The Two Spectres Haunting the Catholic Church

The Two Spectres Haunting the Catholic Church September 27, 2020

In 1848, Karl Marx opened the Communist Manifesto with the now famous sentence,

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.

Reflecting recently on the challenges facing the Church in the United States today, I realized that many of our problems can be summarized by paraphrasing Marx:

Two spectres are haunting the Catholic Church — the spectres of communism and racism.

In the original, spectre meant a ghost, a phantom or phantasm, an apparition.  It was, like the three ghosts that appeared to Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, a harbinger of what was and what would come–a terrifying vision of reality to “Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” who stood opposed to any kind of reform.  This meaning is relevant to my restatement, but I also need to introduce another meaning.  A spectre is also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an unreal object of thought, a phantasm of the mind.  I want to bring both of these meanings into play.   In our present circumstances, communism has become a phantasm of the mind for many Catholics:  an unreal threat conjured from the past and imposed on the present.  The threat is identified by many names:  communism, Marxism, cultural Marxism, socialism, post-modernism, liberalism.  While these terms have real and distinct meanings to philosophers and political theorists, they are conflated in the popular imagination into a single menacing force that is threatening our American way of life.

In reality, communism is a spent force, politically.  The Soviet Union is gone.  Cuba and Vietnam still keep up some of the trappings, but are now just dictatorial regimes.  North Korea has slid into an absurd and terrifying cult of personality.  China is still ruled by the Communist Party, but it has no interest in fomenting revolution:  its goals are to exert its military and economic power for its own benefit: nationalism in the trappings of Marx.   And Venezuela, though never communist, is a failed state, an attempt at authoritarian socialism that was propped up by high oil prices, and now brought low by mismanagement, corruption, and a hostile United States government.   So we are not threatened by communism externally.

Socialism does exist in social democratic movements throughout Europe and elsewhere.  It is stolid, thoroughly left of center, and quite respectable.  And its policies are very much in line with Catholic teaching.  One only need read the Catholic social encyclicals, or listen to the words of Pope Benedict XVI to realize this.   More radical political ferment lies with the various Green or left alternative parties, but, while they are very much opponents of unfettered capitalism (particularly because of its impact on the environment), their center of focus has moved away (moved on?) from socialism, per se.  They are less interested in seizing the means of production and abolishing private ownership of productive property than they are in retooling markets and industries towards more sustainable models, with the active assistance of the government.

As an intellectual movement, Marxism still has its adherents, but I would not call it dominant anywhere, except perhaps in a few rarified English or Cultural Studies departments.  It is just one of a number of threads that are part of the intellectual inheritance of the 20th century.  It is important to know, and it has valuable ideas, even for Catholics:  studying Marx, or even accepting and building on some of his arguments, is no more objectionable than reading Luther, or finding value in the ideas of Calvin.

Nevertheless, the spectre of communism/Marxism/socialism haunts many Catholic circles.  Quotes, articles and film clips from Bishop Fulton Sheen abound, and he is described as “The Man Who Knew Communism Best“.  Four years ago, my Diocesan newspaper published an essay by Alice von Hildebrand on communist sleeper cells which had infiltrated the priesthood.  In several groups I belong to on Facebook, any attempt to discuss Catholic social teaching is met by howls of anguish and denunciations of Marxism and socialism.   This has been going on for a while–while searching for the link I just shared, I stumbled on another piece I wrote about an op-ed in the Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, again railing against communism, this time in the guise of the centrist prime minister of Italy, Mario Monti (mis-identified in my original post as “Governo” Monti, a reference to the government he headed.  Io sono una brutta figura!)  Marxists and communists are the enemy, and must be opposed at every turn.  Moreover, anything even vaguely to the left of center (European democratic socialism, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden) is part of a socialist threat that leads directly to a communist hell.

