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James T. Farrell

The Pope Needs America

Vatican Politics and the American Dollar

(October 1936)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 2, February 1946, pp. 43–45.
First published in The Nation, 17 & 24 October 1936.
Copyright owned by The Nation. Reprinted with their permission.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The following article by James T. Farrell, well known novelist, critic and political essayist, first appeared in The Nation of October 17 and 24, 1936. We reprint it with the author’s permission. Its subject matter assumes real contemporary significance in the light of the recent appointment of four American Cardinals as part of the Vatican’s adjustment to the new post-war world relationships, above all, the dominant role played by American imperialism. – Editors


The aged Pope recently appeared before 400 exiled Spanish refugees, spoke solicitously of the mystical Body of Christ and the ills and sorrows of war-torn Spain, and called benignly for a world-wide anti-red crusade in the spirit of Christian tolerance and charity. It was a scene rich in irony, but the Catholic press was too concerned with heralding the words of the Pontiff to catch the note of irony. The Jesuit weekly America drew a touching contrast between the Holy Father forgiving Communists who are raping Mother Church in Spain, and Joseph Stalin brewing new vials of hatred in the Kremlin. Stalin’s adherents make him out to be infallible; the church attributes to him other characteristics of the early popes, one of whom wrote in the eighth century: “Do not the Franks know that all children of the Lombards are lepers? ... May they broil with the devil and his angels in everlasting fire!”

The Roman Catholic church has been built and defended not only with prayers and the will of the Almighty, but also by means of blood and the sword. Neither the Holy Ghost nor Saint Peter ever contributed as effectively to the defense of the papacy as did, say, the Frankish King Pepin and his great son Charlemagne, who restored the weak Pope Leo III by force of arms. Down through the ages the Roman Catholic church has balanced prayers with the rack, canonization with the might of the sword, the power of wealth and oppression with appeals to the dreams and ignorance of the masses. It has, by the variety of its instruments, weathered the storms of centuries. Revolutions have come and gone, but Mother Church has remained the pillar of Christendom. In Spain today she stands with gun in hand defending churches which have been turned into arsenals. Her priests lay down their weapons to grant absolution to those who are about to be massacred by rebels wearing the badge of Mary on their sleeve and by those great defenders of Christianity, order and authority – Mohammedan Moors. And the Vicar of Christ gently restrains them, forgives the “reds,” and tacitly gives his benediction to the slaughter. The American Catholic press backs up the rebels. Thus America recently commented: “With such an enemy [communism] there can be no compromise; the Americans with liberal ideals will join the Bishops of Pamplona and Vittoria in calling down a blessing ‘on those who at the moment are sacrificing themselves for religion and country’.” And when Michael Williams rather mildly dissented from this kind of rabidness in a recent issue of the liberal Catholic weekly, the Commonweal, a priest took the trouble to write in to correct him.

Church Investments

The Catholic church in America has never been more alert, more militant. more on the offensive than it is at present. E. Boyd Barrett, an ex-Jesuit, has written in the opening pages of his excellent and well-documented book, Rome Stoops to Conquer:

“From an insignificant group of 25,000 adherents, shepherded by thirty poor priests, in 1789, the Catholic church in America has grown to be a congregation of 20,000,000 led by 30,000 priests. From being propertyless, she has become a rich institution, whose wealth exceeds two billion dollars. From being a despised and scattered flock, she has become the most perfectly organized body in the world, enjoying immense influence and power.”

In an article in the American Spectator (January 1936) entitled The Finances of the Catholic Church, Ferdinand Lundberg furnished detailed and illuminating corroboration of Barrett’s statements. Quoting from the New York State banking records and “selecting items at random from the portfolio of the church’s investments,” he presented a half-page list of the corporations in which the church has invested its funds – Pure Oil, Commonwealth Edison, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Baltimore & Ohio, and so on. The list is a directory of the industrial United States.

