The Catholic Left: The Real Home of Calvinism
We here at The American Catholic, along with conservative Catholics in general, have been accused many times of “Calvinism” by certain writers at Vox Nova. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this accusation is nothing more than a massive projection made by people who harbor Calvinist theological assumptions themselves, of which they may or may not be fully aware. Particularly, I think in their constant shilling for big government programs, for slavishness before all forms of authority, for the unlimited extension of “rights” (i.e. entitlements), and the rest of the statist agenda, the leftists at Vox Nova and throughout American political landscape have absorbed a perverse Calvinist doctrine of their own, namely that of the total depravity of man.
I have actually written about this before: the process by which radical leftism transformed from a project rooted in optimism, in a fanatical belief in man’s goodness and reason (apart from God of course), to one of utter pessimism and misanthropy. The first communists, and particularly Marx – for all of their deep flaws, errors, and hatreds – retained a belief in man’s goodness that they had mistakenly come to believe Christianity had rejected through the heresies of the Protestant rebellion.
The early communists, in other words, were humanists, radical humanists in fact. This was reflected not only in their view of man, but also their view of history; Marx was an ardent student of the classics, an admirer of Aristotle and Shakespeare, and his social vision was rooted in a view of man as dignified in his freedom and independence. Communism was not to destroy these things, but to establish them at a “higher level.” The state was to wither away as man was perfected, and, in the words Marx’s mentor Moses Hess, the communist heaven was established on Earth after a period of socialist purgatory.
But Marx’s materialism was and always will be incompatible with the reality of free will, a fact which most of his latter-day followers, beginning with Engels, would struggle with. Eventually they would reject free will altogether and develop a doctrine of total depravity of their own, which I discuss in my article linked above. There would be no withering away of the state, no heaven on earth, as it turned out that man wasn’t perfectly and inherently good nor could he be made so, leaving only one other option. Materialism and determinism can give you total goodness or total evil, but they can’t give you a free soul in which both goodness and evil exist as potentialities to be chosen or rejected.
To the extent that man’s free will is denied, his dignity is also denied, especially once it is clear to the radicals that human beings are not perfectible. To the extent that man is instead made a mere puppet at the mercy of inexorable social and historical forces, he loses any special claim to self-government, economic independence, or even parenthood and family life. If man is not free, he is not dignified, and if he is not dignified, he can and should be subjected to the most severe forms of rule.
In all of this this, however, there was nothing new at all. Hobbes’ Leviathan, Anglo-American civilization’s first and most obscene paean to the unlimited expansion of government authority, could almost be read as a polemic not only against scholasticism and the Catholic Church, but against the entire Christian conception of man as it had developed in the previous 1600 years (even Marx said that Hobbes’ materialism was “misanthropic”). Stripped of all his dignity, of any orientation towards higher things, and reduced to one common level through a misanthropic egalitarianism, men were to Hobbes as blank sheets of scrap paper, fit to be scribbled upon by the authorities as he argues in Chapter 30 of that book.
Then there is Calvin’s central teaching of the total depravity of man:
The doctrine of total depravity asserts that people are by nature not inclined or even able to love God wholly with heart, mind, and strength, but rather all are inclined by nature to serve their own will and desires and to reject the rule of God.
The doctrine of total depravity was rejected and condemned as heresy by the Council of Trent, by the way (see Ch. 1).
Now you may be wondering: what does this have to do with the political positions taken by the Catholic left today? Well, my friends, I ask you to consider: what sort of view about man do you think underlies political visions that constantly call for more statism, more authoritarianism, more redistribution of wealth, more taxes, more federal intervention? Is it a view of man that has even the slightest confidence in or even respect for the freedom and ability of man to choose what is good? Or is it a view of man that expects that he will almost always choose evil, and is therefore in need of a strong hand to push him hither and tither?
