The figure of the Good Shepherd, ready to confront the wolf so as to protect and save his sheep even at the cost of his own life (Jn 10:11-12) is an eloquent and very moving image. Created by Our Lord Jesus Christ himself to describe his own sentiments, it also expresses the pastoral zeal that every Bishop should have for the competent fulfillment of his mission, in collaboration with his priests and under the authority of the High Pontiff, “teaching, sanctifying, and governing” (Vatican Council II. Decree Christus Dominus, no. 11).
On examining the history of the Church, from the turbulent days of Pius IX until the end of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, it becomes clear that the Roman Pontiffs, faithful to their mission “of teaching, sanctifying, and governing” the flock that was confided to them by Jesus Christ, did not hesitate to condemn the errors of Marxism in a decisive manner, alerting as to the grave perturbations that the adherence to its doctrine would bring to the economic and social order. The distressing experience of nations that were and are firmly subjugated by communist or socialist parties is patent: hunger, tyranny, slavery and oppression. Recent history confirms that the condemnations of Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI, – in their position as Pastors and authorized masters – are perfectly warranted. Despite this, history also confirms that Karl Marx never ceased to exercise a certain fascination in the ecclesiastical field. This fascination degenerated into so-called ‘Theology of Liberation’, which John Paul II, in close collaboration with Cardinal Ratzinger, denounced and condemned: “The first great challenge we addressed was the Theology of Liberation, which was spreading in Latin America. It was the common opinion, be it in Europe or in North America, that it was about support to the poor and, therefore, a cause that should certainly be approved. But it was an error.” (Benedict XVI. Interview about John Paul II, March 7, 2014)
The Marxist ideology and its three derivatives, ‘socialism’, ‘communism’, and ‘Liberation theology’, came to the mind of millions of the faithful throughout the five continents, with the confusing episodes that occurred during Francis’ Apostolic Journey to the Republics of Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay this past July.
Which was the most commented of these events? Without doubt, the symbolically calculated gift that Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, and maximum director of the Bolivian ‘Movimiento al Socialismo’ (Movement Toward Socialism), gave to Francis: a holy Crucifix, redesigned with the communist symbols, the hammer and the sickle. Moreover, to manifest his friendship and the closeness that unites him to the Bishop of Rome, Morales distinguished him with significant decorations. The most symbolic had the figure of the same polemical crucifix engraved on a showy medal.
It really was a strange episode. Trying in vain to ‘decipher’ it, the press hastened to declare that Francis had affirmed with displeasure before this crucifix with the hammer and sickle “That’s not right”.
However, the spokesperson of the Vatican, Father Federico Lombardi, beleaguered by the press, began to clear things up. First, by saying that “he personally wasn’t offended by Morales’ gift”; and that “the sense of it was about an open dialogue, not about a specific ideology” (sic!)
Finally, if anyone still had a doubt, Francis himself hastened to dissipate all speculation during the flight back to Rome on being interrogated about the shameful gift by the press.
What did Francis say about the ideology of this rare crucifix? Did he criticize it? Eulogize it? Was Francis really offended with these gifts offered by the Bolivian Socialist president? What should we conclude from his words?
To undertake a hermeneutic – as Francis himself counseled in the same interview – or an appropriate interpretation of the facts and the posterior explanations offered, it’s a good idea to embark on another study, enriched with the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church (see the previous study). What did the former popes teach about Socialism, Marxism and Theology of Liberation? What should the position of a Catholic be regarding these ideological currents?
