Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Twin Religions: Communism and Roman Catholicism


By Phillip Adams

First published in The Age, 3rd July 1976

During my teens, I spent a lot of time at the International Book Shop buying the approved novels of Howard Fast (who was later to recant in The God that Failed), plus the odd volumes of Marx which, to this day, remain unread. Next to Joyce's Ulysses and Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, I find Das Kapital the least comprehensible of tomes.

There I'd notice racks of cheaply printed tracts, bearing the imprimatur of the Kremlin and depicting the up-turned face of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. This illustration was done in such a way as to make Lenin look transcendental, not merely a man but a Messiah. And often, at lunch times, I'd sit in St Patrick's Cathedral enjoying the reverberant silence while admiring the soaring elegance of that commendable Gothic pile. And here, built around a massive column, I noticed another rack of tracts that seemed identical. Once again there was an official imprimatur, the typography was identical and the paper was similarly cheap. Except that this time the cover showed the face of Christ in an almost identical pose.

So when I broke with Bolshevism in 1956, at the age of eighteen, largely because I'd discovered the Communist Party to be a religious organisation in secular disguise, demanding one's unquestioning faith and obedience, I arranged an exchange. I swapped Lenin's tracts from the International with those at St Patrick's, so that Left-wing readers were asked: 'Why not be a nun?' while Catholics were warned of the dangers of revisionism. I don't know how many members of the Eureka Youth League finished up as novices nor how many members of Archbishop Mannix's congregation switched allegiance from the Vatican to the Kremlin but it did seem that I was making a legitimate point. At very least, about the nature of propaganda.

At the moment, the world is watching anxiously as the Catholics and the communists battle things out in Italy. Admittedly, Italy has a very sophisticated Communist Party which, like France's, claims to be independent of Moscow. (While the French have abandoned the hammer and sickle, the Italians are showing their subtlety by running Catholic candidates.) But equally, there are forces within the Vatican that are anxious to break down the image of Catholic intractability, by making minor concessions to the spirit of liberalism.

So it still seems to me today, as it did almost twenty years ago, that the two powerful, multi-nationals who compete for the allegiance of millions, are in many ways like two sides of the same coin. Despite the schism between their isms, they've more in common than either would like to admit. For a start, there's a tendency for Catholic countries to produce enormous communist parties, as both Italy and France show. Oddly enough, a significant percentage of the Italian communists still regard themselves as being good Catholics, although their church takes a different view.

In the Fifties, I learnt that communists looked to Moscow for direction just as Catholics look to Rome. In particular, they looked to the Kremlin which, like the Vatican, is a State within a city, and to the word of a leader elected, like the Pope, by a very limited franchise. For Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev was held to speak for communists with the infallibility of if Papa speaking to his international flock. Indeed, it's only a matter of time until the party secretary's election is announced with a puff of red smoke.

Both isms derive from a Judaic tradition and both have their Old and New Testaments. For Moses, read Marx. For Christ, read Lenin. For the apostles and disciples, read the Bolsheviks who supported Lenin, the man who now lies in state in that holy of holies, the red granite tomb by the Kremlin walls. Where he's worshipped by an endless queue of the faithful, who wait in line from summer through the freezing snows of winter. Waiting more patiently than the pilgrims who line up for the catacombs outside Rome or to see the tombs below St Peter's. And above them, on the spire of the Kremlin, like the light over Bethlehem, is a neon star. Both isms have striking symbols. One the cross, the other the hammer and sickle. Lenin, like Christ, achieved his place in history by identifying with the meek and the humble. Their means were, of course, profoundly different with Christ teaching peace while Lenin argued for revolution. But then, one was offering heaven in Heaven while the other thought it possible to achieve heaven on Earth. Communism has borrowed the notion of instruction from the Catholic Church, requiring would-be members to be prepared for admission to the organisation by inquiries into their motives, sincerity and readiness. And communism, like Catholicism, uses the weapon of spiritual exile. For as purges in Prague have dramatised, to be expelled from the Communist Party has repercussions as serious as excommunication from the Church.

Both organisations have a vast professional hierarchy, dedicated to the proposition of the meek inheriting the Earth, to the notion of the equality of man before God or, in the communist case, before society. Yet both have had to face the problem of aristocracy, of some being more equal than others. In Moscow, there's a bureaucratic class who enjoy a wealth of privileges, just as Rome has its cardinals who arrive at the Cavaliere Hilton in their chauffeur-driven Rolls. In Yugoslavia, Tito's friend Djilas went to jail for writing about the so-called new class, just as Jan Hus was barbecued for accusing Rome of decadence and corruption.

