A letter to Pope Benedict
Dear Your Holiness,
I was most interested in your recent visit to Cuba and your comments, quoted by Reuters, that the Cuban system “no longer works” and that the Catholic Church was eager to help Cubans find a “new model” because — and this is the line that really floored me — “Marxist ideology in the way it was conceived no longer corresponds to reality”.
My God (if you’ll pardon the phrase)! What an insight! (Yes, I know God was whispering in your ear, but you still deserve some credit.) Since Marx stopped thinking in 1883, things have happened that he had nothing to say about! Who would have thought it?
Well, as you know of course, the Church has thought about it. Things change, as God told you or one or your predecessors in a private audience. And without as much as an archangel or even a lowly angel whispering in my ear, I can work out that, for most ideologies, within at most a decade or two of their founding, reality has deviated to some extent from their original conception: reality changes, and nobody can foresee very much of the future. This is why ideologies that last beyond a few decades necessarily contain or adopt mechanisms for modifying their original conception as developments in the real world suggest is necessary.
To give you just one example: Marx never wrote anything about imperialism in its modern form because it hadn’t come into existence before he died. But because Marx’s “ideology” was a science rather than a set of doctrines, later Marxists such as Lenin were able to incorporate an understanding of this new phenomenon within Marxism.
I don’t want to be rude, and I hope you won’t be offended if I point out that the ideology of the Church hasn’t always shown as much flexibility. I don’t know at what point the Church abandoned defending the statement in Genesis or one of those biblical chapters that the rest of the universe (the sky) is a bowl turned upside down on the Earth (I believe even some Republican presidential candidates in the US are now close to abandoning this idea). But I do know that four centuries ago, the Church was still threatening Galileo with torture to force him to say that the Sun revolved around the Earth, rather than the reverse. I think it was another three centuries after that before the Church acknowledged that it might not have been 100% correct on this matter.
The Galileo incident and things like the Church’s continuing refusal to acknowledge women’s right to control their fertility seem to me an almost unbridgeable gap between ideology and reality.
By now, you will have had a chance to see for yourself that the Cubans are justly proud of their system, whose achievements in social equality and solidarity are unprecedented, and all the more amazing for having been achieved while under blockade and attack for half a century by the world’s biggest and most aggressive military and economic power.
Hence, it seems unlikely that many Cubans will want to take up your offer of “new models” for society. Perhaps two thousand years ago the Church seemed to have some novel ideas, but in modern times the only models it has offered have been old ones — like going back to capitalism.
Cuba is now making some changes to economic aspects of its system, in order to bring its Marxism into better alignment with current realities. I hope your Cuban visit will have inspired you to introduce a similar spirit of learning and adapting into the doctrines and practices of the Church. But I’m not holding my breath.
Direct Action — April 23, 2012