These partisans hide behind a false interpretation of Catholic political thought in order to justify their plans to control and usurp other men’s lives and property. But that timeless social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, sets some rather clear limits on what the state can morally do in pursuit of its ends, and it comes nowhere close to what the Democratic Party or the Social Democrats of Europe advocate today. I have covered these issues at some length on my blog. Here I will argue that not only does Pope Leo XIII reject statism, but he puts forward a view of voluntary associations as the solution to society’s ills, founded on Christian charity and merely watched over by the state, but not created by it, absorbed by it, or controlled by it, for, as he writes:
[T]hings move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without. (55)
In this simple line Leo has summed up precisely what has happened to Western civilization through the managerial state. The spirit inspiring men to do good, to tend to each other’s needs, to put their wealth and talents at the service of others, has been abused if not killed outright by the rough grasp of statism, which promised the impossible, to give and become all things to all men. By declaring more and more goods and services to be “rights” without articulating any corresponding vision of responsibilities or duties, the entitlement regime has created the very individualism and selfishness now condemned by its most rabid partisans.
Nothing could be more foreign from Catholic social thought, which through Leo XIII affirmed that all rights come with responsibilities – even the rights of workers and the poor. On the teaching of just wages, for instance, Leo writes that “wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” The frugal and well-behaved part is rarely cited by Catholic leftists today, because they have replaced true rights with entitlements, and seek to relieve their favored political constituencies of any moral culpability. Leo also writes that a worker, “if he be a sensible man”, should “practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income.” Oh the horror!
Not only does the left deny the dignity of the middle class which it despises for its bourgeois values – arguing, in effect, that only the threat of force will ensure that they give anything at all to the relief of the poor – but it denies the dignity of the poor and the working man, by assuming that he cannot be the sensible, frugal, well-behaved man that Catholic teaching calls him to be. Instead he must be cradled like a child, and supported with wealth extorted from others. These assumptions have lead to unprecedented social catastrophes, as the housing projects and public schools of most of America’s inner cities can attest to.
In all cases, the dignity of man is denied because his freedom to choose good is denied. Like Calvin, like Hobbes, our modern leftists subscribe to a view of man’s total depravity, though unlike Calvin – but with Hobbes – they see the answer to it in an ever-increasing government to make sure he contributes to the common good, or is cared for in spite of himself. But this view is foreign from genuine Catholic teaching, which constantly reaffirms both the freedom and dignity of man. From this freedom and dignity follow not only certain rights, but certain responsibilities. The role of the state is limited to one of support, and not of control. It is to be a facilitator of the good (through legislation such as the Employee Ownership Act), not the guarantor of a good life.
This was confirmed by Pius XI as well. A certain writer at Vox Nova likes to quote Pius XI on the “evil individualistic spirit” of our age, but he never highlights the part, in the same paragraph, in which Pius decimates the pretensions of statism as well:
This function [the ordering of economic life] is one that the economic dictatorship which has recently displaced free competition can still less perform, since it is a headstrong power and a violent energy that, to benefit people, needs to be strongly curbed and wisely ruled. But it cannot curb and rule itself.
Here we see the fatal contradiction of all statist pretensions: the failure to appreciate that, by simple logic, if all men are as depraved as the implicitly or explicitly declare, then so are the men who run the state. They too are depraved, they too are evil. To avoid this logically necessary conclusion, every egalitarian, from Hobbes to Lenin to our modern know-it-alls without fail and in total contradiction to their first premises, resort to gnosticism: there must necessarily be a class or group of men who have been blessed with a wisdom not belonging to other men. They alone have free will, they alone have dignity, and they alone will prescribe what the animal-like masses are to do.
This is not to deny that there are indeed men who have been blessed: we call them saints. But this is a true hierarchy and a true division of men that follows from true premises, and not the final product of a mangled and tortured chain of logic emanating from false premises about human nature. Logic will indeed force all political theories back into hierarchy and order, no matter how they begin, but if they begin from false premises, they will arrive at the true conclusion in a distorted and twisted form. This is what Orwell grasped in Animal Farm, as the final rule of “Animalism” changes from “all animals are created equal” to ”some animals are more equal than others.”
In sum: It was supposed to be “conservatives” who believed in man’s inherent and unwavering sinfulness, and “progressives” who believed in his goodness. In a world in which the conservatives are Calvinists and the progressives are of the Old Left and subscribe to early Marxism or at least the ideas of the French Revolution, this might have been applicable. But we now live in a world in which the “progressives” have come to believe in man’s total depravity with more fervor than Calvin ever did, while the conservatives have discovered that man’s dignity is inexorably bound up with his freedom. This is the most important dividing line in politics today.