“He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, Turning Point for Europe, 1994)
With his customary restraint, this is how the then Cardinal Ratzinger evaluated Marx and his legacy, some years after the utopia which he had brought into being had collapsed around its own flaws. If Pope Benedict XV had been working the Vineyard at the time when the wild animals broke through its walls, then Pope Benedict XVI is there at a time when the breaches are being repaired, and the reasons for their appearances examined. It is rather easier for the current Pontiff to examine coolly Marx and his heirs than it would have been for the previous Benedict or his successors.
They were faced with a reality that was stark: Marx’s heirs saw the Catholic Church – and all religion for that matter – as intrinsically opposed to their ideal society. Applying Marx’s analytics, they determined that the Church was parasitical on society, contributed nothing in terms of either economics or welfare, and taught an ‘ideology’ which clouded the eyes of the working classes from the vicious realities of capitalist exploitation. As Marx wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
It is a strange analysis, for it almost appears to provide a reason for the continued existence of Faith and a validation for that existence. Of course, Marx based his judgment on the basis of materialism: there is no need for Faith in a worldview that has regard only for the physical existence of mankind. With this statement, the starting shot was fired for a conflict that lasted for a century and a half. Supremely confident of victory in that conflict, Marxists dismissed the Church as antiquated, medieval, an institution that would, inevitably, die once the Marxist utopia had been achieved.
They were, as we now know, badly mistaken. It brings to mind the quip and counter-quip of Stalin and Pius XII. Asked by an adviser how the Pope would react to a certain policy, Stalin replied “how many divisions does the Pope have?” Upon hearing of the dictator’s death, Pius XII is supposed to have remarked “now he will find out how many divisions we have”. The conflict was, from the start, marked by inequality. On the surface, the Marxists appeared to have the upper hand. They controlled governments, armies and whole peoples. The Church, on the other hand, had emerged from the Great War weakened and divided. Catholic had fought Catholic as the demands of nationalism had overruled any sense of belonging to the Body of Christ.
Yet it was the Body of Christ that ensured the survival of the Church, even there where her structures had been destroyed, as in the Soviet Union. As has frequently been observed, one simply cannot stop people from believing in God, or from living their lives in accordance with Scripture. It was, therefore, inevitable that for as long as people could pass on knowledge of the teachings of the Church, the materialistic state was doomed to failure, particularly as the promise of continuous happiness on earth based on material well-being was a hollow one.
For all that, the threat was real and the swathes of martyrs from the Soviet Union and Spain from the Interbellum period amply testify to its reality. For Pope Pius XI it had been a personal reality, too. As noticed before, he had been the Nuncio in Warsaw when the Soviets invaded Poland in 1920, and had been an eyewitness to the ruthless destruction of Catholic churches and the purposeful extermination of Catholic priests and religious. His reaction was the publication of the Encyclical, Divine Redemptoris, which came out in 1937. In it, he again reiterates Pope Benedict XV’s warnings that the preaching of the Word had fallen on deaf ears, and, interestingly, he also links the rise of communism to the pervasive liberal and laicist tendencies of the previous century. Divine Redemptoris is an unequivocal rejection of Marxism in all its guises. As always, it had taken the Church some time to sum up its position, but from 1937 onwards it was official: Marxism was incompatible with Catholicism.
This matters greatly if one is to consider the stance of the Church, and even more of parts of the Church, during the Second World War. Pope Pius XI was not a man of words alone: from the earliest days of his pontificate, he tried to organize Catholic social action. This was of vital importance as it would illustrate the Catholic alternative to Marxism, but also to Capitalism. The Church had been active in attempting to mitigate the excesses of the free market since the nineteenth century, and had been appalled in almost equal measure by the materialistic creed of Capitalism and Marxism.
Work was to be seen as part of human life, contributing to its dignity and to the praise of God. This message was promulgated by Catholic trade unions, by the Catholic Action Movement, Catholic youth movements, and Catholic education. The values of the Gospel were to be communicated more effectively if the threat of secularism, materialism, relativism, extreme nationalism, and Marxism were to be met. All this was placed under the protection of St. Joseph, whom Pope Pius XI regarded as the ideal of the pious working man.
That this organized militant Catholicism was to clash with the organizations of militant atheism or Nazi neo-paganism was inevitable. The authoritarian regimes of the Interbellum and war years were adamant that they did not wish for any competing ideas to be expressed in their domains, and organizations who espoused these ideas were to be removed or incorporated. This created many a Catholic martyr. Thus the leader of Catholic Action in Spain, Bl. Bartolome Blanco Marquez, was killed by the Republican regime, whilst in Germany Bl. Karl Leisner fell victim to the cruelties of Dachau concentration camp for his leadership of the Catholic Youth Movement in that country.
What the two examples prove is the extent to which the Church was caught between various evils. Unfortunately, it cannot be said that she emerged everywhere with her honor intact. One of the main reasons for this – which is NOT an excuse – is the fear of atheist Marxism, outlined above. In several countries, individual bishops, priests and lay Catholics saw in the right-wing dictators a perfect foil for the known threat of the Soviets. In other countries, still, nationalist considerations played a significant role in the support lent by some Catholics to regimes that were far removed from the ethos of the Gospels. Again, at times one may understand this perfectly, but it is not an excuse.
The shadow of Marxism, then, loomed large over the Church of the Interbellum and the war years, and informed many a decision. Initially, at least, it may have seemed as if the Church was, indeed, going to throw its weight behind the new dictators of the right. There were elements in their ideological theories that appealed to Catholics. Their rejection of an outright free market, for example, or their emphasis on communal responsibility, both correlated strongly with Catholic social teaching. A rejection of class divisions, too, chimed with Church teachings. Added to this was their strong stance against Marxism. In Italy, the appeal of the dictators became even greater when, in 1929, the Mussolini regime signed the Lateran Treaty which restored an independent Church state, albeit in much reduced form, in Rome.
However, it has to be
recalled that Pope Pius XI soon rectified the balance. In 1931, for example, he
strongly criticized the totalitarian regime in Italy in his encyclical Non
Abbiamo Bisogno, repeating this in 1937 with his outspoken attack on Nazism in
another encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge. It was on the testing grounds of
Spain during the Civil War that the Church was first to taste some of the
divisions that these conflicting ideologies were to cause within Catholic
ranks. Whilst the Vatican maintained the strong line of Pope Benedict XV that
the Church offered an alternative to Capitalism, Marxism and right-wing
nationalism, others in the Church sadly failed to follow its lead.
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.