Communism, Catholicism, and Sexuality: A Response to Dean Dettloff

To books on mysticism and spirituality correspond books on “Religion and Life” (or Society or Urbanism or Sex…) And yet the basic question remains unanswered: what is this life that we must regain for Christ and make Christian? What is, in other words, the ultimate end of all this doing and action?

Fr Alexander Schmemann [1]

A while ago, certain corners of twitter were absolutely flooded with discourse on ‘the religious left’. In this discourse, the ‘religious left’ usually presented as a proposed counter-weight to the US Religious Right that was so significant in the election of Donald Trump. Therefore, it would be accurate to identify this trend as part of wider attempts to find something, anything, that might save the electoral fate of the Democratic Party in 2020 — and certainly, ‘religious left’ was generally used to mean ‘Democrats who are religious’.

This discourse was, for the most part, very tedious and dull, with little to interest anyone seriously invested either in ‘religion’ (whatever that means) or the liberation of the oppressed. Partially, this was because it was attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist: it depended upon an assumption that Democrats dislike religion, when as far as I know nearly all Democratic candidates, and certainly every historical Democrat president, has been a churchgoer. This is perhaps why the brief appearance of ‘the religious left’ in the coverage of major media outlets was so short-lived. The solution quickly lost the imagination of liberal culture because it couldn’t actually give them much (perhaps also why the only time I’ve seen the term in Democrat discourse recently has been in reference to Pete Buttigieg, who as a gay Christian, is of greater interest).

But another reason why the discourse was so dull was because for the most part, it encouraged people to conceive of ‘the left’ as a single discrete thing and ‘religion’ as another single discrete thing, that then might be brought together to create something new and interesting. It is ironic, then, that in practice, by reducing both highly complex phenomena referred to down to entirely disconnected monoliths, the discourse on the ‘religious left’ excluded what was most interesting and most useful about both. The constraints of the apologetic approach in fact force one to abandon anything that might make for an effective apologetic. At the same time, however, this approach also appears to be representative of most approaches to ‘religion and politics’ in general, well beyond that brief discourse around religion and the Democratic Party.

A useful step away from this is the recently published article in America Magazine by Dean Dettloff, ‘The Catholic Case for Communism’. I am glad to have been a friend of Dean’s via twitter for several years now, and have enjoyed his output on questions of ‘religion and the left’, and was even featured on the podcast he co-hosts once. Yet this piece left me feeling ambivalent. As a popular summary of significant positive engagements between Catholics and communists from the latter half of the 20th century onwards, you could find few better, and the framing of the piece within Dorothy Day’s mixed response to communism gave the piece an open-ended-ness that appeals it to the reader. I can easily imagine recommending this to a friend who was struggling to understand how or why a Christian might be a communist. At the same time, however, at points, it did feel as if Dean was butting up against the limits of the kind of framing described above, of the parallels between ‘religion’ and ‘the left’.

To be fair to it, the appeal to ‘Catholicism’ in this article, rather than ‘religion’ or even ‘Christianity’, does provide a useful specificity and focus. Generally, I also prefer ‘communism’ to ‘left’ or ‘leftist’. ‘Left’ tends to be used in fairly vague ways — left of what? — and often includes forces I personally consider actively dangerous, whereas communist, though still including a degree of diversity, tends to indicate a more hardened commitment to revolutionary practice. In this piece, however, some of that specificity seems a bit blurry. Some of its points of reference are certainly within a revolutionary communist tradition — Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro, for example. Others, such as Michael Harrington and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are decidedly not; Harrington, in particular, often actively partook in anti-communist efforts.

