About that Communist Article in “America”

Eamonn Clark

If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.

  1. If Marx were alive today, he would recognize no country on Earth as having achieved Communism. He would likewise recognize no major political party as Communist upon close inspection, including those which describe themselves as such. Any country with a “state,” with private property, with wage labor, or even simply with currency, would not qualify as Communist. And any party which is not explicitly – and sincerely – working toward this goal would not be truly Communist in the classical sense. Opportunistic power-grabs which use the language of Communism and impose an indefinite program of state-capitalism through authoritarian collectivization, whatever they are, are not what Marx had in mind. It could and should be argued that any kind of large-scale collectivization and planning is doomed (see Hayek), that Marx left some troubling ambiguities about the process of socialization and its final product (especially regarding the usage of words like “socialization” and “state”) which is in part what opens the door to such misunderstandings or willful manipulations on the part of his early disciples, and that the foundations of Marx’s economic diagnoses were flawed (they were)… But what he cannot be fairly charged with is designing what is popularly thought of as “Communism.” Instead, what he must be charged with is proposing something which is not reachable or is not worth trying to reach, either due to what must happen to get there, or due to the goal’s intrinsic undesirability.
  2. No serious economist today is a classical Marxist, if for no other reason than that several prophecies of Marx’s did not come to pass. The middle class did not disappear. The age of the factory came and went without the revolution, and the revolution does not seem in sight anymore. The increased aggregation of capital has not tended to yield perpetual decreases in profit margins. This is to leave aside all theoretical questions about Marx’s version of the “labor theory of value,” which is integral to his moral critique of capitalism as being exploitative in itself, in addition to his scientific or deterministic predictions which rely on his labor theory of value. So all of this calls into question the legitimacy of the project, at least as expressed by its chief proponent.
  3. That project’s historical foundations are deeply at odds with Christianity in their basic philosophical and anthropological commitments. The dialectical materialism of the classical Communists sets up human nature in place of Hegel’s evolving God (a theory enunciated first by Feuerbach)… Through various stages of mass economic development and conflict, humanity evolves to a perfect state. This process is altogether unavoidable (“scientific,” not “utopian”), and it ends with Communism. There countless problems with this from a Christian point of view; and ironically, the atheistic determinism, violent tactics, and Pelagian ethos rob Communist life of its possibility; that possibility is best actualized in religious life, where the wall primarily prevents one from getting in, not getting out, and where the love of a transcendent God Who heals an otherwise stable and broken human nature animates all work. This should give us real pause.
  4. If there had been a successful global Communist revolution near the end of the 19th century as had been predicted by so many, we can assume safely that the age of innovation was over. The “glut” of capitalist production was seen as overwhelming at the time… We had everything we needed to relax and enjoy life, at last! And since innovation would no longer be rewarded by the accrual of wealth, it stands to reason that it would have been either only for the sake of making work easier (not necessarily more productive, but easier), altruism, or it would be done on accident. Consider what things we take for granted today that were not yet invented or mass-produced in the 1890’s. We would have been essentially stuck in that age had the revolution happened and innovation effectively ceased. What great innovations that otherwise await in the future would a successful revolution destroy today?
  5. Socialization is a matter of degrees. I take this from an analogous insight offered indirectly by Ludwig Von Mises (in his masterwork on socialism, online for free here, along with tons of other Austrian-school economics books and articles) regarding democracy: in some sense, every state is democratic, insofar as a sufficient number of people are sufficiently satisfied with the prevailing state of affairs such that it continues. Put another way, enough people choose with enough commitment to go along with what is the established order of society so that a new order is not established. Incremental changes might happen even outside of a “formal” democratic structure or means (viz., voting on a ballot). Likewise, socialization exists insofar as property is under the control of the community. All kinds of ways exist for controlling “private property” and “private production” through the government or some other organ of the community. The question then is not whether to socialize property or the means of production, it is whether to increase or decrease the strength or directness or scope of the socialization which already exists (and which informs the society’s understanding of ownership and the private sector). This is an important hermeneutic when giving any critique of “socialism”; it is a complicated issue. Simple dismissals of “socialism” are therefore rightly met with equally simple counter-dismissals by those who know the history and contemporary literature. However, Communism, the highest form of socialization, is subject to special critiques insofar as challenges to socialism’s status as desirable, achievable, and sustainable are “turned up to eleven” when discussing socialism’s perfected form.
  6. The scope of the authentic Communist movement today is very limited. The SPD’s Godesberg Program could probably be used as a singular indication of the global shift away from revolutionary Communism toward a milder and less-defined “socialism”; Marx and Engels were quite involved in the affairs of the SPD early on, particularly in opposing the influence of Lassalle’s revisionism, such as we see in the Critique of the Gotha Program alluded to in the America article. That revisionism is radically exceeded in Godesberg, the spirit of which informs the global socialist movement of today much more than an entirely unrealistic call for pure Communism. Under this hyper-revisionism, most “serious” contemporary socialists work for a humane administration of governmental tools in a mixed economy (partly socialist, partly capitalist), and many of them further envision a high degree of democratic participation in the planning of this administration – but NOT full public or collectivized ownership of the basic means of production, the classical definition of socialism. One will find this theme explored at length in the final work of Michael Harrington (also alluded to in the article – who was apparently a “Catholic Worker,” and yet, though we are not told there, was also a committed atheist), and any number of recent books and articles on so-called “democratic socialism.” (Connected but somewhat distinct ideas are “market socialism” and “participatory economics.”) These positions are sometimes subtler than one might think, even if they all ultimately fall prey at least in part to the same pitfalls as more classical Marxist theories (which, by and large, they do in my estimation). Whatever the case, while the old encyclical condemnations remain relevant, those written before 1960 are not necessarily the slam-dunk cases against contemporary socialism that many people think them to be, as they are addressing a more classical version under old global conditions.

