RELIGION & LIBERTY, Acton Institute’s International Journal of Religion, Economics and Culture
There is no ‘Catholic case for Communism’
Rev. Ben Johnson
The Jesuit-run America magazine recently published an apolo- gy for Communism that would have been embarrassing in Gor- bachev-era Pravda. “The Catholic Case for Communism” (by Dean Dettloff, July 23, 2019) minimizes Marxism’s intensely an- ti-Christian views, ignores its oppression and economic decimation of its citizens, distorts the bulk of Catholic social teach- ing on socialism, and seemingly ends with a call to revolution.
Dettloff, who is America’s Toronto cor- respondent, claims to own Marxism’s “real and tragic mistakes,” yet he downplays these to the point of farce. He admits, without elaboration, that “Communism in its socio-political expression has at times caused great human and ecological suffer- ing.” That seems a rather anodyne way to describe decades of imperialism, censor- ship, and torture; the Gulag archipelago, reeducation camps designed to eradi- cate the victim’s entire personality, and the systematic industrial slaughter of 100 million people (and still counting in North Korea, China, and Cuba).
In this America essay, the plight of Communism’s victims is reduced to the level of “ecological suffering.”
Similarly, Dettloff obfuscates about Communism’s hatred of religion in general and Christianity in particular. He will allow only that Marxist-Leninists “were com- mitted Enlightenment thinkers, atheists who sometimes assumed religion would
fade away in the bright light of scientific reason, and at other times advocated pro- pagandizing against it.”
Had Communists restricted them- selves to propaganda, they would have failed before taking power, rather than 70 years afterward. The Bolsheviks mur- dered 2,691 Russian Orthodox priests, 1,962 monks, and 3,447 nuns in 1922 alone. Dettloff obliquely admits Com- munists persecuted religious people “at different moments in history.” In reali-ty, Communist persecution of the Church was near-universal. The same cycle un- wound in Spain, Hungary, Albania, North Korea, and Xi Jinping’s China. Its boot has fallen on the necks of such luminaries as Cardinal Mindszenty, Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, and an obscure Polish priest named Karol Wojtyla.
Before taking Christian lives, the Communists took their property. Le- nin wrote secretly in 1922 that the Po- litburo must use the Bolshevik-inspired famine as cover to “confiscate all church property with all the ruthless energy we can still muster.” He understood, better than Christians, that without property the Church has no earthly self-defense. Wealth gives its holder agency – which is to say, liberty.
Dettloff attempts to reassure his readers that Communists will only despoil “the rich,” not common people. Abolish- ing private property does not mean the Red Guard will confiscate “the kinds of
things an artisan or farmer might own” but only “the kind of private property that most of us do not have”: business- es, capital goods, etc. This assumes that universal human rights depend on one’s class. It overlooks Communism’s history of sacking Church property, the only opu- lence most peasants ever saw – property that was truly preserved in common for scores of generations.
More importantly, it again ignores the bloody pages of Communist histo- ry. Stalin sent soldiers door-to-door to confiscate all food, utensils – even pets – before starving six million Ukrainians to death in the Holodomor. Had Dettloff been writing 100 years ago, he may have been deemed gullible. But with a century of history to draw on, it is hard for Dettl- off – a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies – to plead ignorance.
Yet in his telling, “Catholics and com- munists have found natural reasons to offer one another a sign of peace.” Det- tloff cites as proof the fact that numerous Communist organizations (all of which he helpfully links for America’s readers) allow Christian fellow travelers to work toward Marxist ends, that “Christians have been passionately represented in commu- nist and socialist movements around the world,”andthatsomeMarxistleaderswere former seminarians. (Was Josef Stalin less murderous because he was once an Or- thodox seminarian, or Khrushchev because he memorized virtually all four Gospels?)
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Photo: Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with a hammer-and-sickle “Crucifix” (Photo credit: Associated Press)
This is rather like the seductress who estranges a man from his family, then boasts about her connection to his ex- wife. Marxism lured Catholics away from the Christian faith into a false religion of materialism.
The Roman Catholic Church’s un- broken teaching condemns all forms of Marxism and Communism. Pope Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno that “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”
“See to it, Venerable Brethren, that the Faithful do not allow themselves to be deceived!” he wrote. “Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever.”
Nonetheless, Dettloff argues that Catholics should promote Marxism (and, implicitly, that they should ignore the Magisterium), because “Communism has provided one of the few sustainable oppositions to capitalism,” which is – he asseverates – “an economic system based on avarice, exploitation, and hu- man suffering.”
“Sustainable” may not accurately describe an economic system that col- lapsed in an ash heap after seven decades of bread lines and mass starvation. The economic implosion of every Marxist ex- periment in human history seems to have passed him by. So does its concentra- tion of all wealth into the hands of state functionaries, its endless class warfare,
its history of assigning jobs irrespective of individual choice, and its requirement that all curry the good favor of the polit- ical class for a (marginally) better chance at survival.
Presumably, Marxist apologists will argue that these socio-political expres- sions were “not real socialism.” Yet col- lectivists believed the regimes were so- cialist at the time. It would appear that one can only tell a government is not practicing “real” socialism after it fails, the same way that Puritans could only tell a woman was innocent of witchcraft after she began drowning.
The free market brings people from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic back- grounds together in harmonious relation- ships. It requires people to serve others by providing goods or services their neigh- bors want to buy. Capitalism indisputably generates more wealth and better living conditions for the poor than those living under socialism. And it leaves the worker the fruits of his or her labor and, with it, choice and dignity.
The America piece ends with a call to overthrow this system of free exchange and replace it with the greatest system of oppression ever devised – and contains a possible incitement to violence. Dettl- off’s article-length press release began by quoting Dorothy Day’s observation, “It is when the Communists are good that they are dangerous.” She warned, in the pages of America magazine, that
humanitarian-sounding Marxists lead Catholics astray, persecute the Church, and even kill protesters on either side of the debate. Dettloff concludes by saying, “It is when the communists are danger- ous that they are good” – an apparent call to revolution in the pages of America. This is fitting since it was Karl Marx, not Lenin, who wrote that “there is only one way in which the murderous death ag- onies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated,and that way is revolutionary terror.” The fact that this violates Catholic doctrine also seems to have eluded America.
Dettloff is counting on the historical ignorance of his readers, and he likely counts right. Communist atrocities are not taught in public schools or universi- ties. That class time is reserved for the evils of national socialism and the depre- dations of America’s founders.
But Dettloff also assumes ignorance of Catholic teaching, with which America’s editors should be conversant. The pub- lication of an article extolling the most murderous, anti-Christian ideology of the twentieth century provides scant ev- idence that they are, or that it animates their editorial decisions.
Rev. Ben Johnson is managing editor of Religion & Liberty and senior editor of the Acton Institute’s transatlantic website. R&L