fragments of an attempted writing.

Orwellian reading of Sheed on communism vs. christianity

Review of Communism and Man by F.J. Sheed
Peace News, 27 January 1939
By George Orwell

This book – a refutation of Marxian Socialism from the Catholic standpoint – is remarkable for being written in a good temper.  Instead of employing the abusive misrepresentation which is now usual in all major controversies, it gives a fairer exposition of Marxism and Communism than most Marxists could be trusted to give of Catholicism.  If it fails, or at any rate ends less interestingly than it begins, this is probably because the author is less ready to follow up his own intellectual implications than those of his opponents.

As he sees clearly enough, the radical difference between Christian and Communist lies in the question of personal immortality.  Either this life is preparation for another, in which case the individual soul is all-important, or there is no life after death, in which case the individual is merely a replaceable cell in the general body.  These two theories are quite irreconcilable, and the political and economic systems founded upon them are bound to be antagonistic.

What Mr. Sheed is not ready to admit, however, is that acceptance of the Catholic position implies a certain willingness to see the present injustices of society continue.  He seems to claim that a truly Catholic society would contain all or most of what the Stalinist is aiming at – which is a little too like “having it both ways.”

Individual salvation implies liberty, which is always extended by Catholics writers to include the right to private property.  But in the stage of industrial development which we have now reached, the right to private property means the right to exploit and torture millions of one’s fellow-creatures.  The Socialist would argue, therefore, that one can only defend private property if one is more or less indifferent to economic justice.

The Catholic’s answer to this is not very satisfactory.  It is not that the Church condones the injustices of Capitalism – quite the contrary.  Mr. Sheed is quite right in pointing out that several Popes have denounced the Capitalist system very bitterly, and that Socialists usually ignore this.  But at the same time the Church refuses the only solution that is likely to make any real difference.  Private property is to remain, the employer-employee relationship is to remain, even the categories “rich” and “poor” are to remain – but there is to be justice and fair distribution.  In other words, the rich man is not to be expropriated, he is merely to be told to behave himself.

“(The Church) does not see men primarily as exploiters and exploited, with the exploiters as people whom it is her duty to overthrow… from her point of view the rich man as sinner is the object of her loving care.  Where others see a strong man in the pride of success, she sees a poor soul in danger of hell… Christ has told her that the souls of the rich are in special danger; and care for souls is her primary work.”

The objection to this is that in practice it makes no difference.  The rich man is called to repentance, but he never repents.  In this matter Catholic capitalists do not seem perceptibly different from the others.

It is obvious that any economic system would work equitably if men could be trusted to behave themselves but long experience has shown that in matters of property only a tiny minority of men will behave any better than they are compelled to do.  This does not mean that the Catholic attitude toward property is untenable, but it does mean that it is very difficult to square with economic justice.  In practice, accepting the Catholic standpoint means accepting exploitation, poverty, famine, war and disease is a part of the natural order of things.

It would seem, therefore, that if the Catholic Church is to regain its spiritual influence, it will have to define its position more boldly.  Either it will have to modify its attitude toward private property, or it will have to clearly say that its kingdom is not of this world and that feeding bodies is of very small importance compared with saving souls.

In effect it does say something of the kind, but rather uneasily, because this is not the message that modern men want to hear.  Consequently for some time past the Church has been in an anomalous position, symbolized by the fact the Pope almost simultaneously denounces the Capitalist system and confers decorations on General Franco.

Meanwhile this is an interesting book, written in a simple style and remarkably free from malice and cheap witticisms.  If all Catholic apologists were like Mr. Sheed, the Church would have fewer enemies.

I'm not particularly impressed with Orwell's take on the fundamental difference between Communism and Christianity - if Christianity were egalitarian in its care for souls, it would not so fervently support political systems in which so many are treated as chattel, thus giving the chattel all the more reason to suspect the genuineness of authoritatively-Christian concern for souls.  And Orwell's take on the supposed connection between Communism and the expendability of human lives is no doubt a remnant of the bad taste the Soviets left in his mouth, particularly in the Spanish Civil War: 

