Two and a half weeks ago several Catholic scholars published the document “On All of Our Shoulders,” which criticized the influence of the individualism and anti-government mentality of Ayn Rand, and libertarianism generally, on the ideas and policies of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who is Catholic. The statement followed several earlier criticisms of Ryan along similar lines (for example here, here, and here). Since its publication, the statement has been challenged for singling out Ryan for criticism without a similar focus on pro-choice Catholic politicians, and for allowing criticisms of Randian philosophy to stand in for criticisms of Ryan’s actual policies.  At the risk of adding to an already extensive conversation (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, among others), I want to suggest that this debate is lacking historical context; both sides write as if the Catholic Church has never had to deal with alien ideologies, whenin fact it has, and an examination of a relatively recent historical example can help Catholics find the proper response to libertarianism and individualism in the current political landscape.

During World War II, French Catholics fought alongside communists and socialists in the Resistance against Nazi occupation in the north and the Vichy government in the south (although Catholics were also among the collaborators). After the Liberation, these three groups, now institutionalized in the Christian democratic Popular Republican Movement (MRP), the French Communist Party (PCF), and the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), together formed the provisional government of France.

Between 1945 and 1947 this tripartite government established the groundwork for the post-war French order. In particular, it implemented two crucial policies: the nationalization of several important industries and the creation of France’s modern welfare state. In 1945 and 1946, several industries– the coal, gas, and electricity industries; the Renault auto company, the airlines, and the railways; and banks and insurance companies– were all nationalized. In 1945 the government also passed legislation extending earlier measures to provide social insurance such as pensions, health insurance, and family allowances.

The three parties supported the same policies, but for different ideological reasons. The SFIO believed that the nationalizations were the first step toward a broader socialization of the economy, whereas the MRP, consistent with Pope Pius XI’s teaching in Quadragesimo Anno (#114), supported the nationalization of key industries as a way to prevent the concentration of economic power, but believed it should be strictly limited. The communists, surprisingly, had long opposed nationalization, but now supported it to hasten France’s national recovery, following their leader Maurice Thorez’s doctrine that communism would only emerge from a strong French capitalist economy.

This cooperation among Catholics, communists, and socialists, however, came into direct conflict with Pius XI’s condemnation of such cooperation in his 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris (#58). The reconstruction of France after the war was an emergency situation, however, and the point became moot anyway in 1947 when the communists were kicked out of the coalition soon after the establishment of the Fourth Republic, and the MRP and the SFIO split in 1951.

The issue of cooperation between Catholics and communists emerged again in Italy. As in France, Catholics, communists, and socialists had fought alongside one another for the liberation of Italy. Despite a brief post-war coalition, in 1947 the Christian Democrats, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) went their separate ways. In the 1948 elections, the Christian Democrats defeated a coalition of communists and socialists, and governed in coalition with a handful of small centrist parties. Unlike in France, in Italy no democratic left emerged, as both the PCI and PSI were committed to revolutionary socialism. The Christian Democrats then became the bulwark of democracy and held power until 1992, although the PCI and PSI had considerable success at the local and regional levels.

During the 1950s, the electoral advantage of the Christian Democrats increasingly eroded, however, such that it became difficult to form a governing coalition with only the small parties of the center. The conservative wing of the party, as well as important figures within the Italian Catholic Church, urged the party to ally with the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, a move that had previously been ruled out by the now-deceased party leader Alcide de Gasperi. A military coup was feared as a result of the electoral instability caused by the party’s weakness.

