The Gospel According to Marx?

On the day of his inauguration, Pope Francis sent a telegram offering President Biden his blessings and urging him “to advance the common good” in a time that requires “farsighted and united responses.” Mr. Biden for his part has made no secret of his Catholic faith, even quoting the Holy Father in explaining his policy proposals aimed at reducing poverty. With or without masks, pope and president alike are sometimes less than perfectly clear in articulating their views on the leading questions of the day. This partly accounts for lingering doubts about their respective attitudes toward socialism. Will Biden cater to the wing of his party that preferred Bernie Sanders as their candidate, and will Francis lend his imprimatur to policies that will please them?

The argument that Christian compassion must take the form of public funding and government-run programs is not a new one. Recent proponents of this view have appealed to the 2020 papal encyclical referred to by Mr. Biden, Fratelli tutti, where Francis hedges about the “right to private property” and takes a swipe at the “dogma” of “market freedom.” Fairly or not, in some circles this encyclical has even been interpreted as a tacit endorsement of socialism. Many progressives hope, and conservatives fear, that Mr. Biden will heed the call.

The rise of the “nones,” those who declare no religious affiliation, has coincided with growing support for socialism. If recent polls are any indication—no sure thing these days—the number of religious respondents who prefer it to capitalism has also increased. What to make of this data is uncertain. Rarely do surveys distinguish between a Soviet-style command economy and Scandinavian social democracy, much less between the various Christian approaches that have been labeled socialist, such as the “community of goods” practiced among Hutterites since the earliest decades of the Reformation, the attacks on laissez-faire economics of the Victorian critic John Ruskin, Bouck White’s “Church of the Social Revolution” in Progressive-era New York, and the Latin American liberation theology that first gained popularity in the 1960s.

From Mikhail Gorbachev, who called Jesus “the first socialist,” all the way back to Karl Kautsky, a protégé of Friedrich Engels once known as the “pope of Marxism,” socialists have long claimed that early Christianity was a utopia guided by collectivist principles from which it has deviated but to which it may one day return. They point to the New Testament’s account of the days following Pentecost, the holy day falling fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter, when Christians traditionally commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. Numbering about three thousand, according to the Book of Acts, in Jerusalem the faithful were “of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32-34). Many landowners sold their property, and with the proceeds “distribution was made to each as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). In addition to shared meals, study, and prayer, this idyllic gathering “held all things in common.” How long this practice continued is unclear, but Marx himself quoted Acts, and Eugene V. Debs would use it to denounce the contemporary church for having betrayed its charter while running for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket. According to Engels, it is only among the socialists that the true proletarian spirit of early Christianity may still be found in modern times.

As surveys suggest growing support for socialism, it is an opportune time to have another look at the evidence provided by the New Testament. By all accounts, the church’s experiment in communal living reported in the Book of Acts operated on a voluntary basis. There is no demand for the abolition of private property, and when Jesus’ disciples are exhorted to give up their possessions, they are to be delivered to the church or directly to the poor instead of to the state for redistribution. Yes, Jesus had instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar,” but he declined to say what Caesar should do with the revenues (Mark 12:17). Never is it implied that the government has a right or responsibility to impose policies of compulsory “compassion.” Saint Paul described the role of government as the protection of citizens from wrongdoers, not as the provider of social programs using other people’s money (Romans 13:2-5).

The early Christian exercise in collectivism doesn’t appear to have worked even on a small scale when carried out by true believers.

The Bible is full of admonitions to charity, especially for the most vulnerable members of society such as widows and orphans (e.g., James 1:27). Yet it speaks consistently of rewards for what people do when guided by their own heart. One searches the New Testament in vain for a mandate requiring secular authorities to perform or prescribe what Catholic teaching calls corporal works of mercy. It is more blessed to give than to receive, Jesus said (Acts 20:35), though maybe not so much better when it is a result of coercion. When Paul tells the Corinthians that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), he understood that making it mandatory would not have the same effect and that outsourcing collection to a third party authorized to use force would undermine his goal of promoting solidarity among Jews and Gentiles. What’s more, it denies to both parties the experience of grace and gratitude about which the Bible has so much to say.

Even so, good intentions are not enough, especially when one considers the problem of scale. Things that work in miniature don’t always work as smoothly when they are multiplied by ten million percent, from about three thousand to over 300 million. Most of us voluntarily practice a form of socialism—from each according to his ability, to each according to his need—at the most basic level, that is, within our own families. But invoking Jesus’ multiplying the fish and the loaves as “precisely what we want to do with socialism,” as Fidel Castro did, has no basis in the Bible or economics. Will Durant once wrote that “Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.” If, in impatience or imprudence, the Church were to endorse socialism, the contest in the political arena might turn out differently.

Citing the New Testament to make the case for adopting socialist policies, moreover, overlooks another inconvenient truth. The early Christian exercise in collectivism doesn’t appear to have worked even on a small scale when carried out by true believers. Paul travelled around the Mediterranean, from Turkey in the east, with plans to visit Spain in the west, collecting funds to support the community in Jerusalem by collecting charitable gifts from Gentile Christians in the diaspora (Romans 15:14-32; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15). This relief effort, the earliest example of passing the plate, is a reminder that the church in Jerusalem was destitute. Part of the arrangement with Peter, James, and John in devising a missionary strategy was that Paul would “remember the poor” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10). This was a symbolic gesture of solidarity across ethnic and cultural lines intended to strengthen ties between groups naturally inclined to distrust one another, but it also addressed a very concrete need. They appreciated the thoughts and prayers contained in Paul’s letters, but they also sorely needed the financial assistance.

Even with the best of intentions and the purest of motives, judged in economic terms, then, this putative experiment in socialism was a failure—if “success” means, minimally, financial self-sufficiency. One might even say that the first of socialism’s many failures played a key role in the ultimate success of Christianity, since Paul spread the good news far and wide as he tried to raise money to support an experiment in Jerusalem that could not support itself. Call it providence.

Or, if you prefer, call it the law of unintended consequences. Creating a more just and prosperous society is a goal we all share. Disciples of Karl Marx, no less than those of Adam Smith, would be delighted to find an explicit mandate for their policy prescriptions in the Good Book. It is a bipartisan temptation. Perhaps Francis and previous popes have stopped short of preaching socialism because they recognize our fallibility in assessing ways and means, even when the ends sought are so desirable.