Racism, on the other hand, is a real and abiding problem.  Moreover, the spectre of racism does fit perfectly the first definition:  an apparition of what was done in the United States and continues to this day, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that lives on, embedded in our society.  Like the ghosts of Christmas past and present, tt haunts the Church as it haunts society in general.   Like Scrooge, far too many Catholics want to deny the vision, turn away their eyes and cry out.  But in some sense their cries are in vain.  For the past decade, the spectre of racism, hidden by the promise implicit in the first Black president, has been brought into the open by the killing of Black men and women by the police or by quasi-vigilante white citizens.  The list of names is long and painful:  George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin.  This haunts us because it so omnipresent that it can no longer be dismissed as a few individual acts of racism.  We are being confronted by the racist structures built into the fabric of our society.   It does not matter if individual white people are themselves racist; they  are part of a culture which maintains white privilege and continues to deny full and equal rights to Blacks and Latinos.   It can still manifest itself in displays of open racism–the examples are too many to count, beginning with our president.  However, I do want to note two:  the racist arguments in the video posted by Abby Johnson, a prominent Catholic pro-life activist, and more recently, the racist ideas in a homily by Fr. Altman of Wisconsin (the whole homily is here; a short excerpt can be found at the bottom of this blog post).   But it is so much more than “a few bad apples.”  To quote Fr. Bryan Massingale, a Black priest and theologian:

Racism, at its core, is a set of meanings and values that inform the American way of life.  It is a way of understanding and interpreting skin color differences so that white Americans enjoy a privileged social status with access to advantages and benefits to the detriment, disadvantage, and burden of persons of color.  It is the set of cultural assumptions, beliefs and convictions that justify the existence of a “kinder, gentler” racism, that is, one that advocates interpersonal decency, kindness, and respect for all while it yet protects white systemic advantage and benefit.”  (Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, p. 42)

I was spurred to think about the spectre of racism, and so write this blog post, because I have grown increasingly frustrated with the response of my fellow white Catholics to the problems of racism.   In one Catholic Facebook group I belong to, attempts to post about systemic racism were met with denials and vituperative attacks.  The tragic outcome:  the one Black person in the group who was trying to speak out was banned; everyone else was free to continue to post, no matter how hostile or bigoted their comments.   In another group, I had a post taken down because I attempted to advertise a Black Lives Matter march being organized by a local group.  I was told that “Black Lives Matter” upholds an anti-Catholic ideology, and I needed to reflect on what was appropriate for a Catholic Facebook page.  The fact that Black Lives Matter is a slogan, adopted by a large, diverse, grassroots movement of Blacks to express their own sense of oppression and disenfranchisement, did not matter.  The existence of one group, somewhere, that held views at odds with Church teachings, was enough to declare them beyond the pale.

And it was here, too, that I saw the two spectres emerge, with the illusionary spectre of Marxism being summoned to deny and drive away the real spectre of racism.  Black Lives Matter here and elsewhere, is denounced as Marxist:  “Bitter Little Marxists” in one clever attack.   It is claimed that Marxism, whether the beliefs of a handful of activists, or the supposed Marxism of critical race theorists, has created the charge of “systemic racism” out of whole cloth, distorting the social fabric and encouraging people to violence, anarchy and the destruction of America.   Attempts to discuss the problems of racism or white privilege as systemic issues were routinely misinterpreted as accusations of personal racism; and again, the fault lay with the pervasive hand of Marxism.   The argument that the problems of racism are not real, that they were created by communists, is itself an old argument:  throughout the Jim Crow era, attacks on the status quo were regarded as being generated by communist agents and fellow travelers.  So it makes sense that the spectre of communism would be pressed into service in this way again.

As I finished writing this post, I realized that while it makes me feel a bit better (as the title of the Harlan Ellison story trenchantly puts it, I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream) I am probably not going to convince anyone who does not already agree with me that a) the appeals to Marxism are a diversion, and b) Racism is an abiding problem in America.  It will be interesting to see if anyone actually does read to the end, so if you do, whether or not you agree with me, simply comment,  St. Martin de Porres, pray for us!  As always, your prayers are appreciated.


Cover Image:  The Spectre of Communism, from and in the public domain.

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