Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Imaginative Conservative”, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.
Why did Dettloff and America Magazine think that a system—an anti-Christian religion—that has been condemned repeatedly by the Church should be promoted in such a sophistic, sophomoric, and insultingly stupid article?
“At any given moment,” wrote the author, translator, and publisher Frank Sheed in The Church and I (1974), “one or other special problem looms to complicate things for the Church, looms and fades. But throughout my life two have shown no sign of fading—Marxism and Nationalism…” (He later notes that the third problem that has been a constant for the Church is “Sex”, but that’s something for another time.) In a chapter titled “Karl Marx and I”, Sheed wrote about his father, “a true believer in Karl Marx,” who “turned every meal into a monologue on Communism.” Sheed discusses several aspects of Marxism and Communism, but of particular interest is his observation that the Communist speakers he listened to in person in various places employed a consistent technique, in a way similar to “medicine sellers”:
Each lavished all his skill on the disease to be cured—cancer, Capitalism—with a minimum of talk about the remedy. … Certainly most of the Communist propaganda one actually met was about Capitalism. By the time the speaker had dealt faithfully with all that the poor suffered, he felt no need to show the values of Communism—it had the one all-sufficing virtue, it was not Capitalism.
And, he further noted, that “any criticism of Communism, any questioning even, was taken as proof that one was pro-Capitalist.” I thought of Sheed’s remarks while reading a July 23rd article in America Magazine titled “The Catholic Case for Communism” and carrying the humble descriptive: “What Catholics (still) don’t understand about communism.” The author, Dean Dettloff, is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and the host of a podcast dedicated to “Christianity and leftist politics”. His defense of Communism essentially comes down to a couple of points: Capitalism is bad, Communists are really good people, Capitalism is really bad, and Dorothy Day thought Communists were good people. So, for example, Dettloff writes:
• “Communists are pursuing the good when they are dangerous; they are opposing an economic system based on avarice, exploitation and human suffering, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.”
• “Communism has provided one of the few sustainable oppositions to capitalism, a global political order responsible for the ongoing suffering of millions.”
• “Communists are attracted to communism by their goodness, Day argued, that unerasable quality of the good that can be found within and outside the church alike, woven into our very nature.”
• “What communists desire is an authentically common life together, and they think that can only happen by relativizing property in light of the good of everyone. Radical indeed, but certainly not all that shocking to people who remember when the Virgin Mary sang that God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:53).”
Dettloff acknowledges that Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Co. were atheists, but assures readers that atheism is not really a key component of Communism. To hear Dettloff tell it, Communism is an earnest and beautiful system of justice and love that has, unfortunately, been smeared by the Capitalists, who oppress, ruin, destroy, and exploit nearly everyone with a raw and evil abandon. Communists,” Dettloff confidently assures those of us who don’t really understand the innate loveliness of a system responsible for killing 60-100 million people in the past century, “think we can build better ways of being together in society.”
Well, I have no interest at all in defending Capitalism. But I am curious why Dettloff and America Magazine think that a philosophical system—an anti-Christian religion, in truth—that has been condemned repeatedly by the Church should be promoted in such a sophistic, sophomoric, and, yes, insultingly stupid article. It’s obvious that Dettloff is committed to the cause, so his disregard for, say, the clear and incisive criticisms put forth in 1937 by Pope Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris, are understandable. After all, not only did Pius XI understand Communism, he understood Dettloff, as this passage readily demonstrates:
How is it possible that such a system, long since rejected scientifically and now proved erroneous by experience, how is it, We ask, that such a system could spread so rapidly in all parts of the world? The explanation lies in the fact that too few have been able to grasp the nature of Communism. The majority instead succumb to its deception, skillfully concealed by the most extravagant promises. By pretending to desire only the betterment of the condition of the working classes, by urging the removal of the very real abuses chargeable to the liberalistic economic order, and by demanding a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods (objectives entirely and undoubtedly legitimate), the Communist takes advantage of the present world-wide economic crisis to draw into the sphere of his influence even those sections of the populace which on principle reject all forms of materialism and terrorism. And as every error contains its element of truth, the partial truths to which We have referred are astutely presented according to the needs of time and place, to conceal, when convenient, the repulsive crudity and inhumanity of Communistic principles and tactics. Thus the Communist ideal wins over many of the better minded members of the community. These in turn become the apostles of the movement among the younger intelligentsia who are still too immature to recognize the intrinsic errors of the system. The preachers of Communism are also proficient in exploiting racial antagonisms and political divisions and oppositions. They take advantage of the lack of orientation characteristic of modern agnostic science in order to burrow into the universities, where they bolster up the principles of their doctrine with pseudo-scientific arguments.
