Christianity & Socialism: Moral allies or mortal enemies?

Jared Staudt

You’re probably hearing a lot about socialism recently. It’s become a hot button issue in our culture with major politicians advocating for it as a fair option for everyone by spreading wealth around. This has been building up for a while, as education in the United States has been dominated by socialist thinking ever since the avowed socialist John Dewey led a philosophical rethinking of public education, steering it away from study of the great ideas and into social conditioning. College students regularly hear socialist ideas on campus, drawn to its promises of free (publicly funded) health care and college tuition. It sounds like a good idea, right? We’ll make sure that everyone has enough and is taken care of.

Although it may sound Christian, socialism is rooted in dangerous ideas.

Ideas certainly have consequences. In the year of revolution that swept across Europe in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels issued one of the most consequential documents in human history, The Communist Manifesto. The ideas contained in this missive unequivocally have proven to be among the most harmful and destructive in human history. Numbers alone make that case. Communism was responsible for the deaths of 120 to 160 million victims in the 20th century, especially in Russia and China where brutal regimes killed tens of millions of their own citizens.

The year 1989 seemed to mark a turning point in the global fight against their brutal and dehumanizing ideology, and yet communism has proven so resilient that it now guides China’s quest to become the world’s superpower and finds new life in socialist movements even within the United States. After declaring victory with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans are now menaced by the same ideology from within. Socialism appeals to many, because it seems very Christian and just by offering equality and to give to those in need. It may offer to solve problems, but, in fact, it ends up causing much more injustice by imposing the State over and against economic and religious freedom. Even after decades of fighting communism abroad, America has slowly but surely been following Marx’s goals—the subordination of the individual, the family, education, the economy, and even religion to the dominance of the State. Both communism, focused on the control of the State by a single party, and socialism, which works for the same goals within a broader State, advocate for the public control of the economy and the means of production. Marx did not invent these theories, but he did provide the most important articulation of their goals that provided the framework for communist revolutions throughout the world over the 100 years following The Communist Manifesto.

A worker’s utopia?

Marx diagnosed the problems that followed the Industrial Revolution, causing the rise of modern social problems of poverty and the exploitation of workers. He did not simply offer practical solutions but rather put forward radical views of human nature and history. Marx advanced a materialist view of life, driven by economics and especially class conflict. Human beings simply became economic beings in his view, with religion deemed the opiate of the people that kept them downtrodden by the ruling classes. Marx’s solution was to create a violent revolution of the working class, the proletariat, that would abolish all private property, the main Communist goal. This revolution would not only destroy the middle and upper classes but would also remove the public influence of religion and erode the family. To achieve a classless society, the State would become all controlling (on behalf of the workers, of course), though, for Marx, it would eventually fade away into a utopian life that would allow workers freedom and ease.

The Church immediately condemned these outrageous theories that pit people against one another in society. Two years before the Manifesto, Bl. Pope Pius IX already warned against Communism, stating, “if this doctrine were accepted, the complete destruction of everyone’s laws, government, property, and even of human society itself would follow” (Qui Pluribus, 1846). Pius put his finger directly on the appeal of socialism by offering complete equality and justice, though doing so in a way that would undermine and ultimately destroy much of what is good and noble in society, speaking of “their plans to quench peoples’ zeal for piety, justice and virtue, to corrupt morals, to cast all divine and human laws into confusion, and to weaken and even possibly overthrow the Catholic religion.” Every single pope from Bl. Pius IX to Pope Francis have condemned the errors of Marxism as standing against the natural law, God’s divine law, and the dignity and rights of the human person.

Pope Leo XIII gave the first lengthy response to the errors of socialism and communism in his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, beginning to feel the revolutionary pressure about to burst. Leo focused on the nature of property as something that flows directly from human work. “It is surely undeniable,” Leo argues, “that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. . . . Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life” (5). Socialism destroys the nature of work and self-sufficiency, taking away the true motivation of the worker, but also undoes the nature of the family and religion by supplanting the State in their place: “There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body” and of his family (7). Leo realized that communism necessarily entailed the destruction of human rights and liberty and, in the end, would hurt workers far more than it would help them.

Our Lady’s prophetic warning

Leo may have feared the consequences of communism, but he had no way of knowing just how destructive it would become. Our Lady did know, however, and in July of 1917 she warned the three children at Fatima of the dangers coming through Russia if the world did not repent and turn to prayer: “If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace. If not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred, the Holy Father will have much to suffer, various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.” Although there is much hope in this message, her requests were not immediately heeded, and the evil of communism did spread throughout the world. The Miracle of Sun occurred during her last apparition at Fatima on October 13, 1917 and the Russian revolution broke out less than a month later, on November 7.

