Christian Socialism: An Informal History. By John Cort. New York: Orbis Books, 1988. 402 pp. $12.95.

Printer friendly version |

“Any serious Christian must be a socialist.”
—Paul Tillich

“Christian socialism is a contradiction in terms.”
—Pope Pius XI

John Cort has taken on a vexed and intricate topic: the politics of Christianity. As intellectual history, “Christian Socialism” deserves a straight A—even if, as political advocacy, it’s less easy to grade.

Cort has subtitled his book “An Informal History,” but it’s hard to see how a more “formal” approach (whatever this distinction signifies, apart from the author’s welcome lack of academic tonelessness and timidity) could have improved it. Though not encyclopedic, “Christian Socialism” is comprehensive and judicious, full of vivid detail and narrative momentum. The only significant omission, acknowledged by Cort, is a discussion of Jacques Maritain. But then Maritain’s social thought is so bound up with his abstruse and difficult neo-Thomist metaphysics that his exclusion is probably a felix culpa.

Hardly anyone, except perhaps a few neoconservatives, needs to be reminded by now that the Old Testament and the rest of the Hebrew scriptures are full of rousing exhortations to social justice. After several decades of the Social Gospel and liberation theology, only the most fervent right-wing preachers and politicians can be, or seem, unaware of the many sayings and parables in the New Testament urging active solicitude for the poor. Cort’s account of the biblical tradition has the merit of bringing out its this-worldliness, of demonstrating the obligatory rather than optional character of what might be anachronistically called income redistribution. Any one — Christian or non-Christian — who supposes that “the poor you have always with you” is the Gospels’ last word on the social question will be forcefully set right by Cort’s first two chapters.

Even more radical are some formulations Cort cites from the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Here is St. Basil in the fourth century:

“The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All you might help and do not— to all these you are doing wrong.”

And St. Ambrose, around the same time:

“You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”

And St. Gregory the Great, two centuries later:

“When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours; we pay the debt of justice rather than perform the works of mercy.”

The less eloquent, more systematic Aquinas grounded these splendid sentiments in a doctrine of conditional property rights: private property “is not contrary to natural law,” but natural law also dictates that “goods held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor.” Aquinas added that it is the duty of the state to provide for the public welfare, to ensure each person “a sufficiency of those material goods which are indispensable to well-being.” If the church did not altogether forget these teachings between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, it underemphasized them fairly consistently.

When we get to modern times—to More and Muntzer, Lamennais and Kingsley, Pesch and Mounier, Tillich and Niebuhr—Cort’s story be comes somewhat more familiar, though there are still fascinating episodes: the four-hundred-year history of the Hutterites; the fateful failure of Frederick Maurice to lead the English Christian socialists into an alliance with the Chartists; the nineteenth-century worker-cooperative movement founded by Philippe Buchez; a dramatic confrontation between the leonine Marx and the comparatively lamb-like Wilhelm Weitling. But “Christian Socialism” is not simply a chronicle. Cort has a more urgent purpose: to reconcile his religious and political commitments. With his carefully qualified definition of socialism, emphasizing self-management and decentralization, and his energetic, ingenious search for religious forebears, Cort seems to want to justify the ways of Christianity to socialists, to demonstrate that the church is hospitable to the loftiest secular ideals.

This argument emerges most fully in his provocative penultimate chapter, “The Convergence of Socialism and Catholicism.” The convergence of what? Of socialism and l’infame? Of Catholicism and that “wicked and perverse doctrine” (Pope Gregory XVI), that “grave and pernicious error” (Pope Leo XIII)? These imprecations are a century old, and more. Cort suggests that both socialists and popes have learned a great deal in the interval: the former about the dangers of centralized state control over the economy; the latter about the evils of unregulated private ownership and the benefits of worker and peasant associations. For example, according to the 1951 Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International, “socialist planning does not presuppose public ownership of all the means of production,” and “does not mean that all economic decisions are placed in the hands of the government or central authorities.” These statements go a long way toward meeting Catholics’ natural-law-based objections to the universal abolition of private property. Conversely, the sequence of papal encyclicals from Rerum novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) to Laborem exercens (John Paul II, 1981) have progressively modified the church’s reluctance to commend collective ownership, until John Paul declared that “one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production.” [Emphasis in original.] Cort contends that there is now “no essential difference between Catholic social teaching and the Frankfurt Declaration” of the Socialist International. “Economic democracy,” all but explicitly affirmed in the American bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter, will be the eventual formula of reconciliation, the kiss of peace, between saint and socialist.

