“If the principles of liberalism are valid, then socialism, which is in fact one of the most perverse aberrations of the human spirit, is fully justified.”

These words of the 19th-century Archbishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler capture the central dilemma of Catholic thought in relation to Marxism. The Church’s engagement with Marx transformed Catholic social thinking. But it could not be called a dialogue.Marxism remained impervious to Catholicism and did not renounce historical materialism and atheism. Catholic thought, however, remained very interested in Marxism, and the categories of capital, alienation and the proletariat played an extremely important role in the development of Catholic social thought.

The reason for this is that capitalism – the idea that human beings and nature itself were commodities to be owned, traded and subject to price fluctuation like any other – was a profound threat to love, humanity and ethics. It was also a threat to the Church. The liberalism referred to by Ketteler was a system of individual self-fulfilment without limit. In its denial of the social nature of the person, the divine inheritance of creation and the presence of a soul in each person, it violated the sacred. The archbishop died on his way to Rome with a copy of Das Kapital in his bag.

One of the roots of this change in thinking lay in England and the role of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. At the time of the dock strike in 1889, he wrote:

The capitalist is invulnerable in his wealth. The working man without bread has no choice but either to agree or to hunger in his hungry home. For this cause “freedom of contract” has been the gospel of the employers, and they have resented hotly the intervention of peacemakers. They have claimed that no one can come between them and their men; that their relation to them is a private, almost a domestic affair. They forget that when thousands of women and children suffer while they are refusing to grant a penny more in wages, or an hour less in work, there is a wide field of misery caused by their refusal to negotiate in this strike. It is not a private affair; it is a public evil…

In one stroke the relationship between capital and labour was transferred from the private to the public realm. The power relations between a worker dependent on their wage for survival and an owner who could endure temporary disruptions through their accumulation of “dead capital” was not an equal one. Marx argued that capitalism was based on a systematic incentive to vice, greed, self-regard and reward, as well as the exploitation of the natural and human environment.

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