Communism and the Conscience of the West
By Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Cluny Media, 2021.
Paperback, 227 pages, $22.95.

Reviewed by Joseph Tuttle.

Written only a few years following World War II, Communism and the Conscience of the West surveys the philosophy of Communism. Sheen’s view of Communism is that it is not merely a political or economic system. Rather, it is a philosophy of life. Even more than that, Sheen calls it a religion.

Sheen’s thesis is that Communism has its origin in Western society and culture. He begins by asking whether Communism is the enemy of the Western world. He continues by asking what is meant by “Western civilization.” For Sheen, Western civilization can have two meanings. The first is a Christian civilization with human rights coming from God, the dignity of the human person, an understanding of law as coming from God, and a sacramental worldview. The second meaning is the materialistic, capitalistic, bourgeois civilization which states that man is purely an economic animal whose purpose is to enjoy pleasurable things and attain wealth.

Sheen admits that Communism is clearly opposed to a Western Christian society but points out that Christianity has little to no say or influence in the political realm. Continuing, he says emphatically that Communism is not the enemy of a Western Capitalistic society. He notes well that the two are interconnected:

There is a further similarity between capitalism and communism in that the former concentrated wealth in the hands of a few capitalists, while communism concentrates it in the hands of a few bureaucrats…Every Communist is a capitalist without any cash in his pockets…Communism, from the economic point of view, is rotted capitalism, with the difference that in one case the people live off the largess of a capitalist, and in the other off the largess of the bureaucrat.

The reason the Western world should fear Communism, according to Sheen, is not because it is a strong force but rather because the West is weak due to the fact that it has turned away from God and morality.

He traces Marx’s Communist philosophy to Western philosophers and thinkers stating that its philosophy is German, its sociology is French, and its economics is English. Sheen notes that there were three philosophers in particular who greatly influenced Marx’s own writings. They were Hegel, Feuerbach, and Proudhon.

The philosophy of Communism first stems from Hegel’s dialectical process. The dialectical process has three stages: 1) a thesis is created, 2) an anti-thesis is put in opposition to the thesis, and 3) a synthesis of the two positions is made. This dialectical system was then adopted by Marx, and as Sheen points out, leads one to the view that truth is not permanent and therefore relativism was the order of the day.

The second great influence on Marx’s ideas was the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. Sheen states that Feuerbach essentially denied any spiritual reality by saying that matter is the basic reality. By wedding Hegel’s dialectical method and Feuerbach’s materialism, Marx produced dialectical materialism. Reality, therefore, became revolutionary for Marx. Sheen states that Marx saw the dialectical method throughout history as progressing toward a Communist society.

The third major influence on Marx’s philosophy is that of the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon said that the main issue in the world was economics and not political or social. He suggested to Marx that he apply his dialectics to property in some way. Thus, dialectical materialism became economic determinism and when applied to history became historical materialism. For Marx, history was interpreted materially and not ideally; history is determined by the economic development of humanity. Going further, this philosophy led Marx to say that everything from morals to art and literature is all determined by the economics of a given period.

Summing up what he previously said, Sheen states that Communism is not a purely Russian creation. He writes “There is not a single Russian idea in the whole philosophy of communism. It is bourgeois, Western, materialistic, and capitalistic in its origin.” 

Continuing, Sheen delves into the many defects within the Communistic philosophy. He shows contradictions and illogical statements. He notes that the greatest obstacle to Communism is the Catholic Church which has opposed it since its beginning. For Sheen, the greatest defect of Communism is death. He writes that “Death is the great unsolved problem of communism, because despite all the dictatorial attempts to absorb men into the collectivity, the final breath individualizes and personalizes and individuates.” Life may destroy a man’s personality by force but in the end “each man will have to learn for himself that narrow is the gate and strait the way to Eternal Life and few there are who enter therein.” Sheen then offers a compendium of excerpts from various works by Marx, Stalin, Lenin, Molotov, and other Communist manuals as a summary of their beliefs.

Having surveyed the philosophy and beliefs of Communism, Sheen offers four ways in which nations and people can combat it. The first is politics. Sheen suggests that politicians who are elected should be chosen not because of their political stance but based on their personal moral worth. He famously writes “A nation always gets the politicians it deserves. When our moral standards are different, our legislation will be different. As long as the decent people refuse to believe that morality must manifest itself in every sphere of human activity, including the political, they will not meet the challenge of Marxism.”

A second way to meet Communism is through economics. Sheen’s solution is thoroughly Catholic. He notes the divide between labor and ownership and suggests that there could be a “worker-ownership of stock and industry” so that the workers “share in the profits, management, or ownership of the industry.” Most of Sheen’s views regarding this mode of combating Communism come from Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, “On Reconstruction of the Social Order,” published in 1931.

A third way to combat Communism is morality. Sheen suggests that chaplains from the major religions of Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism be appointed to all types of industry. Sheen says that Communism naturally divides people and that “The value of chaplains in industry would be the organization of men on a non-competitive or spiritual basis.”

A fourth way is education. Sheen suggests that in order to combat the lies and myths of Communism, people (children and adults) should be well-informed regarding the subjects of history, philosophy, human nature, and especially religion. By doing this, people would be well prepared to meet and overcome Communism.

For Sheen, the family is the basic unit of society, and if the family can be saved then so can society. Communism in Russia at first directly opposed the family. It began by allowing abortion, divorce, etc. At the time, these laws in Russia were soon changed due to the swift decrease in the population. He says that the Soviets “see that the disintegration of the family is the disintegration of the nation.” Sheen notes that America was (and still is) following this disastrous path by allowing divorce, abortions, etc. Ultimately, Sheen calls for the protection and upbuilding of the family in order to save Russia, America, and indeed the world.

Sheen recognizes that the Communists are very impassioned people. Their passion, however, is misguided. He then recognizes that modern Christians have the truth but no zeal. He suggests that if the passion of revolution were directed toward God the Communists would come to the truth. He likens the Communists and the world to St. Peter when he was walking on the Sea of Galilee toward Christ and began to sink (see Mathew 14:22-33): “We are sinking because like Peter we have concentrated our whole attention upon the winds of public opinion, upon the currents of indifference, upon the military, economic, and political opposition from this quarter or from that. We are sinking for the same reason that Peter sank: We have taken our eyes off the Master.” 

Joseph Tuttle is the author of An Hour With Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (Liguori, 2021) and a contributing author and editor of Tolkien and Faith: Essays on Christian Truth in Middle Earth (Voyage Comics, 2021).

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