3.4.2 Liberalism, conservatism and socialism: take two

Back to 3.4.1

Unit 3 Contents


As we now turn to liberalism, conservatism and socialism, it will be helpful to remind yourself of the historical outline of these and of how CST is related to them in Unit 2.


Re-reading (8pp)

VPlater, Module B, 2.4.4–2.4.6


In order to develop our understanding of each of these, we shall consider just a few points here, to be supplemented in future units.


Similarities with CST

1.  Limited government  Both CST and liberalism are, in principle, anti-statist.  They both have a clear sense that the state’s role must be limited.

In CST, this is expressed in the principle of subsidiarity and (as we have just seen) was articulated by John Courtney Murray using the concept of ‘public order’.  In a way consistent with this, one of the defining features of liberalism is opposition to an over-mighty state and, in principle, to all forms of abuse of power.

2.  Human rights  If ‘liberalism’ is understood in its political meaning, according to which government’s primary responsibility is to guarantee for all human rights to a wide range of freedoms, then liberalism and CST are in strong agreement.  Granted that CST clearly regards human rights as including both ‘freedom rights’ and ‘benefit rights’ (the latter being rights to basic economic and social goods, such as enough income to live and some education; see 3.3.2), it shares common ground especially with what, during the twentieth century, came to be called ‘social liberalism’.

Differences from CST 

1.  Economic liberalism  If ‘liberalism’ is understood in its economic meaning, to refer to the philosophy by which laissez-faire capitalism is defended and which holds that the state should have a minimal role in seeking to modify the outcomes of market transactions, CST has strongly opposed this, ever since Rerum Novarum.   Earlier in this unit, you read the part of Quadragesimo Anno in which Pope Pius XI celebrated the view of the role of government which Rerum Novarum had set out.  In forceful language, he presented this as in opposition to liberalism:

With regard to civil authority, Leo XIII, boldly breaking through the confines imposed by Liberalism, fearlessly taught that government must not be thought a mere guardian of law and of good order, but rather must put forth every effort so that “through the entire scheme of laws and institutions . . . both public and individual well-being [i.e. the common good] may develop…” (Quadragesimo Anno, #25, quoting RN #32)

2.  Human wellbeing  The second similarity above, about human rights, conceals a profound difference.  CST and liberalism rest on deeply different visions of human wellbeing or the good life.

Catholic teaching sees this in terms a rich common good: diverse forms of human living that inherently fulfil God-given human nature generate an inherently shared good, one which reaches its ultimate end in communion with God.

In contrast, liberalism sees human wellbeing in terms of individuals’ free choices, whatever these are for.  As long as people have freely chosen their projects in life, they can enjoy human wellbeing, regardless of what they or others actually do.  Liberalism includes, that is, no view that some ways of life fulfil human nature and are, for this reason, objectively good.

This contrast means that CST and liberalism have partly different views about what really are human rights – even though there continues to be very much agreement about this (notably on most of what is affirmed in the UN Universal Declaration).

3.  Civil society bodies  In consequence of that deep difference about the human good, CST and liberalism see civil society bodies differently.  CST sees them as having proper ends which are to be discerned and which enable them to contribute to the common good.  Liberalism sees such bodies as only the outcomes of individuals’ choices.  Therefore CST sees a rich civil society as inherently part of the common good, whereas liberalism tends to see associations as only instrumental to individuals’ choices.



In the light of your study so far, can you think of other similarities and differences between CST and liberalism?



Similarity with CST

Both CST and conservatism (small ‘c’) see the range of social bodies that can exist between the state and the individual as highly important.  The father-figure of conservatism, Edmund Burke, emphasised such bodies, referring to them as “subdivisions” and, more romantically, “little platoons”:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.  It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it… (Reflections on the Revolution in France, para. 75)

Difference from CST

However CST and conservatism emphasize the importance of such bodies for different reasons.  Conservatives tend to value ‘little platoons’ because many longstanding, inherited practices of a society and culture lie in such bodies.  Wiping them away, as Burke thought the French Revolution would, will mean that a society loses a great deal more than it can gain by rapid change.  Hence the conservative reason for supporting them is that they mediate a culture’s traditions from the past to the future.

