Even a decade after his death, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn remains one of the most misinterpreted writers of the 20th century.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, it was fashionable for Progressive and left-wing intellectuals to travel to the Soviet Union to find out what was “really” going on in the world’s first great experiment in communism. “The entire British intelligentsia,” the editor of the left-leaning New Statesman Kingsley Martin breathlessly exclaimed in 1932, “has been to Russia.”
The vast majority came back wide-eyed and deeply impressed by what they had seen. Following his visit to Russia in 1919, for example, the American progressive journalist Lincoln Steffens famously wrote, “I have seen the future, and it works.”
There were, however, realities about Soviet communism which few such individuals ever got around to mentioning. They rarely referred to, for instance, the Bolsheviks’ destruction of freedom; the cults of personality surrounding Lenin and then Stalin; the regime’s use of systematic terrorism against real but mostly imaginary opponents; the dynamiting of churches; the herding of peasants into collective farms; the murder of thousands of Orthodox and other Christian clergy; the Great Famine that killed millions in the Ukraine; the show-trials, purges and executions; the labor camps; and the relentless propaganda which assured everyone that everything was fine and that any problems were the work of saboteurs, kulaks, class-traitors, Czarist reactionaries, evil Western capitalists, and British Intelligence.
I was reminded of all this recently when reading a strange interview of Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo. He is the Argentine-born and Vatican-based longtime Chancellor of what are called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Having recently visited China, the bishop described the one-party communist state as “extraordinary.”
Why extraordinary, you might ask? Well, according to Bishop Sanchez, China has “no shantytowns” and “young people don’t take drugs.” Moreover, he said, China takes climate change so much more seriously than most other nations. That’s hard to square with China’s relentless emphasis on economic growth. But, above all, the bishop exclaimed, “those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.”
At this point, I started to wonder how the Argentine bishop reconciled some well-known facts about the Chinese communist regime—its policy of forced-abortions in the name of population-control; its use of mass labor camps; its ongoing problems with rampant corruption; the growing cult of personality surrounding President Xi Jinping; its absence of democracy; its bellicose and militaristic stance in the South China Sea; the surveillance and censoring of anyone deemed a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly of power by the Ministry of State Security; its appalling treatment of the Nobel Peace Prize activist, the late Liu Xiaobo; its oppression of the people of Tibet and other ethnic minorities; its demolition of Evangelical and Catholic churches; and its relentless harassment of Catholic clergy and laypeople who won’t support regime-puppets like the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association—with Catholic social teaching.
Incidentally, there are plenty of shanty-towns in mainland China, including in Beijing. And if Bishop Sanchez seriously believes that no young people use drugs in China, I can only (very charitably) conclude that he was given a very sheltered tour of China—perhaps something akin to Catherine the Great’s expeditions to the provinces in Russia during which her advisors made sure that she saw only what came to be called “Potemkin villages”: temporary edifices designed to shelter the sovereign’s eyes from unpleasant truths.
A disconnectedness from reality, however, seems to have become the norm throughout parts of the Holy See lately—or at least a tendency to view the world through a distinctly leftist lens.
Back in 2016, for example, the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences of which Sanchez is Chancellor held a conference to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus. This document reflected an openness to the market economy on the part of Catholic social teaching which had been absent during the heady days of the 1960s and the decade of decadence otherwise known as the 1970s. This made it all the stranger that the two heads of state in attendance—Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Ecuador’s then-President Rafael Correa—were left-wing Latin American populists: i.e., politicians deeply hostile to much of Centesimus Annus’ messages.
Apart from significantly undermining freedom in their own nations in the name of “el pueblo,” both men have strongly and consistently supported Venezuela’s Cuban-backed left-populist authoritarian regime: the same government which, apart from having destroyed the Venezuelan economy, recently threatened to deploy “hate-crime” laws to try and silence one of President Nicolas Maduro’s strongest critics, the Catholic bishops of Venezuela.
One wonders if any mildly non-left wing relatively market-friendly head of state or government even made it onto Bishop Sanchez’s invitation list. Indeed, the event’s left-leaning character was confirmed by the presence of no less than Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s own embodiment of left-wing populism who was then running for President. The only surprise was that Comrade Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t at the meeting.
I could go on about the unending parade of leftist notables though the Pontifical academies since 2013. Perhaps the most notorious has been Paul R. Ehrlich: the now-aged exponent of the “population bomb” whose Malthusian prophecies of mass starvation and death as a result of population-growth somehow never materialized. The scientific debunking of Ehrlich’s predictions was, it seems, no obstacle to his attendance at a conference primarily for scientists.
It’s also worth noting that all of this goes hand-in-hand with some bizarre and badly uninformed views of the United States. In China, Bishop Sanchez stated in his recent interview, “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”
China, the bishop insisted, was focused laser-like on promoting the “common good”—an idea that has been destroyed elsewhere, Sanchez claimed, by what he called “liberal thought.” By “liberal,” we can safely assume that Sanchez means “neoliberalism:” one of the perennial bogeymen in the conspiracy-theory laden world of Latin American populists (especially of the Peronist variety), alongside the “multinational oil companies” who, Sanchez claimed, manipulate and control President Trump.
Once again, however, Bishop Sanchez’s claims are difficult to reconcile with facts. Anyone remotely familiar with recent Chinese history knows that, since Deng Xiaoping’s time, China’s leaders have concentrated on accelerating economic development: so much so that this has long been, in addition to its self-preservation, the regime’s priority. That’s one reason why Beijing and so many other Chinese cities are regularly consumed by industrial-generated smog. So much for China’s overriding commitment to the climate.
As for the triumph of “liberal thought,” it’s hard to know what the bishop had in mind. In the United States, for example, overall economic freedom actually declined between 2006 and 2016. This suggests that “liberal thought” of the free market variety has been exerting considerably less influence throughout America. Indeed, President Trump has been a strong critic of free trade agreements. Furthermore, far from being dominated by economic concerns, American politics has steadily drifted in the direction of a mixture of phenomena such as identity politics, debates between nationalists and globalists, and persistent arguments about social issues, ranging from abortion to gender ideology.
Bishop Sanchez’s peculiar ruminations about world affairs are, however, emblematic of how concern for precision and facts seems to have disappeared throughout much of the Vatican over the past five years. One need only recall the notorious 2017 Civiltà Cattolica article penned by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa: a piece which even some of its defenders conceded contained substantive errors about the history of religion in the United States and the role played by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics in American politics.
It doesn’t help the Holy See’s reputation to have some Vatican officials parading their fact-free, strikingly incoherent views of the world on the public stage. Bishop Sanchez’s claim that China is somehow one of the world’s leading exponents of Catholic social doctrine is frankly outrageous. It is also insulting to those Catholics and other Christians who have suffered so much for their faith under what is, after all, a regime that remains ideologically committed to atheistic materialism. In any organization that took reality and its own credibility seriously, such remarks would likely result in such a person being formally, if not publicly rebuked by more senior officials and perhaps even removed from office.
The fact, however, that people like Bishop Sanchez apparently feel free to speak and act this way speaks volumes about prevailing atmospherics at the Vatican these days. And in the Catholic Church, the ultimate responsibility for that state of affairs falls squarely into one man’s in-box.
Whether he actually chooses to do anything about it is, at best, uncertain.