So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.

Capital Punishment and the Development of Doctrine

Eamonn Clark

Update: Dr. Feser presents a very similar argument here.

Currently, I am reading Dr. Ed Feser‘s recent book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (co-authored by Joseph Bessette). It was with great interest then that I read the Holy Father’s remarks on October 11 regarding the death penalty in a conference celebrating the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

I do not wish to summarize the entire history of this topic within Catholic and Western thought, as any curious reader would profit much more by simply picking up Dr. Feser’s book, but instead, I want to address (briefly) the possibility of a “development of doctrine” which would say that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.

But first, let’s look at what the Holy Father actually said.

“[The death penalty] is in itself contrary to the Gospel.”

“However serious the crime committed may have been, the death penalty is inadmissible because it undermines the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“We are not in the presence of some contradiction with the teaching of the past, because the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death has always been found in the teaching of the Church.”

“The harmonious development of doctrine, however, requires that we [now] leave out arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”

“Unfortunately, this extreme and inhumane remedy was also used in the Pontifical State, neglecting the primacy of mercy over justice. We assume responsibility for the past, and we recognize that those means were guided by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”

This is a startling series of quotations, for several reasons.

First, the Holy Father, probably without realizing it, is accusing many of his real predecessors of using an “extreme and inhumane remedy,” thus “neglecting the primacy of mercy over justice,” which implies they “were guided by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” This would, of course, include some popes who have been raised to the altars, even men such as the great St. Pius V. It is unlikely that the Holy Father really meant to condemn several saintly popes as impenitent murderers (or as hopelessly bad moralists suffering from invincible ignorance of their material sins), but that is the implication nonetheless.

Second, the Holy Father’s comments display a startling lack of awareness of the rehabilitative power of capital punishment. In fact, this is one of the traditional arguments put forth in favor of the death penalty: to know that one is about to die in a short while is a great help in coming to repentance. What else could focus a man’s mind more on the good of his soul? If imminent and certain death does not bring about repentance, we can be pretty sure that nothing will. Furthermore, while such criminals are locked up, how many more people might they kill, heaping even more sin onto their souls? For an example of the power the certainty of death has for occasioning conversion, one might look to the ministry of St. Joseph Cafasso, who turned several dozen men from hardened criminals petrified of death into virtuous souls equally resigned to live or die, sometimes hours before they were to be hanged… (St. Catherine of Siena and St. Vincent Palotti are other examples.) It was, in fact, the certain imminence of their deaths that softened them for the work of their chaplain-saint. Surely, they would have done much good in the world had they been set free, but then again, if such were done then there would no longer be a real threat of certain death in these cases (rendering the rehabilitation less likely), nor is this how justice works… It is unsuitable as a jurisprudential norm to allow men to walk free without facing their sentence simply because they appear to have become reformed (unless reform is conditionally a part of their sentence). Instead, converted inmates will make great citizens of the Kingdom which is not of this world – lest we forget, doing well in this life is not the ultimate point, as earthly life is not the greatest good. Human life is not entirely destroyed by bodily death. This must not be an afterthought in the discussion of capital punishment, as it is precisely the supernatural call to Beatitude which gives human life so much dignity even beyond our merely natural goodness as creatures.

