Heaven, Hell, and Socialism

June 1988By Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of the NOR. He is the author of On Synthesizing Marxism and Christianity and From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back.

Christian Socialism: An Informal History.  By John C. Cort. Orbis. 402 pages. $12.95.



Legions of orthodox Chris­tians in the U.S. worry about “socialism.” Some of this worry is legitimate, but some not. Among the feebleminded there is an inability to distinguish be­tween socialism and Communism (Marxism-Leninism). For them socialism is Communism, period. And even among the less feeble­minded there is an inability to differentiate Marxist from non-Marxist forms of socialism. So­cialism is the “s” word, period.

John C. Cort, however, makes such distinctions and makes them well. The socialism he would promote is non-Lenin­ist, non-Marxist, and democratic — with a preference for worker co-operatives over governmental ownership. Moreover, his social­ism is distinctly Christian, and that in an orthodox Catholic sense. It is also Christocentric and Bible-centered — and he makes bold to assert his skepti­cism toward so-called historical criticism of the Bible. Says he: “Whether Jesus was divine or merely human does make a dif­ference. If divine, then we must consider his ideas, and his com­mandments, very seriously. If merely human, the consideration loses a certain urgency, to put it mildly.” What the Bible records Jesus as saying is vitally impor­tant to Cort.

The author begins his sur­vey of Christian socialism with the Old Testament. He tells us that “the Jews, throughout their entire history as it is written in the Old Testament, read the mind and will of God as com­manding both justice and com­passion for the poor.” But who are the poor? Cort makes it clear they are not the “lazy poor” or the “prodigal poor.” To honor the poor is not to cater to wel­fare queens or winos or dope ad­dicts; nor is it to fall into a sort of Marxist romanticism which says that whatever the poor de­mand is rightly theirs. Still, the divine command to show com­passion toward, and seek justice for, the poor remains.

Cort regards Jesus’ hell-fire sermon in Matthew 25:31-46 (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”) as the cornerstone of Christian socialism. Cort under­stands this passage to be a divine imperative to see to it that the least brethren have food, cloth­ing, shelter, jobs. As Jesus warn­ed, we will be judged in terms of whether, and to what extent, we did such things. To fail the test is to risk the fires of Hell.

But how do we reconcile this concern for material well-be­ing with these other words of Jesus: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on…”? Cort’s answer is pro­foundly, demandingly Christian: “Jesus is telling us, ‘Do not be anxious for yourself, be anxious for others.’” I have no doubt that Cort, who has been a union organizer and Peace Corps work­er, and who is the father of 10 children (isn’t the family social­ism in microcosm?), has prac­ticed in his own life what he here preaches.

Cort is no fool, no mere parlor pink: he knows that the capitalist ethos of “grab what you can for yourself” comes very easily to most of us. Any society that truly transcends capitalism’s ignoble standards is going to de­mand more sacrifices of us than we are accustomed to making. This is where secular socialisms (and communisms) falter. How can they motivate people to sac­rifice for others? In the long run, they have no solution to this monumental problem. But Chris­tianity does. We Christians are motivated to sacrifice for others because that is what Christ ex­pects of us and because we know that the rewards of this life pale in comparison to those of the next life. Cort is very insistent about this: it is the salutary fear of Hell and the blessed hope of Heaven which in the final analysis — when all sentimentalism and humanitarianism fall short, as they inevitably do — propel us onward.

For Cort, the prospect of fi­nal divine justice is not only an article of faith, but the surest motivation for human justice. It is this which sets Cort apart from a multitude of liberal Protestants and Social Gospelers, whose pooh-poohing of Hell has been but the first step toward the sec­ularization of Christianity and the reduction of the faith to so­cial welfare.