Ouch. Meanwhile, the editor of America Magazine, Matt Malone, S.J., felt the need to write a note of explanation for Dettloff’s apologia, stating “you should not assume that America’s editorial position on communism has changed very much. It has not. What has also not changed is our willingness to hear views with which we may disagree but that we nonetheless think are worth hearing.” Consider, then, that the Catechism summarizes the Church’s stance about this view “worth hearing” in this way:
The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. (CCC, 2425)
But, of course, we know the Catechism can apparently be changed, so perhaps America Magazine should consider some more pieces making a “Catholic case” for this, that, and the other thing. For instance:
• “The Catholic Case for Slavery”: Sure, slavery is horrible, but at least slave owners tend to keep their slaves alive, unlike Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Castro, and others, who tended to slaughter their own people, often in the millions, or even tens of millions. Besides, St. Paul referred to himself as a slave of God (Rom 6:15-23, etc.), so slavery is arguably a way into a deeper form of Christian spirituality.
• “The Catholic Case for Nazism”: Yes, we know Hitler was evil personified and National Socialism was bloody as heck, but Stalin and Mao each was responsible for more deaths. And, besides, the Nazis loved their homeland and also hated the Allied Powers—that is, the evil Capitalists. And, as we’ve seen, Capitalism is the worst evil of all, so a case is there to be made.
• “The Catholic Case for Pornography”: It’s true that porn is not for everyone, but we must first recognize that porn stars are good people, and are even attracted to making porn by their inner goodness. They have a lot of love to give; also, they have rejected the sort of uptight attitudes and puritanical mores that hold people back from being true to themselves. Besides, sex is a beautiful gift from God, and who are we to judge how some people decide to receive and share that gift.
The stupidity and nastiness of these farcical ideas, I trust, are obvious. So why does Communism continue to get a pass?
There are a variety of reasons, without doubt, especially when people buy into the false notion that Communism and Capitalism are the only choices available. One reason is that Communism is not, at its core, a political or economic system, but a religion—a religion of anti-religion. As such, it is both deceptive and strangely (even demonically) attractive. Marx believed that religion—that is, Christianity—is self-alienation, “an illusory happiness” that keeps the people away from true happiness. “The struggle against Religion,” asserted Marx, “is the struggle against the world of which Religion is the spiritual deodorant.” Religion, in short, is “a holy mirage”.
Or, as Abp. Fulton Sheen put it, “The human being who pays worship to a Creator is, in the eyes of Marx, separated from his own completely sovereignty and aseity.” In other words, Communism is a form of the ancient temptation to be god without God, to see and address creation without any reference to the Creator. It promises to set right what has been damaged; it proffers a messianism disguised as economic justice and simple equality.
So, as many authors have argued quite convincingly, Marx (and his various disciples) didn’t just try to destroy Christianity but established a religion with its own sacred texts, dogmas, saints, and prophets. “It is a religion,” wrote Fr. Charles J. McFadden, O.S.A., in his 1963 book The Philosophy of Communism, “which teaches its followers that your State is an evil weapon in the hands of an exploiting class and, therefore, stands in the way of progress for humanity and social justice for all.”
Sheen in his book The Cross and the Beatitudes, written the same year as Pius XI’s encyclical, stated bluntly: “In contrast to this Christian philosophy of forgiveness, there exists for the first time in history of the world a philosophy and a political and social system based not on love, but on hate, and that is Communism.” Now, it could be that Sheen, the author of several books on Communism (as well as philosophical works addressing the roots of Marxism/Communism), simply didn’t understand what he was criticizing. Perhaps he and Pius XI—not to mention Solzhenitsyn, Robert Conquest, Whittaker Chambers, Leszek Kołakowski, St. John Paul II, and so forth—falter before the wisdom of a doctoral student in Toronto.