Marxist Praxis, Catholic Solidarity, and Human Dignity

Pope Francis I has denied being a communist, noting that he simply urges activism against the “structural causes” of poverty. This activism follows from Christian doctrine. Francis has said that any pronouncements regarding economic policy and welfare stem from Church doctrine rather than “leftist ideology.” Nevertheless, it appears that Marxist principles have emerged within Catholic social teaching, specifically with respect to notions of praxis (which are endogenous to both Marxist and Catholic social thought) and social analysis. This comes as no surprise as philosophers such as Peter Singer note, “Marx’s impact can only be compared with that of religious figures like Jesus or Muhammed.” Together, Marxist praxis and Catholic social justice both provide a united front in supporting human rights by combating poverty as well as other social ills. Where Marxist praxis and Catholic social teaching overlap, there is a good deal of opportunity to cultivate and explore insights, and to address the economic and social ills that plague the human family in the 21st century. Ultimately, one very fundamental common denominator is found at the heart of this particular syncretism: human dignity.

At one point, Catholic social teaching categorically rejected Marxist ideas. In Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII denounces socialism, arguing that “socialism would make all possessions public property,” and thus it also injures those whom “it seeks to help, contravenes the natural rights of individual persons, and throws the functions of the state and public peace into confusion.” Leo censures any assault on private property: “Let it be regarded, therefore, as established that in seeking help for the masses this principle before all is to be considered as basic, namely, that private ownership must be preserved inviolate.” Even so, this notion of private property is not to be equated in Catholic social thought with corporate international capital and financial globalization. And, in Mater et Magistra (1961), Pope John XXIII reminds the world that “the Supreme Bishop (Leo XIII) emphasized that the views of communists, as they are called, and of Christians are radically opposed.” What is more, John forbids Catholics to “give approbation to the teachings of socialists who seemingly profess more moderate views.” Yet, in Catholic social teaching, this does not rule out or preclude the notion of a “social mortgage” on the resources of the earth and equitable distribution of wealth, in which radical praxis is common to both Catholic social thought and Marxist praxis.

With Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, Catholic social thought is forced to address Marxist analysis more than ever.

With Paul’s Octogesima Adveniens (1971), past rejections of Marxist praxis was softened. No longer understood as a sweeping metaphysical system, this application used for purposes of social analysis, was cautiously accepted into Catholic social teaching. Paul welcomed the selective use of secular social analysis inclusive of radical theory. He states that, even though “this type of analysis gives a privileged position to certain aspects of reality, to the detriment of the rest, and interprets them in the light of its ideology, [radical analysis] nevertheless furnishes some people not only a working tool but also a certitude preliminary to action.” Then, in November 1980, the US Catholic bishops echoed Paul’s interpretation of Marxist analysis in their “Pastoral Letter on Marxist Communism.” The Bishops uphold the view that Marxism need not be interpreted as an integral philosophy in which one “error” or missing component would necessarily invalidate the entire system. Thus, Marxism, as a form of social analysis, can be used according to US Catholic bishops, in a selective and discriminate manner for the promotion of justice.

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), John Paul makes the same observation but in less specific terms. He writes, “[The Church] seeks to lead people to respond, with the support also of rational reflection and of the human sciences, to their vocation as responsible builders of earthly society.” He later calls for an “objective analysis of reality” necessary to rectify the “serious problem of unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody, and thus also an equal distribution of the benefits deriving from them…[which] savagestatetranslates more succinctly into a moral obligation as the ‘duty of solidarity’,” an analysis that would invariably prioritize the “due consideration for the social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of the human being.” Thus John Paul addresses the problems of Western capitalism and states, “In the struggle against such a system, what is being proposed as an alternative is not the socialist system, which in fact turns out to be state capitalism, but rather a society of free work, of enterprise and of participation.” According to John Paul, this demands a collective responsibility that “the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.”

John Paul also speaks to the problems of international capitalism in Centesiums Annus (1991). He reasserts the collective responsibility to promote development, “Just as within individual societies it is possible and right to organize a solid economy which will direct the functioning of the market to the common good, so too there is a similar need for adequate intervention on the international level.” Though John Paul does not proffer a socialist remedy, that is, a remedy through command economies, he nevertheless presents a collectivist model similar to democratic solidarity themes in Marxist thought. This new socio-economic orientation, urged by the pope, hinges on a systematic restructuring of wealth to benefit those most in need. This is significant since both Catholic social teaching and Marxist analysis argues that exploited workers are entitled to the surplus value they create. Moreover, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul elaborates the hard-hitting “option or love of preference for the poor.” This preferential option for the poor is “a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness.” John Paul deepens the connection between Catholic social thought and Marxist analysis, teaching that this love of preference for the poor “affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ.” Whatever the individual concern for this solidarity with the poor might be, it nonetheless “applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods.”