Third, and most importantly, the Church has taught perennially, building upon the teaching of the Old Testament (in God’s own legislation) and the New Testament, and upon the timeless understanding of natural law that there is no injustice in a legitimate government administering capital punishment under certain circumstances, namely, the crime must really be proportionate with the penalty of death, and there is moral certitude (following due process) that this individual really committed such a crime. (We might also add other factors, such as avoiding doing more harm than good, or having suitable means of execution, but this will suffice for an exploration for now.) However, apparently, we now have “a new understanding of Christian truth” which can allow a development of doctrine that completely relegates capital punishment to the realm of intrinsic evils.

I suggest that this is absolutely impossible.

First of all, such a change would be abrupt. This is not how authentic developments occur, at least outside the context of an ecumenical council where a whole number of matters might be settled with uncharacteristic promptness. Rather, they naturally unfold over a long period of time. One might argue that the past two pontificates somewhat softened the attitude toward capital punishment, which is true, but 35 years is an unimpressive tenure for a doctrinal shift. A counterexample might be the teaching on lending at interest, which changed as slowly as its object changed (viz. the instrumental scope of currency). Another might be the Immaculate Conception, celebrated in the Church for centuries before slowly making its way into the universities for debate and finally, after several more centuries, onto the loggia of Bl. Pope Pius IX. More examples could be provided, especially in the field of bioethics. What makes an abupt change to be such a red flag is that the Church does not suddenly come up with ideas about doctrine; rather, the doctrine is there from the beginning and it is slowly unpacked by the faithful. This takes a long time.

With that, the second problem with this change would be that it finds no meaningful support in the Catholic moral tradition. As attentive readers of Prof. Feser’s book will see, the opposite is true – the Church teaches and has always taught that the death penalty is legitimate in principle because of its proportionality to certain crimes, among other reasons. This is especially true for St. Thomas, upon whose arguments much of the modern defense rests. What recent popes have done is little more than advise a restricted use of it, in keeping with their own prudential judgments about its efficacy and usefulness within a broader social context (and Cdl. Ratzinger reminded us that one may disagree with popes on this point). One might point out that the paragraphs in the Catechism which discuss the death penalty seem to insist on its use only when necessary for protecting others; while this is what the document says, (especially when it quotes Evangelium Vitae,) it does not discuss why on the level of principles of justice, only on the level of prudential judgments about “the common good” and how to be “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” – presumably, only the person of the criminal… The dignity of the person or persons killed is not discussed, and such a counterweight must be included in such an examination of distributing proportionate punishment, as the CCC says in the paragraph immediately preceding. (See also the Roman Catechism on this point, issued by Pope St. Pius V and re-issued by Pope St. Pius X.) Also, for what it’s worth, John Paul II beatified a certain Pope Pius IX. Certainly, the former knew of the latter’s firm support and use of capital punishment…  We ought to conclude then, in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity, that John Paul II meant only to advise such a use of capital punishment in accord with the teaching which preceded it – that capital punishment may be warranted even without the need for protecting others (which is not strictly denied by the CCC) – and thus it is only a prudential judgment about its use, rather than a denial of the justice of its use in circumstances which do not necessitate its use for the protection of others, that we find in EV and the CCC. (We should also remember that catechisms, while certainly important, are not infallible documents, as Cdl. Ratzinger himself pointed out after the CCC’s publication!)

The third and most important item to discuss is the obvious one: such a change would actually constitute a reversal of past teaching, despite the Holy Father’s words that this is untrue. The Church has certainly grown in its understanding of human dignity in various ways throughout the ages, but there can be no realization about human dignity that would render capital punishment illicit. This would theoretically be possible if the Church had never actually formulated a teaching in favor of capital punishment, instead merely tolerating its use without meaningful comment. But since this is not the case, there can be no such change. Some people might be confused by this… Let’s consider another example. Suppose Pope Benedict XVII in the year 2078 decides, “The Church has evolved in Her understanding of the dignity and power of Baptism to the point where we realize that there is really no need for Confession.” One might very easily map the words of Pope Francis onto the same idea of this fictional Benedict XVII – mercy, legalism, development, apology, etc. Since this is a development of the doctrine on Baptism, how could it contradict anything but past doctrines on Baptism? The reason is very simple: doctrines do not live in bubbles. They must fit together with all other authentic doctrines. If a new doctrine on Baptism implies a contradiction of the doctrine on Confession, then the new doctrine on Baptism is wrong. If a new doctrine on human dignity implies a contradiction of the doctrine on capital punishment, then the new doctrine on human dignity is wrong. We do have a doctrine on capital punishment, as Dr. Feser shows brilliantly in his book, and the attempt to raise human dignity to such a point as it becomes absolutely inviolable would indeed imply a contradiction of that doctrine and thus would be erroneous. It would also imply that God legislated immorality in the Old Testament (ex. Leviticus 20:10) and that St. Paul confirmed immorality in the New Testament (Romans 13:4).