The Communist Revolution in Russia would lead to unprecedented Christian persecution and the loss of millions of lives. Over 10 million (and possibly many more) Orthodox Christians suffered martyrdom, until the Orthodox Church was forced to capitulate to Communist control. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Party that spearheaded the revolution, directly killed hundreds of thousands and intentionally starved at least five million more Russians to death along the Volga river through a provoked famine (a tactic that both Stalin and Mao would later employ to kills tens of millions more). Russia quickly spread her errors throughout the world, with Communist regimes popping up even in Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico. During the Red Terror in Spain, tens of thousands of priests, religious, and lay faithful faced martyrdom and likewise in Mexico, provoking the Cristero uprising. Pope Pius XI spoke of the attempted extermination of Christians in Russia, Spain, and Mexico as the unholy triangle.

Following the Second World War, the Church realized the dire threat posed by communist expansion across Europe. Pope Pius XII, following his behind the scenes efforts to stop Hitler (for concrete evidence, see Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler), spearheaded efforts to stop Italy from being taken over by communists, which only narrowly succeeded. His predecessor, Pius XI, had already taught that “religious socialism, Christian socialism are contradictory terms, for no one can be, at the same time, a good Catholic and true socialist.” Pius XII, therefore, clarified that anyone who joined the Communist Party or advocated for communism was automatically excommunicated from the Church. No good Christian could support a materialist philosophy bent on the destruction of religion and the extermination of human rights and dignity.

Not another chance

Further to the East, one young man, a future champion of human rights against a culture of death, Karol Wojtyła, was ordained a priest on November 1, 1946, shortly after the alleged “liberation” of Poland from Nazi occupation. In reality, the Soviets completely subjugated Poland, unsuccessfully sought to stamp out the Catholic Church, tried to break up family life through state control of children, and turned the nation into a police state. Father Wojtyła would go on to champion the rights of Poles as Archbishop of Krakow and would galvanize the nation to fight for Eastern Europe’s first free labor union, the Solidary Movement, that would become its first free political party as well. Eastern Europe’s economy and social life were destroyed by Communism, but, after his election as Pope John Paul II, Wojtyła led a revolution of conscience that would take down the entire Soviet Union. This peaceful effort was aided by leaders who stood up for human rights, such as Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, as well as writers such as the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who would write of his experience in the Gulag, and the poet Václav Havel, who would go on to serve as the first free President of the Czech Republic.

Even as the Soviet Union headed into decline, Russia’s errors continued to spread with millions of murders in Cambodia, terrible civil wars in Korea and Vietnam, the disastrous revolution in Cuba that destroyed a nation, many dictatorships in African and Latin American nations, and the failed socialist state of Venezuela. Communist atrocities continue at this very moment in China, with over a million ethnic Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, who face genocide and cultural and religious extermination, the bulldozing of Christian churches and the continued persecution of faithful Catholic priests and bishops, their longstanding violent population control such as the One Child Policy, as well as the undoing of human rights in Hong Kong. As China ruthlessly dominates its own country, it also jockeys for center stage in the world economy and political life using deception and its enormous economy for leverage.

With communism and socialism’s abysmal track record and chilling human rights record, how could anyone support this ideology? Anyone can see the results of Marx’s anti-Christian and anti-human ideas and, yet, they still find sympathy from many politicians, educators, and corporate leaders in the Western world. Even in the United States, we can see the effects of socialist ideas, especially in treating people like economic units, manifest in the subordination of the unborn and elderly to materialistic and economic concerns. Government continues to assert itself more and more into economic and social life, with massive spending, including corporate stimulus packages, reconstituting family life and sexuality, and surveillance of the daily life of its citizens. A number of states, such as California and New York, teeter near instability under financial and social pressures (even before COVID arrived), due to excessive government programs, excessive spending and taxation (which Marx advocated in his Manifesto), and intrusion into the life of its residents. Even at this moment, leading figures in one of our two major political parties openly advocate for socialism. Many politicians and corporations overlook China’s human rights record and allow it to steal technology that it uses against its own citizens and the world. Freedom of speech and religion face growing threats. The family faces growing pressure, even as many government programs, such as universal contraception and subsidies for Planned Parenthood, only further its decline. A major activist movement, alleging to support racial equality, describes itself as a socialist movement that seeks the abolishing of the family. The current unrest in the United States seeks to divide us in ways similar to Marx provocation of violent revolution.

Ignorance of history could prove the undoing of the United States if it falls into the same errors that it overcame during the Cold War. I would recommend Paul Kengor’s new book, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism’s Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration (TAN, 2020) for more details on the history and current stakes of the fight against socialism. Although its goals may seem appealing, seeking economic equality, socialism uses unjust means to achieve its ends. Rather than creating peace, it causes discord; rather than boosting up the poor, it creates poverty; rather than ennobling the human spirit, it seeks to suppress it. Catholics and all those of good will are duty bound to oppose the evils of Marxism that seeks to overthrow the true dignity of the human person, the integrity of the family, and religious liberty. Socialism has proven destructive to the world; let’s not give it another chance.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.