Teachings of the Magisterium
Table of Contents
I – Socialism: a fateful ideological system that destroys human liberty
I – Socialism: a fateful ideological system that destroys human liberty
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church
II – The incompatibility of socialism with the dogmas of the Church is total
III – Marxism: clearest expression of resistance to the Holy Spirit
John Paul II
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
International Theological Commission
IV – Liberation Theology: a ‘facile millenarianism’ incompatible with the Catholic Faith
John Paul II
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
I – Socialism: a fateful ideological system that destroys human liberty
You are aware indeed, that the goal of this most iniquitous plot is to drive people to overthrow the entire order of human affairs and to draw them over to the wicked theories of this Socialism and Communism, by confusing them with perverted teachings. But these enemies realize that they cannot hope for any agreement with the Catholic Church, which allows neither tampering with truths proposed by faith, nor adding any new human fictions to them. This is why they try to draw the Italian people over to Protestantism, which in their deceit they repeatedly declare to be only another form of the same true religion of Christ, thereby just as pleasing to God. (Pius IX. Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum, no. 6, December 8, 1849)
Hence we have reached the limit of horrors, to wit, communism, socialism, nihilism, hideous deformities of the civil society of men and almost its ruin. And yet too many attempt to enlarge the scope of these evils, and under the pretext of helping the multitude, already have fanned no small flames of misery. The things we thus mention are neither unknown nor very remote from us. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Diuturnum illud, no. 17, June 29, 1881)
For, the fear of God and reverence for divine laws being taken away, the authority of rulers despised, sedition permitted and approved, and the popular passions urged on to lawlessness, with no restraint save that of punishment, a change and overthrow of all things will necessarily follow. Yea, this change and overthrow is deliberately planned and put forward by many associations of communists and socialists. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Humanum genus, no. 27, April 20, 1884)
Finally, all have witnessed with what solemn words and great firmness and constancy of soul our glorious predecessor, Pius IX, of happy memory, both in his allocutions and in his encyclical letters addressed to the bishops of all the world, fought now against the wicked attempts of the sects, now openly by name against the pest of socialism, which was already making headway. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris, no. 3, December 28, 2878)
The empire of God over man and civil society once repudiated, it follows that religion, as a public institution, can have no claim to exist, and that everything that belongs to religion will be treated with complete indifference. Furthermore, with ambitious designs on sovereignty, tumult and sedition will be common amongst the people; and when duty and conscience cease to appeal to them, there will be nothing to hold them back but force, which of itself alone is powerless to keep their covetousness in check. Of this we have almost daily evidence in the conflict with socialists and members of other seditious societies, who labor unceasingly to bring about revolution. It is for those, then, who are capable of forming a just estimate of things to decide whether such doctrines promote that true liberty which alone is worthy of man, or rather, pervert and destroy it. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Libertas praestantissimum, no. 16, June 20, 1888)
Moreover, labor hard that the children of the Catholic Church neither join nor favor in any way whatsoever this abominable sect; let them show, on the contrary, by noble deeds and right dealing in all things, how well and happily human society would hold together were each member to shine as an example of right doing and of virtue. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris, no. 11, December 28, 1878)
At the very beginning of Our pontificate We clearly pointed out what the peril was which confronted society on this head, and We deemed it Our duty to warn Catholics, in unmistakable language, how great the error was which was lurking in the utterances of socialism, and how great the danger was that threatened not only their temporal possessions, but also their morality and religion. That was the purpose of Our encyclical letter Quod Apostolici Muneris which We published on the 28th of December in the year 1878; but, as these dangers day by day threatened still greater disaster, both to individuals and the commonwealth, We strove with all the more energy to avert them. This was the object of Our encyclical Rerum Novarum of the 15th of May, 1891, in which we dwelt at length on the rights and duties which both classes of society – those namely, who control capital, and those who contribute labor – are bound in relation to each other; and at the same time, We made it evident that the remedies which are most useful to protect the cause of religion, and to terminate the contest between the different classes of society, were to be found in the precepts of the Gospel. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Graves de Communi Re, no. 2, January 18, 1901)
