have been buoyed by a document, quietly issued last November by the Vatican, called ‘Towards a Better Distribution of Land:The Challenge of Agrarian Reform.“ It is a stirring call for land reform in poor countries. Though the document never says so, it is clear from the footnotes that it is directed toward the economic conditions of Central and South America. Ever since its appearance, the sense of elation on the religious left has been obvious.

“Theologians and Bishops previously criticized by some in the Vatican because of their advocacy of liberation theology,” says the National Catholic Reporter, “have described the document as a striking reversal of such criticism.” Jose Luis Rocha of the Central American University in Managua, Nicaragua, says the document works “against” the “climate of neoliberal economics and the individualism it brings with it.” And Pablo Richard, head of an ecumenical think tank in San Jose, Costa Rica, says the document proves the church takes “a firm and decisive attitude opposing the unbridled free-market system.”

If this document gives Christian socialists hope, it's a measure of their own intellectual impoverishment. For far from backing economic collectivism–the liberation theology alternative–this document embraces a whole range of market mechanisms. In some ways, it goes further in this regard than earlier Catholic Church statements.

As the document notes, the land question in Latin America is a peculiar one largely absent in the developed world. A “small number of large landowners” possess the best areas and “vast numbers of very small owners, tenants and settlers” farm the remaining land. Not surprisingly, the large landowners are connected to the ruling classes while the small tenants are not. The distribution problem is not just one of ownership but also of political power.

The document explores the history of these arrangements. It notes that colonial powers rounded up indigenous populations, put them on reservations and “banned [them] from purchasing, or even occupying, land outside these reservations.” Thus it is not a free-market technique coming under fire here but the direct governmental coercion of a whole people.

Throughout most of this century, the document notes, the state adopted a “differentiated fiscal system to the advantage of large landowners” while small indigenous farmers suffered “discriminatory taxes.” In short, state coercion and taxation are being criticized. Moreover, the state adopted “pricing systems that work-in favor of the produce of large estates, in some cases going so far as to ban the purchase of small farmers' produce.” Again, it is the denial of access to markets and intervention in markets, not markets themselves, that come under attack.

The document then criticizes “the imposition of import harriers” that protect “the produce of large landholdings from international competition.” This is a direct condemnation of protectionism of the mercantile sort. It's hard to see how the left can squeeze an embrace of socialism out of these comments.

Against price control on grounds that it benefits some, hurts others and imposes artificial shortages? Against taxes on exports? Against “intervention” that alters “the market distribution mechanism”? So is this Vatican document. And it is remarkably explicit on a crucial economic question: “The social teaching of the Church condemns - - - state ownership of land as leading to the depersonalization of civil society.” Instead the church embraces “family-owned and farmed enterprises,” even as “it is not possible to determine a priori what the structure of farm life should be.' That, the document implies, is for the price system and the market to determine,

If “Towards a Better Distribution of Land” has a failing, it is its emphasis on distribution at the expense of production (though it theorizes that “growth in agriculture leads to an expansion in the industrial service sectors, and hence to overall economic growth”) - But land is an issue that lends itself to an overemphasis on distribution because, unlike labor and capital, there is only a fixed quantity of it available.

In any case, what is being construed as an attack on capitalism turns out to be quite the opposite. How desperate the religious left must be to find in it a cause of celebration! Latin America does indeed need a revolution–one that embraces markets, widespread ownership and entrepreneurship, and that separates the state from the economy it has traditionally controlled.