The National Catholic Reporter explains that Wojtyla rejected the absolute statism of modern communism, but he didn’t think very highly of the extreme individualism of Western capitalism either:
“The church is aware that the bourgeois mentality and capitalism as a whole, with its materialist spirit, acutely contradict the Gospel,” Wojtyla writes. “From the church’s standpoint, it is a question of ensuring, by way of various economic-structural forms, just participation by all members of society, and especially people of work, in possessing sufficient amounts of assets and participating at least to some extent in productive goods.” [emphasis added]
My first reaction is this is: Well, DUH! This should not be news — the fact that it is “news” is what’s news. Let me explain: the gospel is pretty clear and uncompromising in expressing opposition to wealth and materialism. A consistent theme is support and defense of the weakest, most powerless in society. We can find similar themes expressed just as strongly in the Old Testament. On the other hand, the gospels share a strong affinity with many of the social and economic principles of justice which can be found Marx’s critiques of modern capitalism. If you ignore his atheism and his materialistic view of history and humanity, there’s little in his ideas about economics and justice which Christians should find objectionable.
Thus, the idea that the “materialist spirit” of modern capitalism contradicts the message of the gospels should not be news. What is news is the fact that this information elicits surprise and opposition from Christians today. The fact that anyone would regard this as “news” is where the most important news story lies. I have written constantly about the fact that Christianity today takes as much, if not more, from contemporary culture as it does from any ancient Christian traditions — this is why Christianity in the West is different from Christianity in Africa or Asia; it’s why Christianity in America is different from Christianity in Italy or England.
Christianity in the West, and especially American Christianity, has become tightly wedded to modern liberal capitalism — so tightly, in fact, that many Christians can’t even see how the two might be separated. They are utterly and sincerely convinced that because communism has traditionally been atheistic and even anti-Christian, then there is little to nothing in communist and Marxist ideas which have any substantive connection to Christian principles. They are wrong:
Wojtyla traces communism itself back to Christian tradition, even subtitling one section “The Objective Superiority of the Communist Ideal.” But he makes clear he is using the term generically to mean common ownership. The church believes “the private ownership principle” can be upheld while “enfranchising the proletariat.”
“In the contemporary communist movement, the church sees and acknowledges an expression of largely ethical goals,” the future pope concedes. “In line with patristic traditions and the centuries-old practice of monastic life, the church itself acknowledges the ideal of communism. But it believes, given the current state of human nature, that the general implementation of this ideal -- while protecting the human person’s complete freedom -- faces insurmountable difficulties.” [emphasis added]
Wojtyla sounds an awful lot like so many other sympathetic observers of communism: nice ideals and reasonable critiques of modern capitalism, but the ideals are too difficult to achieve given human nature; therefore, the ideal communist state or society simply cannot be achieved. Even if Wojtyla had never written anything more than the few sentences quoted thus far, it would appear to be impossible for anyone to deny the fact that he did not regard communism as totally evil or a complete enemy of Christianity; nor that he did not regard liberal capitalism as an unmitigated good or as an inevitable, necessary ally of Christianity. Yet that’s basically what many conservative Catholics have been trying to do for years — and I really don’t think that their efforts should be regarded as fair or honest.
Especially interesting is that while this book was originally bound and published for a few students and academics, it was never given wide publication once Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. Is this odd? Very — nearly everything else that he wrote over his life was published and carefully studied. It’s inconceivable that this was accidentally missed — not two volumes of careful social critique and economic analysis. Some in Poland are accusing the Lublin institute of virtual censorship for keeping the work quiet, and it’s easy to see why: it contradicts much of what conservative Catholics have been trying to argue:
In his 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel relegated the work to a footnote, claiming Wojtyla had used course notes from an older colleague, Professor Jan Piwowarczyk, and could not be regarded as the author. Catholic Social Ethics was, in any case, “a rather conventional presentation of the church’s social doctrine in the 1950s,” Weigel assured his readers.
In a January letter to The Tablet, Weigel again dismissed what he called an “alleged Wojtyla text,” claiming the pope “did not regard the work as his own.” This is rejected by Polish experts on John Paul II, who insist Catholic Social Ethics, though drawing on Piwowarczyk, is indeed Wojtyla’s work, and could significantly affect interpretations of his philosophical development.