But it is to be lamented that those to whom has been committed the guardianship of the public weal, deceived by the wiles of wicked men and terrified by their threats, have looked upon the Church with a suspicious and even hostile eye, not perceiving that the attempts of the sects would be vain if the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the authority of the Roman Pontiffs had always survived, with the honor that belongs to them, among princes and peoples. For, ‘the church of the living God, which is the pillar and ground of truth,’ (1 Tim 3:15) hands down those doctrines and precepts whose special object is the safety and peace of society and the uprooting of the evil growth of socialism. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris, no. 4, December 28, 1878)
It is not our intention here to repeat the arguments which clearly expose the errors of Socialism and of similar doctrines. Our predecessor, Leo XIII, most wisely did so in truly memorable Encyclicals; and you, Venerable Brethren, will take the greatest care that those grave precepts are never forgotten, but that whenever circumstances call for it, they should be clearly expounded and inculcated in Catholic associations and congresses, in sermons and in the Catholic press. (Benedict XV. Encyclical Ad Beatissimi apostolorum, no. 13, November 1, 1914)
With the Encyclical Letter Divini Redemptoris, on atheistic communism and Christian social doctrine, Pope Pius XI offered a systematic criticism of communism, describing it as “intrinsically perverse”, and indicated that the principal means for correcting the evils perpetrated by it could be found in the renewal of Christian life, the practice of evangelical charity, the fulfilment of the duties of justice at both the interpersonal and social levels in relation to the common good, and the institutionalization of professional and interprofessional groups. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 92, May 26, 2006)
II – The incompatibility of socialism with the dogmas of the Church is total
For, indeed, although the socialists, stealing the very Gospel itself with a view to deceive more easily the unwary, have been accustomed to distort it so as to suit their own purposes, nevertheless so great is the difference between their depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater could exist: ‘for what participation bath justice with injustice or what fellowship bath light with darkness?’(2 Cor. 6:14) (Leo XIII. Encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris, no. 5, December 28, 1878)
Yet let no one think that all the socialist groups or factions that are not communist have, without exception, recovered their senses to this extent either in fact or in name. For the most part they do not reject the class struggle or the abolition of ownership, but only in some degree modify them. Now if these false principles are modified and to some extent erased from the program, the question arises, or rather is raised without warrant by some, whether the principles of Christian truth cannot perhaps be also modified to some degree and be tempered so as to meet Socialism half-way and, as it were, by a middle course, come to agreement with it. There are some allured by the foolish hope that socialists in this way will be drawn to us. A vain hope! Those who want to be apostles among socialists ought to profess Christian truth whole and entire, openly and sincerely, and not connive at error in any way. If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity. (Pius XI. Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, no. 116, May 15, 1931)
But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth. (Pius XI. Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, no. 117, May 15, 1931)
If Socialism, like all errors, contains some truth (which, moreover, the Supreme Pontiffs have never denied), it is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist. (Pius XI. Encyclical Quadragesimo anno, no. 120, May 15, 1931)
Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and takes no account of any objective other than that of material well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social authority. (John XXIII. Encyclical Mater et magistra, no. 34, May 15, 1961)
Some Christians are today attracted by socialist currents and their various developments. They try to recognize therein a certain number of aspirations which they carry within themselves in the name of their faith. They feel that they are part of that historical current and wish to play a part within it. Now this historical current takes on, under the same name, different forms according to different continents and cultures, even if it drew its inspiration, and still does in many cases, from ideologies incompatible with faith. Careful judgment is called for. Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality. They refuse to recognize the limitations of the historical socialist movements, which remain conditioned by the ideologies from which they originated. (Paul VI. Apostolic Letter Octogesima adveniens, no. 31, May 14, 1971)
III – Marxism: the height of rebellion against the Holy Spirit