The church has, for centuries, been very concerned with the dangers of heresy. In its short history, the Communist Party in the USSR has been just as anxious to stamp heresy out, except that they call it revisionism. And both the Church and the Communist Party must contend with the trendies - the former with Holland's radical bishops while the latter has the French and Italians rewriting Lenin. Historically both structures have faced even greater challenges. Just as the church had difficulties with Martin Luther and Henry VIII, the Kremlin had had to cope with the insults and criticism of Chairman Mao who thought they'd sold out.

Both Catholic and communism are vast multi-national operations with a tendency to adopt the characteristics of the local society. Thus the Catholicism of a peasant in Calabria differs greatly from the Catholicism of Teddy Kennedy at Hyannisport, just as Catholicism's political stance varies from relative radicalism in southern Africa to ultra conservatism in Spain. And it's the same with the Communist Party which could, until recently, not only count among their members countless Asian labourers but the millionaire Picasso. And there's a great difference between the political styles of, for example, flamboyant Cuban communism and the almost monastic severity to be observed in Albania. Thus terms like Catholic and communist are almost useless as definitions. To have any relevance in a theological or political discussion, both terms need to be qualified. What type of Catholicism? What sort of Communist?

Both isms have, of course, their hymns. For make no mistake, the Internationale is most certainly a hymn. And both have their heavy-handed official art which tells the faithful what to think and feel. Admittedly the Catholic Church has produced some magnificent official art while the communists still slog away with those dreadful social-realist paintings. Not to mention those insufferable revolutionary ballets that the Carters and the Frasers are forced to applaud on visits to Peking. And both surround their holy places with kiosks selling plaster statues of their respective saints, while in Russia the birthday of Lenin serves as a sort of Christmas Day. And there's the way both parties have been known to dismiss saints - as recently happened when the Vatican withdrew their commissions from Saints George and Christopher on the grounds that they had never existed. (They were, in effect, clerical errors.) Which is what Moscow did at the time of Khrushchev, when it decanonised Stalin on the grounds that he too was a non-person.

And in both St Peter's Square and the Red Square, the faithful form huge crowds and look up at a waving figure on a balcony. Both religions like grandiose architecture Rome building its cathedrals whilst Russia creates its appealing Palaces of Kulture. And as well as their saints and martyrs, both have their Judases, the Russians call theirs Trotsky. Both isms have their moderates, their fanatics and their zealots and both have succeeded in the world because of their sense of purpose, of destiny. For both believe that all other philosophies are in error and must be vigorously opposed. And both have hierarchies that have, from time to time, become tragically remote from their congregations or populations.

Yet for all their disagreements, both the party and the church share a similar attitude to morality. For a moment in time, the Russians might have thrown out bourgeois morality along with capitalism, but when a lady at the party conference suggested that sex was like water 'and when you're thirsty you drink' Lenin retorted with 'yes, but not from a dirty glass'. This prime response precipitated the USSR into a period of sexual repression worthy of the Festival of Light. Meanwhile, both organisations share a great tradition of censorship, publishing their long indexes which oddly enough, were sometimes in agreement as to undesirable films.

And just as the church has had its inquisitions, the communists have had their share of trials requiring public confession and recantation. And for every skeleton in the catacomb, there are skeletons galore in their respective closets. For example, both the church and the party have, in both historical and recent times, been accused of antisemitism. And both dismiss inquistions and other atrocities as being irrelevant, saying 'we cannot be judged by them'. In time, they deplore such unfortunate occurrences while insisting that they were but momentary detours on the long road to truth. And of course, both seem to believe in the perfectability of man, either here or in Heaven, something that sceptics like myself cannot for a moment accept. For even if man did somehow stumble upon an ideal society, I'm sure he'd have mucked it up by tea time.

Of course, each organisation hates the other. Yet both will sit down and work out schemes of arrangement. This can be observed in Poland which remains both Catholic and communist and will be seen, I suspect, in Italy. And each of them, each of the monoliths, is subject to the same tensions and dissensions, to the same sort of attack from within and without forcing them into change where their instinct is for conservatism. And while both parties will certainly object, I believe that the same sort of historical pressures have, from time to time, produced a need for similar styles of leadership. Take the earthy, lovable John XXIII who spoke out for negotiations with the communist world - while his contemporary Nikita Khrushchev, earthier still, argued for peaceful co-existence. Both men followed remote, austere leaderships - just as both have been followed by a conservative backlash.

And most of all, both juggernauts are facts of life and death on our hypertense planet who must find out what else they have in common. That's the least we can ask of our two most influential religions.