Increased participation in public affairs by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the highly contentious 2012 Presidential election has seemingly brought the traditions of Catholic social teaching and socialism into a high profile conflict. While it is clear that President Obama is not what most academics would consider a “socialist,” modern discourse still presents what I argue is a false dichotomy- one can be either endorse natural law (especially of the Catholic variety) or socialism, but not both.

While my goal in this article is to refute the alleged incompatibility, not to determine its historical roots, some speculation about its origin may be illuminating. Recent work on religious identity in the United States suggests that Americans largely identify Christianity with the right wing of the American culture war. Additional research is required to fully grasp where this perception comes from, but one can venture several guesses: the rise of the “Christian Right” in Republican Party politics of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the concept of “social justice” being lampooned by Right-wing talk show hosts, and decades of a Catholic Church that firmly opposed Cold War-era Soviet Communism. The contrast between left-wing and right-wing thought on social issues (same-sex marriage, abortion, etc.) is very well documented and widely discussed. Differences between leftists and natural lawyers on economic issues, however, are more often assumed than argued for. Perhaps this is a matter of “guilt by association,” with those arguing that leftist social policy is at odds with natural law simply assuming that the same must be the case with leftist economic policy as well. Thus, natural law, long tied to Christianity throughout its history, is gratuitously appropriated by right-wing political ideology.

Against this claim of incompatibility, I argue that one can rationally hold both socialism and natural law to be true. In his landmark Natural Law and Natural Rights, John Finnis offers what is arguably the twentieth century’s most complete theory of natural law. I will argue that the conception of socialism laid out by G.A. Cohen in his Why Not Socialism? is compatible with Finnis’s account of the human goods, and that natural lawyers can therefore reasonably endorse Cohen’s prescription for socialism.

About the Author

Ryan J. Undercoffer is a Ph.D student in political science at the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University.