The Gospel According to Marx?
On the day of his inauguration, Pope Francis sent a telegram offering President Biden his blessing and urging him to “advance the common good” at a time that requires “far-sighted and unified responses.” For his part, Mr Biden made no secret of his Catholic faith and even quoted the Holy Father as explaining his policy proposals to reduce poverty. With or without a mask, the Pope and President are sometimes struggling to express their views on the most important issues of the day. This partly explains the lingering doubts about their respective attitudes towards socialism. Will Biden take care of the wing of his party that preferred Bernie Sanders as a candidate, and will Francis give his imprimatur to politics that please them?
The argument that Christian compassion must take the form of public funding and government programs is not new. Recent advocates of this view have referred to the 2020 papal encyclical, referenced by Mr Biden, Fratelli tutti, in which Francis safeguards the “right to private property” and takes up the “dogma” of “market freedom”. Fairly or not, in some quarters this encyclical has even been interpreted as an implied affirmation of socialism. Many progressives hope and conservatives fear that Mr Biden will answer the call.
The rise of the “nones,” those who do not declare religious affiliation, coincided with growing support for socialism. If the latest polls are any indication – not a sure thing these days – the number of religious respondents who prefer it to capitalism has also increased. What can be done with this data is uncertain. Surveys seldom differentiate between a Soviet command economy and a Scandinavian social democracy, let alone between the various Christian approaches that have been labeled socialist, such as the “community of goods” practiced under the Hutterites since the first decades of the Reformation, the attacks on the laissez – Fair economy by the Victorian critic John Ruskin, Bouck White’s “Church of Social Revolution” in New York of the Progressive Era, and Latin American liberation theology, which first gained popularity in the 1960s.
From Mikhail Gorbachev, who called Jesus “the first socialist”, to Karl Kautsky, a protégé of Friedrich Engels, who was once known as the “Pope of Marxism”, the socialists have long maintained that early Christianity was a utopia that is guided by collectivist principles from which it has deviated, but to which it may one day return. They refer to the New Testament account of the days after Pentecost, the holy day that falls fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day, when Christians traditionally remember the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the believers in Jerusalem were about three thousand and “of one heart and one soul, and no one said that all he owned was his own” (Acts 4: 32-34). Many landowners sold their property and the proceeds were used to “distribute to everyone as necessary” (Acts 2: 44-45). In addition to shared meals, studies and prayers, this idyllic gathering had “all things in common”. How long this practice lasted is unclear, but Marx himself cited acts, and Eugene V. Debs would use them to condemn the contemporary church for betraying its charter when it was on the Socialist Party’s ticket for the five times President ran. According to Engels, the true proletarian spirit of early Christianity can only be found among the socialists in modern times.
With polls suggesting growing support for socialism, it is an opportune time to review the New Testament evidence. By all accounts, the Church’s coexistence experiment reported in the Acts of the Apostles was voluntary. There is no call for the abolition of private property, and when Jesus’ disciples are asked to give up their property, they must be given to the church or directly to the poor, rather than to the state for redistribution. Yes, Jesus instructed his followers to “render Caesar,” but he refused to say what Caesar should do with the proceeds (Mark 12:17). It never implies that the government has the right or responsibility to enforce a policy of compulsory “compassion”. Saint Paul described the government’s role in protecting citizens from evildoers, rather than providing social programs that use other people’s money (Romans 13: 2-5).
The early Christian exercise in collectivism does not seem to have worked on even a small scale when practiced by true believers.
The Bible is full of exhortations to love one’s neighbor, especially for the most vulnerable members of society such as widows and orphans (e.g. James 1:27). Still, it consistently speaks of rewards for what people do when guided by their own heart. One searches the New Testament in vain for a mandate whereby secular authorities must carry out or prescribe what Catholic teaching calls physical works of mercy. It is more blessed to give than to receive, said Jesus (Acts 20:35), although it may not be so much better if it is a result of coercion. When Paul told the Corinthians that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9: 7), he understood that a mandatory obligation would not have the same effect and that outsourcing the collection to a third party authorized to use force would be his goal promoting solidarity would be undermined among Jews and Gentiles. In addition, it denies both parties the experience of grace and gratitude that the Bible has so much to say about.
Even so, good intentions are not enough, especially when you consider the problem of scaling. Things that work in miniature don’t always work that smoothly when multiplied by ten million percent, from about three thousand to over 300 million. Most of us voluntarily practice some form of socialism – from everyone according to their abilities to everyone according to their needs – at the most basic level, that is, within our own families. However, Jesus’ call to multiply the fish and the loaves of bread as “exactly what we want to do with socialism”, as Fidel Castro did, has no basis in the Bible or in economics. Will Durant once wrote: “Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won.” If the Church were impatient or careless in advocating socialism, competition at the political level could be different.
Quoting the New Testament to advocate socialist politics also overlooks another inconvenient truth. The early Christian exercise in collectivism does not seem to have worked on even a small scale when practiced by true believers. Paul traveled from Turkey in the east across the Mediterranean to visit Spain in the west and raise funds to support the church in Jerusalem by collecting charitable gifts from Gentile Christians in the diaspora Corinthians 16): 1-4; 2 Corinthians 8: 1-9: 15). These relief efforts, the earliest example of the plate handover, are a reminder that the Church in Jerusalem was destitute. Part of the agreement with Peter, James, and John in devising a mission strategy was that Paul would remember the “poor” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10). This was a symbolic gesture of solidarity across ethnic and cultural lines to strengthen relationships between groups who naturally tend to distrust one another, but it also responded to a very specific need. They valued the thoughts and prayers in Paul’s letters, but were also in dire need of financial assistance.
Even with the best of intentions and the purest of motives, economically, this presumed experiment in socialism has been a failure – when “success” means minimal financial self-sufficiency. It could even be said that the first of socialism’s many failures played a key role in the ultimate success of Christianity, as Paul spread the good news far and wide when he tried to raise money to support an experiment in Jerusalem that couldn’t support himself. Let’s call it Providence.
Or, if you prefer, call it the law of unintended consequences. Creating a more just and prosperous society is a goal we all share. Karl Marx’s disciples, no less than Adam Smith’s, would be happy to find in the Good Book an explicit mandate for their policy. It’s a bipartisan temptation. Perhaps Francis and previous popes have stopped preaching socialism because they recognize our fallibility in judging ways and means, even when the ends are so desirable.