In the Summer of 1969, while Europe was still in the turmoil of the student rebellion that had started in France the year before, the prestigious French journal Esprit published an exchange between two of the best-known Catholic intellectuals of the time. One was Jean-Marie Domenach, who in 1957 had succeeded Emmanuel Mounier as editor of Esprit and de facto flag-bearer of “progressive” French Catholicism. The other was Thomas Molnar, the distinguished Hungarian-American philosopher and historian (and a regular Commonweal contributor). Domenach regarded Molnar as a representative of the “intelligent right” and asked him to comment on the impasse de la gauche, the “dead end of the left,” at the end of the 1960s. The resulting article, together with a long reply by Domenach and a brief rejoinder by Molnar, appeared in the July-August 1969 issue of Esprit.
It immediately attracted the attention of another important Catholic intellectual, the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who had the debate translated into Italian and published as a book, together with his own introductory essay. The Molnar-Domenach-Del Noce discussion, titled Il vicolo cieco della sinistra, is a unique document of the intra-Catholic debate at the end of the ’60s, but it is also relevant to today’s debates about the relationship between Catholicism and politics. In many ways, Western politics as we know it, and especially progressive politics, took shape at that time. That period saw the rise of the so-called New Left, a moniker that has been used to designate a broad array of political movements that privileged the advancement of individual “civil rights” (women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights) over more traditional concerns of the left such as the condition of laborers, economic inequality, and unionization. As a symbolic turning point in the transformation of the left, historians in the United States often cite the memorable Democratic convention of 1972, in which activists influenced by the New Left gained influence at the expense of organized labor and other traditional constituencies of the party. But similar transformations were taking place in Europe, albeit less visibly—on the surface, European leftist parties remained committed throughout the 1970s to their traditional political cultures (either orthodox Marxism or forms of social democracy). Nonetheless, perceptive intellectuals like Del Noce could see that old-fashioned leftist politics were in a crisis.
Today, few outside of Italy—and not even many Italians—are familiar with Del Noce’s work. But his intellectual journey exemplifies the experience of many European Catholics of his generation. Born in 1910, Del Noce had come of age under Fascism. In the 1930s Italian Catholicism had sought and found a modus vivendi with Mussolini’s regime. While most Catholics were not Fascists, many thought that Fascism cold be “used” to defeat what they regarded as two great enemies of the church: bourgeois liberalism and revolutionary socialism. The young Del Noce disagreed because he believed that Fascism’s violence was incompatible with Christianity. He had been greatly influenced by the work of Jacques Maritain, and especially by the 1936 book Integral Humanism, in which Maritain had decisively criticized “medievalism”—the view that Catholics should just reject modernity entirely to pursue the restoration of an integrally Christian society, inspired by the medieval ideal of a “sacred empire.” Maritain rejected the idea of a Catholic-Fascist alliance and advocated a form of Christian humanism open to the positive contributions of modernity, including some aspects of Marxism.
The question of Catholic-Marxist dialogue would become urgent a few years later, when Europe became engulfed by war and barbarism. Some young Catholics of Del Noce’s generation came to the conclusion that the fight against Fascism required an alliance between Christianity and Marxism. This was the guiding principle of the so-called Communist-Catholic movement, which Del Noce himself joined for a time. In that respect, his experience will feel foreign to American Catholics; in the United States, the church was vehemently anti-Communist and very few Catholics had Marxist sympathies. But the same moral uneasiness that had made Del Noce an anti-Fascist soon made him uncomfortable with the Marxist-Leninist idea that violence is justified for the sake of the revolution. To address this uneasiness he studied systematically the works of Karl Marx. This marked a turning point in his intellectual life.
Contra the “Catholic Left,” which tended to regard Marx’s atheism as accidental, and tried to rescue his socio-political analysis from his religious views, Del Noce concluded that what Marx proposed was not just a new theory of history or a new program of political economy, but a new anthropology, one completely different from the Christian tradition. (Louis Dupré had made a similar argument in the pages of Commonweal; see “Marx and Religion: An Impossible Marriage,” April 26, 1968.) Marx viewed humans as “social beings” entirely determined by historical and material circumstances rather than by their relationship with God. He viewed human reason as purely instrumental—a tool of production and social organization rather than the capacity to contemplate the truth and participate in the divine wisdom. Finally, Marx viewed liberation as the fruit of political action, not as a personal process of conversion aided by grace. Marxist politics was not guided by fixed and absolute ethical principles, because ethics, along with philosophy, was absorbed into politics. Del Noce concluded that there was no way to rescue Marx’s politics from his atheism, which had as much to do with his view of man as with his view of God.