Catholics and Communists
(Originally published in December 2013)
The Catholic Church’s recent history of sympathizing with, and even supporting, Marxist progressivism is clear, sad, and indicative of a deeply irrational and anti-individual streak within the modern Church hierarchy. Catholics who care about the Church, its history, and its future—and also about humanity, reason and freedom—must stop making excuses for their current spiritual leadership’s collectivist authoritarian impulses.
Having now drawn a bull’s eye on my own forehead in bold colors, I shall attempt to make my case. Let us follow the most natural path of reasoning, proceeding from particulars to universals.
South Korea recently observed the third anniversary of the North Korean artillery attack against Yeonpyeong, an inhabited island which was the staging ground for a South Korean military exercise. The attack killed four South Koreans, including two civilians, and wounded many others. The Sunday before this anniversary, a senior Catholic priest, Park Chang-shin, gave a sermon in which he went all-out Jeremiah Wright:
What should North Korea do if South Korea-U.S. military exercises are being carried out near the problematic NLL [Northern Limit Line, a UN-drawn maritime border]? North Korea needs to open fire. That was the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
“North Korea needs to open fire”? This statement was part of a general campaign by the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice (which comprises roughly half of Korea’s priesthood) against President Park Geun-hye’s ruling Saenuri Party. The CPAJ, active since South Korea’s pro-democracy movement picked up steam in the 1970s, is essentially a leftist anti-war group promoting Korean reunification through appeasement of the communists, as evidenced by its two main platform items: opposition to sanctions against the North, and opposition to the South’s “National Security Law,” which in theory outlaws communism and Marxist activism, and is therefore vehemently opposed by all organizations sympathetic to the North.
In response, a member of the Saenuri Party enjoined the Catholic Church to discipline its pro-North Korean priests. Needless to say, the Church will do no such thing.
“Pro-North Korean priests.” Swish that one around for a moment. Korean domestic politics aside, what is one to make of an organization calling itself the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, whose members defend North Korean attacks against civilian neighborhoods and blame the violence on the South Korean government and its defense alliance with the U.S. military?
There is no nation on the planet—indeed, in the history of the planet—that has more direct, hands-on evidence regarding the full truth of communism. Korea is an extremely homogeneous nation: North and South share essentially the same geography and climate, the same race, the same cultural history and language, the same gene pool, and the same traditional diet, art, and family structure. And yet the South has risen from the ashes after decades of oppression, humiliation and wreckage to become a vibrant economic powerhouse and a world technology leader. Meanwhile, the North continues its decay into starvation, brutality, and hopelessness.
Nevertheless, a senior Korean Catholic priest is speaking at mass, as a clergyman in good standing, in defense of the North’s aggression against the South. Why? Presumably it is not because the Church advocates starvation, brutality, and hopelessness. Nor because they have a thing for chubby, amusingly-quaffed lunatics who declare themselves divine. So what could it be that allows them to continue sympathizing with the North, in spite of the stark contrast in social outcomes described in the preceding paragraph? Hmm, let’s see….
The priests, as their action committee’s name declares, are for “justice,” which in modern Catholic parlance, of course, implies economic equality achieved through redistribution, i.e., the universal annihilation of profit, property, and prosperity. In short, they favor “democratic” slavery in the form of progressivism. I will not hold my breath waiting for expressions of surprise on this point.
For generations, the global Catholic Church, at leadership levels, has been deeply invested in progressive collectivism. This has been an awkward relationship, in as much as hardcore Marxism seeks to abolish religion in favor of the deification of the State, and doctrinaire collectivism runs counter to any notion of the value of individual souls. As a result, the Church has, at times, spoken with some force against both communism and socialism. These moments of reasonableness have allowed thoughtful Catholics to defend the Church’s political position as basically non-leftist: “See,” they repeatedly tell themselves, “the Church is fighting the good fight against Marxism.”
In so far as Marxism includes atheism, the Church could hardly do otherwise. Soviet-style Marxists openly declared religion their enemy, and persecuted believers. Obviously the Church defended itself against this direct assault. But while abhorring atheistic dialectical materialism, practical elements of Marxist theory—”social justice,” economic redistribution, the condemnation of wealth—struck a sympathetic chord within the Church, which gradually adopted such Marxist language as its own. This baptism of the Marxist vocabulary in the waters of Christian faith has allowed generations of good men and women to deny the disturbing truth before their very eyes, and to persuade themselves that this language, when used by the clergy, is somehow legitimate Catholic moralism.