Some in Poland are unhappy, too:
Lublin Archbishop Jozef Zycinski summoned a meeting of professors and declared “support for the views of George Weigel,” dismissing suggestions that Wojtyla had expressed “sympathy for Marxism” and “criticism of capitalism.” Wojtyla might have shown “social sensitivity,” the archbishop added. But this shouldn’t to be “identified with the position of the left.” Zycinski has worked with Weigel on “Free Society” summer schools in Poland, alongside U.S. neoconservatives Michael Novak and Fr. Richard Neuhaus.
These Catholic reactions to the Wojtyla text strike me as very similar to most Christian reactions to biblical texts which are too “inconvenient” because they demand behavior which just isn’t consistent with how most have grown accustomed to living. The modern liberal, capitalistic West instills in people a way of living that can be very materialistic; Christian ideals encourage believers to reject materialism and concern themselves wholly with living a spiritual life in the service of others.
Few Christians actually do the latter; most go with the former and either ignore the latter entirely or delude themselves into thinking that they achieve it by a few church donations on Sundays. When confronted with the fact that gospel texts are fairly unambiguous about the rejection of materials goods in the service of the poor and less powerful, they make up all kinds of excuses.
The story of Jesus telling the young rich man to sell all he has and donate the proceeds is explained away, for example, as not “really” applying to them because Jesus only meant it to apply to that young man or because Jesus only meant it for those who have made an “idol” out of material good. That, of course, can’t possibly apply to modern Christians with their nice cars, iPods, computers, extensive wardrobes, and so forth. The fact that they aren’t willing to sell all that off and live much simpler lives so that the hungry can be fed and naked can be clothed is not an indication that they are putting material goods before God — a god who, by the way, said that one has to “love” one’s neighbor as one loves God.
Here are some more quotes which the NCR provides form Wojtyla’s text:
Catholicism cannot “agree with materialism” or the “primacy of economics,” Wojtyla writes. But it recognizes that “various facts and historical processes” are economically determined. “In a well organized society, orientated to the common good, class conflicts are solved peacefully through reforms. But states that base their order on individualistic liberalism are not such societies. So when an exploited class fails to receive in a peaceful way the share of the common good to which it has a right, it has to follow a different path.”
“Class struggle should gain strength in proportion to the resistance it faces from economically privileged classes, so the systemic social situation will mature under this pressure to the appropriate forms and transitions,” Wojtyla continues.
“Guided by a just evaluation of historical events, the church should view the cause of revolution with an awareness of the ethical evil in factors of the economic and social regime, and in the political system, that generates the need for a radical reaction. It can be accepted that the majority of people who took part in revolutions -- even bloody ones -- were acting on the basis of internal convictions, and thus in accordance with conscience.”
Wojtyla’s text uses Marxist language, but the ideas are uncontroversially Christian in nature. This is what makes it so difficult for Christians to accept: the ideas should all be read by them as correct, but the use of Marxist and communist terminology creates in them a mental conflict better known as “cognitive dissonance.” On the one hand, conservative Christians have been told for decades that communism is evil, evil, EVIL — a godless, materialistic belief system with absolutely on redeeming values. On the other hand, the gospels teach principles of social and economic justice which are very similar to those in communism; indeed, many early Christian communities can be described as essentially communistic in the broad sense that Wojtyla describes.
How can these two conflicting beliefs be reconciled? Most conservative Christians simply ignore the gospel teachings and rationalize that they are “fulfilling” their Christian duties with a few charitable donations, regardless of how many people go hungry, die from preventable disease, or live in squalor. Some compartmentalize and give a little bit more than mere lip service to Christian principles of economic justice while also condemning the same principles as they appear in Marxist critiques of capitalism. Very few are willing to acknowledge that Marxism and communism aren’t quite the unmitigated evils that they have traditionally been portrayed as.
This is the position which the future John Paul II seems to have adopted despite his later opposition to totalitarian communism. John Paul II opposed the politics and totalitarian governments of communist states; he never seems to have opposed the ethical principles contained in Marxist texts. This may not be an easy distinction to always make in practice, but it’s likely one which Christians should attempt.