We have often observed that the enemy of the human race is one and multiple. Today it presents itself with a well defined face and with a well known name. It spreads in a wide front, and combats without exclusion of means nor sparing blows; the zone of Terni finds itself among those who suffer most from the attack. Be it through the ability with which it masks its tactic and hides its strategy, be it through the fear that it has known to instill, or by the hope that it has awakened, atheistic marxism has penetrated among you and is still very firm in its position. Our heart is upset and tears come to Our eyes each time that we ask how is it possible that there still exists such consent and so much obstinacy within a considerable part of the best groups of workers. Is it possible that in this point nothing is able to open their eyes, nothing serves to move their hearts? They wish to remain with the enemies of God, they wish to strengthen the ranks, cooperating, in this way, to worsen the chaos of the modern world. Why? Individuals and people have wished to lead them along the evil path, for they have promised a better distribution of goods, proclaiming at the same time a desire to save liberty, protect the family, assuring that the people will have power, the workers the factories and the peasants the earth. And if, on the contrary, after having sown hatred, provoked subversion and fomented discord, they arrive at power, they impoverish the poor and make terror reign. This is what is happening these days among the distressed Hungarian people, as documented by the evidence of blood, which shows with the evidence of blood how far those who hate God can go. (Pius XII. Address to a pilgrimage of workers from Terni, no. 2, November 18, 1956)
While, through the concrete existing form of Marxism, one can distinguish these various aspects and the questions they pose for the reflection and activity of Christians, it would be illusory and dangerous to reach a point of forgetting the intimate link which radically binds them together, to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without recognizing their relationships with ideology, and to enter into the practice of class struggle and its Marxist interpretations, while failing to note the kind of totalitarian and violent society to which this process leads. (Paul VI. Apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, no. 34, May 14, 1971)
And then we have the sixth axiom, which is the most disputed and complex. The Church does not adhere and cannot adhere to the social, ideological and political movements, which, taking advantage of their origin and strength from Marxism, have conserved principles and negative methods, for an incomplete notion – proper to radical Marxism, and therefore false – of man, of history, of the world. Atheism, which it professes and promotes, is not in favor of the scientific conception of the universe and civilization, but rather consists in a blindness from which man and society end up undergoing the gravest consequences in the long run. Materialism, in which it results, exposes man to extremely negative experiences and temptations; it extinguishes his authentic spirituality and his transcendent hope. (Paul VI. Homily to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, May 22, 1966)
Class struggle, erected within a system, violates and impedes social peace; fatally results in violence and abuse, therefore in the abolition of liberty, conducing then to the instauration of a highly authoritarian and tendentially totalitarian system. With this the Church does not miss any of the opportunities for justice and toward the progress of the working class; but even the Church, rectifying these errors and these deviations, does not exclude from its love any man or worker. Known facts therefore, inclusively through an existing historic experience, that does not allow for illusions; but rather that painful things, through ideological pressure and practices that take place in the world of work, which intend to interpret the aspirations and promote grievances, generating in this way great difficulties and divisions. We do not wish to dispute now, but rather remember that the same word, which today, you Christian Workers, give testimony of honor and gratitude, is that which adverts us to not put our confidence in false and dangerous ideologies. (Paul VI. Homily to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, May 22, 1966)
Nor is it to be believed that this pastoral solicitude, which has become a prevalent program in the Church today, absorbing its attention and engaging its care, implies a change in judgment regarding the errors spread in our society and already condemned by the Church, as for example, atheistic Marxism: to seek to apply healthy and accurate remedies for a contagious and lethal disease does not mean changing one’s opinion of it, but rather combating it not only in theory, but also in practice; it means giving therapy following the diagnosis; that is, doctrinal condemnation, followed by salvific charity. (Paul VI. Address to the priests participating in the 13th Pastoral Orientation Week, September 6, 1963)
Unfortunately, the resistance to the Holy Spirit which St. Paul emphasizes in the interior and subjective dimension as tension, struggle and rebellion taking place in the human heart, finds in every period of history and especially in the modern era its external dimension, which takes concrete form as the content of culture and civilization, as a philosophical system, an ideology, a program for action and for the shaping of human behavior. It reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form: as a system of thought, and in its practical form: as a method of interpreting and evaluating facts, and likewise as a program of corresponding conduct. The system which has developed most and carried to its extreme practical consequences this form of thought, ideology and praxis is dialectical and historical materialism, which is still recognized as the essential core of Marxism. (John Paul II. Encyclical Dominum et vivificantem, nos. 16. 56, May 18, 1986)
