Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

Christians For Socialism Challenge Catholicism and Communism

Penny Lernoux
July 12, 1976

Fellowship Year

ROME, Italy — A political-religious battle is under way in Europe that will shape the future of this continent as well as Latin America. U.S. interests in these countries also will be affected.

Known in Europe as the “Catholic question,” the controversy started in 1972 when 400 Latin American priests, nuns and laymen met in Santiago, Chile, to launch an organization called Christians for Socialism (CfS). The movement quickly spread to Europe, and by 1975 CfS organizations were operating in Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, the Low Countries, Austria and West Germany. Spanish migrant workers in Northern Europe also formed a CfS branch.

Not surprisingly, Europe’s largest, most active CfS movement is in Italy, where it was founded in 1973 at a meeting in Bologna attended by 2,000 delegates.

Thanks to the Latin Americans, Italian Catholics belonging to the Communist and Socialist parties were able to resolve their long-standing dilemma over a dual loyalty to Marx and Christ. “The Latin Americans showed the way by insisting that Christians are free to vote for the party of their choice,” said Ed Grace, editor of a CfS European news service in Rome.

“Their position was that in many countries the Catholic Church is an ally of center-right political institutions and shares their economic interests. Because of this political involvement, the Church is in no position to throw any stones at Christians voting for left-wing parties,” Grace explained.

“The Latin Americans also demonstrated that over the centuries the Church has distorted the basic teachings of the Bible for political reasons.

“While the Vatican’s Council II (1962-5) encouraged some Italian priests working with rural and slum groups to restudy the Bible, no Italian Catholic would have dared a frontal attack on the Church. Moreover, we were afraid of starting a Christian-Marxist dialogue because we felt this might lead to the formation of another political party, a left-wing version of the Christian Democrats, for example.

“The Latin Americans changed all this by showing that we could work as Christians within existing socialist movements without having any religious qualms about our right to be both Christians and socialists.”

Since its founding in 1973, Italy’s CfS has established 17 regional chapters with 15,000 members. “COM-Nuovi Tempi,” the movement’s Rome-based weekly newspaper, has a circulation of over 20,000.

Though still numerically small, CfS poses a serious problem for the Vatican which fears the movement may be just the sort of religious rationale Italian Catholics have been looking for. While “all Italians are Catholics until proved otherwise,” as one Roman theologian observed, many refuse to be disproved or disapproved of by the Vatican as shown by the over eight million Catholics who voted for the Communist and Socialist parties in the June 20th parliamentary elections despite Vatican objections.

To make matters worse, many Italian priests are beginning to act like the Latin Americans — leading protest marches and church sit-ins and actually talking back to the bishops. For example, Jesuit theologian Gustav Wetter, professor at the Vatican’s Pontifical Gregorian University, teaches his students that it is possible to be both a Christian and a Marxist. Wetter’s claim, recently published in his book “Evangelization,” is all the more serious because he wrote the Vatican’s original document excommunicating the Communists in 1949.

Not only are Catholic priests and laymen active in socialist trade unions ahd political parties. An impressive number of distinguished lay leaders also ran on the Communist Party ticket in the last elections, including Raniero La Valle, ex-director of “L’Avvenire,” the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, and Piero Pratesi, former editor of the Christian Democrats’ official organ. (Both were elected to the Senate.)

Meanwhile, over 300 left-wing, grass-roots Christian communities have sprung up in Italy. They are particularly active in the impoverished south where they have joined forces with the Union of the Unemployed, representing some 250,000 jobless Napolitanos.

“Until recently the slogan of the Church in Sicily was, ‘Love God and rob your neighbor,’” said a Sicilian farm worker, explaining the morale-boosting presence of a Catholic priest at a local peasants’ demonstration.

Naturally the Vatican is unhappy about this turn of events, yet no matter how urgent the challenge, it is handicapped by the ponderous plodding of a tradition-bound bureaucracy. At the same time there is widespread feeling in Rome that there is no stopping “the world’s inevitable tilt towards socialism.”

Viewed from the progressives’ vantage however, the challenge posed by the CfS movements may be the key to Catholicism’s recovery of Europe’s working classes who deserted the Church after World War II, primarily, said a Dutch worker priest, because the Church failed to respond to their needs.

Latin America’s younger Church, in contrast, still can sway the masses. Having learned the lesson of Europe, an increasing number of priests, nuns and bishops are making a commitment to the urban and rural poor who are the majority of the population. Latin America’s particular contribution to the Christian-Marxist dialogue in Europe has been this insistence on the Church’s identification with the working classes.

Conservative and progressive European Catholic leaders agree that the idea for Christians for Socialism could only have come from a continent where a majority of the population is Christian, suffering extreme poverty and political oppression.

Although Europe’s CfS movements recognize their Chilean origins and continue to maintain contacts with the Latin Americans, they are developing independently because of different political conditions. For example, in such countries as France and Italy with strong trade unions and Socialist and Communist parties, they see themselves as a bridge between religion and politics, an advance force from the Catholic Church to humanize Marxism.