Cort is also very insistent that Christian social teaching re­quires not only charity, but jus­tice — not merely individual alms, but positive action by our govern­mental representatives. Cort re­peatedly hammers away at this point, and the linchpin of his ar­gument is Thomistic. Tommaso Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534) spelled out the Thomistic posi­tion in these words: “What a rul­er can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from [wealth that] is superfluous…and to distribute it to the poor…. For according to the teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own.... And therefore an in­jury is done to the poor man in not dispensing the superfluous [goods]. And this injury is some­thing that the prince, who is the guardian of the right, should set to rights by the power of his of­fice.”

Obviously, we have here a deeply Christian rationale for government acting to redistribute wealth, income, and opportuni­ties in favor of the least brethren. Happily, though, Cort does not take this to ridiculous extremes. He rejects the old socialist nostrum, “not competition, but co-operation.” Cort is a disciple of co-operation, but with Alec Nove, he states that “the opposite of competition is not cooperation,but rather monopoly.” In a communist society, the state monopolizes the economy. Co-operation should not be equated with hegemonic bureaucracy. Since such monopolization is unacceptable, we must find a way to domesticate competition. Says Cort: “competition can be made human…when properly regulated....”

Cort favors workers’ owner­ship and self-management of the means of production — which was the original pre-Marxian un­derstanding of socialism — over state ownership. And when there is a multitude of worker-owned enterprises, there will necessarily be competition between them. For Cort, socialism means both co-operation and competition: co-operation between labor and labor’s elected managers within a firm, competition between firms, and co-operative regulation of those firms by government so that competition doesn’t run wild.

Furthermore, if worker-owned firms compete with each other, they are, in part at least, competing for take-home profits. And so, Cort quotes Aquinas ap­provingly: “Profit-making can become justifiable, provided this is not the ultimate aim and is meant to fulfill some necessary or worthy purpose….”

Unlike Marxists, Cort does not want to “abolish” private productive property; rather he wants to extend such property ownership to Everyman. As so­cialist Walter Rauschenbusch put it, the “worker needs some prop­erty right in the industrial system in which he works. If he cannot be sole owner of a small shop, he must be part owner of a large shop.” Hence, worker-owned en­terprises. As Christopher Derrick has said, such a socialism “is Chesterton’s ‘Distributism,’ as extended to activities that are too large and complex for one man to handle on his own.”

Cort’s most intriguing chap­ter is probably the one entitled “The Convergence of Socialism and Catholicism,” wherein he ar­gues that by 1951 there was “no essential difference” between Catholic social teaching and so­cialism as defined by the Frank­furt Declaration of the Socialist International in that year.

This chapter contains some particularly interesting nuggets. For example, Cort illuminates the context surrounding the fa­mous and much-abused statement of Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist.” The man who actually wrote that encycli­cal was Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning, who in 1970 would write: “It is certain that forms of socialism existed in 1931 which did not exhibit the features de­scribed in the encyclical…and accordingly were not affected by the papal condemnation — the British Labor Party for one (which the Archbishop of West­minster hastened to reassure on this point) and probably Scandi­navian socialism as well.” Fur­thermore, said von Nell-Breuning, “the libertarian, democratic so­cialism of the present day has clearly ceased to be” the kind of socialism condemned by Pius XI. Thus, everything hung on the modifier “true” in Pius’s locu­tion “true Socialism.” Generally speaking, “true” socialism is one or another variety of Marxism, and so a sincere Catholic could conceivably be an untrue (i.e., non-Marxist) socialist. But, un­fortunately, such a careful read­ing of Quadragesimo Anno elud­ed most of the commentators of that day.

An interesting sidelight to this is the fact that von Nell-Breuning was the disciple of Cath­olic economist Heinrich Pesch, and Pesch’s ideas formed the the­oretical core of Quadragesimo Anno. In the post-World War I period, Pesch wrote a pamphlet called Nicht kommunistischer, sondern christlicher Sozialismus (Not Communistic, but Christian Socialism), wherein he called for “a truly socialized” economy. And in another pamphlet from that period he called for a “com­plete break with the capitalist system.”