We have a long and painful history behind us, and feel the overwhelming need to look ahead to the future. Historical memory, however, must accompany us, because we can make something of the experience of these endless decades, in which inclusively your country [Lithuania] has felt the weight of an iron dictatorship that in the name of justice and equality, violated the freedom and dignity of individuals and of civil society. How could this happen? The analysis would be complex. However, it seems that among no lesser of the important reasons is the militant atheism in which Marxism was inspired: an atheism inclusively offensive to man whose dignity is rooted to the most solid foundation and guarantee. To this error others are added such as the materialistic concept of history, a harshly conflicting vision of society, and the ‘messianic’ role attributed to the single political party, lord of the State. Everything converges so that this system, born of the presumption of freeing man, ends up making him a slave. (John Paul II. Speech to the academic and intellectual world, University of Vilnius, Lithuania, September 5, 1993)
Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. (John Paul II. Encyclical Veritatis Splendor, no. 101, August 6, 1993)
The backflow of atheistic Marxism-Leninism, as a totalitarian political system in Europe is far from resolving the tragedies caused in these three quarters of a century. All who have been affected by this totalitarian system in one way or another, even the leaders and their supporters as its staunch adversaries, have become its victims. Those who have sacrificed their family, their energies and their dignity for the communist utopia are beginning to realize they have been dragged into a lie that has deeply wounded human nature. Others have found a freedom for which they were unprepared and the use of such remains hypothetical, since they live in precarious political, social and economic conditions and are experiencing a confused cultural situation, with a violent reawakening of nationalist rivalries. In its conclusion the pre-Synod Symposium asked: to where and to whom will those whose utopian hopes have recently disappeared turn to? The spiritual void that threatens society is above all a cultural void. It is the moral conscience, renewed by the Gospel of Christ, which can truly fulfill it. (John Paul II. Speech to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, January 10, 1992)
The course of world history itself is showing the fallacy of the solutions proposed by Marxism. This theoretical and pragmatic system methodically exacerbates divisions among people, and pretends to resolve the human questions within a horizon that is closed to the transcendent. In the opposite regard, the contemporary experience of the more developed countries reveals other serious defects: a vision of life based only on material well being and a selfish freedom that thinks it is unlimited. By their contrast these considerations offer dear directions for your future. There is no true progress without the integral truth about the human being, which Christians know is found only in Christ. Certainly we should want prosperity combined with the necessary overcoming of economic and cultural diversity and the total integration of all the regions of our vast geography in a broad programme of progress and development. However, all this will be fragile and precarious if it is not combined with a deeper Christianization of our earth. (John Paul II. Address to the President of the Republic of Chile, no. 4, April 22, 1991)
I see, above all, the deep and splendid stratum of Christianity, the spiritual and Christian movement which has also had its ‘contemporary’ apogee, always alive and present, as I said earlier. But also in this ensemble there has appeared other, notorious, currents of a powerful eloquence and negative effectiveness: on the one hand, there is all the rationalist, illuminist, scientistic inheritance of the so called secularist ‘liberalism’ in the nations of the West, which has brought the radical negation of Christianity; on the other hand, there is the ideology and practice of atheistic ‘marxism’, which has arrived, it could be said, at the extreme consequences of its materialistic postulations in the various existing denominations. In this ‘glowing crucible’ of the contemporary world, Christ wants to be present again, with all of the eloquence of his Paschal mystery. (John Paul II. Address to the citizens of the city of Turin, April 13, 1980)
The Twentieth Century has become the history of the Church and perhaps especially on Polish soil at the moment of a new challenge. After a thousand years of Christianity, Poland had to accept the challenge, contained in the ideology of the Marxist dialectic, which qualifies every religion as an alienating factor for men. We are aware of this challenge, I myself have lived it here, in this land. The Church is living through this in different parts of the globe. This is a profound challenge. According to materialist anthropology, religion is considered a factor which deprives man of the fullness of his humanity. Man himself, with religion would deprive himself, alone, of the fullness of humanity, renouncing what is immanently and fully ‘human’ in favor of a God who in accordance with the assumptions and premises of the materialistic system would be just ‘a product’ of man This challenge can be destructive. However, after years of experience, we cannot help but verify that this can also be a challenge that has profoundly encouraged Christians to undertake efforts in the search for new solutions. In this sense it becomes, in some way, a creative challenge: an eloquent testimony of the II Vatican Council is there. The Church has accepted the challenge; it has perceived therein one of these providential ‘signs of the times’ and through these ‘signs’ – with a new depth and strength of conviction – it has borne witness to the truth about God, Christ and man, against all ‘reductionism’ of epistemological or systematic nature, and against all materialist dialectic. (John Paul II. Address to the Bishops of Poland, June 14, 1987)
