Pope Francis, C. S. Lewis, and Christian economics

Should Christians be socialists? Some data points:

francis* Pope Francis delivered a strongly leftist apostolic exhortation, condemning free markets and endorsing some sort of paternalistic egalitarianism.[1]

* C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity that “a Christian society would be what we now call Leftist” — its economics would be socialist, no luxuries would be allowed, no advertising would be allowed, no charging interest on loans would be allowed, and so on.[2]

cs-lewisSo both the current most-well-known Catholic Christian and (probably) the most-well-known non-Catholic Christian of the past century endorse some sort of socialism.

* There is the long tradition of Christian institutions practicing what they preach — priests, monks, and nuns vowing poverty and typically living communally with no private property.

* And the long tradition of Christian spokesmen:

giovanni_di_piamonte-st_ambroseSt. Basil: “The bread in your hoard belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”[3]

St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”[3]

St. Gregory the Great: “When we furnish the destitute with any necessity we render them what is theirs, not bestow on them what is ours; we pay the debt of justice rather than perform the works of mercy.”[3]pope-saint-gregory-the-great-07

And many others along the way, connecting again to Pope Francis who quoted approvingly St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs.”

Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, Translated by Anthony Meisel and M.L. Del Mastro, Chapter 33 Private Ownership: “The vice of private ownership must be uprooted from the monastery. No one, without the abbot’s permission, shall dare give, receive or keep anything—not book, tablet or pen–nothing at all. Monks have neither free will nor free body …
“All things are to be common to everyone …”

* But the most important arguments for Christians should come from Jesus himself, so there are the arguments from Scripture: Jesus’ throwing the moneylenders out of the temple (John 2:13-22),jesus encouraging people to give away their possessions (Luke 18:22), telling the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus (Luke 16:19-25), claiming that one cannot love both God and money (Matthew 6:24), talking of camels and needles (Luke 18:25), and more.
To a rich man, Jesus says: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22).

So: Does Christianity entail socialism? (Please note that my question is not whether Christianity or socialism are true, but whether Christians should be socialists.)

[1] Pope Francis, “Apostolic Exhortation,” 2013.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 3.
[3] Quoted in John Cort, Christian Socialism: An Informal History (New York: Orbis Books, 1988). (Thanks to Robert Hessen for sending this source to me.)

Immanuel Kant and “giving back.”

7 thoughts on “Pope Francis, C. S. Lewis, and Christian economics

  • December 1, 2013 at 9:10 am

    > “Does Christianity entail socialism?”

    If “entail” means “leads to X and only to X,” then I think one must ask a prior question: What is Christianity, not only in its essentials but in its inescapable derivatives?

    I offer my view of its essentials in my glossary here: http://reasonversusmysticism.blogspot.com/2010/08/tme-glossary.html

    Christian “holy scripture” presents conflicting views that make Christianity a “cafeteria religion” to some extent. That fact explains why there is so much difference in politics among Christians. Some are anarchists, wanting nothing to do with any state. Others are communists. And still others are mixed-economy statists. Each group has picked a different set of dishes in the cafeteria, and those dishes are premises for drawing inferences about what form of government one should have.

    I do not think that the essentials of Christianity inevitably lead to statism. They _often_ lead to statism but need not inevitably do so without introducing other premises (such as, “it is okay to force people to conform to moral principles”). They often lead to statism because the essentials of Christianity—its mysticism and altruism—do not contradict statism and can be used to justify it.

  • December 2, 2013 at 1:12 am

    I think Christianity definitely paved the way for socialism, and that socialism was a virulent reassertion of the essential Christian paradigm masquerading as a secular ideology. But they are different in spite of fundamental similarities, as Nazism and Marxism are.

    In the muddled mess of contradictions they hold many Christians glommed onto the Protestant work ethic, and capitalism as a consequence. Both Christian and Islamic societies evolved strong merchant traditions which enabled their long term survival. Socialism, particularly in its Marxist’ implementations (in spite of constant permutations such as Leninism and Maoism in the hope of finding a viable formulation) was so acutely hostile to human nature and need its rapid demise was a foregone conclusion.

    Western and Middle Eastern fundamentalists alike share an understandable misperception about secular humanism, seeing it as a monolithic homogeneous whole: the cause of modern totalitarianism, the welfare state, and the torn social fabric and anomie so characteristic of our age. For many it’s virtually synonymous with socialism. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. What is today called secular humanism is a deadly embrace of two intertwined yet utterly opposed traditions: The Enlightenment, and a reaction to it that isolated, distilled and surpassed in virulence the darkest tenets, tendencies and themes of traditional religion while carefully couching itself in the former’s terms and sensibility e.g. “scientific socialism.” (Ever heard a scientist speak of “scientific physics”?).

  • December 5, 2013 at 4:12 am

    Does Christianity entail socialism? No. As a religion it has metamorphosed entirely from Jesus’ teaching, so that his lectures are generally misunderstood. He threw the moneylenders out of the temple because they were ripping off parishioners who bought sacrificial beasts (only ‘temple money’ could be used, itself a ripoff); the rich man who asked JC “How can I obtain life everlasting” is answered 1. Have you kept the commandments? Yes. Then give away your surplus and follow me. [No Jew would have understood giving away ALL his money] 2. Related, “what does it profit a man to gain [all the wealth in] the world and lose his life?” That is also to say, “a man cannot serve two masters…” The utter pursuit of wealth will prevent gaining spiritual wealth. Likewise, as Job prays, “God, do not make me too rich nor too poor that I cannot serve you.” Serve, as in, “obey your laws,” or “do your will.”

