The Rise of Christian Socialism

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The Rise of Christian Socialism
The Rise of Christian Socialism

The following article is adapted from the book Liberation Theology: How Marxism Infiltrated the Catholic Church written by Julio Loredo de Izcue.


The first manifestations of Christian Socialism came directly from the French Revolution and thus predate social Catholicism. During the Revolution there were factions which, taking the motto of “liberty, equality, fraternity” to its ultimate consequences, adopted communist positions. The most prominent representative of this trend was François-Noël Babeuf, called Gracchus (1760—1797). “The French Revolution is nothing but the precursor of another revolution, one that will [be] greater, more solemn, and which will be the last.”1 “His idea,” says historian Pierre Gaxotte, “is that the Revolution had failed because it had not been carried out to the end. All the measures it had taken were good…But this was just a first step toward the ‘radical reform of property,’ that is, toward ‘the community of goods and works.’ Obviously, full collectivism would have been dictatorial.”2

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For those radical factions, one had to eliminate not only the king in the State, but also the “king” in society—the employer—and the king in the family, that is, paternal authority. The clearly utopian dream of a perfectly egalitarian and free society without classes, property, or the monogamous family loomed then on the horizon. Fascination with this dream brought about the so-called utopian Socialism, represented in France by Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760—1825), Charles Fourier (1772—1837), Louis Blanc (1811—1882), Philippe Buchez (1796—1865), and Pierre Proudhon (1809—1865). Buchez exerted a particularly significant influence on the left wing of social Catholicism.

Founder of the French Carbonari,3 Buchez converted to Catholicism in 1830 but did not abandon the socialist ideology. Alec Vidler explains: “He found in Christianity a faith that promised to realize the equality and brotherhood of men, and deliver them from the egoism that sets one against another.”4 Buchez then became an apostle of revolutionary Christianity. With words that seem to come from the pen of a present-day liberation theologian, he proclaimed, “Christianity and revolution are the same thing. The Church’s only mistake is not to be revolutionary.”5

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Buchez’s influence went beyond social Catholicism, penetrating even the liberal Catholic current. Some of his disciples joined the Dominican Order, which had been restored in France by a close friend of his, Fr. Henri Lacordaire (1802—1861).6 This was the origin of the progressive wing in France’s Dominican community, which, as we shall see in the next chapter, played a central role in the development of neo-modernist theology, and eventually of LT itself.

In the wake of the 1848 revolution there arose in France a Christian socialist current and many priests joined it. On April 29, 1849, a banquet of socialist priests was held in Paris with more than six hundred guests, including clergy and workers. There were many toasts to “Jesus of Nazareth, the father of Socialism.” In the closing speech, a priest proclaimed, “Yes, citizens, I say this at the top of my voice, I am a republican socialist priest, one of those who are called red republicans; but also a Catholic priest…[Then turning to the working-men, he added:] We want your emancipation, we will no longer allow the exploitation of man by man.”7 Interestingly, only three of the more than thirty priests present were wearing the cassock, while the remaining were in civilian clothes. Evidently, they wanted to emancipate themselves not only from employers but also from ecclesiastical rules, flaunting a revolutionary spirit even in the field of tendencies.

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If utopian Christian Socialism had no great following, at least in its public events, and remained a mere ideal on a distant horizon, that was not the fate of the Socialism born from the left of social Catholicism in the late nineteenth century. In France, they usually indicate as a watershed the Workers’ Conference held in Lyon in 1896; in Italy, it was the appearance in 1891 of the Fasci Democratici (Democratic Squads) inspired by Fr. Romolo Murri (1870—1944). Initially a minority, the socialists grew in importance to the point of controlling large sectors of social Catholicism.

However, the current never became a majority. The popes’ condemnations of Socialism were clear and found an echo among the faithful. On the other hand, the Christian socialists could not count yet on a theology that would give them a doctrinal basis. Forced to choose between fidelity to the Church and socialist commitment, many opted for the latter. Such was the case with Father Murri.

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  1. Sylvain Marechal, et al., Manifesto of the Equals, trans. Mitchell Abidor (1796). See M. Victor Advielle, Histoire de Gracchus Babeuf et du babouvisme d’après de nombreux documents inédits, 2 vols. (Paris: self-published, 1884); Filippo Buonarroti, Gracchus Babeuf et la conspiration des égaux (Paris: Armand le Chevalier, 1830). On Buonarroti, Babeuf’s comrade, see Alessandro Galante Garrone, Filippo Buonarroti e i rivoluzionari dell’ottocento (1828–1837) (Turin: Einaudi, 1972). On Babeuf’s passage from the French Revolution to utopian Socialism, see Julius Braunthal, Geschichte der Internationale (Berlin-Bonn: Dietz Nachf Verlag, 1978), 1:45–51.
  2. Pierre Gaxotte, La révolution française (Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1962), 466.
  3. The Carbonari were members of a secret liberal revolutionary movement that incited or participated in most of the nineteenth-century revolutions in Italy and other countries.
  4. Vidler, A Century of Social Catholicism, 14.
  5. Philippe Buchez, “L’atelier,” quoted in Henri Verbist, Les grandes controverses de l’église contemporaine: De 1789 à nos jours (Veviers, Belgium: Éditions Marabout, 1971), 207.
  6. See André Duval, Lacordaire et Buchez, “ Idéalisme révolutionnaire et réveil religieux en 1849,” Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 45 (1961): 422–55. See also Andrea Lanza, All’abolizione del proletariato: Il discorso socialista fraternitario—Parigi 1839–1847 (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2010), 47–52.
  7. Vidler, A Century of Social Catholicism, 48.

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