It will be very interesting to see how all this unfolds, or if anything even happens at all.

It is perhaps more important than ever to be training dogmaticians and moralists… Let’s pray and fast, too.

Stay tuned… and be sure to subscribe!

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!

Main image: Portait of Pius V, pope; El Greco, c. 1600-1610 (oil on canvas)

Justice for Harambe? Sorry, not possible.

“What was that?”

“We just hit a raccoon.”

“Jonathan, don’t you think we should stop?”

“Oh trust me babe, that raccoon would not have stopped for us.”

I’ve had this hilarious exchange from Hot Rod in my mind recently.

There is a reason we say someone is “acting like an animal” when he’s doing crazy or immoral stuff… Animals have no real moral sense, no conscience, no supernatural end to which they are called. We don’t really think of them as guilty or innocent, except inasmuch as those words mean the existence or non-existence of some act.

To begin with, even asking the question sets one off on the wrong path: “Is there a morality gene?” All the dispositions of our bodies can ever incline us to desire are temporal goods (like pleasure or security), even if they are delayed in their acquisition in some way or are diffused among a community to which one belongs, UNLESS they are ordered somehow to the preservation of the species in such a way that it is altogether compulsory. Genetics, therefore, could only ever tell us why a person feels like doing x which will ultimately redound to his own temporal benefit in some way. And in animals, genetics are altogether compulsory, so the disjunction above is irrelevant for them.

In humans, these impulses can be intellectualized into rational selfishness, and certain kinds of structures of cooperation can indeed bring about a society that on its surface is stable and healthy. Read an Ayn Rand novel and you’ll get the idea.

But that’s not what real morality is. Real morality searches for the good in itself, not just for I me myself, even through others, but for others in themselves. Real morality moderates self-interest, while genetics can only incline one to seek his own good.

What about all those birds who are so committed to caring for their chicks? What about those elephants that cry for their dead? What about, etc., etc.?

If an animal does something we might call moral or right that does in fact only lend itself to the preservation of the species (which we would be tempted to call altruism), it is because it had an instinct to. Isn’t that the same as a morality gene? No, it is a gene that compels them to act in such a way, and the satisfaction for them lies precisely in the completion of an urge rather than “doing what is ‘right'” or something similar. There is no order to which a bear clings outside of itself when it protects its cubs – it has no reason for protecting them that it is aware of other than “because that’s what bears do.” We would call this a virtue if it was rationally chosen among other options, but the bear doesn’t have real rational options: it just has genes which force it to act in such a way. In fact, the very same impulse to protect its children would compel it to kill an innocent man, which we would NOT call virtuous.

“So what? It’s still bad to kill animals.” Well, while you chomp down on your burger tonight, think about what Cecil the Lion would have done to you (or your village) if given the chance. Think about what Harambe might have been about to do to that child. And so on.

We are not in a real community with animals, because they can’t communicate with us rationally. They can’t do that because they can’t reason. We are simply better and higher in the order of creation, as Genesis teaches. We have immortal souls, they do not. We can relate with God intellectually, they can not. We are called moral or immoral, they are not. This means that justice, with regard to animals, is nothing more than their proper temporal use as part of the goods shared among ourselves and God, and we expect absolutely nothing from them in return. The conclusion is this: unless you are killing animals for the sheer pleasure of destroying them, or the animal you kill is somehow important for human flourishing (like a cow that makes a family’s milk), or in killing them you are desensitizing yourself to human pain and death, you’re not doing anything wrong.

So there can’t even be such a thing as justice for Harambe. He’s owed nothing – especially since he no longer exists. But that won’t stop our culture from hashtagging more about a gorilla than about the innocent victims of abortion, or the news from covering Harambe’s death six times more than Christians recently killed by ISIS. As G.K. Chesterton famously opined, where there is animal worship, there is human sacrifice.

And anyway… Harambe would not have wanted justice for you.


Main image: By TKnoxB from Chemainus, BC, Canada – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1826972