Many commentators have mistakenly appraised religion in terms of individual piety, the attendance records at church services, and the like. They have failed to realize that religion is an institution and that it must be studied in terms of its influence as such. Among religious institutions the Roman Catholic church is the richest, the most solidly organized, the most cohesive. The strength of its organization gives it a position in our society which no other church possesses and makes it potentially a threat to progressive forces, despite the fact that piety in American life is on the decline, that many individual Catholics disregard the church’s doctrines on birth control, and that many of the enrolled twenty million Catholics do not partake of the sacrament regularly. Also, its organization is strictly authoritarian and anti-democratic.

These facts are interesting, particularly at a time when Mother Church has again come forth as the Church militant, flying the banner of Catholic action. The center of its offensive under the leadership of the Pope is, and must be, America. America is the citadel of world capitalism. Christendom is one of the spiritual bodyguards of world capitalism. Protestant Christianity was, of course, a reflex of the rise of world capitalism. It furnished the religious ethics which served as part of the rationalized explanation of the aims and ideals of the rising middle class. The connection between the rise of capitalism and the Reformation is close. In due time Mother Church swung into line. Part and parcel of medievalism, dependent for her strength upon her land holdings in the Middle Ages, she shifted her emphasis and adapted herself to the new capitalist world economy. Today the church remains the rock of Christianity even though it does not possess the sweeping power which it once held, even though a Hitler does not come crawling to Canossa. It is only logical that Roman Catholicism should seek to conquer in America. The death of capitalism will be the death of Mother Church. She will then be divorced from Caesar, and forced to practice her platitude of rendering unto Caesar his due, and giving unto God His due. The church will become a purely religious organization. Its power will be founded on prayer, superstition, and its ability to sell the promised joys of the kingdom of heaven. Its economic basis will be shattered. And no institution whose economic base has crumbled can survive as a social force.

Rome has lost other countries. It is now faced with the loss of Spain. Whoever wins in Spain, the church will emerge with lessened power. Fascism will reduce it to the position of a subsidiary ally. In order to retain its position, it must conquer America to compensate for its losses in other parts of the globe. Today a considerable proportion of the income of the church comes from this country. If the annual American contribution to Peter’s Pence were subtracted from the income of the Vatican, that income would be shrunken indeed.

Attitude Toward Fascism

For financial and other reasons the Roman Catholic church does not prefer fascism, despite its alliance with Mussolini. Monarchism, Bonapartism or capitalistic democracy is better suited to its intentions. Fascism is an expensive venture for the church, just as it is for capitalism. Fascism is a desperate attempt on the part of capitalism to save itself by hiring political Capones. These gangsters must be paid. Capitalists have to fork over some of that payment. If the church wants to survive, it also must contribute. Before Mussolini signed a concordat with the Vatican, the Black Shirts destroyed and outlawed Don Sturzo’s Catholic Party, and they attacked the Catholic labor organizations as viciously as they attacked the socialist trade unions. Even after the concordat, official attacks upon Catholic Action brought forth a papal encyclical in which the Pope complained of attacks on the youth of Catholic Action and protested repeatedly that Catholic Action was non-political. The experience of the Catholic church in fascist Germany is similar. Thus the church repeats its own history. It opposed the rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie. It aligned itself with the aristocracy in the period of the bourgeois revolutions, and even down into the nineteenth century the papacy was anti-democratic. We are now entering a period of new wars and revolutions. The defense against revolution is fascism. If that defense is successful there follows a new distribution of power, wealth and executive control, in which Rome does not propose but must accept terms. In order to survive, Rome must compromise and pay. For that reason the church does not prefer fascism.

In America there is no strong likelihood of fascism in the immediate future. American capitalism has not yet been forced to draw upon its reserves. The American working class has not yet become a direct revolutionary threat to capitalism. The American form of government as an instrument of capitalist state power has not yet broken down. Now is the strategic time for Rome to offset its losses in Europe by gains in the United States – before fascism unleashes all those vile and obnoxious anti-Catholic prejudices which are smoldering in the Bible belt.


