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Transatlantic Blog

Communism with a Catholic vocabulary?

In the preamble to its constitution, the Industrial Workers of the World proclaimed that it would bring about socialism (which it dubbed “industrial democracy”) by “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” But can Christian rhetoric be hollowed out to make room for secular leftist principles?

According to one observer in Poland, precisely such a program is taking place in Europe. And the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is allegedly part of the process.

Kaczynski has announced plans to expand the Family 500+ program, which provides a monthly government subsidy to families that have more than one child. As part of the expansion, he will excuse everyone under the age of 26 from paying taxes. (So far, so good.) He will also give an extra monthly payment to pensioners and extend the child credit to a couple’s first child, increasing government debt.

Academics in Poland say that plan has increased unemployment, while leaving its recipients to live on a meager stipend. The government pays each family a grand total of $129.70 (500 zlotys) for each child each month, or a little less than one-tenth of the average monthly income.

But apparently many parents are content to live on that amount. Nearly one-third of all recipients (an estimated 350,000 parents) are raising a child while unemployed.

PiS is socially conservative but economically interventionist. The program is intended to boost the nation’s fertility rate.

Figures in a growing number of nations in the West have promoted redistribution of wealth to achieve such aims as preserving the family or other ends deeply influenced by the region’s historic Catholic culture.  

One expert analyzed the situation in Poland thus:

Brian Porter-Szucs, author of the book "When Nationalism Began to Hate," believes that Kaczynski hasn't suddenly turned “a communist,” and adds: “But many wanted a state that would preserve the communist party's commitment to social cohesion, cultural homogeneity and nationalism, just imbue it with a Catholic rather than a leftist conceptual vocabulary.”

In this conception, Communism is being replaced with a new rhetorical apparatus. But it is Catholicism that suffers the greater loss. Catholic social teaching, as expressed in Rerun Novarum and Centesimus Annus, is incompatible with and diametrically opposed to Marxism. The Catholic faith cannot be twisted into upholding “the Communist Party’s commitment” to secular ends without losing its own essence.

In the political realm, too, terms like “right” and left” are being redefined. Mitchell A. Orenstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “The populist right is pressing the rhetoric and policies of social democracy into the service of authoritarian nationalism.”

Most Eastern Europeans did not, and do not, support Communism, with its secular denial of human dignity. Yet populism has displaced a liberty-based, or classical liberal, model as a viable alternative. Orenstein said “a new European political order” is taking shape – boring its way out of the old consensus, if you wish.

Once state power is built, its coercion can be used in the service of any ideology. Those who believe the state can enforce Catholic orthodoxy would do well to note how once-Catholic societies have persecuted the Church and enshrined secularism, by force,in place of the Faith. And those who believe the United States is an oppressive Alt-Right dystopia rapidly morphing into a far-right Christian theocracy should be the first to deny the state the authority necessary to bring such a fate to pass.  

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.