God’s glory and peace on earth are inseparable. Where God is excluded, there is a breakdown of peace in the world; without God, no orthopraxis can save us. In fact, there does not exist an orthopraxis which is simply just, detached from a knowledge of what is good. The will without knowledge is blind and so action, orthopraxis, without knowledge is blind and leads to the abyss. Marxism’s great deception was to tell us that we had reflected on the world long enough, that now it was at last time to change it. But if we do not know in what direction to change it, if we do not understand its meaning and its inner purpose, then change alone becomes destruction – as we have seen and continue to see. (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Lecture at the Bishops’ Conference in Benevento (Italy) on the topic: “Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity”, June 2, 2002)
The nineteenth century held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope, and it continued to consider reason and freedom as the guiding stars to be followed along the path of hope. Nevertheless, the increasingly rapid advance of technical development and the industrialization connected with it soon gave rise to an entirely new social situation: there emerged a class of industrial workers and the so-called “industrial proletariat”, whose dreadful living conditions Friedrich Engels described alarmingly in 1845. For his readers, the conclusion is clear: this cannot continue; a change is necessary. Yet the change would shake up and overturn the entire structure of bourgeois society. After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution: progress could not simply continue in small, linear steps. A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation—towards what Kant had described as the “Kingdom of God”. Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Spe salvi, no. 20, November 30, 2007)
With great precision, albeit with a certain onesided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. Real revolution followed, in the most radical way in Russia. Together with the victory of the revolution, though, Marx’s fundamental error also became evident. He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter. He simply presumed that with the expropriation of the ruling class, with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized. Then, indeed, all contradictions would be resolved, man and the world would finally sort themselves out. Then everything would be able to proceed by itself along the right path, because everything would belong to everyone and all would desire the best for one another. Thus, having accomplished the revolution, Lenin must have realized that the writings of the master gave no indication as to how to proceed. True, Marx had spoken of the interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessity which in time would automatically become redundant. This ‘intermediate phase’ we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction. Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. 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, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Spe salvi, no. 20-21, November 30, 2007)
Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished. In today’s complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church’s social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church: in the face of ongoing development these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live. (Benedict XVI. Encyclical Deus caritas est, no. 27, December 25, 2005)
When Karol Wojtyła ascended to the throne of Peter, he brought with him a deep understanding of the difference between Marxism and Christianity, based on their respective visions of man. This was his message: man is the way of the Church, and Christ is the way of man. With this message, which is the great legacy of the Second Vatican Council and of its “helmsman”, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI, John Paul II led the People of God across the threshold of the Third Millennium, which thanks to Christ he was able to call “the threshold of hope”. Throughout the long journey of preparation for the great Jubilee he directed Christianity once again to the future, the future of God, which transcends history while nonetheless directly affecting it. He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress. He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope, to be lived in history in an ‘Advent’ spirit, in a personal and communitarian existence directed to Christ, the fullness of humanity and the fulfillment of all our longings for justice and peace. (Benedict XVI. Homily on the Beatification of the Servant of God John Paul II, May 1, 2011)