CfS documents point out that no dialogue is possible in a situation such as Eastern Europe with “ossified Marxism” on the one hand and “conservative Christianity” on the other. In contrast, Western Europe with its increasingly independent Catholics and Communist parties and a tradition of democracy offers a fertile ground for crossbreeding, CfS spokesmen believe.

Unlike Latin America, the Europeans do not attach much importance to the theological underpinnings of a Christian-Marxist dialogue. They find the Latin Americans’ Theology of Liberation esoteric since, as a Third World theololy, it has little to say to the Europeans, even those in the poorer countries.

Conversely, CfS movements in Latin America have been stunted by the emergence of military dictatorships which now rule two-thirds of the continent’s population. In any case, socialist trade union movements and political parties have never been strong in Latin America, with the exception of Argentina and Chile. Consequently most of the political-religious ferment is taking place at a different level, in Catholic grass-roots community groups where the Theology of Liberation is translated into consciousness-raising. Bishops, religious and laymen involved in these groups usually avoid a partisan commitment, either on principle or because the left is so splintered that little is to be gained by such association.

While dissimilar in their development, Europe’s CfS movements and Latin America’s grass-roots groups are interconnecting parts of a widening circle that has extended to the United States and Canada, the Philippines, both Vietnams, Tanzania and Mozambique. In a follow-up of the 1972 Santiago meeting, delegates from over a dozen countries met in Quebec in April, 1975, to discuss the CfS’ growing influence. Four months later a meeting on the Theology of Liberation in Detroit was attended by 200 Catholic representatives of the United States’ largest minority groups to discuss their own Third World problems.

“It’s like a plague that is being multiplied around the world by bacteria carriers!” complained Father Roger Vokemans, a Belgian Jesuit who is the intellectual leader of the Church’s counterattack. (Now based in Bogota, Vekemans has come under fire for his alleged CIA connections while in Chile.)

Vekemans is not the only one who is worried. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a scramble to the battlements by the Vatican, Italy’s Christian Democrats, West Germany’s hierarchy, Bonn, Washington, Opus Dei and the conservative bishops of Latin America.

While West Germany’s hierarchy has been monitoring the Theology of Liberation’s growth in Latin America for over three years, the Italian elections and the spread of CfS movements gave the issue new urgency. At a meeting in the Vatican’s lovely Villa Emmaus in Rome last March, 50 Latin American and German conservatives agreed to formalize the attack through an institution called “Church and Liberation,” to be funded by Adveniat, which also underwrote the meeting.

One of two foreign aid agencies controlled by the West German bishops, Adveniat is the largest overseas Catholic program in Latin America with an annual budget of $2.7 million for some 4,000 projects. Unlike its German counterpart Misereor, which finances a wide variety of social programs in the Third World with few political strings attached, Adveniat is dedicated primarily to furthering the cause of the conservative members of the Latin American hierarchy. Its chief contact is Msgr. Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Bogota’s auxiliary bishop and secretary general of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), who with Vokemans’ aid has been waging a personal vendetta against the Church’s moderate and progressive wings.

Adveniat’s choice can be explained by the German bishops’ self-confessed obsession with communism, an “obsession,” said a Belgian theologian, “that is understandable in Germany’s context but not in Latin America’s case.” One result is that Adveniat paints Latin America in blacks and whites with Cuba as the Devil and Brazil’s military regime as the leader of an anti-Communist Christian crusade. “The trouble with West Germany’s bishops,” said an informed German Church source, “is that they assume Latin America is just like Germany although few have been there or studied its problems. Insteade they take Lopez Trujillo’s word as gospel.”

According to Adveniat’s president, Msgr. Franz Hengsback, bishop of Essen, the foundation is participating in “Church and Liberation” because “we are all in the same boat.” It is an attitude shared by Germany’s Social Democrats and Italy’s Christian Democrats, the political and financial godfathers of their Latin American namesakes. (The chief speaker at the Rome meeting was Fernando Moreno, a member of the right wing of Chile’s Christian Democrats and friend of Father Vekemans, the “eminence grise” of former Chilean President Eduardo Frei, whose election he helped engineer with CIA help, according to testimony given the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence Activities.)

Shortly after the Rome meeting a second front was opened by the German bishops’ Katholishes Kommissariat, a Church agency working with the Bonn government. The Kommissariat’s announced goals are to increase German influence among the Italian and French hierarchies and eventually create a commission of European bishops to “combat the Marxist-Leninist dialogues with Christians.” One of the Kommissariat’s first jobs may be to aid the Vatican in rehabilitating Italy’s anti-communist lay leagues of the Cold War decade.

Reinforcing the lines of communication in Europe and Latin America is Opus Dei, a right-wing Catholic organization founded in Spain with considerable influence in Latin America. (Former Argentine strongman Juan Carlos Ongania was an adherent, for example.) Informed German Church sources maintain that the German hierarchy is strongly influenced — some say controlled — by Opus Dei. One of the bishops’ best friends in the Vatican hierarchy is Cardinal Sebastiano Biaggio, an Opus Dei sympathizer. Biaggio happens to be president of the Latin American Pontifical Commission, the Vatican’s principal authority on Latin American affairs.

