Using My Religion: Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig and the New Christian Left

With converts like these, who needs apostates?

Christian socialism is a contradiction in terms, as several popes have pointed out and history has proven.

By John Zmirak Published on March 18, 2015

Hang around in any political circles long enough, and you’re bound to meet someone with an unhealthy taste for extremes. It’s worse when he rides his obsessions out of civics into religion. I’ll never forget one fellow grad student who dabbled with different churches. As he told me, “I can’t decide between the Catholics and the Southern Baptists. I don’t know which church is more hardcore.”

By “hardcore,” I would learn, he meant which church was more politically incorrect — fitting better with his chauvinist view of the sexes, his disdain for equality, and his preference for moralistic dictatorships like Franco’s. I didn’t think either church suited him. He was just cherry-picking the darkest moments of each, wrenching old texts out of context, and bottom-feeding his own worst instincts under the cover of orthodoxy. Despite my best efforts, he chose my own Church of Rome.

I remembered this old frenemy while reading Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig’s latest piece. From the smoking rubble that was once The New Republic, Bruenig has won some modest fame as a sort of “Venezuelan Sniper,” using a keyboard rather than a rifle, in a war on behalf of “Christian leftist politics.”

She credits her discovery of Catholicism to the influence of a priest who called himself a “Christian socialist.” You remember socialism — the ideology that was denounced by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI even before its most orthodox forms claimed the lives of some 94 million people. It’s the system which still governs North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, and in more diluted versions is slowly poisoning Western Europe.

Perhaps Bruenig’s mentor meant something different by the word, and “Christian socialism” is even gentler than “friendly fascism,” but I doubt it. Pope Leo XIII described socialists as those who

assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one’s mode of life. (Quod Apostolici Muneris)

Pius XI said that socialism is “based … on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” (Quadragesimo Anno)

Perhaps to anticipate such objections, Bruenig writes:

The Catholic Church has always been “liberal” on economic matters. Since the early centuries of the Church, prominent theologians such as Ambrose, Augustine, and Saint John Chrysostom have emphasized that private property rights obtain only after all human needs have been met, and that the excess of the wealthy truly belongs to the poor.

On Bruenig’s account, Leo XIII’s encyclical — and every defense of private property rights from the Ten Commandments to Thomas Aquinas — is irrelevant. If “all” human needs (presumably everywhere on earth) have not been met, then private property simply doesn’t exist. The comparatively wealthy have not obtained it by “labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in … mode of life.” No, they have stolen their surplus from the poor.

So unless you are reading on a borrowed phone in a refugee camp, you too are one of the thieves. Could this possibly be what Christianity teaches about economics?

No reader of John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens or Centesimus Annus would make that mistake. Both documents scan hundreds of years of careful reflection by the brightest minds in Christendom on the real sources of wealth and the duties which bind every person in justice toward the poor — since justice, not mercy or charity, is all that the state may impose by force.

There is no reason to rely on authority here; economics is part of the natural law that can be known by any reasonable person, with or without the gift of faith. We are obliged to learn all we can about the “how” of economics, before arguing about what should be the case. The grimy, bloody history of socialism is one long empirical lesson in the human costs of working backwards from what you wistfully hope for, to a theory of how things actually work.

That said, let me speak in defense of Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrysostom, whom Bruenig mentions without either citing or quoting — making it impossible to weigh what they actually said. We know that each man lived and worked in an ancient, extractive economy where nearly all wealth was agricultural, and mostly wrung from the sweat of captured foreign slaves from Rome’s wars of aggression. Economic and technological innovation were nearly unknown. Economics 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 times and in their places, those Church Fathers might well have seen most wealth as the fruit of theft. But history didn’t end there.

As Rodney Stark documents, it would be some six or seven hundred years before Christian monks pioneered agricultural improvements that would double, then triple, production, and create the first “capital” for capitalists to invest. To one of these Church Fathers, the very phrase “labor of brain” would have been almost incomprehensible, or at else conveyed sharp, dishonest dealing. It would take the very Christian civilization which those men helped to found to remake society such that human beings could be seen as vital resources, whose rational efforts to earn their daily bread might also leave the world a richer place for their children. Indeed, they might accumulate by “labor of brain” enough of a surplus to redistribute it through investment, creating opportunities for other human beings to better their lots as well. In doing that, in being good and honest capitalists, we are imitating the “wise and fruitful” servant whom Jesus praised in the parable of the talents, increasing the general share of wealth and tapping human potential.

So private property rights really do exist, and they protect from unjust seizure the capital each of us needs to maintain himself and his family, as well as to “keep up becomingly his condition in life” (Rerum Novarum, 22). In other words, intellectuals should not be forced to work in the fields producing grain, nor ballet dancers to abandon their inessential profession and go dig wells for the thirsty. We seek first the kingdom of heaven, not Marx’s classless society. As Jesus assures us, there will not even be equality in heaven, but a hierarchy based on meritocracy of service.

Beyond ourselves and our families, we are called to invest our wealth in ways that create productive opportunities for others. We should also feel obliged as Christians — not compelled as obedient citizens — to provide for those who cannot help themselves. The penalty if we don’t is not federal prison but perdition. Giving to the poor is a command of faith, binding on those who believe, and we cannot fulfill it by voting to raise our own taxes — or those of our wealthier neighbors, whom we view with an envious eye.

Getting back to Mrs. Bruenig and my old companion in grad school, I’m moved to mutter uncharitably, “With converts like this, who needs apostates?”

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