In every instance these theories must be tested for their degree of certitude, inasmuch as they are often no more than conjectures and not infrequently harbor explicit or implicit ideological elements that rest on debatable philosophical assumptions or on an erroneous anthropology. This is true, for instance, of significant segments of analyses inspired by Marxism and Leninism. Anyone who employs such theories and analyses should be aware that these do not achieve a greater degree of truth simply because theology introduces them into its expositions. In fact, theology ought to recognize the pluralism that exists in scientific interpretations of society and realize that it cannot be fettered to any concrete sociological analysis. (International Theological Commission, Human development and Christian Salvation, 1976)
IV – Liberation Theology: a ‘facile millenarianism’ incompatible with the Catholic Faith
Within the perspective of almost half a millennium of evangelization, the Church in Latin America faces this important task, which is rooted in the Gospel. There is no doubt that the Church must be entirely faithful to her Lord, putting this option into practice, offering its generous contribution to the work of ‘social liberation’ of the dispossessed multitudes, in order to achieve a justice that corresponds to the dignity of all as men and children of God. But this important and urgent task must be undertaken in a line of fidelity to the Gospel, which prohibits the use of methods of hatred and violence:
— It is to be undertaken by maintaining a preferential option for the poor that is not, as I myself have said on several occasions, exclusive and excluding, but open to all who want to leave sin and convert in their heart;
—It must be undertaken without this option meaning a consideration of the poor as a class, as in a class struggle, or as a Church separate from the communion and obedience to Her Pastors established by Christ; — It must be undertaken by considering man in his earthly and eternal vocation;
— It must be undertaken without the necessary effort of a social transformation exposing man to fall under systems that deprive him of his liberty and subject him to programs of atheism, such as practical materialism that plunder him of his interior and transcendent wealth;
— It must be undertaken, knowing that the first liberation to be pursued by man is the liberation from sin, the moral evil that dwells in his heart, which is the cause of ‘social sin’ and oppressive structures.
These are a few basic points of reference, which the Church cannot forget in her evangelizing and promotional activities. They must be present in practice and in theological reflection, in accordance with the indications of the Holy See’s recent Instruction regarding ‘Some aspects of Liberation Theology’, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (John Paul II. Homily of the Mass on the Fifth Century of Evangelization in the Americas, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, no. 5, October 11, 1984)
On your part, given the full certainty —to the members of your dioceses who work with a spirit in favor of the poor,— that the Church wishes to maintain its preferential option for these and encourages the efforts of those who, faithful to the directives of the hierarchy, give themselves generously to the needy as an inseparable part of their mission. In this way, the necessary clamor for justice and the necessary preferential solidarity with the poor, need not be jeopardized by ideologies foreign to the faith, as if they have the secret of true efficacy. This urgent call for integral evangelization has also as a reference point the other problems that you yourselves have presented to me in your reports, and that have as the center of your concerns the moral decadence in many areas of public life. (John Paul II. Address to the Bishops of Peru on their ad limina visit, no. 4-5, October 1984)
At the same time, transforming hearts is also the only force able to effectively change structures, to found and encourage the cause of the authentic dignity of man and establish the civilization of love. This love, the center of Christianity, raises man and brings him, in and through Christ, to the endless fullness of his life in God, while also raising the same earthly realities. Therefore we cannot accept a humanism without at least an implicit reference to God, nor a materialist dialectic which would be the practical denial of God. On this theological basis you will have to base your general service to the faith as pastors and guides of the faithful. From this you will have to clarify the doubts of your faithful on issues related to their ecclesial journey. In this regard I cannot refrain from mentioning the dangerous uncertainty created in some of your situations — although less frequently than in other places — regarding some currents of Liberation Theology. In this work of clarification the norms contained in the Instruction on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will help you. And so that in your country the commitment and encouragement toward the preferential option for the poor become fully ecclesial, I recommend that you gather the criteria I gave during my recent visit to the Dominican Republic. (John Paul II. Address to the Bishops of Bolivia on their ad limina visit, no. 2, December 7, 1984)
In accomplishing its specific task in service of the Roman Pontiff’s universal Magisterium, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has more recently had to intervene to re-emphasize the danger of an uncritical adoption by some liberation theologians of opinions and methods drawn from Marxism.
