No, Catholicism and Communism Are Not Compatible

(Max Rossi/Reuters)
A response to Dean Dettloff and the editors of America magazine

No sensible person has, of this writing, ever alleged that Dorothy Day was insufficiently amenable to Communism. So, that the Jesuit magazine America published a piece titled “The Catholic Case for Communism” — which asserts that Day, despite her relative sympathy for the movement, ends up unfairly dismissing the compatibility of a fully-realized Communism with a Catholic social order — suggests something unfortunate about its editors.

Day’s conclusion is antiquated, in the eyes of author Dean Dettloff. “A whole Cold War has passed since her reflection,” he writes, “and a few clarifying notes are now worthwhile.” It is either a baffling display of historical illiteracy or a dazzling display of commie bravado that Dettloff presumes that the Cold War will aid him in facilitating a positive understanding of his preferred philosophy.

Apparently oblivious to the brutal realities that forced the Cold War in the first place, he praises Day for “affirming the goodness that drives so many communists then and now.” In this, she “aimed to soften the perceptions of Catholics who were more comfortable with villainous caricatures of the communists of their era than with more challenging depictions of them as laborers for peace and economic justice.” Does he honestly believe that in 1933 — 1933, when Comrade Stalin was deliberately starving millions of Ukrainians in pursuit of peace and economic justice — Westerners were unduly harsh in their “caricatures of the communists of their era”? What exactly were they supposed to think of the Holodomor?

Dettloff almost cedes this point, admitting that “communism in its socio-political expression has at times caused great human and ecological suffering.” But that Dettloff, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, invokes the “suffering” of the environment in the same breath as the 100 million human deaths that Communism cost in the past century gives the lie to his pretensions at high-minded contrition for the sins of his comrades.

He goes on: “Any good communist is quick to admit as much, not least because communism is an unfinished project that depends on the recognition of its real and tragic mistakes.” If Communism is an unfinished project, how many more Holodomors does Dettloff anticipate? These crimes against humanity are not, as Dettloff and other Communists would have us think, accidents of historical circumstance that do not indict Communism itself. They are fundamental and inevitable elements of a materialist eschatology that renders man the object of the abstract, unintelligent forces of History, progress, and macroeconomics and elevates those forces to the proper place of God — thereby tearing out the roots of the moral tradition (and of any tradition, for that matter) and justifying all manner of horrors in order to “immanentize the eschaton.”

Undeterred by this “great human and ecological suffering,” Dettloff bloviates: “Communism has provided one of the few sustainable oppositions to capitalism, a global political order responsible for the ongoing suffering of millions.” Never before in the history of political writing has a clumsily placed modifier drunkenly stumbled into such plain truth. But that the “global political order responsible for the ongoing suffering of millions” (read: Communism) is a sustainable opposition to capitalism is hardly supported by the evidence. We would suggest Dettloff move to the Soviet Union to gauge the relative sustainability of his philosophy for himself, but, alas . . .

Railing against the excesses of capitalism (to which Dettloff sees no solution but Communism), he points out that “global inequality and the abuse of workers . . . are symptoms of a specific way of organizing wealth, one that did not exist at the creation of the world and one that represents part of a ‘culture of death,’ to borrow a familiar phrase.” Dettloff, as a Catholic, should know the obvious reason why our current social order is “one that did not exist at the creation of the world”: We would direct him to the third chapter of Genesis to clear up his confusion. The consequence of original sin, in Catholic etiology, is nothing short of a complete reordering of man’s role in the world and his relationship to it. Any attempt to model a modern order on prelapsarian Eden ignores the plain and unbroken teaching of the Catholic magisterium on the fallibility of man. A correspondent for so prestigious a Catholic publication should not be prone to such naïve Pelagianism.

Dettloff then restates the claim in even bolder terms: “We already live in a world where wealth is redistributed, but it goes up, not down or across.” The type of error to which Dettloff falls victim in both of these excerpts was brilliantly addressed by Joseph Sobran, who, despite his later descent, wrote in a landmark 1985 essay, “Pensées”:

The naïve mind sees capitalism as anarchy, “unbridled competition,” in which desire distorts the pattern of distribution. It reasons that the earth is abundant enough to provide for everyone, but that the price system prevents the equal satisfaction of universally felt needs. Supply follows demand. Control demand, and supply will reach its proper recipients.

What this view overlooks is that a price system itself is a way of taming desire. Desire exists in any case; it can be satisfied by rape and pillage, or even stimulated by the opportunity of rape and pillage. The rule of law forces desire to find satisfaction in compromise and consent. . . .

The naïve socialist imagines an abstract humanity in which all desires are more or less identical, and people produce more or less steadily, without such varying motives as the striving for status, revenge, worship, diverse forms of lust, envy — all the things that make this world so messy. The socialist is obsessed with only one motive, greed, which in any case he misconceives and thinks can be both blamed for what ails us and controlled by imposing a certain kind of order. He fails to see that these random motives are here to stay; furthermore, he fails to see that socialist systems actually give some of the worst motives new scope.

