Christianity & Socialism: Moral allies or mortal enemies?

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”