Catholics for Marx

By Fr. Robert Sirico |
June 3, 2004

In the days when the Superpowers were locked in a Cold War, Latin America seethed with revolution, and millions lived behind an iron curtain, a group of theologians concocted a novel idea within the history of Christianity. They proposed to combine the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of Marx as a way of justifying violent revolution to overthrow the economics of capitalism.

The Gospels were re-rendered not as doctrine impacting on the human soul but rather as windows into the historical dialectic of class struggle. These "liberation theologians" saw every biblical criticism of the rich as a mandate to expropriate the expropriating owners of capital, and every expression of compassion for the poor as a call for an uprising by the proletarian class of peasants and workers.

This is hardly the first time that the Gospels have been read in a way that seemed designed to support a peculiar and wayward personal agenda. The history of heresy, usually Gnostic at its root (for its perpetual claim to have discovered some hidden meaning accessible only to the elect), is bound up with the history of megalomania and the search for power over others.

What gave liberation theology its currency was its appeal among elite theological students safely cloistered far from the workers and peasants so much in need of liberation. The sheer exotica of reading Christianity through Marxist eyes had an appeal, as did the political luxury afforded by the strange new respect secular intellectuals had for a version of Christianity that seemed to endorse socialism.

For that matter, scholarship over the last 20 years, when more mainstream academics have begun to think more clearly about the subject of Marxism, has noted the strange respects in which Marxism itself reads like a Christian heresy, in which a new age is to be ushered in by a transformation of human nature in a grand historical dialectic. In traditional Christianity, the ennobling of human nature takes place because of Christ's Incarnation; in Marxism, the State takes His place. Marxism offers a theory of sin (private property) and salvation (collective ownership), a church that dispenses grace (the State, as administered by the vanguard of the proletariat), and a litany of saints and sinners. (Of course, it was far more violent than even the worst of the excesses of the Inquisition.)

So, in fact, it is not too much of a stretch for Christian heresy to embrace Marxism as a creed, since, as G.K. Chesterton said, heresy is often truth gone mad. Liberation theology is the admixutre of one small truth (God cares about the poor) with so much error that it resulted in a madness that saw Christians champion what amounted to terrorism against propertied elites. Of course, it didn't work out the way the theologians imagined it would.

The breeding ground for libertarian theology was, of course, Roman Catholicism, the world's largest branch of Christianity and the religion of Latin America. So long as socialism and communism were seen as essentially godless, they would have a limited appeal among a traditionally religious population group. But newly baptized, socialist theory had a great chance for political and popular success, despite a hundred years of failure in both theory and practice.

There can be no doubt where authoritative Catholic teaching has stood on this question. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), in the first year of his papacy, devoted an encyclical against socialism which cited his predecessors. These had in turn built their position upon earlier Scholastics who stood in a line of orthodox theologians dating back to the Church Fathers, in a anti-socialist tradition that extends from the earliest centuries to the current day.

There really can be no dispute on where the Roman Catholic Church stands (nor, indeed, where the unified Church of the first millenium stood): it rejects collective ownership as a national policy, embraces private property and free initiative, and affirms the business economy as both moral and practical. Pope John Paul II has gone further than all his predecessors with an all-embracing critique of socialism that rejects its many offshoots, including the welfare state variety. The Pope led a campaign against the theological deviation and boldly stood up to would-be dictators in the region who used religion in their quest for personal power.

In the version of events you are likely to hear in college, the Vatican led a massive crackdown against theologians who spoke out for the poor, and muzzled saintly bishops who sided with peasant communities struggling for their rights. In fact, the Vatican criticisms of liberation theology were actually quite nuanced, affirming the preferential option for the poor (the Church's traditional belief that individuals must help the needy) and the social import of the Gospel message but rejecting the theological outlook of class struggle and the means of violence. As for silencing people, never did a group of theologians enjoy a great public platform for their views than 20th century liberation theologians.

It is nonetheless true that true Catholicism stood against liberation theology and the despotism it masked. What has actually crushed liberation theology as a doctrine, however, has been the market economics revolution that has swept through Latin America—or the localization of what is often derided as globalization.

It has been this experience that has persuaded well-intended revolutionaries that a better means of helping the poor is available: not through revolution but entrepreneurship. When standards of living are rising even for the poorest of the poor, when the children of peasants rise in social and economic stature in one generation, when whole villages are transformed for the better by the arrival of a new factory, when young women can afford to leave the workforce to get an education for the first time, it becomes ever clearer what the real source of liberation is: not collective ownership but economic freedom. Violence and collectivism never gave the world any of these trends. Only market economics has—rooted in private property and a system of free exchange.

Former revolutionaries are getting the message. "Bogotá's Social Capitalism, Led by a Marxist of Old" ran a New York Times headline (February 6, 2004) in a story about a former rebel turned real estate developer. The story is indicative of a broader trend throughout the region. The intellectual basis for understanding this is not found in the Marxist tradition but rather in the classically liberal one that has roots in the intellectual environment of late medieval Spain, took hold in England in the 18th century, gave rise to the American Revolution, explained the Industrial Revolution, and has an enormous presence today in explaining the rise of global prosperity in a information age. Look at from this point of view, socialism and all its offshoots appear to me little more than a parenthesis in history.

