The Twilight of Socialism

It would be more accurate to call him a Taurus, like Perry Como, who has the same birthday. In this pontificate, astrological and ideological designations are about equally useful. The Curial neurosis of secrecy invites all sorts of speculation on the Holy See’s financial affairs, but ever since the president of the Banco Ambrosiano was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge in London last year, the little information allowed to transpire indicates that if the Pope is a capitalist, he’s not very good at it.

But he almost certainly shares what Michael Novak has recently called “the anti-capitalist bias of the Roman Catholic Church.” That bias dates back at least to an incident described in the 5th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles; Mr. and Mrs. Ananias were struck dead apparently for an intemperate assertion of their right to private property. In the wake of that rebuke, the author writes, “a great awe fell upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these events.”

The awe still falls, which is one reason many Christians yearn for recovery of that community in which “the whole body of believers was united in heart and soul. Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common, while the apostles bore witness with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:32-34). It’s not at all difficult to imagine how that notion of community would look (to the World) like socialism. What is less easy to understand is how a few sincere Christians have been able to discern in capitalism anything which does not war against that notion.

Behind the anti-capitalist bias of the Church lies a perfectly healthy suspicion that the pursuit of wealth and the flight from God are pretty much indistinguishable. That suspicion, intensified by the belief that our very existence is a gift, has led the Church to be chary in speaking of the “right” to private property and the system in which that right is central, a system which Pope Pius XI described as “no more absolutely immutable than any other human institution.”

To be sure, the Church has not always presented her love of poverty convincingly (a camouflaged editorialist in this journal chastised the American bishops recently for what he/she unfairly called their “sybaritic lifestyle”), but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Christians have a vocation to be poor. Those who speak of that vocation are often accused (as the framers of the upcoming pastoral letter on the American economy are bound to be) of guilt-mongering. When Pope St. Gregory said that “those who make private property of the gifts of God pretend in vain to be innocent, for in thus retaining the subsistence of the poor, they are the murderers of those who die every day for want of it,” he was unabashedly guilt-mongering. That is one of the things that good bishops do.

The greatest potential value of the upcoming discussion of economics is that it could release all sorts of guilt, and under that yoke we might all be reminded that poverty is to be esteemed no less than chastity, and that lapses from the spirit of one are to be despised no less than lapses from the spirit of the other. The discussion might resurrect some of Giacamo Cardinal Lercaro’s tragically muted contributions to the Second Vatican Council (described in a book which should be read by all the participants in that discussion, Living Our Future: Francis of Assisi and the Church of Tomorrow, by Mario von Galli, S. J. Franciscan Herald Press). “The great epochs,” Lercaro once wrote, “the great movements of internal reformation and renewal within the Church, and the periods of its most auspicious expansion throughout the world have invariably been those epochs in which the spirit of poverty has been affirmed and lived to the most manifest degree.” Exercising their anti-capitalist bias in a discussion of the American economy the American bishops might recover some of that spirit. In the somnolence of North American life, disturbed occasionally by consumerist spasms, it might not be such a bad thing to have that spirit blowing around. I’ll bet the Pope thinks so, too.


  • Michael Garvey

    When he wrote this article in 1983, Michael Garvey was a member of the Public Information office at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

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