Another theme that John Paul emphasizes in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, is the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine, in that “the goods of this world are originally meant for all.” Indeed, even if “the right to private property is valid and necessary,” John Paul yet categorizes private property as “a ‘social mortgage,’ which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.” Catholic social thought effectively argues that capital (property, resources, materials, etc.) has an intrinsically social function, leaving little room for doubt that Catholic praxis and solidarity share a common mission with Marxist praxis with respect to economic justice and their concern for the “poorest of the poor.” And, in their pastoral letter, Economic Justice for All, the US Catholic bishops state, “The principle of social solidarity suggests that alleviating poverty will require fundamental changes in social and economic structures that perpetuate glaring inequalities and cut off millions of citizens from full participation in the economic and social life of the nation.” They reason that this process of change “should be one that draws together all citizens, whatever their economic status, into one community.” The bishops go on to say, that, “The Church’s teaching opposes collectivist and statist economic approaches,” but that it also rejects the notion that “a free market automatically produces justice,” and according to John Paul’s Opening Address at the Puebla Conference in 1979, “One cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production.” Furthermore, as noted in John Coleman’s One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought: Originality of Catholic Social Teaching, the US Bishops limit themselves to the role of social critic, and in doing so they send what might be interpreted as a conflicting message precisely because they refuse an ideological agenda and strategy. The principle of solidarity in Catholic social thought seems to overrule whatever socio-economic position the Bishops attempt to avoid, and thus sets a political agenda precisely because it calls for the socialization of the “means of production.”

In Laborem Exercens, John Paul draws attention to similar notions of solidarity, which in his eyes and under Vatican II, take explicit aim at human dignity and “making life more human.” The conflict for both John Paul and Marxist thought is one that exists between labor and capital in both capitalist and command economic structures. For John Paul, as would be for Marx, the solution is to reorder priorities by placing labor above capital, people above profits, and workers as the owners of the means of production. John Paul states, “We must emphasize and give prominence to the primacy of man over thing,” and also treat human beings, “as the subject of work and independent of the work” that they do. John Paul asserts that “man alone is a person.” This is inspired mainly because the right to use takes priority over ownership within any economic structure, whether liberal capitalist or Marxist command economies. John Paul continues, “We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is insured,” which is to say, “when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else.” By associating labor with the ownership of capital, there emerges an avenue toward this goal, and thus John Paul recognizes that “the principle of priority of labor over capital is a postulate of the order of social morality.” He also recognizes that each person “collaborates in the work of others and for their good…[that] he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers’ use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity.” The ownership of the means of production, whether industrial or agricultural, it is, as John Paul says in Centesimus Annus, “just and legitimate if it serves useful work.”

According to the solidarity principle and Marxist analysis, workers have the inherent right to participate and construct their own destinies and thus become what for John Paul is, “more a human being.” This specifically means that in Catholic social thought and Marxist praxis the economy must be rebuilt around the needs of labor, not around the rational designs of capital which prioritizes unilateral economic self-interest and profit maximization. Solidarity, in this sense, prioritizes a democratically controlled economic policy that allocates resources and other necessities, such as food, housing, healthcare, education, work, etc. At the same time, this democratically collectivizing trend must prioritize the decentralization of capital (the disassociation of monopoly capital), the break-up of giant corporations, and also the promotion of alternative models of economic development, which make economic rights the most significant priority. Such a society, which is based on solidarity and human dignity, transcends what for Marx is the “narrow horizon or bourgeois right,” or in Catholic terms, a society that supports the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Moreover, solidarity and human rights in this scheme implies that justice is distributive since economic rights are prioritized over mere maximization of profits. Policy analysts, nevertheless, are still confronted with the issue of moderate scarcity and market failure, and hence, the continued existence of the state (public goods) – albeit democratic in structure – whose function is to administer, manage, and litigate between conflicting claims established by persons or groups in order to maximize the “general welfare” of all.