The instrument with which the church hopes to conquer America is Catholic Action. The present Pope has defined it as follows: “Catholic Action is nothing else than the apostolate of the laity under the leadership of the bishops.” Michael Williams in The Catholic Church in Action states that “primarily, Catholic Action ... may be described as both the intensification and the more highly organized collective direction of the apostolic mission of the church to the world, built upon the ‘participation of the laity in the apostolate of the hierarchy’.” E. Boyd Barrett defines it thus:

Catholic Action is best described as the new phase of Catholicism ... In theory, Catholic Action is the work and service of lay Catholics in the cause of religion, under the guidance of the bishops. In practice it is the Catholic group fighting their way to control America ... In medieval times the church gained supremacy in various countries through her influence over nobles and soldiers. Today she aims at the old supremacy by mass action of her organized subjects and by systematic penetration of various groupings.

Barrett’s description of Catholic Action is a satisfactory one if we apply two corrections. In his reference to medieval times he neglects to indicate the economic basis of the church’s supremacy, namely, its vast land holdings. Secondly, he speaks of the aim of the Catholic church – to regain its quondam supremacy – as if this aim were achievable in the present era. The church cannot turn back the clock of history, the late Gilbert K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to the contrary notwithstanding. It can only defend itself by becoming a staunch ally of capitalism, whether the latter takes the form of bourgeois democracy or fascism.

The Apparatus

In America, then, Catholic Action is working systematically to permeate the life of all Catholics. Christ instructed his apostles to go forth and teach all nations. The Catholic laity is ostensibly organized for a crusade to intensify Catholicism, to further the spiritual and material aims of the church. For this purpose the church has its Knights of Columbus, Holy Name societies, Catholic alumni organizations, Catholic Youth Clubs, Newman clubs in the universities, guilds for doctors, writers, actors, and nurses. It has a powerful formal and informal apparatus of education, and it even fights bitterly to force the appropriation of public funds for the assistance of private – read Catholic – institutions. Through such papers as the Catholic Worker, which offers saints and radical phrases to the proletariat, it bids for stronger support from the worker. Its journals now reflect plans for the conversion of the Negro, whom it has long neglected, in order to neutralize his radical and revolutionary potentialities. The church commands a fighting press, manned by militant mediocrities of the type of Michaeldiv Williams and Father Talbott, S.J. It has organized the Legion of Decency with ten million members – and this organization is able to dictate to supine producers in Hollywood what the American public, including its millions of non-Catholics, shall see in motion-picture theaters. It lobbies against child-labor laws on the theory that such laws would give the state control over the child, who, according to the will of God and natural law, belongs to the Deity, the parent, and the parish priest. It attacks the dissemination of birth-control information. In some of its organs, notably America, we occasionally find expressions of anti-Semitism which might well have emanated from Nazi Germany. Likewise the Catholic press conducts a consistent and continuous red-baiting campaign, which is supplemented with speeches by prominent Catholic laymen and clergymen. This theme dominated the recent convention of the Holy Name Society in New York City. The alumni of Notre Dame University are now planning to add bolshevik hunts to college cheer-leading as an occupation for adults who have never fully grown up. Meanwhile the church demands of President Roosevelt that he interfere in the internal affairs of Mexico. In a recent issue of America one Thomas S. Hunter writes:

“The Mexican issue is not a Catholic issue, it is not a politico-religious issue; it is a fundamental issue in which our own essential liberties are involved. If freemen, irrespective of creed and color, fail to respond to Rome’s appeal, Mexico will perish, and we who have stood by impassive and watched her agony, will we escape?”

Here is an open call for intervention. But where was Rome’s appeal to “freemen” to halt Mussolini’s invasion of Christian Ethiopia? What effective policies did Rome introduce to achieve liberty and social justice in Spain? What did the church ever do to alleviate the abject poverty and complete illiteracy of the Mexican peons?

Since this is the formal role which Mother Church is playing and seeking to play in America today, it is pertinent to summarize her apologetics. I have already suggested the biblical justification of Catholic Action, the command to the apostles to go forth and teach all men and all nations. Further, the church contends that since the disruption of the feudal and medieval era materialism has been growing in the world. Today neopaganism has gained such a foothold that it threatens civilization unless the spiritual forces of Christendom, guided by the firm hand of the Pope and led by the church, organize to stem the tide. Today the world suffers grievously from the heresy of materialism, which generates a false science. This causes class war, irreverence for authority and order, and immorality. And further, materialism as a heresy has become organized in the movement known as communism, which operates from Moscow, the red Rome. Communism persecutes religion and gloats over the murder of priests and nuns. It promotes atheism and class war; it threatens to destroy liberty and disrupt the family. Coeval with its threat to the family is its attack on private property. Private property is an institution justified by natural law. Its defense was framed in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Evil does not flow from the institution of private property or from the profit system which is constructed upon it, but is the result of the failure of those who own private property to make the right use of it. Thus the solution of the economic problems of the world is not socialism, which places the ownership of the means of production in the hands of the proletarian state. Rather, it lies in the employer’s acceptance of a moral obligation to give his employees a just and fair wage.

Catholicism and Democracy

In America the church now insists that it accepts democracy and asserts that the Constitution of the United States must be defended. And who is to be its defender? That 100 per cent American institution, the Roman Catholic church, whose Pope lives in the Vatican and is always Italian and whose College of Cardinals is also preponderantly Italian. The entire structure of the church is anti-democratic. Its theology is dogmatic. It permits no error, no deviation in conduct, and it carries its dogmatic control to the extent of maintaining a papal Index of Books. The church insists that it accepts the principle of the separation of church and state. The Dogma of Papal Infallibility, which was log-rolled into acceptance in the last century over the arguments and protests of the more intelligent Catholics, gives the Pope final authority on matters of faith and morals, and it holds that on such matters the Pope cannot err when he speaks ex cathedra. The only catch is the fact that faith and morals manage to become intermingled with political and economic questions. While the church professes belief in the separation of church and state and in liberty of conscience, it insidiously attempts to eat up the state and organize conscience within the framework of an unrelenting set of dogmas. The democratic pretensions of the church are a front and a heresy. They will be used as long as they are needed, and when they become cumbersome, they will be Jesuitically refined, refashioned, and placed on file in the Vatican until they are again needed.

In its appeal to proletarians, many of whom are nominally or actually its religious subjects, the church is beginning to assume pseudo-radicalism. Up to now Father Coughlin has served well on this front. His doctrines of social justice are indubitably modeled upon the famous encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pius XI. However, Father Coughlin is an out-and-out, acknowledged fascist, and in his paper, Social Justice, he is even now beginning to speak favorably of the new Germany. A Catholic priest as a fascist leader in a preponderantly Protestant country is too much for the Vatican. But Father Coughlin has expressed the ideas and sentiments of the famous “red paragraphs” of the encyclicals issued by the present Pontiff. To quote Pius XI, “The immense number of propertyless wage-earners on the one hand and the superabundant riches of the fortunate few on the other are an unanswerable argument that earthly goods so abundantly produced in this age of industrialism are far from rightly distributed and equitably shared among various classes of men.” Hence there is a need of social justice. The laborer must be worthy of his hire. The rich must not abuse their gifts and goods.

“Every effort must be made that at least in the future a just share only of the fruits of production be permitted to accumulate in the hands of the wealthy and that an ample sufficiency be supplied to the workingman ... Entirely false is the principle widely propagated today that the worth of labor and therefore the equitable return to be made fur it should equal the worth of its net result. Thus the right to the full product of his toil is claimed for the wage-earner. How erroneous this is appears from what we have written above concerning capital and labor.”

This last is obviously an attack on Marxism.

As Adam Smith has said, there is a lot of ruin in any system. There remains a lot of ruin in American capitalism. There remains a lot of ruin in world capitalism. The policy of the Catholic church is to intrench itself in that ruin. In a world on fire the policy of the church is to ally itself both with God and with those who have economic power. The church must retain its income from America. And it must remain on good terms with American capitalism. The Holy System of Profits and the Holy Ghost are lining up side by side to save what privileges they can in an era of worldwide decay.


James T. Farrell
October 1936

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