    The allegory of Lazarus and the rich man was extreme : in a hypothetical situation [not in the afterlife, as Jews did not believe in the Platonic ‘immortality of the soul’] would you rather be a honest beggar or a fat cat when it comes to ‘judgment’? Likewise, the illustration of the camel and the needle. Some argue the ‘needle’ was a narrow entryway into Jerusalem, I don’t know. Or that it was a coarse fibre, as in camel’s hair jacket. Those who store “treasures in Heaven” not only need not fear their being stolen or going to rust, because spiritual things are de natura better than material things. Nonetheless, wealth is never condemned in Scripture. Abraham and Job, for example, were both ‘loaded.’ How happy was John Paul Getty, with all his ‘money’ when he was diagnosed with cancer of the testicles? One might think of “storing treasures in Heaven” as a glorified Swiss bank account. Property was sacrosanct under Mosaic law. Without inheritances, you were on the street.

    Moreover, Jesus told the Pharisees that one must pay their taxes, even if one despises the current regime. [Illustration of the denarius]. This is most poignant as the Jews hated all sculpture and Caesar’s head was on the coinage. Indeed, is there not a huge difference between wealth and money? Wouldn’t you rather have a Rembrandt, to enjoy, and sell at enormous gain, or a bond issued by the US Treasury? Let’s not forget the story in which JC allows a woman to pour expensive unguents on his head. He tells Judas, who wants to sell the stuff for alms-money, “I will not always be with you, but the poor, they will always be with you.” In an imperfect world, where money, wealth, and spiritual gold are confused and interfused, there will always be bums. Today, for example, over 50 million ‘Americans’ receive food stamps.

    Or, as Dr. Johnson pointed out, “the only good of money is parting with it.” It’s like freedom — so whaddaya going to do now? Yet no one can argue that money, gold in particular, is the best medium of exchange. Money used to be wealth, it used to be gold. Now ’tis paper.

    The Greek poet Pindar sang of an Olympic victor, “he has in his heart what is better than wealth”, that brief moment of triumph and self-overcoming so admired by Hellenes.

    Finally, Paul’s actual words are, “From the love of money are all kinds of evil things coming.” Howard Hughes hated money, but he loved airplanes and women. The greatest fortunes are gained by the Rockefellers and Carnegies, not the Rothschilds, but even they make wonderful wine and refurbish castles.

    Christianity, or Buddhism, or Islam, are religions with spiritual horizons, and distinct from political tyrannies, such as Marxism, socialism, National Socialism, Leninism…whatever, in effect religions without spiritual content. What entails socialism is the unambitious greed of a worker without scruples, and a politician who wants his vote. All Power to the Soviet! [by the way, you’re now slaves of the ‘State’] Ironically, as Christopher Hitchens points out, “religion poisons everything,” but it is “religion” seeking wealth, which these days, translates into “money.” It is the Israeli dispossessing a Palestinian of his home. It is Mother Theresa taking millions from Haitian dictators. Will Jesus not have the last word : “Workers of disorder, I know you not!” ? (But, JC, we have prophecies and done miracles in Your name!)

    The reader does well in ignoring religious by-products, like the various “saints” who were often charlatans or rabble-rousers, or nut-cases. The arguments of C.S. Lewis are on another plane — he is more a ‘theologian’ trying to direct the light of Scripture into changing commonplace. A good many “Christians” endorse welfarism, but my view is, “charity begins at home.”

    Sermon over!

  • December 8, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    There is nothing in the gospels or the letters which can possibly lead one to believe that Jesus or his followers professed that the state should steal from one person at the point of a sword or spear so that a politician can dole it out to someone else at his own discretion. Jesus professed a deep disgust multiple times for the politicians of his day, the Pharisees, temple officials, etc. (brood of vipers, liars, etc., etc.).

    The parable of the good Samaritan is the recipe for Christian charity. While the politicians walked by the dying man, the Samaritan alone had pity and nursed him and used his own funds to pay for his care while he was gone. The gospel requires people to be the good Samaritans. The gospel never calls us to use political coercion, violence, and theft from others to do pretend charity.

    Socialism is exactly such pretend charity, using the force of the state, pretending to use their violence for good purposes. Socialism is the anti-gospel.

  • December 13, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Well said, Dan! You got de message!

  • January 17, 2014 at 1:43 am

    Should Christians be socialists? Yes. Everyone should be a socialist. That thing about “no luxuries” doesn’t follow though – socialism means luxuries for everyone, not just the elite.

  • February 1, 2014 at 8:20 am

    TH, the practical reality of socialism is that everyone but the political elite is equally poor. There are no luxuries for everyone. Luxuries for everyone is a utopian view that ignores the reality that must necessarily evolve under socialism. The most socialist states have been and are among the most abysmal failures of all societies throughout history. They must be because they destroy the incentives to prosperity and productivity.

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