The leader of the left wing of the party, Amintore Fanfani, was elected prime minister in 1960, and he worked for an “opening to the left,” that is, a coalition with the PSI, to stabilize the government. The PSI had split from the communists in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but the decisive factor in bringing about the opening to the left was the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958. Prior to his election, the Catholic hierarchy in Italy had openly supported the Christian Democrats. John, however, insisted that Catholics should vote based on their own consciences (although this still meant they vote overwhelmingly for the Christian Democrats). More importantly, John reversed Pius XI’s ban on cooperating with communists. In his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, John insisted that Catholics “should show themselves animated by a spirit of understanding and unselfishness, ready to cooperate loyally in achieving objects which are good in themselves, or can be turned to good,” under the guidance of the church’s teachers (#239). More decisively, in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, he writes:

 Again it is perfectly legitimate to make a clear distinction between a false philosophy of the nature, origin and purpose of men and the world, and economic, social, cultural, and political undertakings, even when such undertakings draw their origin and inspiration from that philosophy. True, the philosophic formula does not change once it has been set down in precise terms, but the undertakings clearly cannot avoid being influenced to a certain extent by the changing conditions in which they have to operate. Besides, who can deny the possible existence of good and commendable elements in these undertakings, elements which do indeed conform to the dictates of right reason, and are an expression of man’s lawful aspirations? (#159)

John clearly distinguished between an ideology and the practical policies it promoted, stating that even if Christians could never accept elements of an ideology like communism, this did not preclude cooperation at the level of policy. At the end of 1963, the Christian Democrat Aldo Moro was elected prime minister, as the head of a coalition of Christian Democrats and socialists.

The question of the relationship between Catholicism and communism re-emerged later that decade, this time in Latin America. In countries like Chile and Brazil, centrist reformers were crushed between the increasingly radical demands of the left and the reactionary violence of the right, while in other countries like El Salvador a viable center never emerged at all. Living under right-wing military dictatorships, Catholics faced the difficult question of whether or not they could ally with communists, who led the only viable revolutionary movements.

Responding to this situation in Latin America and ongoing developments in Europe, Pope Paul VI, in his Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, writes that “the Christian encounters in his activity concrete historical movements sprung from ideologies and in part distinct from them,” and then refers back to John’s statement in Pacem in Terris to suggest that in certain situations participation in these movements can be acceptable (#30).

In this letter Paul also addresses the question of the adoption of Marxist modes of thinking by Christians. Of course, liberation theology had emerged out of the situation in Latin America just described, and some liberation theologians had turned to Marxist analysis as a tool in interpreting the Latin American reality, claiming that Marxism’s socio-economic analysis could be separated from its more objectionable philosophical elements. Although not absolutely condemning this, Paul warns that “it would be illusory and dangerous to reach a point of forgetting the intimate link which radically binds [the different aspects of Marxism] together, to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without recognizing their relationships with ideology . . .” (#34). He adds that the lack of discernment could lead Christians to cooperate with Marxists in ways injurious to society.

Catholic teaching has taken a consistent view on this last question. In its 1984 statement on liberation theology, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concludes:

 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 structure, which predetermines the significance and importance to be attached to them. The ideological principles come prior to the study of the social reality and are presupposed in it. Thus no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology. That is why it is not uncommon for the ideological aspects to be predominant among the things which the ‘theologians of liberation’ borrow from Marxist authors. (#6)

The CDF suggests that the adoption of even part of an ideology in fundamental ways in conflict with Christianity is dangerous, and should be done with great caution, if not avoided entirely.

The purpose of this history is to show that Catholicism has already developed guiding principles for negotiating the encounter with an alien ideology. Although these principles developed in reference to an ideology of the left, communism, they can just as well be applied to an ideology of the right, such as libertarianism or other radical forms of individualism (In fact, Paul VI does briefly apply them to “liberalism” in Octogesima Adveniens (#35)). I would summarize these principles in this way:

  •  Catholic support for a policy also supported by adherents of another ideology does not necessarily imply support for that ideology.
  • Catholics can cooperate with adherents of another ideology in areas of shared support.
  • Catholic engagement with an alien ideology requires cautious discernment, especially since elements of an ideology cannot easily be separated from one another.
  • A Catholic’s Christian faith must be the guiding principle when engaging with an alien ideology; the ideology should not draw them toward positions inconsistent with their faith.

Although some immediate implications might be obvious to the attentive reader, in a few days I will post a sequel in which I explore some of the implications of this history for the controversy surrounding Paul Ryan. Both his critics and supporters are raising good points, but also one-sided ones.