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Catholic cardinal: Karl Marx is a source of Catholic social teaching

Cardinal Reinhard Marx has given an interview to the German Sunday newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on the occasion of the 200th birthday of the philosopher with whom he shares a surname: Karl Marx, the theoretical father of scientific socialism and inspiration of Communist regimes the world over. In his interview, the cardinal — who is himself in the vanguard of progressive thought inside the Roman Catholic Church — pays tribute to the creator of Marxism.

“We are all on the shoulders of Karl Marx” he said. “Without Karl Marx, there would be no Catholic social teaching.” According to the cardinal, Karl Marx showed that human rights remain incomplete without the material well-being of people, and he praised Marx for paying attention to the real conditions of the people.

This interview, together with another one published in the Rheinische Post was reported without critical comment in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which summarized his thought thus: “Catholic social doctrine has a significant debt of gratitude towards the father of Marxist doctrine.”

“We should not have let ourselves be stolen by a capitalism,” the cardinal said, accusing capitalism of inspiring greed and nationalism. “In wars, like the First World War, imperialist economic interests played an undoubtedly important role,” he said. “It was all about expanding the markets and expected profits.” Further, the ecclesiastical Marx blames capitalism for “enormous social inequalities and environmental damage.”

Although the cardinal blamed all these problems on capitalism, he demonstrated an immense and undue indulgence towards Marx, denying his responsibility for the real-world consequences of Marxism. “Karl Marx cannot be blamed for everything that was committed by his theories in the gulag of Stalin,” the Vatican dignitary says.

What’s more, Cardinal Marx proudly noted that John Paul II used to call him “our Marxist.” (Pope Francis also recently, jestingly called him “that Marxist cardinal.”) For the cardinal, this seems to be a compliment rather than an insult.

At a glance, it is shocking that a cardinal of the Roman Church glorified Karl Marx and his ideas which, when put into practice, cost the lives of approximately 100 million people.

History clearly shows, that wherever Marxism came into force, it led the country’s population into war, dehumanization, debasement, ethnic cleansing, extreme poverty, and starvation. The Soviet gulags, the atrocities of the Ukrainian Holodomor, and extreme poverty in today’s Venezuela are some of the evils of the many-headed hydra of Communism. On the other hand, it is empirically proven that free market capitalism has reduced poverty by millions.

The harms inflicted by Communism are not just theoretical for someone from East Germany — or my own native Poland.

Karl Marx predicted a Russian invasion of Poland and, like most of his predictions, his analysis proved backwards. Before his death, Marx warned against Czarist Russia’s allegedly insatiable hunger for territorial gains and believed that Poland, which at that time had no political independence, should be restored and serve as a buffer to protect the West from the Russian “imperialism.” Marx postulated, “There is only one alternative for Europe: either the Asian barbarity under Moscow's leadership floods it like an avalanche, or Europe must rebuild Poland, putting 20 million heroes between itself and Asia.” This was another failed prophecy. In 1920, the newly restored Republic of Poland miraculously won the Soviet-Polish War and stopped Soviet expansion into the West. The philosopher did not foresee that it was his own ideology that would push Soviet Russia to invade the West.

Sadly, the Warsaw victory could not save Poland, or Europe, forever. Less than 20 years later, Soviet Russia and National Socialist Germany started the bloodiest war in human history on Polish ground. The Marxist Soviet Union brought to the Poles living on its territory forced deportations to Central Asia, massive executions, expropriations, and persecutions. The total number of Polish victims of the Soviet repression (1939-1951) is estimated at 1.8 million, of which 150,000 people lost their lives. This number doesn’t include ethnic Poles who were citizens of the Soviet Union before the Second World War (another 110,000 executed).

After the war, the socialist regime involuntarily imposed a 45-year occupation. Communist rule in Poland led to the massive emigration of intelligentsia, irreparable losses for the culture, and economic collapse. Marxism also brought us massive religious persecutions, symbolized by the imprisonment of Primate Stefan Wyszyński and the execution or persecution of Roman Catholic and Byzantine Catholic bishops and priests, including blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko.

In this context, the words of Cardinal Marx can only scandalize their readers, Catholic and non-Catholic.  

The Catholic Church in her official teaching condemned socialism and Communism repeatedly. Already in 1891, a mere eight years after Marx’s death, Pope Leo XIII wrote in his encyclical Rerum Novarum that socialism leads to envy, unjustified social strife, and acts against natural justice: “Neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people’s possessions.” In his encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris Pope Leo XIII defined Communism as “the deadly plague that is creeping into the very fibers of human society and leading it on to the verge of destruction.”

Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris (in English, “On Atheistic Communism”) noticed that “Communism, moreover, strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse.”

Also John Paul II, 100 years after Rerum Novarum, in his famous Centesimus Annus amplified Pope Leo XII’s criticism of socialism by noticing another crucial problem related to this ideology: “The fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism.”

Surprisingly for many, Pope Francis has joined the choir of Karl Marx’s critics. In his preface to a collection of writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on faith and politics, the current pontiff agrees that “the profound contrast [between Marxism and Christianity] is given by the abysmal difference that exists as to how redemption should happen.” Pope Francis repeats the question of Pope Benedict XVI, “Does redemption occur through liberation from all [material] dependence, or is the only way to liberation the complete dependence on love, which would then also be true freedom?” Pope Francis responded, “When we deny this dependence between creature and creator, this relationship of love, we renounce the true greatness of human beings, the bulwark of their freedom and dignity.”

Cardinal Marx, who is the public face of Catholic Church in Germany, and his fellow German bishops are not called to curry favor with German politicians in order to assure the continued flow of cash from the federal religious tax to their churches. Rather, they were ordained to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ embodied in the Bible and the Church’s Magisterium.


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics. You can contact him at marcin.rzegocki@gmail.com.