It is this last point — that this ideology enables and elevates the worst in humanity — that makes Dettloff’s piece (and America’s publication of it) not only ignorant but appalling. Rod Dreher, who has done yeoman’s work studying and recounting the suffering of Christians under Communism, wrote a scathing response to Dettloff detailing some of the stories of Communism’s victims. If there is any sufficient response to the heartbreaking reality Dreher presents, it cannot be found in Dettloff’s blithe, cursory admission of “human and ecological suffering.” Nor can it be found in the explanation of America editor-in-chief Matt Malone, S.J., who simply claimed a “willingness to hear views with which we may disagree but that we nonetheless think are worth hearing” as the reason for the piece’s publication.

Day’s ignorance is understandable; she lived and wrote in a time when Stalin’s and Castro’s propaganda machines were still functioning in full force. But “a whole Cold War has passed since her reflection, and a few clarifying notes are now worthwhile.” Dettloff and Malone have no such excuse for favorable invocations of Fidel Castro or the philosophy he and Stalin shared. Is Malone, the Jesuit editor of a Jesuit publication, aware that Castro literally expelled the Jesuits from his country when he took power? And compared with the numerous, abhorrent human-rights violations Castro perpetrated against his own people, even this outright persecution of the Church and Father Malone’s once-noble Society is relatively insignificant.

Despite this persecution, some Catholic priests have been foolish enough to participate in Communist revolutions. Dettloff cites, among others, the priests Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal — the latter a Jesuit himself — who were leaders of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, and later served as cabinet officials in dictator Daniel Ortega’s junta. But it hardly helps Dettloff’s case to cite the Cardenal brothers, who, along with other priests participating in Ortega’s government, were very strongly and very publicly rebuked by Saint John Paul II for their political actions. The pope had been pushing at the time for all priests to refrain from seeking or accepting political office and to withdraw from any they already occupied. Presumably, he sought to avoid cases such as this — and that of the infamously pro-abortion-rights Jesuit and U.S. congressman Robert Drinan — in which priests forcefully and actively placed themselves in direct opposition to Catholic social order.

Dettloff, in an unconvincing attempt to justify the moral compromise of these Christians, insists that “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.” It’s reassuring to know that Commissar Dettloff thinks that reorienting our societal views about property is the only thing that Communists desire, but two people who knew a bit more about Communism than he felt otherwise. Vladimir Lenin famously said that “atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism, of the theory and practice of scientific socialism.” Karl Marx himself stated that “the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

Marx and Lenin, presumably, got Communism wrong. Dettloff intends to get it right this time. He admits that his suggestion is “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” (Luke 1:53).

Radical indeed, and certainly shocking to the people who remember when the Virgin Mary warned that Russia might spread its “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.”

Dean Dettloff, in a disgusting attempt at wit, ends his essay with something bordering on a threat: “Dorothy Day was right when she said it is when the Communists are good that they are dangerous. . . . We must also add: It is when the Communists are dangerous that they are good.” In saying this, Dettloff probably imagines himself as some romantic revolutionary, plotting the overthrow of the tsar in some underground Russian salon circa 1915. (You know, before those romantic revolutionaries lined up the tsar’s defenseless children and shot them.) But he fails to recognize that the two are inseparable — that the kind of fairy-tale, revolutionary romanticism that Dettloff clings to was the foundation of the most vicious tyranny in the history of mankind; that nowhere has it been tried without rapidly descending into such horror.

Yes, Communism is dangerous. People acting under its banner have killed millions upon millions of people, many of them martyrs for the Christian faith. It is not the whitewashed, heroic “danger” of revolution that Dettloff seems to imply; it is the danger of wars, of persecutions, and of nations annihilated — a danger that necessitated the literal reappearance of the Mother of God on Earth to warn the Church and the world. It is a danger so real and so vile that Dettloff should be utterly ashamed that he had the gall to call it “good,” just as the editors of America should be ashamed to have published this piece in a Catholic magazine.

In 1960, William F. Buckley marveled at the fact that Commonweal (the other leading American Catholic periodical on the left) would “not criticize, let alone anathematize, the slovenly, reckless, intellectually chaotic, anti-Catholic doctrines of this good-hearted woman [Dorothy Day] — who did she have her way in shaping national policy, would test the promise of Christ Himself, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us.” He observed that “Miss Day is off to the left almost out of sight.”

If Dorothy Day was out of sight, we can only imagine the aquiline powers Buckley would have needed to spot Dean Dettloff on the leftern horizon. And if Commonweal was mind-boggling in 1960, America in 2019 must have Buckley rolling in his grave.

Declan Leary is a junior at John Carroll University. John Hirschauer is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism.