Polls showing that a majority of American millennials are sympathetic toward socialism have raised alarms or hopes, depending on whom you ask. But whatever the secular world thinks, Catholics cannot affirm this error. Marxism and socialism are fundamentally flawed not because their ideals are too lofty, but because they are based on a defective anthropology, or view of the human person.
There may be no person who understood the dreadful consequences of Marxist anthropology better than St. John Paul II. Raised in Poland under the successive tyrannies of German National Socialism (Nazism) and Russia’s communist empire, young Karol Wojytla saw up close the destructive power of terrible ideas. He lost Jewish childhood friends under Nazi occupation, and as a young seminarian helped lead a peaceful resistance to the Soviets by keeping Polish traditions alive through study and through an underground theater troupe.
A talented philosopher and Catholic priest, Wojtyla brought a unique dimension to the contemplation of the twentieth century horrors that led to the death of tens of millions. And when he became Pope John Paul II, his painful experience and his studies informed both his lifelong contemplation of the mystery of human love and personhood, and the magisterial teachings that emerged from this contemplation.
In other words, John Paul’s experience immunized him against claims that socialism is the path to justice and peace. What looks like paradise on paper is in practice only ever a breeding ground for monsters.
A lifelong student of philosophy, St. John Paul II’s academic work focused on developing a robust personalism—the view the human person is the key to unlocking and understanding the deeper mysteries of reality. Created male and female in the image and likeness of God with a mind and a will to know the truth and choose the good, the human person is on John Paul’s view the doorway through which we can enter into both the contemplation of the Blessed Trinity, and the right ordering of all human societies.
By contrast, Marx saw the human person as a mere material accident—a random, unintended outcome of blind physical forces operating in a universe devoid of the divine. For Marx and his co-conspirator, Friedrich Engels, the socialist revolution was grounded in their belief that man was a product of the socio-economic forces around him, and that he would best flourish as a productive piece of a larger collective. He was not an individual, but matter to be molded into something that could be useful in serving the state and securing the economic equality and workers’ utopia envisioned by the socialist founders.
It is a gross understatement to call this idea of humanity deficient, defective, and, since ideas have consequences, dangerous.
Having lived, and suffered, under two successive socialist regimes, St. John Paul II had no difficulty identifying its errors and falsehoods. His experience led him to think more deeply and clearly about the truth of the human person, then to teach and preach it with unique eloquence and power.
John Paul’s reflections on the Church’s “adequate anthropology”—a true and complete understanding of the origin, nature and destiny of the human person—run through much of his work, but they are perhaps most completely and compellingly presented in his magnum opus on human love and personhood, Theology of the Body. This work is his deeply contemplative catechesis on the truth of the human person, from the heart and mind of the Church, and provides perhaps the strongest antidote to socialism and the myriad other poisonous anthropologies on offer in our increasingly post-Christian culture.
For St. John Paul II a human person could never be—as Marx proposed—merely some random, unintended byproduct of the blind forces of physics and evolution, fit only to be molded into a useful cog in the machinery of a collectivist state. Each person was a gift, a unique and unrepeatable expression of the life-giving love of the Trinitarian God. Each human life was an adventure shot through with meaning and purpose and dignity, a one-of-a-kind love story with a divine origin, and a divine destiny.
The socialist proposal has always been that the citizen exists for the state; a human being is a thing to be used for the good of the state, and the extension of its power and prosperity. But Karol Wojtyla had lived under the dehumanizing effects of that misbegotten view of the human person; he knew its crushing consequences. Instead, St. John Paul II proposed again the deep and transformative truth that every human person is literally loved into existence from all eternity, and that each of us is infinitely precious to God. We are created in communion and solidarity with others, and the state is entrusted with upholding and defending each person’s God-given identity and dignity rather than determining them. Socialism says the person exists for the state. Catholicism says the state exists for the person.
In the socialist ideology a human being’s value is determined only by what he has to offer the state. For John Paul each human person is irreplaceable, indispensable, and of infinite worth regardless of their capabilities, productivity, or their material contributions. He knew by faith, reason, and experience that wherever the calculation of the value of a person is left to his fellow man, his basic rights will be perpetually under threat. If it is the state that grants dignity and rights to people, the state may also deny or withdraw them.
It is also interesting to note the reasons that socialist and communist regimes have always aggressively promoted atheism and the suppression of the Christian faith. Socialism is, in fact, the deification of the state, elevating the state above all other commitments and communities, and commanding absolute adherence to its mandates and priorities. For Marx and his proteges, all other human commitments and communities—to God, to spouse, to family, to Church—must be expunged from society to give priority to the all-powerful state. For the socialists each man is the property of the collectivist state.
Here again, St. John Paul saw with piercing clarity the threat that authentic Christian anthropology posed to the Marxist project. In the Catholic tradition the person, the family, and the faith are all communities and commitments that exist prior to the state, both chronologically and in the natural order of things. God created persons, and marriage and family as the natural means by which new persons come into existence and are loved and formed. The state, on the other hand, is a man-made construct, a temporary reality through which persons pass on their way to the life to come.
Illuminating the Catholic counternarrative to the socialist anthropology is just part of the living legacy of St. John Paul II. Throughout his ministry as a priest, bishop and pope, he proclaimed and defended the unique and unrepeatable dignity and worth of every human person, and he never forgot the horrors perpetrated by the socialists of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. As a young man, priest and bishop, Karol Wojtyla survived the terror of socialist occupation. As Pope, St. John Paul the Great fought the error of socialist anthropology with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Catholic faith.
Pope St. John Paul II, pray for us!