In essence, Social Darwinism is the transfer of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas onto the field of human society. It was very popular during the later nineteenth century, particularly in Britain and the United States, and has retained its nefarious hold on several political movements to this day. Most would not recognize the label, which is usually, but correctly, applied to them by their opponents. Chief amongst these is the Catholic Church.
To understand why Social Darwinism has been such a problem for the Church, one has to examine its basic tenets, and compare these with the principles of our Faith as taught by Jesus, the Apostles and their successors. When the earliest social commentators began to read Darwin, what struck them most was the notion of the survival of the fittest. This was, even then, a crude reading of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin suggested that species survive because they develop a set of tools to cope with their environment and their competitors. This does not suggest a survival of the fittest at all; it merely suggests that species adapt to survive.
Applied to human society, this faulty reading became in the first place a pseudo-scientific justification for the unrestrained free market and capitalism. It appeared that the natural world justified the failure to protect the weak, and, in the crude notion of the Social Darwinists, this allowed mankind to follow its basic instinct. The notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined, not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spenser (1820-1903), in his Principles of Biology of 1864. Spencer would later write another seminal work of Capitalist philosophy, The Man versus the State, in which all forms of state intervention on behalf of the weakest was denounced.
An even more violent attack on the sanctity of human beings came from the pen of another British thinker, Francis Galton (1822-1911). Galton has been called the father of modern eugenics, and was an extremely intelligent man, who, unfortunately, channeled his intelligence into thinking about social Darwinism. Convinced that nature was more important than nurture – he coined the phrase – Galton devised elaborate notions of racial and class superiority. To ensure that the human race would develop its full potential, Galton believed that ‘breeding programs’ were in order for the fittest and the hereditary strongest. He did not develop the logical counterpart to his idea, but that was easy enough for his subsequent followers.
These trends merged with two other currents in Europe. The first was an ancient one: Anti-Semitism. The hatred of Jews was nothing new in nineteenth and twentieth-century Europe. It has deep roots, which fed popular dislike of strangers during the Middle Ages, and which found erroneous justification in the ‘fact’ that the Jews had killed Jesus. Of course, the Jews had not done so, but the Romans, but this did not stop the hatred. Frequently, the Church, or members of the Church, encouraged this Anti-Semitism, and its critics are correct in stating that the extermination camps have some Christian roots.
Popes often went out of their way to protect Europe’s Jews, but that did not stop local bishops. Despicable though this religious Anti-Semitism was, it has to be distinguished from the racial Anti-Semitism that was fed by Social Darwinism. This had begun to divide the single human race, all created in God’s image, into fictitious ‘races’, deploying all the tricks of acceptable scientific techniques, without pausing to think that these may not be acceptable to a later age. The Jews featured rather lowly in this order of races, and this found a ready audience amongst the disenfranchised of Europe, including, in Vienna, one Adolph Hitler. Combined with eugenics as a means of achieving the perfect human race, it would prove to be a lethal notion.
The second important current that collided and merged with Social Darwinism was nationalism. Increasingly, Europeans saw their nation as the essence of their identity, at the expense of everything else. It was an attitude that reduced the value of human life to its usefulness for its country. Young men died for their country, and if they refused to do so, were executed or imprisoned. A whole industry sprang up to promote the hatred and fear of those in other countries. In many instances, this coincided with a growing ethnic awareness. It became more important to be German than to live under the rule of a particular ruler, to pick just one example.
Again Social Darwinism and the idea of specific human ‘races’ merged with these nationalist tendencies. The idea grew that a race should have its own national state, but this ignored the patchwork of ethnicities that marked much of Europe. Eugenics came to be seen as a logical solution to the problem, as did ethnic cleansing. All ideologies that dominated Europe between 1918 and 1939 were, to some extent, indebted to Social Darwinism. The free market democracies of Britain and France had their system underpinned by its theories, which allowed Winston Churchill to wage war on striking miners – they undermined the strength of the country and challenged those ‘born to govern’.
In Italy and Spain, as well as in many eastern European countries, it created the atmosphere in which a strongman could govern, on behalf of the nation, of course. In the Soviet Union it allowed the fullest implementation of Stalin’s horrors as the natural conclusion of the struggle for control between the weaker, bourgeois class and the virility of the working classes. I am not arguing here, as some historians have done, that Social Darwinism is the sole source of all the ideologies with which Pope Pius XII was confronted when he became ascended St. Peter’s throne in 1939. However, the impact of the various strains of Social Darwinism is unmistakable.
That any ideology influenced by this way of thinking would find the Catholic Church in its way hardly needs explanation. The notion that it is natural for mankind to trample the weakest underfoot, and the idea that somehow we ought to ‘improve’ on God’s plan through eugenics are, simply, incompatible with the values of the Gospel. Pope Pius XII could not collaborate with the Nazis, the Soviets or any other regime founded upon ideals alien to those of his Church. Instead, he found he had to oppose them, as had all his predecessors since the middle of the nineteenth century. The Holy Father repeated time and again the simple statement of the Church: God created mankind in His own image, and every human is part of one family, and has enormous value.
In December 1940, he published his single strongest condemnation of eugenics. Posing the question whether euthanasia was ever lawful, his answer was "No, because it is contrary to the natural law and the divine precept”. This ‘no’ applied to the disabled as well as those of different ethnicities – Jews, Gypsies et al – and those whose sexuality differed from the prevailing norm, such as homosexuals. Direct interference in God’s plan, in accordance with Social Darwinist thinking was, simply, anti-Catholic. Of course, we have to look no further than the famous Encyclical which Pacelli wrote for his predecessor, Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge:
“In the furrows, where We tried to sow the seed of a sincere peace, other men - the "enemy" of Holy Scripture - oversowed the cockle of distrust, unrest, hatred, defamation, of a determined hostility overt or veiled, fed from many sources and wielding many tools, against Christ and His Church”.
The Nazis were not ‘just’ the enemy of the Church, they were the enemy of ‘Holy Scripture’. There were many reasons for this, but the main one lay in the field of their wholesale embrace of the ideologies of Social Darwinism. One simply cannot understand the role of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War without understanding this fact, and without realizing that it informed the Pontiff’s every reaction against the regime in Berlin
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.