James Connolly


Roman Catholicism and Socialism


From The Harp, September, 1908.
Transcribed by The James Connolly Society in 1997.

This is the title of a pamphlet by Patrick J. Cooney of Bridgeport, Conn., which we would like to see in the hands of all our readers, and especially those who are struggling towards the light out of the economic darkness of today. To Catholics who have been repelled from socialism by the blatant and rude atheism of some of its irresponsible advocates – and unfortunately the number of such Catholics is legion – this book will be as refreshing as an oasis in the desert to the tired and thirsty traveller.

The author is an active Catholic and at the same time a militant socialist, and in his presentation of our socialist doctrines he never wavers in his allegiance to either. Here and there indeed his loyalty to the Church seems to betray him into statements regarding her position which to our mind would hardly stand the test of modern criticism and historical research. But we confess that in that respect his attitude is a refreshing change from that of the crudely superficial thinkers (?) and scribblers who so commonly discredit the socialist ranks by their dogmatisms on that subject. If we had to choose between the perfervid Catholicity of our author and the blatant anti-Catholicism of the men who are so fond of repelling earnest Catholics by their assertion that the great conflict of the social revolution will be between the forces of the Catholic Church and those of socialism, then we should prefer the position of Comrade Cooney as containing the highest propagandist value, as well as being, if historical precedents count for anything, the most probable to last and stand the test of time. As a matter of fact the Catholic Church always accepts the established order, even if it has warred upon those who had striven to establish such order.

To use a homely adage the Church “does not put all her eggs in one basket,” and the man who imagines that in the supreme hour of the proletarian struggle for victory the Church will definitely line up with the forces of capitalism, and pledge her very existence as a Church upon the hazardous chance of the capitalists winning, simply does not understand the first thing about the policy of the Church in the social or political revolutions of the past. Just as in Ireland the Church denounced every Irish revolutionary movement in its day of activity, as in 1798, 1848 and 1867, and yet allowed its priests to deliver speeches in eulogy of the active spirits of those movements a generation afterwards, so in the future the Church, which has its hand close upon the pulse of human society, when it realises that the cause of capitalism is a lost cause it will find excuse enough to allow freedom of speech and expression to those lowly priests whose socialist declarations it will then use to cover and hide the absolute anti-socialism of the Roman Propaganda. When that day comes the Papal Encyclical against socialism will be conveniently forgotten by the Papal historians, and the socialist utterances, of the von Kettelers, the McGlynns, and McGradys will be heralded forth and the communistic utterances of the early fathers as proofs of Catholic sympathy with progressive ideas. Thus it has been in the past. Thus it will be, at least attempted, in the future. We are not concerned to champion or to deny the morality of such a cause in anticipation, we are simply attempting to read the lessons of the past into the future. And, we modestly submit, this forecast has infinitely more of probability in it than the dreams of those who tell us so glibly of a coming Armageddon between the forces of socialism and Catholicism. Such dreams are not the product of modern socialist philosophy, they are a survival from the obsolete philosophy of the days preceding the first French Revolution.

To the free-thinkers and rebels of those days – and the professional free-thinkers of today have not advanced much beyond that mental stage – God and the Church were nothing more than the schemes of a designing priesthood intent on enslaving and robbing the credulous masses. Religion was a systematised business of deception and trickery invented and perpetuated by men thoroughly aware of its falsehood and baseness, and consciously laying plans to maintain and spread it for their own selfish ends. Kings and rulers of all kinds were the creation of this crafty priesthood which used them to its own purposes. That we are not in the slightest degree mistating the ideas of the times we are criticising any student of the early freethought literature will readily concede. That many otherwise excellent comrades have brought such ideas over into the camp of socialism is also undeniable. But that they are also held by an even greater number of enemies of socialism is truer still. And it is in truth in the camp of the enemy such ideas belong, such doctrines are the legitimate children of the teachings of individualism, and their first progenitors both in England and France were also the first great exponents of the capitalist doctrines of free trade and free competition, free contract and free labour. Such conceptions of religion are entirely opposed to the modern doctrine that the intellectual conceptions of men are the product of their material conditions, and flow in the grooves channelled out by he economic environment.

In the light of this modern conception of the conditions of historical progress religion appears as the outcome of the efforts of mankind to interpret the workings of the forces of nature, and to translate its phenomena into the terms of a language which could be understood. The undeveloped mind cannot grasp an abstract proposition. Therefore that which the cultured man of the twentieth century would explain and understand as ‘a natural process,’ the mental vision of our forefathers could only see as the result of the good or ill will of some beneficent or evil spirit – some God or Devil.

Hence we had in Ireland in our Celtic legends a plentiful store of fairies, leprechauns and good and evil spirits, and every thing on land or sea, on wind or water that our fathers did not understand was readily attributed to the good or perverse genius of some member or members of this fairy host. In their turn the fairies were the descendants of the servants of the ‘Unknown God’ whom the Celt of old worshipped in his Druidic Groves. Anyone at all acquainted with the beliefs of the Irish peasant before the advent of the National School to ‘spoil’ him of his innocence is well aware chat his Catholicity was almost inextricably mingled with a belief in fairy lore and legend that testified that he was still in a transition state of mentality between belief in the spirits of Druidism and the angels of Catholicity.

He would have hotly repudiated such an insinuation. But to the seeing eye the proofs were palpable and undeniable, and this mental development of the Irish Celt towards a clearer conception of the universe, this progress, for it was a progress, from the conception of a world helplessly torn by the warring of spirits to the conception of a world ruled by a Creator holding a spirit world in subjection for a beneficent purpose, this development was paralleled throughout the earth by all the advanced races in their upward march to the conquest of truth. The point to be noted is this:

The different stages of development of the human mind in its attitude towards the forces of Nature created different priesthoods to interpret them, and the mental conceptions of mankind as interpreted by those priesthoods became, when systematised, Religion. Religions are simply expressions of the human conceptions of the natural world; these religions have created the priesthoods. Only he who stands upon the individualist conceptions of history can logically claim that priesthoods created religion. Modern historical science utterly rejects the idea as absurd.

Yet it is this utterly unhistorical idea, rejected by historical science as it is also rejected by the record of the countless thousands of priests of all religions who have cheerfully gone to martyrdom for their beliefs and martyrdom is incredible in a conscious imposter – it – it is this belief that is often brought in and made to do duty as a result of socialist thought by those who ought to know better. It is a matter for congratulation that Irish socialists are free of such excrescences on socialist belief.


Last updated on 8.8.2003