Thus in almost every instance in which progressive political forces have dispensed with the anti-religious rhetoric, one may find priests and bishops standing on the side of authoritarian collectivism, and against individual freedom. From the long Catholic-communist alliance in the African National Congress (warmly praised a few weeks ago by South Africa’s Minister of Justice) to the role of the clergy in the radicalization of Central and South America—the birthplace of Marxist liberation theology—the pattern is monotonous. Pope Francis, though perhaps more moderate than other Catholic leaders hailing from his part of the world, is representative of the general trend.
Yes, it is a general trend, not simply a matter of wayward priests preaching in isolation from the Church mainstream. (Consider that while Pope Benedict openly criticized liberation theology, his successor has invited the movement’s founder to dinner.) In poor or developing nations in which Church leaders take a political stand of any clarity, that stand is almost invariably with progressivism. Papal encyclicals that touch upon socio-economic issues routinely attack “capitalism” and “individualism” as inhumane and unjust forces, thus implying that less capitalism and individualism would make society more humane and just. See Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967), for example, which rejects the right to private property and demands that “public authorities” (i.e. governments) solve the social injustice of men holding “surplus goods” for their own private use while others lack necessities (23).
As the latest example, we now have the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, of Pope Francis, which includes substantial cribbing from the collected homilies of Karl Marx:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills….
Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized….
Human beings [in a free market] are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded…. (53)
In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting….
The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (54)
[Notice that this “culture of prosperity” flies in the face of the earlier claim that “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized.” Authoritarianism is irrational. Hence its proponents often enmesh themselves in logical contradictions, as reason gives way to emotional appeals.]
Those lives supposedly “stunted,” not by political oppression, but by “the market,” now “fail to move us.” Move us to what, one might ask? To genuine charity, the voluntary helping hand of the moral man? To dismantling the corporatist-progressive alliance that uses government regulation and indoctrination to “stunt” individual opportunity and limit self-empowerment? To combating the cleverness of the wealthy progressive elite who use promises of protection and entitlement to cajole their way into the frightened hearts of the poor and weak, thus guaranteeing—as the elite require—that the poor and weak will remain so in perpetuity, so that they may continue to throw their lot (i.e., their vote) in with those same progressive elitists?
None of the above, of course. Once again, the Catholic Church’s official answer to the general social question, “What is to be done?” holds no surprises:
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. (56)
Notice the typical progressive maneuver in that last point. The “new tyranny,” that of the pursuit of wealth, is “invisible and virtual”; and its only remedy is “state control,” i.e., visible and real tyranny. Pope Francis promotes the standard false dichotomy that has propelled progressivism forward for more than a century: the “uncontrolled free market” (a Marxist straw man if ever there was one) allegedly consolidates wealth among the few, while state controls (which are supposedly lacking) would allow the disadvantaged majority to rise. This dichotomy is, and always has been, a ruse to hide the truth: progressives regulate and distort the economy to protect their power, wealth and privilege and to limit opportunity for potential challengers, and then they seize on the stagnation they have caused to launch populist appeals for even more restrictive and redistributive economic regulations, to further entrench their untouchable pre-eminence. (Take a good look at who supported, funded, and led the fight for the creation of compulsory schools, central banks, progressive taxation, socialized healthcare, and all the rest of the mechanisms of benevolent “control” throughout the prosperous West. Hint: it wasn’t the poor.)
The Catholic Church, unfortunately, has been a fellow traveler in the global movement to regulate individual success, opportunity, and freedom out of existence for the great majority of mankind, through authoritarian control exerted under the wafer-thin guise of promoting “equality.” And so it is that Pope Francis offers his all too predictable solution to the “gap between rich and poor”:
Ethics—a non-ideological ethics—would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order…. (57)
A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and to the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favours human beings. (58)
Here Francis, an intelligent man, knowingly echoes the classic Marxist slogan, “people before profits.” And yet immediately I hear apologists stepping in to object to such “simplistic criticism” of the Church. After all, they say, who could object to the Catholic tenets that men must not exalt money, and that the rich must help the poor? The answer: no one. But the question is not whether mankind ought to worship money, nor whether the wealthy ought to shirk their moral responsibilities. For those are not the issues at stake in the Pope’s “exhortation.”
Notice that he is specifically calling on political leaders and “financial experts” (57) to undertake a “vigorous change”—fundamental transformation, anyone?—in the direction of “balance” and a “more humane social order” which “favours human beings.” In other words, he is not advocating Christian charity, which is, and must be, a private moral decision, since it is through the correct application of his God-given free will that man is to find his path to God. Rather, to state the obvious—let us finally apply the famous “razor” of a truly great Catholic philosopher here, and dispense with sophisticated explanations of the indefensible—Francis is advocating socialism: a political system which obviates the morality of free will, and thus violates the foundations of the Catholic faith on the most profound level.
