Visions of Paradise

Friday, December 23, 2005

Catholics and Communists

Several times in the past I've read quotes stating that Communist governments learned how to manipulate their citizens by imitating the Catholic Church. Such comments generally annoyed me, since they seemed like typical anti-Catholic rhetoric which is one of the few bigotries which is acceptable in this politically-correct country of ours.

But in the past decade I've read several books about the People's Republic of China and, as a result, I've learned a lot more about the Chinese brand of communism than I knew previously. Of particular interest was the book Wild Swans in which author Jung Chang discussed how it was growing up and being educated in the Communist Chinese system. What amazed me about her childhood memories was how familiar some of them seemed.

One of the basic tenets of Chinese communism is the government's attempt to control its citizen's thoughts. Anti-revolutionary thoughts were forbidden, and anybody showing evidence of them was at least ostracized, often punished. I attended Catholic grammar school for nine years, and Catholic high school for another four years, and we were drilled repeatedly with the need to only have pure thoughts. Any thoughts contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church were sins, frequently mortal sins which could condemn the unfortunate thinker to eternal damnation. Remember Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's property and Thou shall not covet that neighbor's wife? As a youngster, I can recall going through periods when I could not control my thoughts as well as I was brainwashed into doing.

All right, you say, but at least the Catholic Church does not physically punish anybody who reveals unclean thoughts like the Communists do. That is true in the modern era since the Catholic Church has lost most of the temporal authority it enjoyed prior to the Renaissance. Previously the Catholic Church had no qualms about punishing those whose thoughts were dangerous and blasphemous. Remember the Inquisition? What was that but an attempt to force all Europeans' thinking in line with the approved tenets of the Catholic Church? And how many heresies were stamped out by military force in the centuries following the death of Christ?

Another facet of Chinese communism that struck a familiar chord was the practice of self-criticism. By this, anybody who had erred against the Revolution was required to make a public confession of their wrong thoughts or actions. In many cases, only the people making the self-criticisms knew how they had erred. They were required to examine their conscience and determine their own faults. How much different is this than the Catholic practice of going to Confession? True, the self-criticisms are public, while Confession is private, but everybody attending Confession can see each person as they exit the Confessional kneel down and perform their penance. The longer the penance, obviously the more serious that person's sins. In pre-Renaissance days, penances for serious sins were often performed publicly for all to see so that they amounted to public confessions, or self-criticisms!

The author of Wild Swans made it apparent that in the Communist system the government attempted to brainwash all students into accepting Communist policy wholeheartedly: the Communist party was the most important part of those children's lives, more important than family and friends, and the children should devote their lives to pleasing Chairman Mao and serving the revolution. In school, I was taught (and, in fact, the Catholic Church still preaches) that God is the most important part of our lives, more important than family and friends, and that we should devote our lives to serving God and Holy Mother Church. Nor was this just some abstract tenet we were taught: it was drummed into our heads day after day, year after year, until to believe otherwise was as foreign to us as not worshipping Chairman Mao was foreign to Jung Chang. By eighth grade I was convinced there was no higher calling than the priesthood, and most of my family believed that was the career that I would ultimately choose.

There are other similarities between the Chinese Communist party and the Catholic Church. One of the tenets of Chinese Communism that causes the most universal disapproval was the requirement that all schoolchildren memorize and recite the Quotations of Chairman Mao. I did not find that particularly unusual at all. All during grammar school I was required to memorize and recite the Baltimore Catechism: Who made me? God made me. Who is God? God is the supreme being who created all things. I still remember parts of it.

Any Catholic who received the sacrament of Confirmation must recall the agony we all went through memorizing the Catechism faithfully prior to Confirmation. Our big fear was the Bishop coming to our Church to question us about the tenets of Catholicism. Anybody who failed to answer the Bishop's questions adequately would be immediately expelled from the Confirmation and humiliated in front of all their family and friends. So believe me, my classmates and I studied that catechism well. My parents quizzed me nightly until I was confident I would not be humiliated by the Bishop.

There are other similarities. How much different is the Catholic Church's Cult of the Virgin Mary from Communist China's Cult of Chairman Mao? An argument could be made that the Crusades were the Catholic version of China's Cultural Revolution.

Of course, I had one advantage being a Catholic rather than a citizen of Communist China: since the Catholic Church lost most of its temporal authority during the Renaissance, anybody who resists their brainwashing in modern times is free to walk away without fear of reprisal. Twelve hundred million Chinese don't have that option. Hopefully, someday they will be free of their repressive government. And for the sake of my Chinese friends and their families, hopefully that change will occur sooner rather than later, and as relatively free of violence as the manner in which the Catholic Church ultimately lost its authority.

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