Perhaps, then, it is not en­tirely coincidental that Quadra­gesimo Anno contains some ex­tremely harsh criticisms of capi­talism, and even throws some bouquets toward socialism, for example, when it says socialism is “moving toward the truth” of the Christian tradition, and “its programs often strikingly ap­proach the just demands of Chris­tian social reformers.”

As fascinating as all this is, the 1930s-vintage debate about the relationship between social­ism and Catholicism has been su­perseded by events (especially the evolution of socialism away from Marxism) and clarified by subsequent papal statements. Pope John XXIII helpfully clari­fied the issue in Pacem in Terris by making a key distinction be­tween (1) the “false philosophi­cal teachings” in Marxist-inspired movements and (2) the move­ments themselves, which, “inso­far as they conform to the dic­tates of right reason and are in­terpreters of the lawful aspirations of the human person, con­tain elements that are positive and deserving of approval.” In other words, philosophical com­promise with Marxism is disal­lowed, but practical co-operation with various kinds of Marxists and socialists in pursuit of com­mon objectives may well be in order. On the question of wheth­er a Catholic could be a socialist. Pope Paul VI, in Octogesima Adveniens, said that socialism takes “different forms,” and accordingly “careful judgment is called for.” Instead of Pius’s qualified no, we have here an “it depends.” And Pope John Paul II, in Laborem Exercens, the most pro-social­ist papal statement of all, went into detail on the question of when the socialization of proper­ty is “satisfactory” or not. What for John Paul is “satisfactory so­cialization” is for Cort “Christian socialism.”

John Cort is a brave man. Anyone in America who seeks to rehabilitate the “s” word in this Age of the Entrepreneur and the Sleaze Factor obviously cares not a whit about the Temper of the Times. But then, perhaps this is what should be expected from a man so brave as to father 10 chil­dren.

I have only a few demurrals to register. First, in an overly en­thusiastic moment, Cort avers that “Christians may find it a prudent decision…to revive, defend, and proclaim the ancient and honorable expression ‘Chris­tian socialism.’” I’m sorry, but while this would be a brave ven­ture in America, it would hardly be a prudent one.

Secondly, and more impor­tantly, I must confess that the very term “Christian socialism” gives me the heebie-jeebies. His­torically, Christian socialists have too often been socialists first and Christians second, seeking to twist and tame their faith so as to ser­vice their political passions. This way lies idolatry and betrayal, as John Cort well knows. In 1931 Reinhold Niebuhr founded the Fellowship of Socialist Christians. As Cort tells it, in justifying “the reversal of the usual arrangement of adjective and noun, Niebuhr…explained that this was to emphasize ‘the primacy of its Christian, rather than socialist, convictions.’” Just so!

But I have another serious quarrel with the socialist label as it relates to Christianity. Social­ism is about the transforming of social structures. Christianity, to be sure, is about that, but it is about far more than that, not least the transformation of per­sons (and because of Original Sin on the one hand, and the witness of the history of sanctity on the other, we are not so naïve as to believe that persons are trans­formed solely or even primarily by a prior transformation of so­cial structures). In the end, more­over, Christianity is about, not only the transformation of per­sons, but the salvation of persons, and salvation doesn’t fit well on anyone’s legislative agenda. For these reasons, even a Niebuhrian “socialist Christianity” may be an incomplete Christianity (and let us remember that Niebuhr’s theology, save for his embrace of the doctrine of Original Sin, was on the whole quite a distance from orthodoxy, whether Catho­lic or Protestant).

In the last analysis, I guess I side with Karl Barth, who said that we Christians may well call ourselves socialists, and be social­ists, but we should be very leery of any kind of amalgamated “re­ligious socialism.” In other words, in the working out of our salva­tion, the love of neighbor may impel us to act like socialists, but we must not fall into the illusion that the salvation of those we love is necessarily advanced just because they have benefited from the charity and justice we have shown them. Christianity in its fullness can never be equated with socialism of any kind. It is a happy thought that — termi­nology aside — John Cort would not disagree.

DOSSIER: Economics and Catholic Social Teaching

DOSSIER: Christ and Neighbor



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