José P. Miranda: Marxism and the Papal Encyclical, 1971

marxandthebiblecover“It is well known that many European and North American evaluations of Populorum progressio referred to it as “the complete résumé of Marxist and pro-Marxist cliches.” But this judgment is not only the resentful position of conservatives. Already in 1951, years before the publication of the encyclical and even before Mater et Magistra, Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., a recognized spokesman for Catholic social doctrine in Germany, had this to say in his commentary on no. 100 of Quadragesimo anno: “This analysis of economic society and–for what it says concerning the industrialized countries–of society as a whole is the imperishable achievement of Marx. All subsequent critiques of capitalism are based, to one degree or another, on it.”

And in 1967 the same author in his article on “The Catholic Church and the Marxist Critique of Capitalism” spells out how “we are all riding on Marx’s shoulders.” There is no doubt that the encyclicals take their diagnosis of society from Marx, a society divided into classes, in which some are owners of the means of production and others, the proletariat, are able to contribute only their own labor and are forced to submit to the decision-making power of the capitalists. The inevitability of the confrontation between the two classes, affirmed by Quadragesimo anno, is also a thesis taken from Marx; the only difference is that Pius XI calls “confrontation” what Marx calls “struggle.” The necessity of building a classless society–with the difference that Marx calls it such while the pontifical doctrine terms it a “society free of classes”–is another noteworthy loan. The need to conceive and seek a transformation of structures and institutions and not only a reform of attitudes and persons, as Catholics taught before Marx, is another outstanding and most important example. With the transformability of institutions we also learn from Marx to think with a historical mentality about the social problems; this is perhaps still more important.

To this analysis of Nell-Breuning we could easily add a whole list of passages and argument from Populorum progressio which directly or indirectly are derived from Marx. The list would include paragraphs of the greatest human profundity, those dedicated to the search for “a new humanism which will enable modern man to find himself anew” (Populorum progressio, no. 20). The encyclical affirms, “The development of which we speak cannot be limited to mere economic growth. . . . We do not believe in separating the economic from the human” (no. 14). Here it is well to recall Bigo’s statement in 1953 about Marx’s conception of science. It is an understanding of phenomena from the inside. It is directed not toward appearances but toward reality. It presupposes a constant effort, when dealing with the economic reality, to pass … from a material viewpoint to a human viewpoint.

When there are so many and such important derivations, recognized not only by liberals but also by the most authoritative Catholic authors, it is disconcerting to find in Populorum progressio an attack against what it calls “messianism laden with promises but fabricators of illusions” (no. 14, original Italian version), for it is clear that the allusion here is to Marxism. It would be more accurate to recognize that it was the messianists who, by risking their lives and even losing them and by renouncing any advantageous social position, struggled for social justice against capitalist oppression long before the Church did. It would be more accurate and truthful to affirm that it was precisely this messianic element, the polarizer of immense proletarian masses, which forced a pope finally to come out in favor of the workers, as any reader of Rerum novarum can see. If the risk was much less and the acceptability much greater when the popes finally spoke up, this was because of these messianists. It was they who without assured social status and in the midst of the illegality with which the capitalist legislation afflicted them sacrificed everything for the poor and the oppressed. It was they who had to struggle even against the Church itself, which later took from them its ideas of justice.

Of course, in the Western socio-cultural system the Church is not the only institution which has adopted intuitions of Marx without publicly acknowledging it. To cite just one example we need look only to the schools of philosophy and economics in our universities. At one time Marx’s contributions to both disciplines were disdainfully considered as less than irrelevant; now there is an overwhelming need to study his theses with great dedication. But institutions have always demonstrated a conspicuous inability to repent, to recognize errors and injustices and remedy them. Thus we must realize that it is not enough merely to take seriously today the Marx whom we scorned yesterday; nor is it enough to execute almost imperceptibly some effectual change. The former preterition was not a mere careless omission. If we are to abandon yesterday’s position, we must also revise the whole system of ideas and values which made such a position necessary. Real conversion is needed, not lukewarm concealment of changes which are made underhandedly.

A work like the present one cannot escape the fact that this approach has caused in the Church a situation which, as much as we might dislike it, must be called division. The teaching of Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI that there is no absolute right to ownership unites broad sectors of Catholics, while others espouse paragraphs like no. 15 of Rerum novarum or the rejection of violence by Paul VI in Bogota or this teaching of Pius X which makes one marvel: “In the order of human society as established by God there are rulers and ruled, employers and employees, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, nobility and proletariat.” These paragraphs were never revoked, yet other teachings have taken a completely different direction. Thus if anyone were to claim to support the papal doctrine in its totality, he would be either insincere or ignorant of the doctrine. This would also be true of anyone who wished to reconcile Vatical II with Pius IX and the Syllabus. The unity is broken and any apologetic in this regard is a lost cause. This is not pluralism but a real and true division with which we must reckon from now on. Michel Blaise puts it clearly: “The unity of the Catholic world is broken.” If we are to take seriously and with all their implications some of the most important papal teachings, we cannot promise to arrive at conclusions which are completely reconcilable with all the papal declarations which have been made and not revoked. They are not completely consistent. It would be more humble, although not exactly more favorable to Catholic unity, to follow the directive of Paul VI: “It belongs to the laymen, without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live” (Populorum progressio, no. 81).

The situation of the Church little lends itself to triumphalism. Thus, the present work is able to point out the ideological causes of capitalist oppression without pretending that these philosophies have not existed and do not now exist in the Church. I fell into this partisan approach in an earlier book, Hambre y sed de justicia.

If there were no divisions in the Church, as certain officious declarations would have it, the leftist sectors would already have left the Church, for they could not tolerate being identified with those who support exploitative social regimes. If they were to be asked why they do not leave, they would have incomparably more right to return the question: Why do the rightists, as a Church of the rich, insist on belonging to an institution which was established to be the Church of the poor?

As regards the method of this work, the initial question which we pose is this: How was it possible that Catholic doctrine defended private ownership of the means of production? The first chapter points out how astonishing this is, given the antecedents in the Bible and the tradition of the first four centuries of Christianity. The rest of the book is a positive effort to understand the mentality, the very way of thinking, which we find in the Bible, for the position to which we have alluded follow a manner of thinking which is common to both Christian theology-philosophy and to Western science, and indeed to Western civilization in general as derived from the Greeks. […] Private ownership is treated only in the first chapters as an initial example; it is however, an example which is extremely important in itself and for economic theory.

On the other hand, Marx’s critique of Western political economy and philosophy is not for us merely an example. I am explicitly retracting here the position I affirmed in Hambre y sed de justicia, that is, that the dialectical mentality is incompatible with a genuine morality. I was deceived by my own superficiality when I read Marx’s criticisms of morality. The truth is, as I explain in the last chapter, that it is precisely an acute moral sense which makes thinking dialectical; it makes one unable to resign oneself to a present reality that is without contradictions and that therefore remains forever as it is. Only dialectical philosophy is capable of discovering in past and present reality the inexorable exigency for a more human world. Marx could not relate this exigency with the pantocrator god that the oppressive West adored and continues to adore. I assume his rejection of this idol and of all idols; see chapter 2.”

José Porfirio Miranda
José Porfirio Miranda

— from José Porfirio Miranda’s “Introduction” in his Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (1974), pp. xiii-xvii. Translated by John Eagleson from the Spanish, Marx y la biblia, Critica a la filosofia de la opresión (1971), Ediciones Sigueme, Salamanca.


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