He is almost forgotten today, but at one time Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876) was a force to be reckoned with. John A. Hardon described him as "one of the most admired — and most controversial — figures of the nineteenth century." A giant intellect, he was renowned as one of the "Big Three" American Transcendentalists, ranking with Thoreau and Emerson. In some ways he surpassed them. He, of course, lost his ranking when he converted to Catholicism, and almost immediately began to annoy both Catholics and Protestants by espousing unpopular ideas that, contrary to the spirit of those times and ours, happened to be true.
Chief among the unpopular ideas Brownson championed was that neither individualism (capitalism) nor collectivism (socialism) had the truth, but of the two, socialism was by far the worst. As far as Brownson was concerned, socialism is "as artful as it is bold," establishing and maintaining itself by lies and deceit. As he characterized this insidious evil,
"[Socialism] wears a pious aspect, it has divine words on its lips, and almost unction in its speech. It is not easy for the unlearned to detect its fallacy, and the great body of the people are prepared to receive it as Christian truth. We cannot deny it without seeming to them to be warring against the true interests of society, and also against the Gospel of our Lord. Never was heresy more subtle, more adroit, better fitted for success. How skillfully it flatters the people! It is said, the saints shall judge the world. By the change of a word, the people are transformed into saints, and invested with the saintly character and office. How adroitly, too, it appeals to the people's envy and hatred of their superiors, and to their love of the world, without shocking their orthodoxy or wounding their piety! Surely Satan has here, in Socialism, done his best, almost outdone himself, and would, if it were possible, deceive the very elect, so that no flesh should be saved." (Orestes Brownson, Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism, 1852.)
Reading this, we can understand why, unlike capitalism, the Catholic Church explicitly condemns socialism in all its forms. Capitalism may be bad, but socialism is deadly. Capitalism distorts nature, where socialism would destroy it. As Pius XI declared in words often cited and even more often ignored or misunderstood, "If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist." (Pius XI Quadragesimo Anno ("On the Restructuring of the Social Order"), 1931, § 120.)
Why, however, in a country that seemed to take inordinate pride in its individualism and adherence to capitalism, would Brownson be so concerned with the dangers of collectivism and socialism? It would make more sense (at least to the modern mind) if he had joined with Karl Marx and the other giants of 19th century socialism, and condemned the growing evils of industrial and commercial — to say nothing of financial — capitalism.
The problem was that, just as today, no one but a few misguided ideologues was under the illusion that capitalism was anything but bad. Even many of today's apologists for capitalism frequently agree that, with the past savings paradigm (paraphrasing Churchill on democracy), capitalism is the worst possible system . . . except for all the others.
Socialism, however, has always managed to hide its evil, usually disguising itself as "an angel of light," seeming — as Brownson put it — so fair as to "deceive the very elect." No, there was little danger that anyone would mistake capitalism for anything other than what it is. There was — and remains — every danger that multitudes will welcome socialism as the savior of the world. It feeds on pride, arrogance, and envy, a veritable cornucopia of deadly sins, custom-made to destroy the soul of an individual or a country.