Washington also is involved in both fronts of the battle. In Latin America foreign missionaries in Bolivia and the Catholic hierarchy in Chile have produced evidence indicating that the CIA is helping local military regimes to harass Church progressives. Across the Atlantic in Rome the local press has turned up documents linking the CIA with a Catholic seminary called Pro Deo University, which is well-informed on religious politics. (The CIA also contributed over $75 million to the Christian Democrats and other friendly politicians, according to the House Select Committee on Intelligence.)

While there Is plenty of money to finance the conservatives’ campaign in Europe and Latin America, the problem is that there is very little to sell. Like other European, anti-Communist, Catholic organizations, “Church and Liberation” has begun to sound like a broken record of recitations against the CfS movements and the Theology of Liberation. Aside from complaining, the most the group has been able to come up with is a dusted-off version of the Church’s “social doctrine” even though it is as outdated as the l9th century liberalism it attempted to counteract.

“Let’s face it, The Church has no social doctrine,” said Jesuit Bartolome Sorge, the Vatican’s most knowledgeable critic of CfS movements.

“I looked in on the ‘Church and Liberation’ meeting but didn’t bother to stay. It was so boring. There were the same people saying the same things all over again, really just talking to themselves.”

Or as “COM-Nuovi Tempi” columnist Maria Girardet-Shaffi puts it: “The question remains, Can the revival of the Church’s social doctrine provide an adequate response to the serious challenge from the Theology of Liberation and Christians for Socialism for the believer’s conscience?”

Voter response to the Christian Democratic administrations in Italy and Chile indicates that the answer is “no.” In Chile Frei’s Christian Democratic government paved the way for Salvador Allende’s election. And in Italy it may only be a matter of time before the Communist Party overtakes the Christian Democrats’ narrow 4.3 percent lead in elections.

The reason, say theologians and political analysts, is that while the Christian Democrats have embellished the Church’s social doctrine with sociological data and the rhetoric of reform, they cannot change the doctrine’s feudal origins. Although it purports to be a “third way,” neither capitalist nor communist, Christian Democracy in practice turns out to be an unworkable form of pseudo-capitalism.

“Catholic social doctrine is inapplicable to modern industrialized society,” said Luigi Covatta, a former Christian Democrat youth leader who is a member of the central committee of Italy’s Socialist Party.

“The result is that the Christian Democrats, while supporting capitalism in order to survive in power, have no understanding of how capitalism works and therefore are incapable of becoming an efficient conservative party.”

Or in the words of a Chilea slum dweller: “The Christian Democrats talked a lot about reforms and even put some of them on paper. Unfortunately the government never seemed able to enforce them. My boss just laughed when I asked him for the legal minimum wage.”

Apart from the outdated ammunition, there is considerable confusion among the generals because “the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing,” as a German lay leader puts it. “While the Vatican is making overtures to the East European governments, it treats its own CfS people like lepers,” he said.

But that has always been the way with the Vatican, argues Ed Grace, who maintains that the Church has two sets of politics, one for Italy, the other for the rest of the world — and frequently fails to distinguish between them. As an example, he cites the Vatican’s yes-no position on Church authorization for the remarriage of Catholics which was not resolved until an Italian referendum on civil divorce two years ago.

“Although Marx’s Communist Manifesto was written in 1848, it took the Vatican over a century, until the 1949 elections in Italy to be precise, to excommunicate Communists,” he added.

For all these criticisms, the Catholic Church has a remarkable record of survival. Consequently the issue today is not whether the Church will endure but in what form. Msgr. Emile Stehle, Adveniat’s administrator, sees the possibility of some future Sodom and Gomorrah with a handful of chosen survivors hiding in a cave in a communist state, an undying testament to religious freedom. Vekemans worries that “one day the Church may wake up and find itself socialist.”‘ Belgian theologian Michel Schooyans predicts a reversion to “folk superstition.”

Ironically, it is the left that holds out the most hope that Christians will overcome. Unlike the conservatives, CfS has chosen to wage its campaign with the communists’ own arms by accepting Marxism as a tool for economic analysis. “Like Copernicus, Newton and Freud, Marx provided a valid scientific instrument for rational interpretation of various observable phenomena,” explained Italian Socialist Covatta. “It is essential to read Marx to understand capitalism.

“But this doesn’t mean that we Christians accept a Marxist ideology any more than we would a Freudian ideology. Our role in socialist movements is to demonstrate that while the scientific instrument is valid, the ideology is full of myths, starting with the premise that it is the final panacea for mankind.”

Like other CfS leaders, Covatta suggests that Christians can take the initiative away from the communists by offering the working classes a better alternative, a Christian socialism combining modern economic theories with the basic teachings of the Bible.

In order to gain credence among non-believers, CfS insists that the Church be stripped of the political and religious cobwebs that have gathered over the centuries. If Christianity is to withstand the Marxist challenge, says Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo, one of Latin America’s leading theologians, we must stop reducing it to a ritualized “bribing of God” with Masses, sacraments and good intentions. “There must be a genuine political and social commitment to Christianity’s basic values, particularly love of fellow man.” That commitment, say CfS followers, is the best possible challenge to communism.

Received in New York on July 12, 1976

©1976 Penny Lernoux

Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.