“Helping the Christian to be free rather than fearful in the face of Marxism” is the message Pedro Arrupe delivers in the following letter to the 5th Synod of Catholic Bishops in 1977. For the Jesuits’ superior general, Marxism is “impossible” for the Catholic Church to ignore, and he endorses a “practical kind of catechesis” to engaged the flawed ideology. (Among Marxism’s “great defects:” “it knows no salvation, or reconciliation, that does not begin at a definite moment. Prehistory first, then history.”) Arrupe believes that the Catholic Church and its bishops could not be silent with regards to the theories and influence of Marxism. “Silence,” he argues, “will never be the appropriate mode of catechetical treatment of a movement of such enormous importance.”
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Silence not the answer
Today when catechesis includes, and quite legitimately includes, the political dimension of Christian duty and Christian existence, it is impossible to leave Marxism out of consideration. To be sure, it is difficult to talk about Marxism, inasmuch as there are nowadays different kinds of Marxism. The catechetical presentation of Marxism, then, should be adapted to various places and circumstances. One must also reckon with stages of psychological and intellectual maturity, with a varied catechesis for children, for adolescents, and for adults. In any case, it is impossible to ignore Marxism, and, beginning with a certain stage of intellectual development, it is impossible to avoid talking about it expressly. Silence would indicate a serious incapacity of Christian catechesis to take a stand regarding important options that confront people today.
Sometimes it will be necessary to distinguish—where such a distinction applies—between a limited socio-political program and a whole concept of society in relation to human destiny. We can refer here to the distinctions highlighted in Octogesima adveniens. We should not of course lose sight of the fact that, as the papal letter itself brings out, in actual concrete life these distinctions are hardly ever carried through to their logical consequences: “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 that radically binds them together, to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without realizing 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.”
I. Confronting Marxist Ideology
Since many of the elements of Marxist ideology properly so called are in the very air we breathe—even where a special effort is made to develop critical discernment—it is important that catechesis confront these elements. Not in a polemic spirit, but in the perspective of a serene presentation of the faith and of Christian life that resists any attempt at distortion.
In the various themes of catechesis, where will such a confrontation take place?
First of all, I think, in the consideration of the relation of man to God which most Marxists regard as an illusory projection, without any other foundation (and a transitory one at that) than the contemporary social misery which provokes this escape. Whereas, in fact, reading human experience in the light of the gospel, the Christian knows man to be called by God in whatever social situation he finds himself. The Christian even knows that man is capable of perceiving social evil itself and of fighting against it with justice, precisely because he is more than simply a social being. The Christian makes much of man; but when man is not seen to be so great, then he is regarded as much too small, unfitted even for the task of breaking out of the social mold, the task to which he is—supposedly—summoned. Inversely, if he is truly called to such a social mission, he is called to much more besides. The enterprise of human existence cannot be limited to a mere setting up of new social structures.
Wherever the Marxist persuasion is current, reference should not be omitted to the doctrine according to which everything is explained as eternal dialectical development of matter, never reaching beyond the potentialities of matter. In simple fact, this is to distort reality. It excludes the foundation of an ethic, which, nevertheless, Marxism itself demands (implicitly or explicitly). There is a contradiction inherent in a doctrine which, on one hand, tries to lift man up, but on the other hand, devalues him. The Christian is aware that he is, as man, a living paradox, a being of earth, yet capable of transcending the limited potentialities of earth, guided by God and destined to share His life.
And then, at the heart of catechesis is Christ, His person, His meaning for every man and woman. Christ, the savior of man; the only savior. No, we cannot do without a savior and the hope of salvation. For its part, Marxism offers salvation, conceived as definitive even though earth-bound and situated in a class of people, the proletariat. After a prehistory of class struggle and misery, the proletariat—and it alone—will reconcile men both among themselves and with nature.
The proletariat is the leaven of the new and definitive society, the stage of development which humanity will one day reach, thanks to the proletariat. At times Marxists tend also to attribute to the proletariat an unprecedented moral purity. Marx did not recognize such a privileged morality in the proletariat, yet he himself did not hesitate to ascribe an exceptional historical character to this one class among all the classes, from the day it exists.
In Marxism, then, we have a view of life which centers history on someone other than Christ; another who, in contradistinction to Christ the Son of God, does not have a sufficient warrant to be the center of history. For the Christian, the death and resurrection of Christ—and not a revolution, even a proletarian one—is at the center of history and of each man’s destiny. And it is so because therein is manifest, not a human reality brought to perfection, but the reality of the Son of God. By reason of his hope, which he places in a Christ worthy of hope, the Christian will keep a sense of realism in the face of all human accomplishment. He will not disparage any efforts at social progress, but he will not see in any accomplishment of this sort the fulfillment of his destiny. Apart from Christ, the men and women around him are simply human; no individual and no group is savior—except Christ!