“But,” defenders will say, “if he wanted socialism, why wouldn’t he just say so?” The reason is simple: he cannot. The Catholic Church has officially condemned socialism, communism, and Marxism by name. Opposition to these three notions is a matter of established Catholic doctrine. Non-Catholics may not understand what this means. Catholics do, or should. No Pope will ever advocate socialism, communism, or Marxism by name. Thus, one must infer meaning from the Pope’s actual arguments, and when this meaning flies in the face of the official rejection of progressivism that every Catholic is doctrinally bound to espouse, one may suppose that the inferred meaning represents the Pope’s true position.
So there it stands. There are pro-North Korean priests. Catholic clergymen have stood shoulder to shoulder with Marxists, socialists, or “progressives” throughout Latin America and Africa for generations. In the U.S., the Catholic bishops firmly and enthusiastically supported ObamaCare, the penultimate step towards completely socialized medicine, until they “discovered”—or, I suspect, until the Catholic laity discovered—that abortion and birth control were part of the deal. Like their leaders in Rome and their brothers throughout the Catholic world, the U.S. bishops support progressivism in principle—the Church has declared healthcare a universal human right, an expressly socialist ploy—but will criticize particular progressive parties or factions when matters of doctrinal import are directly in dispute. In effect, the Church’s war against collectivist tyranny extends only so far as that tyranny encompasses atheism or some other specific affront to Catholic practice. (I have previously defended Rick Santorum, who caught hellfire from fellow Catholics for making this point during his presidential campaign.)
In its socio-economic position, a large proportion of today’s Catholic hierarchy is unofficially progressive, socialist, even Marxist. And please do not cite Pope John Paul II in disputing this judgment. One can no more absolve the Church of its role in fostering global progressive authoritarianism by citing prominent exceptions than one can excuse the U.S. Republican Party by mentioning Ronald Reagan, or the British Tories by naming Margaret Thatcher. That there are freedom-loving rebels within a decaying progressive institution is no counterargument, but only an exception that proves the rule.
Likewise, there are marginalized priests and bishops who love the individual soul, and see liberty as the only proper social condition for a Catholic life, in defiance of their progressive leaders. These men deserve your love and support: they are martyrs.
All of this is immeasurably sad, and utterly inconsistent with the history of the Church. In fact, as I have explained elsewhere, the case for limited government in the name of respecting our natural moral freedom was given its first systematic defense by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose conception of natural law, justice, and the role of reason in ethics paved the way to the Enlightenment, and the development of the natural rights theory which grounded modern liberty.
And as I have also discussed elsewhere, Pope Leo XIII, in Rerum Novarum, presented a theological defense of private property rooted in man’s individual nature that is as impassioned and as well-reasoned as any offered by Locke. The corruptive influence of progressivism, however, was already beginning to assert itself within the Church, as throughout Europe and North America, by 1891. Thus Leo, after explaining brilliantly why property is an inviolable right, proceeds to pull away from his own reasoning and to hint, in explicitly Marxist language, at political means of ameliorating material hardships, as though such means could ever be consistent with Christianity’s elevation of the individual soul and of free will. The progressive contradictions began to appear then, and have merely continued to grow within the Church, as everywhere else in modern civilization, ever since.
The old saw that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of educated liberals is very true (or was—anti-Semitism appears to have worked its way up the ranks these days). It is for this reason that I generally refrain from expressing my own frustration with the Church so bluntly. I suspect this same reticence has been protecting the Church from honest, harsh criticism from its friends for generations.
Yes, I say its friends. I was baptized and raised Catholic. It is the Church of my mother and of most of my relatives. As an undergraduate, I developed a lifelong admiration for many of the medieval Catholic philosophers, men who sought to marry the wisdom of ancient Greece to their sincere Christian faith, and thus set the stage for the modern triumph of reason and individualism in morality and politics. I count St. Thomas among my personal heroes and teachers, and return to him frequently for insight on current and permanent questions.
I have come to realize, however, that if the Church as an institution must consistently insist on allying itself with a philosophy that I regard, and that history has repeatedly shown, to be one of death, inhumanity, oppression, and the systematic demolition of any sensible understanding of human dignity (i.e., of the divine spark within the human soul), then to mute one’s criticism is to offer tacit consent to the Church’s radical realignment against every worthy sentiment it once represented and championed on this Earth.
This has been an unpleasant article to write. But here it is. The Catholic Church is no more defensible than any other institution that continues, against all historical evidence, reason, and decency, to embrace and defend—whether tacitly or openly—the politics of mass envy, of collectivist authoritarianism, of coercive redistribution of the fruits of men’s labor, and of the practical denial of the basic right of self-determination that ought to be at the core of a Catholic teaching that upholds the dignity of every living soul.