Eighty-five years ago this week, Pope Pius XI issued two encyclicals condemning two of the most brutal regimes in history: Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Pius released Mit Brennender Sorge (“On the Church and the German Reich”) on March 14, 1937 (which was smuggled into Germany and read from pulpits on March 21, Palm Sunday), and Divini Redemptoris (“On Atheistic Communism”) on March 19, 1937 (the Feast of St. Joseph). They were issued when Hitler’s war machine and Stalin’s reign of terror were in full gear. (Six years earlier, he issued an encyclical condemning Italian fascism). Pius exemplified heroic courage by speaking truth to power in an age of dictatorships.
In Mit Brennender Sorge, Pius directly confronted the neo-pagan and racist ideology of the Nazis. He wrote that only “superficial minds” lock God “within the narrow limits of a single race.” Christians “deny their faith in the real Christ” if they deny that the Old Testament is “exclusively the word of God” and a “substantial part of his revelation.” The Torah shows that creation was not merely the product of an impersonal force such as necessity or chance. Each and every human being is created by the free act of a loving God, and endowed with a spirit capable of reflection and free choice. The Jewish scriptures show the unfolding of God’s promise of salvation to the chosen people, which is fulfilled in Christ for all. In 1938, Pius reaffirmed that “spiritually, we are Semites.”
Benedict XVI lived through this same period in Germany, and later wrote that the “decisive no to all racism” is the teaching of Genesis that every person, without exception, is formed with God’s spirit, in God’s image, and from the one earth. Since everyone is fashioned from the same earth, “there is only one humanity in the many human beings” and “not different kinds of ‘blood and soil,’ to use a Nazi slogan.”
This Biblical teaching also undermines Nazi tyranny. Each person’s immortal soul will outlive any world-historical power. God’s creation and redemption of every individual is the highest gift of personal dignity that cannot be bestowed by a regime. Christ “has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20), not for an exclusive collective like a race or empire. The ultimate bulwark against totalitarianism is the promise of a personal resurrection, which infinitely surpasses any hope for an ideal society on earth.
Pius warned that the Nazis aimed for a “war of extermination,” including a brutal campaign against the Church. Because of the Church’s repeated admonitions against Nazi ideology over several years, Pius concluded that no honest person “will be able to lay the blame on the Church and on her Head” for the devastation wrought by Hitler’s regime.
In Divine Redemptoris, Pius diagnosed similar violations of human dignity in Stalin’s empire. Since communism holds that humanity is determined solely by matter and an inevitable class conflict in history, there is “no room for the idea of God” and “neither survival of the soul after death nor any hope in a future life.” The Soviets disdained Christian hope in heaven because it eclipsed the communist version of a perfectly just society in history.
The Catholic social tradition holds that the inner life of the individual is the origin of authentic social development, not collective entities such as a class, State, or a blind historical process. In Centessimus Annus, St. John Paul taught that the “the first and most important task” for building a society “is accomplished within man’s heart.” The primary shaper of the heart is not a society’s political or economic system. It is the culture, which is where the Church makes its “specific and decisive contribution.” The Church’s vital concern for the vocation of individual souls is the foundation of social development.
There is a certain individualism in Catholic social thought. In Populorum Progressio, Paul VI taught that while the larger community can assist in personal fulfillment, it is ultimately the individual’s duty to be “the chief architect” of one’s success, self-fulfillment, and salvation. These goals are not forged by one’s ego. They are inspired by each person’s desire for self-fulfillment in the deepest sense. As Benedict XVI said in his homily prior to his election to the papacy:
All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts forever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity. … The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls …
In Caritatis in Veritate, Benedict taught that serving the material needs of others is “part and parcel” of evangelization, because Christ “is concerned with the whole person.” Actively serving both the material and spiritual needs of our neighbors is indispensable to the faith, which is otherwise “dead” (Jas 2:16). There is no dualism of body and soul. Providing for a person’s basic needs also touches their soul. Work that is done well, from one’s initiative and charity, in free collaboration with others, provides both a material and spiritual service. One’s good work, no matter how mundane, sows goodness in human souls and fruit that endures. This has long been a teaching of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The USCCB’s commentary on Revelation 14:13 provides that “according to Jewish thought, people’s actions followed them as witnesses before the court of God.” Those actions include one’s work for economic development.
