One of the benefits of belonging in a Church that takes both fides and ratio in tandem is the possibility of critically engaging the culture(s) in which that Church subsists. There is no question that the Catholic Church (at least its Latin side) is Euro-heavy, and rightly so. Consequently, the Catholic Church has been in rational discourse and debate with European ideas for over a millennium and up to this very day. It is not surprise, therefore, that Pope Benedict XVI critically engages disparate ideas from Bacon, Kant, Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer in his latest (and soon to be second most recent) encyclical, Spe Salvi.
As someone whose graduate degree is in historical theology, I truly appreciate the manner in which the Pope thinks with some of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment luminaries, for he recognizes that philosophical trends tend to pre-date cultural and mass movements–sort of an ideational trickle-down effect. Indeed, in our contemporary mass culture, we still feel the exactitude in the sciences of Rene Descartes, the annihilation of the self from David Hume and Adam Smith, and the egalitarianism and consumerism of art from John Locke and J.S. Mill. We may not know that the contemporary cultural malaise owes much to these figures and others, but we most certainly detect their effects, however remote their influence.
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI touches on the role of Karl Marx in the gradual unfolding of modern culture. He introduces Marx in the following manner:
The nineteenth century held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope, and it continued to consider reason and freedom as the guiding stars to be followed along the path of hope…revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”.
Often depicted as a fringe character in the drama of modernity, Pope Benedict XVI rightly notes that Marx’s “revolution” was steeped in and contextualized by the same political currents that flowed through Locke, Hume, Smith and Hegel. What’s interesting is that the Pope, who has obviously read Marx (unlike most of Marx’s detractors), describes him as possessing an “incise intellect.” Of this, there can be no doubt. The Pope even describes Marx’s expression as coming with “great precision” and from “great analytical skill.” But what was Marx doing? According to the Pope, Marx was pressing beyond the critique of faith and religion and into a critique of the real, the concrete:
The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.
Marx was carrying out to a rational conclusion the missteps of Kant and Hegel (ontology) on the one hand, and Locke and Smith (politico-economics) on the other. To this day, scholars of all shades marvel at the originality, genius and, of course, short-sidedness of Marx:
With great precision, albeit with a certain onesided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination.
What was the fundamental and crippling flaw in Marx’s thought? Why did it not work? Why did it go wrong? Well, there can be no question that the problem rests not only in those who attempted to implement that multifarious monster known as “Marxism,” but in Marx’s writings themselves. The Pope elaborates:
Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out.
Marx’s reductionism casts the human person as subservient to an historical and economic process. This was precisely the shortcoming, for it assumed that the culmination of this process would reach a state of perfection for humanity. Freedom was not necessary in an environment of economic and political liberation, he thought. But how was this process to terminate and how would humanity be once it was complete? Marx leaves no answer. Pope Benedict XVI explains:
Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
The horrors of totalitarian regimes which sought to implement Marx’s revolution and carry out the Communist expansion resulted from Marx’s silence on the true nature of humanity, on its freedom to choose evil, and on the organization of the new humanity. In other words, the regimes which rallied around “Marxism” had to invent the vestibule of the Marxist kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI adduces Russia as an example:
Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This “intermediate phase” we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction.
What is subtle in the Pope’s text here is a strong distinction between Marx and those concrete “Marxisms” by which the world has come to know the man. Often Marx and “Marxism” are wrongly conflated, along with socialism and “Marxism.” What is clear is that there is a strong link between Marx and “Marxism” in terms of the former originating a half-completed blueprint. But to assume that the bloodshed of the former Soviet Union, China, North Korea and many of the Latin American regimes of the 1970’s and 1980’s is the working of Marx is not supported by history or the writings of Marx himself.
Another distinction that must be kept in mind is the difference between “socialism” and “Marxism.” The two are not equivalent. “Socialism” actually predates Marx, who derided the British attempts at founding socialist communities as “utopianism.” Marxism is certainly a form of socialism–the form with which we Westerns tend to be most familiar–but not all socialism is Marxist (the great Henri de Lubac reminds us in his study of Proudhon).
Pope Benedict XVI is a man of great intellect and sentiment, and I find his brief analysis of Marx to be balanced and fair. It is encouraging to see that true Catholic thinking still attempts to do justice to even the most flawed and detrimental ideas in history. I hope all of us will follow the Pope’s lead in informing ourselves and appreciating the thought of those we intend to critique. Such is the real union between fides et ratio.