They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.


Christians have been in China, on and off, since at least the seventh century CE. At that time, the Church of the East – the largest Christian church in those days – made contact and established churches during the T’ang Dynasty (based in Chang’an or modern Xi’an). The Church of the East had a distinct Christology, which is often dubbed ‘Nestorian’ (Jingjiao) but should be called dyophyticism, stressing the divine and human natures of Christ. It lasted in China until the 10th century, only to return in the 13th and 14th centuries during the Yuan dynasty.

By the time the Roman Catholics (Tianzhu jiao) appeared in China in the 13th century, Christianity had already been in these parts for some six centuries. The Roman Catholic story is a long and rocky one, with Matteo Ricci (Li Madou) in the early 17th century, periods of support and restriction, and then finding itself eclipsed by Protestant missions in the 19th century and  the establishment of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Church in the 1950s.

However, the Roman Catholics found themselves in an old bind after the liberation of China in 1949. On the one hand, the government recognises the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is under the direction of the government’s department of religious affairs. The Vatican has never recognised this organisation, but it has also never condemned it as schismatic. On the other hand, there is the unofficial Roman Catholic Church in China, which is recognised by the Vatican but not the government. At heart is the old problem of who appoints bishops: the state or the Vatican.

For some 60 years this problem has seemed intractable – until China’s new ordinance on religious affairs (2017) took effect. To be added is Pope Francis’s desire to unite Roman Catholics in China under one organisation. So we find serious efforts to come to an agreement, much like the deal in Vietnam. Needless to say, arguments have gone back and forth among Roman Catholics, with some condemning the new deal and others advocating it.

Most recently, the Global Times has carried a piece by a Roman Catholic theologian – Massimo Faggioli – advocating the move on historical and theological grounds. To quote:

The negotiations between the Vatican and the government of the People’s Republic of China represent the most important diplomatic effort by the Holy See in decades, and it is no surprise they are encountering significant opposition in the Western hemisphere.

There are two dimensions that we need to take into account to understand these negotiations. The first dimension is historical-theological. There is a long history of relations between the papacy and political authorities that goes back at least to the early fourth century, under the Roman Empire of Constantine and later of emperor Theodosius, when the Church acquired public relevance. It was the beginning of a long history of bilateral relations between the Church as a community of believers and the political community. It is a history that always had at the center the care of the bishop of Rome (the pope) for his brother bishops and the local Churches, the good relations between the Church hierarchy and the political authorities, and especially the appointment of bishops.

These issues were crucial in the “investiture controversy” of the 11th-12th century, in the tensions with emerging nation states in Europe in the early modern period, and in the struggle with nationalisms in the 19th and 20th centuries. The issue of the bishops’ appointments was important also in the relations between the Vatican and Soviet Russia and Eastern European countries under communist rule after World War II.

But the parallels that are often drawn between the current negotiations with China today and the history of the Vatican Ostpolitik during the Cold War are misleading: the proper historical context for a correct understanding of the ongoing efforts is the entire 2,000-year long history of the Church and of the papacy. In this long history, the procedures for the appointment of bishops have always been very complex: they were often, and in many cases still are (in various forms, always subject to change in the long run) a moment of collaboration between the papacy and secular political authorities.

There is also a theological development that adds to this historical context. During the last century, Roman Catholicism has become a more globalized Church: Catholics and the papacy have come to terms with a wider variety of social and political contexts around the world. This means that the Church does not look for the same kind of arrangement for all Catholics in all nations, but strives for improving the relations of Catholics with the political authorities in order to maintain and foster the unity of the Church.

The goal of negotiations with political authorities is not ideological, but pastoral in the sense of helping the local Churches live their faith in a given, concrete reality, without artificial divisions between factions in their midst. Those who believe in this possible breakthrough between the Vatican and China today know that there is already a long history of Christianity in China, with which the global Catholic Church needs to be more directly in touch. This is an integral part of the vision of Pope Francis for a Catholic Church that is truly global, at the service of all humanity and of world peace.

What is typical of the international activity of the Holy See today is a direct appeal to the logic of the Gospel and not to a worldly or political logic. This is true for all the activities of the Holy See in all countries, encouraging Catholics to be fully Catholic, safeguarding communion within the Church, keeping the genuine tradition and ecclesiastical discipline, and at the same time respecting Catholics as authentically rooted in their particular countries and nations. The Vatican believes in a respectful and constructive dialogue with the civil authorities, and in doing this the diplomacy of the Vatican expresses the wishes of the global Catholic community, which cares for the Chinese Catholic community and its unity, and wants the good of the Chinese people.