But alas, a few obstacles remain. Socialism is both a sentiment and an insight, an ideal and an analysis. The sentiment may be described as humanism or egalitarianism or solidarity or a desire to further the full, free development of every man and woman. (I prefer Oscar Wilde’s term in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”: “the new Individualism.”) Cort has shown that, differences over philosophical materialism notwithstanding, for the most urgent political purposes Christian humanism is indistinguishable from socialist humanism.

But the socialist insight is also indispensable. The singular contribution of Marx (whom Cort disparages relentlessly, and wrongheadedly, as a statist) was to demonstrate the global, integrative character of capitalism. Once the cycle of competition and technological innovation is set in motion, concentration is inevitable, and with it, disequilibrium—i.e., vast human misery. Greed has something, but by no means everything, to do with this process. Capitalist crisis is not merely a sin; it is also a problem. And whatever the solution, it must be able to assimilate without suppressing the powerful centralizing, and locally destabilizing, tendencies of innovation. It must, that is, be a global solution.

It is not clear that Cort and John Paul II fully appreciate this. Immediately after the sentence quoted earlier from Laborem exercens, the pope explained: “We can speak of socializing only… on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great work bench at which he is working with everyone else.” With characteristic papal ambiguity, John Paul leaves the metaphorical status of “workbench” open; the hard question, as I have suggested, is to determine what level and form of worker ownership can match capitalism’s dynamism and mobility. With characteristic directness, Cort remarks: “Eric Gill, the English artist-craftsman-writer . . . wrote a sentence that has stuck with me ever since and still symbolizes my own favorite brand of socialism: “People work best when they own and control their own tools and materials.’ “ If Cort means, as he appears to, “individually owns and controls,” then this seems a step over the line that separates a proper appreciation of human scale from nostalgia.

And there is another, less theoretical obstacle to unity of spirit between most socialists and “theologically conservative” (his own description) Christians like Cort. Throughout “Christian Socialism” Cort refers, rightly, to Matthew 25: 3 1-46. Though the few authorities I’ve consulted doubt its authenticity, it is, whoever conceived it, surely one of the great passages in Scripture, indeed in all of literature:

“For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you covered me; sick, and you visited me; in prison, and you came to me.

Then the just will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee; or thirsty, and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger, and take thee in; or naked, and clothe thee? Or when did we see thee sick, or in prison, and come to thee?

And he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”

Cort calls this passage the “end and summation of Jesus’ teaching,” and emphasizes that “it is not built around the usual sins and virtues.” Above all, “there is nothing about sex in it.”

Nor is there anything about the sanctity of life in the womb. If within a mere two thousand years, abortion was to become a problem so urgent as to require the near exclusive political activity of the Church, could the omniscient Redeemer have failed even to hint at this in the “summation” of his teaching?

And unfortunately, “near exclusive” is no exaggeration. The Catholic bishops have established diocesan, regional, and parish pro-life committees, encouraged the formation of political action committees, engaged in a great deal of direct lobbying, and sternly disciplined lay and clerical dissidents. By contrast, the action recommendations appended to the bishops’ pastoral letter on the economy were timid and tentative, and accompanied by an expression of concern that “in [economic policy] debates. . . we as Catholics not become polarized.” In the light of this enormous disparity of commitment between one cause and the other, it seems plain what the Roman Catholic hierarchy, at least, really cares about. I have no wish to bait the bishops, or Cort, but comradeship compels candor: to many secular socialists, this vast disproportion is a scandal.

Cort undoubtedly considers himself a loyal son of the Church, but it is impossible for even the most disenchanted apostate to feel a similar ambivalence about the author of “Christian Socialism”. With characteristic generosity, Cort observes that Michael Harrington “lost his faith and now describes himself as a ‘Catholic atheist.’ His commitment to Christ’s poor, however, would put most Catholics to shame.” Cort’s own commitment, and this excellent book, should do his fellow Catholics proud.


Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba