WASHINGTON — The Catholic Church’s teachings on economics and government have a tendency to frustrate anyone committed to a political ideology. The Church has condemned both unrestrained capitalism, as well as communism, socialism, and totalitarianism.
But a column recently published in America Magazine, entitled “The Catholic Case for Communism”, by Dean Dettloff, has resurrected questions about whether it is permissible for a Catholic to be a communist.
“Christianity and communism have obviously had a complicated relationship,” Detloff wrote, arguing that even though “communist states and movements have indeed persecuted religious people at different moments in history,” Christians have been “passionately represented” in communist movements.
“These Christians, like their atheist comrades, are communists not because they misunderstand the final goals of communism but [sic] because they authentically understand the communist ambition of a classless society,” he wrote.
Kristina Olney, director of government relations at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said that description is an unreasonable way of presenting the situation.
“It is just simply false,” she said. “The fact is, that every time what [communists] will point to is that the ideas just haven't being implemented correctly, not the fact that the results are a direct product of the ideology itself,” explained Olney.
Olney believes that communism’s very nature makes it impossible for a Catholic to be a communist.
“There can be no Catholic case for communism, because the dignity of the human person is at the root of the Catholics faith, and communism is an ideology that is anathema to religion,” she said to CNA.
Since modern communism was first developed as a theory in the mid-19th century, popes have condemned the practice and taught the right of private ownership of property. In 1846, Blessed Pius IX wrote that “that infamous doctrine of so-called Communism which is absolutely contrary to the natural law itself” would eventually “utterly destroy the rights, property and possessions of all men, and even society itself.”
His successor, Pope Leo XIII, called communism “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin” in his encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris. Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, where he also condemned communism. In 1949, Venerable Pius XII issued the Decree Against Communism, which excommunicated all Catholics who professed to be communists.
St. John Paul II made opposition to communism a hallmark of his papacy, and his pastoral visit to his homeland of Poland is credited with jump-starting the Solidarity movement there and the eventual fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Christians have faced persecution in several countries that transitioned to communist governments.
In 2001, St. John Paul II beatified Nicholas Charnetsky and 24 companions, Byzantine Catholics martyred by communists in Eastern Europe between 1935 and 1973.
The “Red Terror” of the Spanish Civil War saw nearly 7,000 members of the clergy and religious sisters killed for their faith. Nearly 2,000 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War have already been beatified.
Today, the situation for Catholics in communist countries is still difficult.
In China, the Communist Party is involved in the selection of bishops in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the state exercises significant oversight of Church activities.
Olney expressed concern that the situation would continue to worsen under present leadership.
“You have a cult of personality that is reminiscent of the Mao era that is reappearing with Xi Jinping,” said Olney. The government is “forcing people to sing songs in praise of the Communist Party, and putting up communist banners in places of worship.”
In the U.S., communism and socialism have grown in popularity in recent years. A majority of young people today say they reject capitalism.
A “real sense of disenfranchisement” could be why Americans are embracing socialism and communism, explained Olney, which is a feeling that she empathizes with, but also chalks up to naivete.
“People saying that socialism can be a solution to the problems that they’re facing, but, you know, the fact is, although socialism is gaining in popularity, people can’t describe what it is,” she said.
Olney said she hopes the Church must “speak the truth about and stand for the dignity of the human person,” as these concepts are the root of the Catholic faith.
“I think that the Church needs to speak out against the regimes that are still committing gross violations of human rights and human dignity in the name of communist ideology today,” she added.