Pius also refuted the Soviets for their eradication of the right to private property. This right is endowed by God to enable the individual to concretely live one’s vocation to serve others. It creates the incentive to work diligently and creatively, resulting in “an intense activity in economic life as a whole.” In Mater et Magistra, Saint John XXIII saw private ownership as not just an incentive for good work, but the “guarantee” of liberty because its denial suppresses “freedom in almost every other direction.” For a regime to control the economy, it must also control political and cultural life. Everyone must rely on the State to obtain work and the means to secure life’s basic necessities. The State denies political and cultural rights that impede total State power over economic life. Subsidiarity is disregarded. Communism only allows one to share material goods. But one cannot give what one can only share. One can only give what is owned. When a government inhibits this gift dynamic, economic stagnation results.
In contrast, private ownership enables individuals to earn, own, and use property to support one’s family, create wealth for the larger community, support the Church, contribute to a more human culture, and participate in politics in a meaningful way. Giving things earned from one’s talents, time, and effort in labor is a fundamental way to give of oneself to others. Having the right and duty to steward the resources of God’s creation is a high honor. Private property is not to be hoarded, but used to provide opportunities and resources for others. That is the meaning of the “social mortgage” nature of private property. The divine paradox is that when it comes to fruit that endures, we get what we give.
Anyone visiting Leningrad or Moscow in the 1980s witnessed how the denial of private ownership was dispiriting. People were lined up and hunched over along cold streets waiting to buy daily staples. Their workplace lacked opportunities or rewards for taking creative initiatives. The control of the local authorities sapped the people’s spirit; it just wore them out. They had no hope of owning much of anything that could be invested, saved, used, and given freely.
The Pope warned that the Soviets “will not be able” to achieve their objectives “merely in the economic sphere.” It will not work. Stalin may temporarily raise the GDP with mass slave labor, but without fostering private enterprise, economic stagnation will result. Pius presaged by 45 years President Reagan’s 1982 speech predicting the economic collapse of the Soviet Union.
Pius placed the Church’s campaign against communism under the protection of St. Joseph. Now, instead of May Day being marked by Soviet military parades, it’s better known as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, a day when the Church reaffirms the transcendent value of all persons and their work in harmony with Creation. In time, the Just Man, Saint Joseph, defeated the Man of Steel, Joseph Stalin.
While western democracies have been spared political dictatorships, Benedict warned that they have adopted a “dictatorship of relativism.” A relativism that regards the person as merely one’s ego and desires. Eventually, this idea enervates economic activity. When there is no recognition of the spiritual depth of daily work, the desire for lasting achievements goes unsatisfied. A lack of courage to work and sacrifice for others and achieve greater goods takes hold. If ego is primary, there is less motivation for a person to (as stated in Gaudium et Spes) go “outside of himself and beyond himself” in work. By what ethic will the majority of persons generously give of themselves at work and in voluntary associations? Tirelessly sacrifice many goods in life in order to patiently raise the next generation in virtue? America’s World War II generation deserves all of our praise and more. But perhaps the greatest generation was the generation that raised the World War II generation with sufficient virtue, courage, and love of country to defeat the Axis Powers.
In his 2010 Lenten Message, Benedict noted that the error of modern ideologies is to claim that injustice comes exclusively “from outside” and thus “it is sufficient to remove the exterior causes that prevent it being achieved.” The claim is that perfect justice is possible with legal, political, and economic reform alone. Indeed, Christians are called to diligently seek such reforms. But “the origin” of injustice lies in the human heart and the will to affirm oneself “above and against others.” Because of the reality of human freedom, this egoism cannot be fully and finally extinguished, no matter the level of social reform. The genesis of authentic social development is not in a race, class, dictatorship, or a historical process. It begins with the reform of each person’s heart, which is the goal of Lent, indeed the goal of the Christian life.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally published at CWR on March 19, 2017.)
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