Much of the resistance against this new relationship between the Vatican and the government of the People’s Republic of China is rooted in a lack of understanding of these two key dimensions – the long-term historical framework of the international activity of the Holy See and the pastoral goal of its diplomatic activity. The big historical picture and the proper goals of the international presence of the Holy See are often missing in the criticism against the Vatican negotiations with China. The use of Catholicism as an ideological surrogate for Western ideologies is not new, but is especially at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of Catholicism, and it makes it impossible to understand this important moment in the relations between the Vatican and China.

Or, more directly, as Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo put it, ‘Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese’.

Not a bad development in the new era of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, or Xi Jinping Thought.

Another gem from G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. In his discussion of the viability of Marx’s approach to class, he mentions as an aside the chances of becoming an individual saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Of the thousands of saints, only 5 per cent have come from the lower classes which have constituted over 80 per cent of European populations (Class Struggle, p. 27).

I am working my way through Farnham Maynard’s Religion and Revolution (1947). He was canon of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, from 1926 to 1944. He saw socialism arising from Christianity, especially the Anglo-Catholicism he championed. Indeed, he managed to escape the Australian government’s ban on people travelling to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He toured for eight months in 1952, moving across eastern Europe, through Russia and then to a conference in Beijing.

Anyway, in Religion and Revolution he traces the roles of Christianity in the French and Russian revolutions, arguing that it mostly missed the opportunity to be constructive contributors to the establishment of new modes of production. I am particularly taken by a discussion of the League of the Militant Godless in relation to the Soviet Union.

Maynard begins by noting Stalin’s response to a question from the First American Labour Delegation to the Soviet Union in 1927. He was asked about religion and repression of the church, to which Stalin replied in his typical fashion: ‘Have we repressed the reactionary clergy? Yes, we have’ (Works, volume 10, p. 139).

And then Maynard writes concerning the League itself: ‘Let us note, however, that a substantial part of the work done by the Anti-God League consisted in bringing about reforms which in the West had been brought about by Christians themselves’ (Religion and Revolution, 1947, p. 45).

A little while ago I quoted Nadezhda Krupskaya concerning her and Lenin’s regular church attendance while they lived in London. Others also commented on the habit, such as Trotsky, who went with them on at least one occasion. Of course, these were Christian socialist and Christian anarchist churches, often independent and established by charismatic leaders who broke away from a mainstream church.

But why in the world did Lenin and Krupskaya attend? There was no free meal, no free lodgings. It’s worth remembering that the reasons people attend church are as diverse as the number of people in the congregation. Not all present believe, not all are orthodox in any sense, not all are ardent. Yet, the relationship with these radical churches was not a passing affair, for when the fifth congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was seeking a safe exilic venue to meet in 1907, they were able to secure the Brotherhood Church in Southgate Road, Hackney, in London. That church, originating in 1887 under the influence of various streams such as Christian socialism, anarchism, pacifism, Quakers and Tolstoy, continues to exist today now as a community in Stapleton.


Beneath the pious charade, one begins to suspect so. Two instances come to mind.

First, back in 1976 the guy in charge in the Vatican – Paul IV – was scouting around for a new cardinal, preferably from Asia. One of his assistants mentioned a certain Archbishop Jaime Sin, from the Philippines. ‘Shit yeah’, said the pope, ‘he’s our man’. ‘Why?’ someone asked. ‘You can’t pass up the opportunity for a Cardinal Sin’. So Cardinal Sin he became , and remained so for almost 30 years.

Second, in 1974 the famous church historian, Cardinal Jean Daniélou, was found dead in a brothel at the age of 69. On his person was a bag of cash. When the archbishop of Paris was asked to comment, he said in a deadpan voice, ‘Cardinal Daniélou was … on an errand of mercy’.

I’m sure there’s other examples out there.

(ht ks for the second)

Yes, and reasonably regularly while he and Nadya were living in London in 1902-3:

He visited eating houses and churches. In English churches the service is usually followed by a short lecture and a debate. Ilyich was particularly fond of those debates, because ordinary workers took part in them … Once we wandered into a socialist church. There are such churches in England. The socialist in charge was droning through the Bible, and then delivered a sermon to the effect that the exodus of the Jews from Egypt symbolized the exodus of the workers from the kingdom of capitalism to the kingdom of socialism. Everyone stood up and sang from a socialist hymn-book: ‘Lead us, O Lord, from the Kingdom of Capitalism to the Kingdom of Socialism’. We went to that church again afterwards – it was the Seven Sisters Church.

Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 72-3.

No wonder the latter half of the Second Congress of the party was held in a church in London.

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