Why we published an essay sympathetic to communism
One of the finest hours in the history of the Catholic press occurred in the late spring of 1954, when this magazine, along with several others, published an editorial denouncing Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s witch hunt against communists, which was then reaching its ugly zenith in the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings. “Catholic Weekly Assails McCarthy,” read The New York Times headline—just one among several national stories about the editorial.
America’s comments about Senator McCarthy generated a great deal of interest for a couple of reasons. First, Senator McCarthy was a prominent Irish Catholic, and he had powerful friends in the Catholic community, including several bishops. Second, America had spent much of the previous 50 years loudly denouncing communism in its pages. As early as 1934, my predecessor John LaFarge, S.J., who later served as the sixth editor in chief, had even introduced a detailed plan for how American Jesuits should attack the growing threat of communism in the United States. So the fact that the anti-communist America magazine was now critical of Mr. McCarthy created an “only Nixon could go to China” moment, lending great credibility to the anti-McCarthy forces.
You might ask, after 110 years of opposition to communism, why are we publishing an article in this issue that is sympathetic to it?
So, you might ask, after 110 years of opposition to communism, why are we publishing an article in this issue that is sympathetic to it? Well, for one thing, you should not assume that America’s editorial position on communism has changed very much. It has not. What has also not changed is our willingness to hear views with which we may disagree but that we nonetheless think are worth hearing. And we could not have picked a better author for such an article. Dean Dettloff has made many fine contributions to these pages as our Toronto correspondent.
This sort of thing is also not a first for America. One year before Father LaFarge declared his red alert, the saintly Dorothy Day appeared in these pages, defending the values of the communists she knew, if not their political program. “The trouble with many Catholics,” Ms. Day wrote, “is that they think of Communists as characters from E. Phillips Oppenheim’s international mystery novels.” In other words, she thought Catholics were missing something of value amid all the legitimate criticism.
Could the same be happening today? It is possible. Socialism is much in the news. One presidential candidate says he is a socialist, and several others don’t mind sounding like one.
My reading of Catholic social teaching, especially the commentary of recent popes, is that it has many good things to say about capitalism while always reminding us about the bad that comes with it. At the same time, it has many bad things to say about socialism while always reminding us of the good that comes with it. For my part, I don’t like ideological “-isms” of any kind, except for Catholicism, which is nothing like an “-ism” in the sense I mean here.
For what it’s worth, my general view of economics begins with the fact that markets, for all their downsides, are the greatest force for economic empowerment that the world has ever seen. But that is just my opinion and, therefore, not the point. Mr. Dettloff’s piece is in this issue not because I agree with it but because I think it is worth reading, just as I did with Arthur Brooks’s article in defense of free markets that we published in February 2017 and just as we did when we published Dorothy Day in 1934.
America, in other words, is not a journal of Father Matt’s opinions. Not even I would want to read such a magazine. This is a journal of Catholic opinion, and Catholics have differing opinions about many things. Our job is to host a conversation among Catholics and our friends in which people can respectfully and intelligently disagree. Accordingly, we publish something in almost every issue with which I personally disagree. I hope we publish something you disagree with, too. If not, we are not doing our job.
Dean Dettloff’s piece is in this issue not because I agree with it but because I think it is worth reading, just as I did with Arthur Brooks’s article in defense of free markets that we published in February 2017 and just as we did when we published Dorothy Day in 1934.
It will be interesting to monitor reactions to Mr. Dettloff’s article on social media. I have followed folks on Twitter long enough to recognize certain patterns. While you who are reading this will know what we are up to, many among the Twitterati can be counted on to be uninformed, unreasonable and uncharitable. I can see the tweets now: “This Dettloff piece! So typical of that left-wing America magazine!” “America shows its radical tendencies again!”
Well, that’s just claptrap. I once said that being an America reader requires you to engage with opinions that are different from your own. It occasionally requires something else, especially when browsing social media: the ability to spot what this family-friendly magazine will call male bovine fecal matter.