Christian Communal Life vs. Communism

“Those who believed shared all things in common; they would sell their property and goods, dividing everything on the basis of each one’s needs.”

Thus does the Acts of the Apostles describe the “communal life” of the early Christians.

This, I think, is the root of the attraction some Catholics feel toward the communist ideal: what we might call the “commune-ism: of the early Church, as distinct from modern day communist systems.

Indeed, Catholics drawn to the communist ideal will point out that “true communism” has never actually existed on a large scale, national level. I would submit that it never will, because it never can.

The communal approach of the early Church is easily seen as the Christian ideal. It has flourished, in various forms, throughout the history of Catholicism, in monastic life, among certain religious orders, in some lay movements and communities.

It works for several reasons: it is voluntary, the communities are small, and all who participate believe in and are committed to its ideals.

And these are precisely the reasons that large scale, government-imposed communist systems do not work—and are morally unacceptable.

They deny human freedom. One does not have to be a “greedy capitalist” to want one’s own property—to be in business for oneself, to work one’s own land, or just to have a home for one’s family.

As Pope Leo XIII made clear in Rerum Novarum, his seminal encyclical on Catholic social teaching, the Church upholds the right of the individual to own property as the just fruits of one’s labor.

We are all free to voluntarily give away what we have, or decline to possess anything of our own. And yes, our Church teaches that we ought not hoard more than we need, while others suffer from want. But it is morally wrong for a coercive government to dispossess us of what is rightfully ours, to force us into a communal way of living that we do not choose for ourselves.

The vastness and diversity of large-scale communist societies also make them unworkable and morally problematic.

It is one thing for a small group of like-minded people to come together voluntarily in a commune, all holding the same beliefs and values and agreeing to the same rules and practices, the appropriate use of their shared resources, and the relinquishing of personal freedom and individual possessions.

It is quite another thing to force together an entire nation of diverse people, with different values, different religious beliefs, different priorities in their lives, require them to surrender any freedom to act according to their beliefs, values, and priorities, and deny them the discretion to use the resources they have earned in furtherance of those beliefs, values, and priorities.