Do Leftist Christians Really Care About the Poor?

By John Zmirak Published on July 5, 2017

Last month, I was blessed to attend Acton University, hosted by the Acton Institute. One of the biggest events at the conference was a panel discussion that included the Acton Institute’s founder, Fr. Robert Sirico. The subject was “What Does Christianity Have to Offer the Poor?” What made the panel spicy was the inclusion of Washington Post writer and Catholic Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig. 

Though she presents as a faithful and orthodox Catholic, Bruenig is also, by her own admission, a Marxist. Bruenig routinely deletes her social media postings. But some people take screenshots. Bruenig posted the Tweet below in September 2016:  

thumbnail_EBruenigCatholicMarxist.jpg

Few in the audience knew of Bruenig’s devotion to the atheist social philosopher. But she is no lonely crank. In fact, she’s what passes for the intellectual rock star of a new and growing movement: young, more-or-less orthodox Christians who embrace radical leftist views on economics and politics. (See the Tradinista collective.)

Kidnapping Augustine to North Korea

Both economists and Patristics scholars at Acton U. shook their heads or covered their faces, embarrassed for Bruenig. They sat cringing as she hijacked the writings of Church Fathers like Ambrose and Augustine to serve her Marxist critique. (Get a taste of her style in this article, which I critiqued here at The Stream).

Bruenig cited sermons from Church Fathers, and advice bishops gave to ancient slaveowners in a no-growth economy, denouncing their abuse of wealth and stinginess toward the poor. Then she blithely applied their lessons to middle class people today.

Karl Marx’s views have led to religious persecution, mass theft, famines, tyranny, gulags, torture, want and vicious class hatred. Not in just one instance, but wherever they have been tried.

I wrote about such misuse of ancient Christian writers in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism:

Catholics sometimes dig back in the writing of the Church Fathers and find statements that, taken out of context, seem to deny that working hard and seeking to make a profit is morally legitimate. … The problem with citing celibate monks from the fourth century on the topic of modern economics is that those good men lived and worked in an ancient pre-capitalist economy where nearly all wealth was agricultural, and mostly wrung from the sweat of foreign slaves captured in Rome’s wars of conquest. Economic and technological innovation was nearly unknown at the time. The master-slave economy in the ancient world was as close as life comes to a zero-sum game. …

Trade had been stigmatized as vulgar by nearly every classical philosopher — a prejudice most Christians breathed in with the ancient air. So in their time and place, it made some sense to see wealth as the fruit of theft. But history didn’t end there.

Marxism: Intrinsically Evil

No one called Bruenig on her attachment to Marx. That was a shame. 

Karl Marx’s views have led to religious persecution, mass theft, famines, tyranny, gulags, torture, want and vicious class hatred. Not in just one instance, the way nationalism went crazy in Hitler’s Germany. No, Marx’s ideas proved poisonous wherever they have been tried. Nothing is left of his pretense to “scientifically” analyze and predict the whole course of human history through the jaundiced lens of class struggle. All that remains of Marxism is a sneer. At human nature. At hard work and high aspirations. And at the very idea of freedom.

Does that read too much into Bruenig’s devotion to the father of Communism? No. The rest of her remarks made that clear. She attacked the “capitalist” idea that private property is in any sense “sacred.” So Pope Leo XIII taught (among many others). Property today includes our wages, of course. But Marx didn’t allow for workers to seek out the highest wage they could find. He left such questions to the experts picked by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

All that remains of Marxism is a sneer.

Bruenig denounced as corrosively “liberal” the legal reforms in the late Middle Ages. Those reforms freed workers from serfdom and feudal duties. So they could sell their labor at will. Keep in mind that peasants used to flee their master’s estates for cities like London. So Cubans today flee to Florida.   

Forget the Poor. Let’s Bash the Rich.

Fr. Sirico reminded her of the crucial point: How to help the poorest of the poor. Then he noted the greatest single rise in living standards in human history. It came from the Industrial Revolution. From private property and the free market liberating people to find the best use of their talents. Even better, in just the past 40 years, a billion people have risen from extreme poverty. Again, the cause was the growth of markets. In our lifetimes, we can expect the end of desperate want around the world. Didn’t that prove something? So Sirico asked her, gently but firmly.

Bruenig wasn’t impressed. She admitted, grudgingly, that capitalism had indeed lifted billions of people from desperate poverty. From one baby in three dying. From rickets and cholera. And from lifetimes of back-breaking farm labor on the brink of hunger. She conceded that capitalism is still doing that today.

But suddenly Bruenig seemed to lose interest in the fate of the very poor. Instead she wanted to complain about the rich. The real problem, it seemed, was growing “inequality,” not poverty.

Is Faith a Side-Effect of Squalor?

And anyway, she deflected: Didn’t the Industrial Revolution coincide with the growth of secularism? Instead of remaining pious, malnourished peasants many well-fed workers began to drift away from the churches.

Scholars like Rodney Stark actually dispute this point: They note that the Industrial Revolution was also marked by massive religious upsurges: The Great Awakening. The Methodist movement. The explosion of Catholic religious orders that served the poor.

But let’s grant for the sake of argument: In many societies, over the long term, populations that become materially more comfortable often become more secular. Does that mean we should work to keep people poor? 

Marxism is a great way to accomplish that, no question. Of course, it also does things like drive people to abort their children. At one point, the average Soviet woman had gone through six abortions. China still coerces women to abort every child after the second. So maybe Marxist Catholicism needs some serious rethinking.

Christian heretics over the centuries had the same dream: That they could build the New Jerusalem here on earth by herding the poor together. By wiping out the wealthy. They were wrong, of course. But at least they had an excuse. They hadn’t seen what 70 years of Communist tyranny really looked like.

Perhaps we exaggerate, through the mists of history, how pious people really were in the past. Superstition at this distance might look like devotion. Methodists in the 18th century reported encountering rural Englishmen who still practiced paganism.

No doubt God makes allowances for the new spiritual challenges: the kind of challenges people face when we’re not scrabbling to get the next potato to come up out of the ground. He sends new graces, new movements, new inspirations. Doesn’t He? After all, He has “numbered every hair” upon our heads.

Is the Christian faith just a side-effect of squalor? Surely not. But Ms. Bruenig seems to think so.

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