Besides, the Christian does not recognize a simply human center of history, because he knows of a center which is valid for all men and for all of history. One of the great defects of Marxism is that it knows no salvation, or reconciliation, that does not begin at a definite moment. Prehistory first, then history. Evidently so many people who lived before this privileged moment do not share in it; their destiny is meaningless; however noble our memory of the heroes of the past, they have lived in vain because they never shared—and never will share—in the saving event of reconciliation. But for the Christian, God has wrought mercy for all.
II. Christian Evaluation of Marxist Socio-Political Programs
Moreover, as catechesis treats the political dimension of Christian life, it cannot avoid the question of Marxist sociopolitical programs (more or less distinguished from ideology). Christian faith itself does not sponsor a detailed socio-political program; so it is not a question of one program against another. The young Christian must be taught to evaluate with discernment political programs which are never pure and simple products of objective scientific observation, but are always also expressions and affirmations of values. One can be led astray about values and a scale of values. Faith in Jesus Christ implies a definite scale of values.
Thus, a Marxist political program will engage in pushing the struggle of the classes to its conclusion, in the persuasion that the full victory of one of the classes—and only such a victory—brings success. It is up to the Christian to lay bare and discern the system of values which this project of class struggle conceals, perhaps unconsciously. The Christian will doubtless find there a deep sense of justice which leads to taking up the struggle for justice. But perhaps he will also perceive that there is a tendency to place more confidence in the process of violence as such than in this sense of justice. It seems impossible to admit that men and women of the other (enemy) class are able, once converted, to set to work with no less zeal for justice. And consequently, no effort is made to convince and convert them. Again, there seems to be an insensitivity to the fact that violence as such is no more than a necessity, never a value. With this attitude one does not set out on a road that leads to justice. Once one is used to violence today, one runs the risk of staying violent tomorrow. Still again: society fully reconciled is a beautiful and noble value to set up as a goal; but is not this very value contradicted if the wrong means are taken to reach it? And once the value is denied, the goal will not be reached. Why will we stop treating people tomorrow the way we treat them today? The Christian, for his part, will not exclude all violence (which is perceived as necessary on occasion in the ambiguity of action), but he will exclude this confidence in violent process.
A Marxist political program may include the socialization of productive property, even by peaceful means. Generally this will be in the form of state appropriation. Here again, it will be necessary to discern the values at play. There is the value of higher justice which has to be fully accepted (the goods of earth belong to all men), but mixed perhaps with an overconfidence in the mechanics of state appropriation. Is there not the risk, at least in the absence of careful precautions, of denying the values of responsibility and involvement, values which certainly seem essential to anyone who regards man as caring for the earth in God’s place? At worst, one has to settle for compromise. All the human values involved should be pursued at the same time, and not one among them in isolation. Otherwise, we would not even attain the isolated value we pursue.
The practical kind of catechesis which I am speaking of should also pay attention to the manner in which one conceives and pursues a political program. Is it presented as an equivalent of salvation? As the end-all and be-all for man and the only dimension of human life which merits his effort? If so, the militant risks cutting other important elements out of his life. Are there not unsettling silences—a positive imposition of silence—in Marxist militancy? Nothing about the dimension of family love; about the generations which have not reaped the fruit of their labors; about death …? In the attempt to downplay this side of man’s mystery, does one not risk rendering him effectively insensitive to a large part of his reality? Would not this be a distortion of life—which the Christian has discovered to be so rich? The Christian, then, will learn to attribute to political programs all the value and the importance they deserve, but will always place them in the context of the ensemble of human values.
What is called for is not mere indoctrination. Contemporary catechesis happily keeps a safe distance from such a simplistic pedagogy. It is rather a matter of education for discernment, giving people the ability to recognize the constantly new forms which ideologies and programs take. Making people sensitive to development, for certain developments do occur in the Marxist world. Giving people the ability to appreciate sincerely whatever is good in this movement which appeals to so many, and at the same time, the ability to measure with precision and frankness the ways in which this movement would lead us away from Christ and the Christian ideal. Helping the Christian to be free rather than fearful in the face of Marxism. Making him capable of frank and clear collaboration to the limited extent required by the common good, but no less capable of criticizing and of keeping his distance where the Christian conscience imposes such a course.
We close as we began: silence will never be the appropriate mode of catechetical treatment of a movement of such enormous importance.
Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—II, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980, “Marxism and Catechesis,” pg. 253–267.