Whilst it is true that these figures are cited as evidence of a broader support for ‘anti-capitalist’ ideas among the American public as a whole, not as communists or even as representative of Dean’s own positions (I know they are not), their inclusion does change the tone of the appeal. Claiming Catholics might legitimately agitate for a broader state provision under the existing American electoral system is a significantly different thing than claiming that Catholics ought to actively agitate for this system to be overthrown. For those of us who see real revolution against the bourgeois state as a necessity, purely electoralist approaches to ‘socialism’ rely upon that state for their success, and thus perpetuate the oppression they claim to fight. Treating this as equivalent to revolution is what Lenin called ‘opportunism’, the process by which revolutionary rhetoric and ideas are misused and distorted so that the struggles these ideas represent might be redirected into supporting the power of the ruling classes. The article does not actually make the step of identifying Harrington or Ocasio-Cortez as communists, so I’m not accusing Dean of actively attempting to hold back revolutionary change. But in a period when opportunism is becoming a significant force in Western politics, its important to make these distinctions very clear if we do not want our arguments to be misunderstood or misused by others.

Similarly, since the article (like many articles on religion and politics) revolves around reasons why Catholics and Communists have agreed or got along with one another, one should also ask oneself if some of these reasons might be less than pleasant, for principled people of either or both camps. In this case, it is important to consider that for significant periods of their existence, the Communist Party USA, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Communist Party of Cuba — all discussed in this article — considered LGBT+ people to be a branch of ‘bourgeois degenerates’. Although all of these parties have since changed path on issues of gender and sexuality, in some ways dramatically so, it is still worth identifying the parallels between such positions and those of sympathetic Catholic social thinkers.

For example, the concern for economic justice in figures like Dorothy Day was part of a return to what was basically a conservative Christian ethic, simply applied to all areas of social life. Their conservative position on sexuality was entirely consistent with their socialist sympathies in economics — nevermind that the forms of violence and social control LGBT+ people are exposed to function as instruments of economic exploitation and oppression.[2] This form of conservative Christian radicalism, that sees capitalism as preventing working men from adequately providing for their wives and children, can quite easily shake hands with a communism that similarly idealises an implicitly male proletariat as the engine of history, without properly interrogating the gendered division of labour in the home, and considers the politics of LGBT+ liberation at best a personal individual preference attempting to intervene in collective life, and at worst a degeneracy of social life, attempting to seduce people away from their familial responsibilities.

If the relationship between Catholics and communists has sometimes been more positive than some might assume, we should also address those places where this positive relationship is objectively a form of reaction and a failure of compassion that ought to be inimical to communists, Catholics, and any combination thereof.[3] The Argentine theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid tells the story of how when the Argentine Junta cracked down on homosexuals and other sexual ‘deviants’, a letter was written to a number of major Latin American Catholic liberation theologians asking them to sign a statement of solidarity. All refused, claiming sexual issues were not their concern.

Yet, as Althaus-Reid argues, this is to neglect the role of Christianity in creating the political system of heterosexuality that now dominates the globe. Christians created heterosexuality; it is now Christians’ responsibility to help overthrow it, not only for the sake of LGBT+ people, but as a revolution against the sexual politics that make capitalism possible.[4] And indeed, whilst there are severe problems with homophobia and transphobia in both the Catholic Church and the secular left, there are people in both or either movement who are committed to resisting that and finding new ways of practicing these traditions. These approaches are perhaps more threatening, and can find less sanction in the addresses of the Pope, but as Dean, inverting Day, insists, “It is when the communists are dangerous that they are good.”

Although in places the tone of this blog may seem severe, it is not intended as a denunciation of Dean or his article. The first point, about opportunism, is intended as a clarification of what I see as what is good in the piece, and the second is intended as an extension of the analysis, an area in which further work is needed. In both cases, I recognise the necessary limitations of Dean’s article, both via its length and form, and via the editorial policy and audience of America. At the same time, however, I do think it is necessary to discuss these questions. But I do also see these as important questions that will need to be addressed if Christians are to play any significant positive role in struggles for the liberation of oppressed peoples.

[1] For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: SVSP 1973), p. 13

[2] I owe this formulation to Devyn Springer, from an episode of his podcast, Groundings, ‘The Critique of TLGBQ “Inclusion”’, released on 8th August 2018.

[3] In light of this problem, the satirical quip that “we should hate the communism but love the communist”, paraphrasing a slogan mainly deployed by Christians against LGBT+ people, is especially galling.

[4] I don’t have an exact reference in front of me right now, I’m afraid, but this is from her work, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics.

orthodox christian | trans lesbian | communist | writing odds and ends (she & they)

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