Socialists in Clerical Collars


The Kindness That Kills, edited by Digby Anderson, London: SPCK Press, 170 pp., 3.95 pounds

In my young days, in the '30s and '40s, leftists, of whom I was one, used to jeer at the Church of England as "the Conservative Party at prayer." Even then that was misleading. For it was a period when William Temple, lifelong socialist and member of the Labour Party, was archbishop of York and later of Canterbury. He, however, was always scrupulous to insist that those commitments were personal, that other equally sincere and instructed Christians could and did hold contrary political and economic views.

All that has changed utterly. Most of the individual mainstream churches (including now the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the World Council of Churches, the British Council of Churches, and in the United States the National Council of Churches) are forever issuing anticapitalist statements and aligning themselves with all manner of socialist and even specifically Marxist-Leninist causes. The Kindness That Kills—which we must hope is the beginning of a new wave, and not in Britain only—is edited by the director of a fresh offshoot, the Social Affairs Unit, of the promarket antiestablishment Institute of Economic Affairs.

Digby Anderson and his 16 other contributors launch a general offensive against 24 publications of varying degrees of authority. These are attacked as "sloppy, ill-thought out, ignorant, one-sided, addicted to secular fashions, uncritical of conventional 'progressive' wisdom, hysterical…and, most deplorable, uncharitable to those who disagree."

As with all such collections, the essays vary in quality, while much of what is most usefully said consists in truths that would be bound to seem truistic to many readers of REASON. But two things are very much worthwhile even for us. One is hair-raising information about the dangerous rubbish put out nowadays even in the most supposedly authoritative of church statements. The other is scholarly argument showing how mistaken it is to draw socialist conclusions from the Bible.

For the first, take two specimens from Roman Catholic sources, one from the secretary-general of the Conference of Latin-American Bishops, the other from the Encyclical Octogesima Adveniens of Pope Paul VI (pope from 1963 to 1978): "The United States and Canada are rich because the peoples of Latin America are poor"; and government—wait for it!—"always intervenes with careful justice and with devotion to the common good for which it holds final responsibility." Both of these two manifestly false assumptions are commonplaces of the contemporary social gospel, although the second in all its grotesque absurdity can rarely have been stated quite so brazenly.

What is not obvious at all is that any such socialist social gospel can, as frequently claimed, be legitimately derived from the New Testament. Christian socialists, at a loss to explain how in presenting the Parable of the Talents, Jesus failed to seize his best chance for denouncing capitalism and the profit motive, have preferred to concentrate on the Magnificat and the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

In the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30), Jesus tells of a man who, going on a journey, entrusts portions of his property to three servants. Two of the three servants increase its value by using it to do business. The third buries his money, alleging that his master is greedy and would take everything the third man could earn with it. Upon the traveler's return, the first two are praised and rewarded for their efforts, while the third man is castigated as guilty both of failing to use what had been given him and of slandering his master.

But the Magnificat and the story of the rich man and Lazarus are more suitable to the socialists' purposes. In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), Mary speaks of God sending the rich away empty and filling the hungry with good things. The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) tells the fate of a rich man who dies and goes to hell, while the poor and ailing Lazarus dies and is carried to the angels.

William Oddie deals faithfully with both appeals in a chapter entitled "Christian Socialism: An Old Heresy?" Once we look back at the Old Testament passages to which the Magnificat is alluding, it becomes clear that the references are not to the economically rich or poor but to those who are rich or poor in some more spiritual understanding. As for the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Oddie offers a devastating quotation from St. Augustine, putting down a Pelagian heretic known as the Sicilian Briton: "And if the poor man's merit had been his poverty, not his goodness, he surely would not have been carried by angels into the bosom of Abraham, who had been rich in this life."

The main ground on which I would fault Anderson and his team is that they are all too kind, too concerned to show to their opponents the Christian charity that those opponents have rather conspicuously not been showing "to those who disagree." This excess of kindness is displayed in two directions.

In the first place, although some contributors hint, none presses home the harsh moral that should be drawn from the uncritical one-sided perspective of the target Christian publications. People who offer any policy as a means of securing some end perceived as good—such as, for instance, the reduction of poverty or of unemployment—must be anxious to monitor the success or failure of their policy as a means to that end. Insofar as they willfully refuse to do this, and even ignore evidence suggesting that their policies will not in fact produce these stated results, then we have no option but to conclude that their devotion to those originally stated ends is—shall we say?—something less than wholehearted. Perhaps they have somehow become so personally involved in those policies that their implementation has now become for them a "good" in itself? Or perhaps they are trying to curry favor with people devoted to the same policies for quite other and less-creditable reasons?

The second excess of kindness lies in scarcely even hinting that there might be doubts about the authenticity of the Christian commitment of any of the socialist document writers. But, in a period afflicted by so many "liberation theologians" believing in neither God nor liberty, these are questions that neither can nor should be shoved under the rug. It is today the most open of secrets that many priests of all denominations have lost their faith, without feeling any need to resign their orders; and it would seem that many of these, especially within the church and interchurch bureaucracies, have replaced a Christian with a secular socialist commitment.

How else, after all, can we explain the now surely notorious Third Worldly antics of that UNESCO-in-clerical-collars, the World Council of Churches? Or the education statement dissected in The Kindness That Kills that, after repeating all the self-interested stock-in-trade falsehoods from the teachers' unions, proceeds most carefully to utter not one word about either religious education or the British Labour Party's malignant threat to destroy all independent schools?

Antony Flew teaches philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and York University, Toronto. His most recent book is God, Freedom, and Immortality (Prometheus).