In contrast, CST values social bodies for the reasons outlined earlier in this unit (3.2.4). To the extent that the proper, natural ends of such bodies have been discerned, they give greater possibility for human fulfilment and contribute to generating the common good.

Correspondingly, CST has been willing to challenge such bodies sharply when they are operating in ways detrimental to persons and the common good.  This was evident from RN onwards.  The authors of both RN and QA were willing, as Thomas Massaro puts it (quoted in Unit 1, 1.2.4), to advocate “sweeping changes in the free-market capitalist order”, even though the inherited ways in which industrial companies actually operated, with the corresponding laws, “did not require better treatment for workers”.

[T]he natural law, as these popes interpreted it, mandated reforms.  Change was necessary because God’s higher law… demanded the preservation of life and greater respect for the aspirations of working families…  [N]atural law reasoning is a… powerful tool in the hand of anyone seeking [to] bring conditions in the actual world into closer conformity with the order of justice God intends for all people.1

Therefore CST does not hold to the essentially conservative position of opposing extensive social change because more will be lost than gained.  Sometimes the requirements of human dignity and the common good mean that government should use power to challenge and change entrenched traditions and practices.


We have not given direct attention in Unit 3 to the main definitive element in socialism, which is favouring of common ownership of property (in one form or another).  This means that we cannot, in light of our study, straightforwardly identify similarities and differences as we just have in relation to liberalism and socialism.

However, you might recall that, when we looked at the structure of Rerum Novarum (3.1.4), we noted that the opening part of this was about ‘a natural right to private property’.  In fact, one of Pope Leo XIII’s main purposes in publishing that encyclical was to oppose socialism.  There were two main reasons for this opposition. First, Leo XIII argued that state-enforced common ownership would not be the solution to the problem of the condition of the workers – but would make things worse. Rather, for workers to build up savings and own their own property would be a bulwark against poverty for them and their families.  Second, the longstanding emphasis in Catholic teaching on the common good as the good of all persons in a society was strongly opposed to socialism’s analysis of society in terms of fundamentally conflicting classes: the working class and the bourgeoisie.

For these two main reasons, CST has been plainly opposed to socialism ever since Rerum Novarum.  Nevertheless, in Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI included a much more sympathetic discussion of socialism than that opposition might lead us to expect.  He did this on the basis that, by the time he was writing, socialism had become distinguished into two very different versions:

  • One was Marxist Communism, which both emphasised class conflict and advocated state imposition of common ownership – as was happening in Russia at that time, following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
  • The second version was what can be called ‘ethical socialism’ (although the encyclical doesn’t use this label).  This emphasized, rather than class conflict, the need for ethical or moral critique of capitalism and its replacement by an ethically better way of doing business.  However, ethical socialism continued to see common ownership as an essential element in this solution.

Basically, Pius XI acknowledged in QA how close this second version of socialism was to CST, even though he also insisted that differences, especially about whether common ownership was the solution to the problem of liberal capitalism, meant that the Church could not endorse socialism.

This part of QA remains well worth reading.  You are asked to conclude this brief study of how CST compares with liberalism, conservatism and socialism at the end of Unit 3 by reading this.


Reading (8pp)

Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, ##111-129 

The link takes you to the start of the encyclical, so scroll down to #111.




Can you think of other similarities and differences between CST and either conservatism and (especially in the light of that reading) socialism?

At the end of Unit 2 (2.4.5), I posed this question:

Does CST represent a way of seeing the world and of acting in political life that corresponds, more or less, with one of liberalism, conservatism and socialism?  Or does CST represent something different and distinct from all of them?

In the light of studying Unit 3, how would you answer this question now?


Our study in Unit 4 will enable us to develop still further our understanding of how CST relates to these other positions.



End of 3.4.2

Go to 3.4.3 Review and discussion of Unit 3

Module B outline

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  1. Thomas Massaro, Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action (Rowman & Littlefield, 2nd ed., 2012), 67