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New International, May–June 1950


G. McDermott

Books in Review

Catholic Power


From New International, Vol. XVI No. 3, May–June 1950, pp. 188–190.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


American Freedom and Catholic Power
by Paul Blanshard
The Beacon Press, 350 pp., $3.50.

This book contains highly useful and suggestive material for contemporary Marxist thinking. Blanshard has drawn almost exclusively from Catholic sources for his damning citations, and with scholarly thoroughness solemnly lists the Imprimaturs who approved the statements from which he quotes.

Not so long ago in this country, socialist pens would hardly need have been lifted on this subject. The task of progressives of an earlier day was to defend Catholic communicants from indiscriminate and unwarranted persecution for the policies, real or imagined, of their church officialdom. Such bigotry has largely disappeared with the decline in influence of the narrow backwoods Protestantism that was its vehicle. The pendulum, indeed, has swung the other way.

The extent to which Americans think of the Catholic Church as “just another church” is shown by a recent Gallup poll. Taken in August of last year, it shows that four voters in ten favor public support for parochial schools. Increasing apathy toward Catholicism was shown by the high percentage of voters under 30 who would subsidize the hierarchy’s schools – 49 per cent, where only 42 per cent of this group were opposed and 9 per cent had no opinion. The result reflects in part a victory for the quiet campaigns of the hierarchy. It undoubtedly also reflects the effects of the new American “chauvinistic tolerance” of the war and cold war years – the notion that racial or religious discrimination is bad because it weakens us in the face of Russia (or Hitler).

Blanshard’s concern is with the hierarchy alone, and his description of it can be summed up as a state within a state. His comparison of the pope, hierarchy and laymen as the king, nobility and subjects of medieval society is apt, if not exactly original. The hierarchy, he points out, is the church – the lay congregation has nothing to say about the collection, expenditure or accounting of funds, the selection of personnel or the making of policy. (Laymen of churches organized on the congregational principle do have these rights.)

As Blanshard discloses church policy and influence in such non-religious areas as politics, law, medicine, foreign policy, education, economics, science, the judiciary and culture, a Marxist is moved to contrive a more precise definition of the hierarchy than Blanshard, the ex-Marxist, attempts.

The European hierarchy is a remnant of the feudal ruling class. It is largely shorn of its land, its former economic base, and continues as a parasitic caste in modern society. It has never abandoned the dream of again becoming a ruling class in its own right, as it was in large sections and for a long period, or of becoming an integral part of a ruling class, as it once was almost universally. However, the anti-scientific and anti-popular nature of the hierarchy makes this dream impossible of realization. This ambition for rule, however, is partially realized in historically ephemeral situations, such as those in Quebec and Eire. Where feudalism has lingered, as it did in Mexico or Portugal, the church has fought to preserve its most favorable milieu.

Given its inability to regain its former pre-eminence, the hierarchical parasites are forced to throw their influence politically behind that class or class segment most likely to allow them to retain their parasitic privilege. In return, the hierarchy tries to exact maximum tribute for the service rendered. Thus the hierarchy is doubly parasitic. It is a parasite on its own believers, who constitute its social base, and it is a parasite as an adjunct of the ruling class which exploits all the people.

We have spoken of the believers of the church as being the social base of the priestly caste. Especially in non-Catholic countries, such as the United States and Britain, this base is used as a bludgeon to extract assistance or at least silence from politicians, the newspapers, educators, publishers, the radio and the films.

The absolutist church of Rome in 1776 had only about 1 per cent of the population of the United States in its fold. As a nation, the United States soon became noted for frontier democracy, a particular concern for science and a materialistic outlook. This presented two very difficult tasks for the church. One obvious task was to present itself in a democratic, an American “face.” The other task, less obvious but more serious, was preventing the Americanization of the church itself.

For this, the organizational principles (and past experience) of the church were ideal; papal appointment of bishops (who control all church property and funds) and of all higher officials, and the overall supervision of the American hierarchy by the apostolic delegate to the United States (the J. Peters or Gerhardt Eislers of the Vatican) who is always an Italian. As early as 1899, Leo XII penned a special letter condemning the heresy of Americanism. There is, as an extra safeguard, no one supreme primate in the American hierarchy who might act as a rallying center. The only national Catholic coordinating body is the National Catholic Welfare Conference. And even in it, the head of the “laymen’s” division is – a bishop! Blanshard gives interesting historical material on the struggle within the hierarchy for and against “Americanism.”

Blanshard discloses how false is the church’s American face. When Spellman, for instance, trumpets that the separation of church and state is dear to him, he is, to be polite, dissembling. The church does concede certain areas to the state as separate from those it claims as its own. However, if a dispute arises as to who has “jurisdiction” in a given sphere of social life, the pope is the arbitrator, according to the dogma.

The care, however, with which the hierarchy maintains its American front is illustrated by the interesting case of a Jesuit-led Catholic group in Boston. This group has been loudly shouting that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. This is within an eyelash of the church’s official position, but nevertheless the devout in question are close to excommunication because the hierarchy knows it is not politic to publicize such doctrine.

One fact begins to tell the story of the cost of the church. The archdiocese of New York alone sends more money to the church of Rome than the whole of Europe. The Catholic schools, from kindergartens to universities, drain off tremendous sums for education limited not only by church doctrine (it was recently announced in Baltimore that a Jesuit priest had driven a devil from a boy – literally! – by a ceremony of exorcism) but by lack of funds. There are scores of Catholic “colleges” with less than 25 students and some with six or eight! Throughout, the Catholic standards are abysmally low.

Add to this cost wrecked lives – and deaths – brought about because medical operations of various sorts are forbidden. Add the poverty and all its consequences of too many children in low-income families forbidden birth control. Add even the high cost of prayers, masses, funerals and weddings. (Blanshard lists the various more or less fixed fees for such services. In response to one of the many advertisements of religious orders in a Catholic magazine, Blanshard had prayers said to obtain him a new car. The money was accepted and the prayers presumably offered.)

Blanshard, who abandoned socialism to become a meticulous “democrat,” can only advocate some sort of “resistance movement” such as the recently formed Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Defense of this democratic principle certainly meets with vigorous support from Marxists. Nor do we, as Lenin warned, fall into the trap of a narrowly conceived war against religion, Roman Catholic or otherwise.

At the same time, the church deserves increasing attention. Most immediately, there is the dubious ACTU. On the world scale, however, just as American imperialism has become the only reliable protector of the hierarchy, so has the hierarchy become the only reliable servant of the State Department abroad – as witness Schuman, Adenauer, De Gasperi, Salazar, Franco and many more. For its services, the hierarchy will more and more attempt to extract its price, in America as well as abroad. Against this unappetizing alliance, Blanshard’s book is highly useful.

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