Catholicism, Poverty, and the Alt-Right

Catholicism, Poverty, and the Alt-Right January 16, 2018
Illustration of Lazarus at the Rich Man's Gate (1886) by Fyodor Bronnikov. Public Domain.
Illustration of Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Gate (1886) by Fyodor Bronnikov. Public Domain.

Journalist: What about your intellectual and cultural journey?

Althusser: I encountered two men. The first one was Jean Guitton, who was a catholic philosopher, a friend of Pope Saint John XXIII and a close friend of Pope Paul VI. He helped me complete my dissertation. The other was a professor of history, whose name was Joseph Hours. He was a wonderful man. During the years 1936–1939, he talked to us about all that had happened: the war, the defeats, the miracle of Petain’s defeat. He explained how Petain had to come to power; he explained everything that has passed… wonderful. So I thought in these lines, considering that at the same time I was a Catholic, I had established a catholic circle [association] in the Lycée where I was studying; I was profoundly Catholic, and had two points of view. On the one hand, there was the church which called for considering and studying social problems with great respect And on the other, there was this history professor [Hours], a Catholic but Galatian-Jacobin; he would tell us about everything he was working on, an incredible world for its specificity. This is how I was shaped.

Journalist: In which moment did you become communist?

Althusser: I became communist because I was Catholic. I did not change religion, but I remained profoundly Catholic. I don’t go to church but this doesn’t matter; you don’t ask people to go to church. I remained a Catholic, that is, an internationalist universalist. I thought that inside the Communist Party there were more adequate means to realize universal fraternity. And then, there was the influence of my wife who had fought in the terrible resistance and who had taught me a lot, a lot. Everything has come to me through women, and this is the reason why I attribute a very important role, a predominant role, to the women’s movement. Women don’t know their capacity, the possibilities, their capability to do politics. (The Crisis of Marxism)

Unsurprisingly, I don’t agree with Althusser that a Catholic need not go to church. Such makes little sense for one who takes the content of the Faith seriously. But he makes an important point: Catholics are, by definition, catholic; we are “internationalist universalists.” The Christendom of the Middle Ages was not, at the religious level, supposed to be a state project. We can see this in the Investiture Controversy (in which the right of the pope to appoint bishops triumphed over the Holy Roman Emperor’s desire to exert his, more local, influence) as well as in, as odd as this may be to say, the Crusades (they’re being “right” or “wrong” does not concern me here; we need only see that they were ostensibly an attempt to snuff out intra-Christian warfare, to spread the Gospel, if by the sword).

This needs to be reiterated in 2018. We live in a time of renewed nationalism, of increasing devotion to particular ideas often associated with particular peoples or nations. There is American Exceptionalism, and the seemingly-inescapable draw of “my country first.” To be Catholic means to worry about others, most especially the poor. It means to be devoted to the spread of the Gospel through justice and charity.

At one level, this is all very abstract. So, how can we possibly enact this?

The absolute and universal truth of the Gospel is always carried on by particular people in specific communities. It is in this sense that we have particular struggles for justice and for evangelization. St. Patrick brought the Good News to the Irish; St. Boniface went to the Saxons. Justin Tse speaks from the Eastern Catholic perspective while The National Catholic Register addresses mostly the Latin Church. Each of us works to accomplish certain ends. The Church needs both Dorothy Day’s fiery social radicalism and St. Francis de Sales gentle edification.  In other words, the “internationalist universalism” of the Church always finds particular expression at different moments in history. Take, for example, the “preferential option for the poor”:

Today more than in the past, the Church’s social doctrine must be open to an international outlook, in line with the Second Vatican Council, the most recent Encyclicals, and particularly in line with the Encyclical which we are commemorating. It will not be superfluous therefore to reexamine and further clarify in this light the characteristic themes and guidelines dealt with by the Magisterium in recent years.

Here I would like to indicate one of them: the option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods.

Today, furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed, this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. It is impossible not to take account of the existence of these realities. To ignore them would mean becoming like the “rich man” who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus lying at his gate (cf. Lk 16:19-31). (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis)

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