But while liberation theology may be dead in a formal and political sense, it is part of a species of leftist religious economics that is still alive and well, particularly in Latin America. In Brazil and Ecuador, leftist politicians are making advances, and close observers (ike editorialist Carlos Ball have noted that posters and billboards for leftist causes are appearing all over the region. He reports that with economic turmoil, resentment against "globalism," American influence, and property owners and producers is high.

There are many differences this time. Redistribution, not revolution, is the watchword this time. Resentment is directed against globalization, not the commercial classes as such. The theological dressing behind the new Latin leftism is more populist and nationalist than communist. This rhetoric focuses on popular control of industry and welfare measures rather than wholesale looting. And, most importantly, because the new political trends do not play into an overarching global-political drama, hardly anyone is paying much attention.

In some sense, however, this increases the danger of these trends, if not for global political reasons but for the plight of all people in Latin America. The simple truth is that redistribution, centralization of power, expropriation of wealth and the like, will not raise the standards of living. Only market economics, more secure property rights, freer trade and sounder currencies can do that.

A soft version of liberation theology also thrives among the Religious Left in the U.S. Whether it is raiding corporate boardrooms to protest outsourcing, blanketing churches with Green political propaganda, agitating for higher welfare budgets or arguing against tax cuts, the underlying ideological assumptions are clear enough. The Religious Left starts with the assumption that there are certain conflicts in life that are intractable: the rich vs. the poor, prosperity vs. the environment, tax cuts vs. charity, and localism vs. globalism. This is a soft version of the original liberationist idea, sold in the name of "social justice," "business ethics," "social responsibility," and many other catchphrases.

A great danger of all religious ideas is their tendency to be employed for political purposes, a tendency which always introduces an element of distortion. If this is true for Catholic doctrine generally—and the sometimes-sordid history of the temporal power of the Church certainly demonstrates that it is—it is all the more true of the church's social teaching. Because it is necessarily addressed to issues of civic obligation and its relationship to personal ethics, social teaching is especially vulnerable to political manipulation, even if the magisterial texts that concern this topic emphasize again and again that Church is not attempting to push a particular political agenda, valid for all times and places.

As every pope since Leo XIII has emphasized, the purpose of social teaching is to state general doctrinal principles, while only sketching in the most skeletal way their practical application by government, which is necessarily contingent on circumstances of time and place. Socialism, however, can never be an answer to human ills. Leo XIII said it "would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community," and he was precisely correct. Pope Pius XI (1922-39) was even clearer. He wrote, "No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist."

The Religious Left needs to come to terms with certain economic truths. First, the market economy serves the poor better than forty years of welfare state failures. Among the vulnerable in any society are the poor, whether in our own families and communities or in society at large. The best solution to poverty is a growing economy. It provides jobs, better pay, better working conditions, more opportunities and a chance for everyone to achieve. A growing economy requires that the market economy be allowed to function.

Second, the interventionist state has fallen far short of expectations. In thinking about ways to help the poor, we must consider the costs and benefits of various strategies. If we turn to the government as a response of first resort, particular dangers arise. Government policies create impersonal bureaucracies before which the poor must grovel. The situation is demeaning.

In the developing world, politics, and not foreign trade commerce, is a main source of oppression of the poor. Political systems that do not recognize property rights, do not permit trade, do not permit entrepreneurship, inflate the currency and otherwise burden the people with excessive regulation and taxation keep people in a state of dependency, while empowering an economic elite that is closely connected to the ruling regime.

Third, the market economy is a generous institution and permits philanthropy better than any other system. Historically, the most charitable societies in the world have been the wealthiest, and the wealthiest societies have also been the most free. When people have more disposable income, they can invest more to charitable causes. Only a free economy can generate this kind of wealth, and it requires humane virtues, not selfishness, to give of oneself regardless of economic conditions. Prosperity permits people to spend more time in leisure rather than work, which allows them to spend more time volunteering for community activities and service to the poor. Only a free economy allows for growing levels of voluntary leisure time to make this possible. It is these facts that have led free societies to be the most attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Four, the preferential option for the poor does not exclude the need to minister to the rich. In the course of a historic visit to Mexico, Pope John II called for a form of evangelization targeted at a particular sector of society: the rich. "Love for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive," he said. In an allusion to liberation theology, he charged that "the leading sectors of society have been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the church." The rich need don't need blanket condemnations but rather to be reminded of their social obligations.

With this insight, we are recalling a tradition of thought that long predates the rise of ideologically driven class envy. An Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales (1577-1622) counsels wise investment and service to others. To live a spiritually fulfilled life requires the exercise of more, not less, care to "make your property profitable and fruitful." God gives possessions "to cultivate and he wants us to make them fruitful and profitable. Hence we perform an acceptable service by taking good care of them. It must be a greater and finer care than that which world's men have for their property."

But doesn't wealth corrupt? "You can possess riches without being poisoned by them if you merely keep them in your home and purse, and not in your heart. To be rich in effect and poor in affection is a great happiness." The great Saint Francis concludes, "Let us exercise this gracious gift of preserving and even of increasing our temporal goods whenever just occasions present themselves."

Perhaps Mother Teresa said it best, "We have no right to judge the rich…We do not believe in class conflict but class encounter: where the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich."

For this society to exist, the Church -- and all moral individuals -- should condemn those who, in the name of God, would foment class warfare.

Fr. Robert A. Sirico is a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.