There is no Catholic case for Communism.

There is no Catholic case for Communism. July 24, 2019
John F. Kennedy in Berlin, June 1963. Public domain image.

Dean Dettloff at America Magazine seems to think there is one, but he doesn’t give us a Catholic case for Communism either. Much of his article is spent telling us that many Communists are very nice people, and they’re not all atheists, and a lot of their goals are things the Catholic Church is friendly to. I’m surprised any of that is in dispute. Dettloff does not tell us why Communism is a good way to achieve any of them; he just tells us the goals are nice. Nor does he account for St. John Paul II’s words condemning Communism; he does not tell us how there is a Catholic case for a system that murdered upwards of one hundred million people. He can’t be bothered to mention these things, except in the most oblique way:

Communism in its socio-political expression has at times caused great human and ecological suffering. 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. But communists are not the only ones who have to answer for creating human suffering.

Dismissing the murder of 100,000,000 people as a “tragic mistake” shows a real talent at understatement. But you know, we’ve all created human suffering.

Ilya Somin at the Washington Post is more specific:

Collectively, communist states killed as many as 100 million people, more than all other repressive regimes combined during the same time period. By far the biggest toll arose from communist efforts to collectivize agriculture and eliminate independent property-owning peasants. In China alone, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward led to a man-made famine in which as many as 45 million people perished – the single biggest episode of mass murder in all of world history. In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin’s collectivization – which served as a model for similar efforts in China and elsewhere – took some 6 to 10 million lives. Mass famines occurred in many other communist regimes, ranging from North Korea to Ethiopia. In each of these cases, communist rulers were well aware that their policies were causing mass death, and in each they persisted nonetheless, often because they considered the extermination of “Kulak” peasants a feature rather than a bug.

While collectivization was the single biggest killer, communist regimes also engaged in other forms of mass murder on an epic scale. Millions died in slave labor camps, such as the USSR’s Gulag system and its equivalents elsewhere. Many others were killed in more conventional mass executions, such as those of Stalin’s Great Purge, and the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia.

Somin says “biggest single episode of mass murder.” He says “mass famines.” He says “slave labor camps.” He says “great purge.” He says “killing fields.”

Dettloff says “tragic mistakes.” He only bothers with specifics when he’s criticizing Western capitalism:

Colonial capitalism, together with the assumptions of white supremacy, ushered in centuries of unbridled terrorism on populations around the world, creating a system in which people could be bought and sold as commodities. Even after the official abolition of slavery in the largest world economies—which required a costly civil war in the United States—the effects of that system live on, and capitalist nations and transnational companies continue to exploit poor and working people at home and abroad.

All of which is true, but hardly makes a case for Communism so much as it makes a case for neither. It’s not honest argument to call capitalism “unbridled terrorism” but the record of Communism a “mistake.” That’s special pleading.

But while saying capitalism is to blame for every evil men do under the sun, Dettloff spend as much time trying to persuade us that Communists are not the meany-meanies they are reputed to be:

Contrary to the fear that communists simply want everyone’s “stuff,” the abolition of private property, for which Marx and Engels called, means the abolition of privately owned ways of generating wealth, not taking the clothes off your back or your dad’s tie collection. As the popular saying in communist circles goes, communists do not want your toothbrush.

Right. And this is why in Cuba government-owned ways of generating wealth generated so much wealth that there was a shortage of toilet paper. While Dettloff is telling us that Communism promises a lot of wonderful things and is great in theory, he offers no evidence that its promises have been fulfilled in reality after a hundred years. He says nothing about the record of mass killing, mass misery, mass poverty, and totalitarianism that it has produced. (Oh, yeah, well, he does say “tragic mistakes.”)

***

Meanwhile, here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” …. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds.

Dettloff says, “Well, communists, they don’t want your toothbrush, just the means of production.” But that doesn’t make a Catholic case for communism; the Catechism specifically rejects even “centralized planning.”

In Centessimus Annus John Paul II says that socialism rejects a distinctly Christian view of the human person:

Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil. Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order. From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom, and an opposition to private property. A person who is deprived of something he can call “his own”, and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community. (CA 10)

As for Marxism, John Paul II says that it too denies the “transcendent dignity of the human person,” in that it gives one class of persons absolute power over the rights of another class of persons (CA 44).

Under Communism, says John Paul II, “masses of people [are] subjected to exploitation and oppression.” Communism, he says, is thus an offense against social justice. Communism can not satisfy “material human needs.” At the same time, Communism “totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs” (CA 19).

***

I appreciate that Fr. Malone says he published Dettloff’s essay not because he agrees with it because he felt it was worth reading. Fair enough. But if Dettloff is going to make a Catholic case for Communism he needs to do more than show that some of the objectives of Communism match the objectives of the Church. He needs to show that Communism can achieve those objectives in spite of its actual record of failure, human misery, and mass murder. And he needs to show why we Catholics can somehow disregard the Magisterial critique of Communism given to us by St. John Paul II. He does neither.

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