Tuesday, November 22, 2016

How to Invent a New Religion: Abolish Private Property


There is a passage in G.K. Chesterton’s little book on St. Francis of Assisi — titled, appropriately enough, St. Francis of Assisi (1923) — that seems to baffle many people.  It is the one where “G.K.” related how St. Francis was such a one-man earthquake or revolution that, had he been so inclined, he could have founded a new religion.  Ironically, that is precisely what some of the followers of “Il Poverello” (“the Little Poor Man”) evidently thought he was doing, although they still called it “Christianity.”  As Chesterton made his case,
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilization was to be consumed. (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1943, 175.)
The principal target of St. Francis’s followers was (as we might expect), the institution of property.  Not only did they want to abolish private property, but property itself!  As Chesterton related, “[S]ome Franciscans, invoking the authority of Francis on their side, went further than this and further I think than anybody else has ever gone. They proposed to abolish not only private property but property.” (Ibid., 173.)
These “Fraticelli” (“Little Brothers”) went so far as to declare that property (private or otherwise) was not, in fact, good at all, or part of human nature.  Rather, they insisted that property is actually something evil, although permitted as an expedient on account of man’s sinfulness.
Private property in capital is good, not evil.
This, of course, was a complete distortion, even corruption of the message of St. Francis.  As Chesterton carefully explained, St. Francis abolished property for himself, not for others.  It was a personal decision, what the Catholic Church calls “a counsel of perfection,” giving up something good to get something better.
Abolishing private property — or property entirely — is not something that should be forced on others as the socialists insist.  In so doing, they effectively create the new religion that calls itself “Christianity,” but is anything but, and that Chesterton criticized.
Nor was Chesterton the only one to make such a claim.  We have no idea how familiar Chesterton was with the writings of Orestes A. Brownson (we’re pretty certain they never met, as Chesterton was two years old when Brownson died, and in another country), or even if G.K. had any familiarity at all, but it doesn’t matter.  In 1849, three-quarters of a century before Chesterton wrote of the followers of St. Francis inventing a new religion, Brownson related how the socialists did the same thing.  As he said,
Brownson: socialism deceptive by its very nature.
Veiling itself under Christian forms, attempting to distinguish between Christianity and the Church, claiming for itself the authority and immense popularity of the Gospel, denouncing Christianity in the name of Christianity, discarding the Bible in the name of the Bible, and defying God in the name of God, Socialism conceals from the undiscriminating multitude its true character, and, appealing to the dominant sentiment of the age and to some of our strongest natural inclinations and passions, it asserts itself with terrific power, and rolls on in its career of devastation and death with a force that human beings, in themselves are impotent to resist.  Men are assimilated to it by all the power of their own nature, and by all their reverence for religion.  Their very faith and charity are perverted, and their noblest sympathies and their sublimest hopes are made subservient to their basest passions and their most groveling propensities.  Here is the secret of the strength of Socialism, and here, is the principal source of its danger. (Orestes A. Brownson, “Socialism and the Church,” Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism.  New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co., 1852, 498-499.)
And if anyone wonders how something so obviously contrary to what common sense teaches can spread so rapidly and gain adherents of such fanatical devotion, Brownson could have explained it in one word: flattery.  By the simple expedient of telling people what they want to hear, and making them feel more virtuous than those sordid souls who focus their attention on things other than the lot of the poor, socialists are able to pull the wool over the eyes of even the most intelligent and devout.
To maintain the ovine imagery, by cloaking their activities with Christian language, and hijacking people like St. Francis of Assisi to serve ends directly at odds with the message Il Poverello and others tried to convey, socialists become “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”  They have thereby managed to make tremendous inroads into otherwise orthodox Christian thought.  As Brownson continued,
Socialism is a wolf in sheep's clothing.
[Socialism] is as artful as it is bold. It wears a pious aspect, it has divine words on its lips, and almost unction in its speech. It is not easy for the unlearned to detect its fallacy, and the great body of the people are prepared to receive it as Christian truth. We cannot deny it without seeming to them to be warring against the true interests of society, and also against the Gospel of our Lord. Never was heresy more subtle, more adroit, better fitted for success. How skillfully it flatters the people! It is said, the saints shall judge the world. By the change of a word, the people are transformed into saints, and invested with the saintly character and office. How adroitly, too, it appeals to the people’s envy and hatred of their superiors, and to their love of the world, without shocking their orthodoxy or wounding their piety! Surely Satan has here, in Socialism, done his best, almost outdone himself, and would, if it were possible, deceive the very elect, so that no flesh should be saved. (Ibid., 502.)
Perhaps the most astounding thing of all, however, is the fact that a significant number of Chesterton’s modern followers appear to have fallen victim to this predator in the fold.  For example, the Fabian Society openly declares that its chief tactic is to infiltrate and transform organized religion — and has adopted the wolf in sheep’s clothing as the badge of the Society.  Nevertheless, some of today’s Chestertonians and distributists can be found not merely reading and studying the works of socialists such as Henry George, Arthur Penty, Major Douglas, R.H. Tawney, E.F. Schumacher, and others (including Karl Marx), but advocating the thought of these writers as consistent with Catholic social teaching!
It’s enough to make one wonder. . . .
#30#

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