04 December 2013

Dear American Catholics:

Please, please, please stop conflating liberalism and leftism, even colloquially.

Please do this not for my sake – I’m used enough to being misunderstood as a ‘left-authoritarian’, as the Political Compass sorts me – but for your own. If you want to understand or foster greater understanding of the Popes – in particular Francis – or the Early Church Fathers, for that matter, you have to learn to see things outside the one-dimensional American spectrum. Do this to take, as Sir Alec Guinness once famously put it, your first step into a larger world.

It is all too common in Catholic circles (which, for the most part, I still gladly frequent in spite of my having embraced – from their view – a ‘schismatic’ faith) for people to decry ‘cultural Marxism’ when what they actually mean is relativism, which at its root is one logical outworking or another of either Lockean liberalism or postmodernism. Or they use socialist, ‘red’ and Soviet imagery to describe what is in fact a purely ‘yellow’, Anglo-French phenomenon: here is merely one particularly egregious example. Even normally-intelligent Catholic apologists like Mark Shea tend to blame ‘the Left’ when they complain of people or cultural practices which refer not to leftist intellectual currents like Marxism, socialism or syndicalism, but rather to pragmatism or (neo-)liberalism! (I would say that anyone who calls Tom Friedman a Leftist should be subjected to re-reading each of his Times columns until his grievous error is corrected, but I do happen to be opposed to torture. Same for Chris Matthews and Hardball.) To be fair, there was once a very good reason for conflating leftist and liberal concerns – it has long been a strategy particularly of social-democratic parties and trade unions to forge electoral coalitions with liberals against traditionalist and nationalist elements. But those days are long gone.

In order to understand the tradition of the Church West or East, it is first of all necessary to lose the Americanist ‘Left’-versus-‘Right’ blinders (insofar as the DNC can be considered ‘left’, anyway).

As a matter of first principles, being committed to understanding and addressing the culture with the ‘mind of the Church’ for the purposes of salvation means much, much more than refusing to countenance the systematic slaughter of the unborn (which is also, by the way, a systematic slaughter of the next generation of the working class), and refusing to equate the fruitless unions between two people of the same gender with the life-giving ones between a man and a woman. It also means refusing to countenance the systematic deprivation of the majority of working- and middle-class Americans of the fruits of their productive labour, by a completely unaccountable and increasingly reckless financial-capitalist elite. It also means refusing to discriminate against others merely for having darker skin or speaking another tongue. It also means acknowledging the indispensable role of the female genius in all things, even in the Church – and refusing to fall into the Satanic trap that says that because women are wired differently to men and have different roles to play in society and the Church, that they are somehow inferior.

It is also necessary to note, as John at EifD has very adroitly pointed out, that for all their materialist wrong-headedness, European and Russian Marxists have traditionally opposed the evils of divorce, abortion and contraception, and have agitated actively for the integrity of the family (including the family wage!). The tradition of pro-life leftism has not been broken, either, as Mehdi Hasan demonstrates. Notable also is that, particularly in southern Europe, the right-wing Italian liberals were the movers and shakers for the ever-broader legalisation of divorce.

Sergey Kurginyan in Russia has already begun sensibly advocating for a rapprochement between the salvific concerns of Orthodox Christianity and leftist political ideals. (From the Marxist side, Gennady Zyuganov seems to have started doing the same thing.) As we have seen, Pope Francis is articulating Catholic social doctrine through a grammar which is intensely critical of capitalism, just as Patriarch Kirill has done in our own Orthodox Church.

These are signs of the essence of our times. In order for conservative American Catholics (and Orthodox, for that matter) to understand them, they have to abandon their view of the Left as inextricably bound up with liberalism, relativism and materialism, and as an existential foe of all they hold dear.


  1. Great post! Thanks for the shout-out, I really appreciate it!

    Some of the intensely negative reactions against Pope Francis from the American Right have been surprising. I believe Rush Limbaugh recently declared that the Pope was preaching “pure Marxism.”

    Typically, when Christian leaders made statements that did not sit well with the Right, their words were usually twisted to fit the prevailing liberal conservative orthodoxy or they were just ignored. I think the intense anger at this current Pope is a sign that fusionism is collapsing.

  2. My pleasure, John! And I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

    I was quite pleased to see that some of these selfsame conservative Catholic commentators were, quite rightly, calling out Limbaugh's rant for the ignorant self-serving nonsense it was. But there's also this interesting division among American Catholics - my fellows at Solidarity Hall, Elias Crim and Mark Gordon, John Médaille, David Lindsay and a number of other Catholic commentators have no problem addressing and making contacts with the traditional Left. But then there are others, like Mark Shea and several other FB contacts of mine, who espouse almost exactly the same ideas, which I fully approve and endorse - distributist and 'small is beautiful' economics, paired with critiques of a runaway market and a runaway police-surveillance-corporatist state - but who still have a heavily allergic reaction whenever 'the Left' is mentioned.

    (An allergic reaction which is absolutely understandable and justified in all of the above cases of Bill Clinton, Tom Friedman and Chris Matthews. But the language of the 'Left' is misdirected all the same, since all of the above are actually right-leaning neoliberals.)

    To be honest, this could be and likely is OUR problem (as Leftists, that is), and not that of the Catholic Church. We were the ones who, repeatedly from the 1860's to the 1960's, made our bed with liberal urban elites who didn't give a damn with the working class - and we did it to gain power and representation. But I think this is a mistake we are trying, gradually, to correct.

    Anyway, just my assorted thoughts on this. I absolutely agree with you that the right-conservative fusionism is becoming increasingly untenable. (Also, though many of them may not know it yet, I think the American left-liberal fusionism is also becoming increasingly untenable.)

  3. Well said. Americans have produced some amazingly incomprehensible garbage in discussing "left" and "right". Have you ever heard of the infamous "Tmatt trio"? Check here: Come again? Left, right, or the excluded middle? | Khanya

  4. Many thanks, Steve! And thanks for sending the link - I hadn't heard of the Tmatt trio, but that was a fun read. (I said 'yes' to all three, yet still consider myself a leftist. Huh.)