In June 2005 (in Audience to seven new ambassadors to the Holy See), Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger) again raises the pressing need to “come to grips with … solidarity among generations, solidarity between countries and entire continents, so that all human beings may share more equitably in the riches of our planet.” Benedict labeled this “concrete response” as “one of the essential services that people of good will must render to humanity.” Then, in an indictment of economic avarice, he states, “The earth, in fact, can produce enough to nourish all its inhabitants, on the condition that the rich countries do not keep for themselves what belongs to all.” Then, in his 2005 Message to the director general of the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, Benedict also addresses development. He defines true global development as “organized and integral,” and “desired by all.” Specifically, Benedict states that true development “calls on the contrary to know in an objective manner the human situations, to define the true causes of poverty and to provide concrete answers, with an appropriate formation of persons and communities as a priority.” The outcome, according to Benedict, is thus “the authentic freedom and responsibility will be activated, which are proper to human action.” He mentions that technological progress must have humanity occupy its center in order to be truly effective in a wider perspective. Benedict states, “This will also allow all peoples to draw from their patrimony of values, to share their own riches, both spiritual and material, for the benefit of all.”

What might this concrete and solidaristic response look like? In his 2005 Message to Mexican Bishops, Benedict states, “It is necessary not only to relieve the gravest needs but to go to their roots, proposing measures that will give social, political and economic structures a more equitable and solidaristic configuration.” In his 2006 Address to ambassadors from Australia, India, Chad, Cape Verde and Moldova, Benedict restates how important it is that political policies in the era of globalization “should not be guided mainly or solely by economic considerations or by the search for higher profits or a heedless use of the planet’s resources to the detriment of the people, especially those who are the least privileged, at the risk of jeopardizing the world’s future in the long term.” He then encourages national leaders and “all people of good will to commit themselves with ever greater determination to building a free, brotherly and supportive world, where attention to people takes precedence over mere economic aspects.” Then Benedict reminds his audience that it is “our duty to accept responsibility for one another and for the functioning of the world as a whole, so that it cannot be said, as Cain did in answer to God’s question in the Book of the Genesis: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” Benedict states in the same 2006 address, “Indeed, it is not enough to opt for peace or collaboration between nations in order to achieve them.” The charge is also individual, he states, “Again, each person must be actively committed and concerned not only with the interests of those close to him or her or with one specific class of society to the detriment of the general interest, but must seek first of all the common good of the country’s people and, on a wider scale, of the whole of humanity.”

Francis also discusses globalization and the need for solidarity and economic justice. Francis recognizes that “globalization has helped many people rise out of poverty, but it has also damned many others to starve to death. It is true that global wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities have also grown and new poverty arisen.” Like Benedict, Francis also questions the fundamental rational structure of capitalism: “When money, instead of man, is at the center of the system, when money becomes an idol, men and women are reduced to simple instruments of a social and economic system, which is characterized, better yet dominated, by profound inequalities.” One of the major effects of the existing system is that “we discard whatever is not useful to this logic,” as Francis states. He warns, “We cannot wait any longer to deal with the structural causes of poverty, in order to heal our society from an illness that can only lead to new crises.” He asserts that “without a solution to the problems of the poor, we will not solve the problems of the world,” and that we need “projects, mechanisms and processes to implement better distribution of resources, from the creation of new jobs to the integral promotion of those who are excluded.” Francis describes solidarity in the same terms that Jesus did in chapter 25:35-36 of Matthew’s Gospel, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Similarly, Francis states, “Caring for our neighbor; for those who are poor, who suffer in body and in soul, for those who are in need. This is the touchstone.” Yet, Francis does not stop there. He highlights the close connection that Catholic solidarity has with Marxist praxis: “If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers, in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily.” Francis states, “This concern for the poor is in the Gospel, it is within the tradition of the Church, it is not an invention of communism and it must not be turned into an ideology, as has sometimes happened before in the course of history.”

What is more, the Catholic Church advocates worker participation and contribution in economic matters as a solution to poverty, worker alienation, and exploitation. Such is the case in Marxist and socialist praxis. In this development, Marxist theory and analysis has become a significant part of the Church’s critiques of social and economic relationships and its support of human rights, in identifying the causes of poverty and injustice. Furthermore, if the Church and its tradition of social advocacy has developed a radical analysis and strategy through its principle of solidarity, then it stands to reason that monetarism (laissez-faire capitalism), neoliberal trade agreements, and international economic dependency experienced by Third World peoples must be rejected precisely because they are integral parts of modern day capitalism. Consequently, if capitalism – understood as monopoly capital, or the globalization of capital – should be rejected. A collectivist system should be implemented, one that prioritizes labor over capital and people over profits in support of fundamental human dignity.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at


Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at