The whole of Comintern policy is now subordinated (excusably, considering the world situation) to the defence of U.S.S.R., which depends upon a system of military alliances. In particular, the USSR is in alliance with France, a capitalist-imperialist country. The alliance is of little use to Russia unless French capitalism is strong, therefore Communist policy in France has got to be anti-revolutionary. This means not only that French Communists now march behind the tricolour and sing the Marseillaise, but, what is more important, that they have had to drop all effective agitation in the French colonies. It is less than three years since Thorez, the Secretary of the French Communist Party, was declaring that the French workers would never be bamboozled into fighting against their German comrades; he is now one of the loudest-lunged patriots in France. The clue to the behaviour of the Communist Party in any country is the military relation of that country, actual or potential, towards the USSR In England, for instance, the position is still uncertain, hence the English Communist Party is still hostile to the National Government, and, ostensibly, opposed to rearmament. If, however, Great Britain enters into an alliance or military understanding with the USSR, the English Communist, like the French Communist, will have no choice but to become a good patriot and imperialist; there are premonitory signs of this already. In Spain the Communist 'line' was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that France, Russia's ally, would strongly object to a revolutionary neighbour and would raise heaven and earth to prevent the liberation of Spanish Morocco. The Daily Mail, with its tales of red revolution financed by Moscow, was even more wildly wrong than usual. In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders.
- from Homage to Catalonia.

One can certainly sympathize with Orwell's frustrations on that front.

But I find points of the Orwell review of Sheed's book insightful, particularly the notion that calling on Christian and other capitalists to be better behaved will never result in an influential number of them behaving better, and thus it sure seems as if the near constant expression of concern for those suffering economic injustices (and Popes make use of "injustice" language in a manner that implies something broadly akin to what socialists mean by the term) is feigned - that the Vatican has no intention of laying a binding law down upon its members which insists upon changed behaviors leading to better economic conditions for those suffering these injustices.  And I also think Orwell's call for the Church to speak more "boldly" is still applicable today.  As Catholic Social Thought develops, and we receive more and more criticisms of capitalism from Popes, there is no indication that this will ever rise above rhetoric which is kept just vague enough as to demand nothing specific.  Lastly, given recent Wikileaks revelations about Vatican hatreds towards Hugo Chavez (see here and here), the comment by Orwell about pinning medals on Franco remains pertinent.  

I think what impresses me most of all in this review is the insinuation it leaves that the Catholic Church is particularly concerned for the spiritual fate of the rich.  Considering the contemporary influence within the RCC by groups like Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ, groups whose charisms are very much focused upon "reaching" the wealthy, it seems there has been no substantial reduction in this arena of evangelism and concern.  I find this a rather disgusting phenomenon, as the thought of displaying any notable spiritual concern for the rich is nauseating and perverse.  They have their reward.

1 comment:

  1. I have always thought the “immortality” aspect of the Catholic argument was overblown. Scrape the surface, and it is a whole lot of wishful thinking. Up until the 19th century, the consensus of most theologians and doctors of the Church is that most of humanity would end up burning in the eternal fires of hell anyway. It was only the modern sensibility, best embodied in the Enlightenment and the values that came out of it, that would start to undermine this idea, thinking it unfair of God to condemn the vast majority of humanity to Hell because they didn’t get a water baptism and couldn’t measure vaginal mucus properly. I mean, what seems more messed up: a universe where everyone perishes into oblivion when they die, or a universe where the few Blessed gloat over the torments of the vast sea of burning humanity for all eternity? If that is some argument to encourage religion, it is no wonder that most people are cafeteria (fill in the confessional blank).

    On the salvation of the rich and powerful, I am reminded of the story in St. Teresa of Avila’s life where the rich merchant gives money to her convent to build a chapel so that the nuns could pray for his soul after he died. Well, he died soon afterward, and St. Teresa had a vision of his soul burning in Purgatory, and made the workmen hurry up until his soul was released into Paradise. But what of all of those people he cheated, or the slaves he sold, or what have you? What of those poor exploited workmen? Even when this religion stuff tries to be charitable, it more often than not gets it wrong.

    What always disturbs me about “traditional Catholic” people on the Internet, and perhaps in real life, is that they use theology to alter the Gospel. (Full disclosure: I care little for either theology or the gospel, but bear with me on this one.) I mean, they can say things like, “the Church will take care of the poor”, “communities will feed the hungry, not the government”, etc. they seem to make the actual act of feeding the poor and the poor eating a means to an end: getting to Heaven. More often than not, they will wear the little they do for the less fortunate on their sleeve, sort of how people wear on their sleeve that they have a black friend, so that means they aren’t racist. I don’t think I can be blamed for thinking that their religion is just a cover-up for being able to be right-wing ideological troglodytes with impunity since they are covered in the “blood of the Lamb”. Ever since the Crucifixion, the Church has been frantically working on that rich and the “eye of a needle thing”. Solution: Build a big-ass needle with an eye that can fit an elephant.

    Or, as Archbishop Camara said, when I feed the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. Pie in the sky and all that.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.