In the past, then, the Magisterium has on different occasions and in different ways offered its discernment in philosophical matters. My revered Predecessors have thus made an invaluable contribution which must not be forgotten. (John Paul II. Encyclical Fides et ratio, no. 54, September 14, 1998)
It is from this kind of synthesis that you find yourselves, together with your faithful, in the situation of all cultures. There is room here for many diverse and more or less legitimate doctrinal positions. You are certainly aware of a danger: of allowing a philosophy and theology of ‘Africanity’ to be constituted, which would be solely native without any real and profound relation to Christ; in which case, Christianism would be nothing other than a verbal reference, an element introduced and artificially included. Medieval Europe also knew some Aristotelians who were Christian only by name, such as the Averroists that Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure had to vigorously combat. In modern times, one can see the same danger in attempts to build a supposedly Christian hegelianism or marxism. (John Paul II. Address to the Bishops of Zaire on their ad limina visit, no. 6, April 30, 1983)
[Journalist]: As regards my colleague’s question, there are still many exponents of liberation theology in various parts of Brazil. What is the specific message to these exponents of liberation theology?
[Benedict XVI]: I would say that with the changes in the political situation, the situation of liberation theology is also profoundly different. It is now obvious that these facile millenarianisms – which as a consequence of the revolution promised the full conditions for a just life immediately – were mistaken. Everyone knows this today. The question now concerns how the Church must be present in the fight for the necessary reforms, in the fight for fairer living conditions. Theologians are divided on this, especially the exponents of political theology. With the Instruction published at that time by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, we sought to carry out a task of discernment. In other words, we tried to rid ourselves of false millenarianisms and of an erroneous combination of Church and politics, of faith and politics; and to show that the Church’s specific mission is precisely to come up with a response to the thirst for God and therefore also to teach the personal and social virtues that are the necessary conditions for the development of a sense of lawfulness. (Benedict XVI. Interview during the flight to Brazil, for the occasion of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, May 9, 2007)
In the case of Marxism, in the particular sense given to it in this context, a preliminary critique is all the more necessary since the thought of Marx is such a global vision of reality that all data received form observation and analysis are brought together in a philosophical and ideological struct
The warning of Paul VI remains fully valid today: Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be ‘illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads.’ (Paul VI. Octogesima Adveniens, no. 34, 1971) (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, Libertatis nuntius, VII, no. 7, August 6, 1984)
It is true that Marxist thought ever since its origins, and even more so lately, has become divided and has given birth to various currents which diverge significantly from each other. To the extent that they remain fully Marxist, these currents continue to be based on certain fundamental tenets which are not compatible with the Christian conception of humanity and society. In this context, certain formulas are not neutral, but keep the meaning they had in the original Marxist doctrine. This is the case with the ‘class-struggle.’ This expression remains pregnant with the interpretation that Marx gave it, so it cannot be taken as the equivalent of ‘severe social conflict’, in an empirical sense. Those who use similar formulas, while claiming to keep only certain elements of the Marxist analysis and yet to reject the analysis taken as a whole, maintain at the very least a serious confusion in the minds of their readers. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, Libertatis nuntius, VII, no. 8, August 6, 1984)
Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory. This theory, then, contains errors which directly threaten the truths of the faith regarding the eternal destiny of individual persons. Moreover, to attempt to integrate into theology an analysis whose criterion of interpretation depends on this atheistic conception is to involve oneself in terrible contradictions. What is more, this misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the person leads to a total subordination of the person to the collectivity, and thus to the denial of the principles of a social and political life which is in keeping with human dignity. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on certain aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, Libertatis nuntius, VII, no. 9, August 6, 1984)
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