Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on atheistic communism, Divini Redemptoris, was promulgated on March 19, 1937, the feast of St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church and patron of workers. Almost 84 years later, his analysis, so far from being outdated, finds disturbing relevance to our own time and place. It seems fitting to take a closer look, on the very day when Chairman Biden’s and Comrade Kamala’s socialist regime is inaugurated.
Divini Redemptoris—like its “sister” encyclicals Mit Brennender Sorge condemning the National Socialists in Germany and Nos Es Muy Conocida on the bloody war against the Mexican Church, all three issued in the same month: March 14, March 19, and March 28—is an impassioned outcry full of indignation, this time addressed not to the episcopate of Germany or of Mexico but to the entire Catholic episcopacy on earth. Unlike Vatican II, where a petition signed by hundreds of bishops for the explicit condemnation of Soviet Communism was literally shoved into a drawer lest the Ostpolitik bargain struck with Moscow be diverted, Pius XI enjoyed the capacity to see the truth and fearlessly proclaim it.
Pius XI’s principal accusation is that by denying God, the source and goal of all things and especially of the human person, and by denying Christ, Redeemer of mankind, communism robs man of the consciousness of his dignity as image of God and child of the Father. Poor and powerless workers suffer the most from this robbery. The blessings poured out upon us by Christ through His Church are traded, in Bolshevist ideology, for a sinister social dream, “an arrogant attempt to free civilization from the bonds of morality and religion” (§4). Since the Church is the embodiment of all that the revolution hates, its violence is unleashed against her with peculiar savagery. For this reason, she turns in prayer to “St. Joseph, her mighty protector,” to whom “was entrusted the divine Child when Herod loosed his assassins against him” (§81).
The Church’s Attitude toward Communism
In Part I (§4–§7), Pius XI recalls multiple condemnations of communism by his predecessors and himself, and declares his intention: since “the bitter fruits of subversive ideas…are multiplying fearfully” (§6), “we wish to expose once more in a brief synthesis the principles of atheistic communism…[as] also to indicate its method of action and to contrast with its false principles the clear doctrine of the Church, in order to inculcate anew and with greater insistence the means by which the Christian civilization, the true civitas humana, can be saved from the Satanic scourge” (§7).
In part II, a critique of communism in theory and in practice (§8–§24), the pope explains that communism should not be regarded merely as an economic or political theory, but as a metaphysical and even “religious” system that lives by “a false messianic idea, a pseudo-ideal of justice, equality, and fraternity,” “a deceptive mysticism” (§7; cf. §77). While “concealed under the most seductive trappings,” it is “based on the principles of dialectical and historical materialism previously advocated by Marx,” which lead to the doctrine of the class struggle and the annihilation of all forces opposed to the so-called emancipation of workers (§9). Owing to its materialist orientation, communism “strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse” (§10). The human person has no intrinsic rights; a specious absolute equality is proclaimed; all authority is held to be a spontaneous outgrowth of the community and not a divine bequest. It follows that private property, which gives its owner power over non-owners, is illegitimate and must be abolished.
Marxism views marriage and family as culturally-conditioned institutions destined to be swept away by the revolution, which even now anticipates this “freedom” by forcing women into public life and factories under the same conditions as men, and by withdrawing children from parental authority (§11). A society based on such materialism “would have only one mission: the production of material things by means of collective labor,” leading to the “paradise” of “a humanity without God” (§12). Finally, the State, being the last vestige of hierarchy, will itself “wither away” (§13). All of this the pope calls “a system full of errors and sophisms” which ignores the true nature of the State and “denies the rights, dignity, and liberty of human personality” (§14). With what we have subsequently learned about communism in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere, these errors and sophisms should be vastly more obvious to us than they were in 1937—yet there are still those who advocate for this “paradise”!
Pius XI then speaks of the means employed to seduce the masses, noting that communists meet with success because they agitate for “the removal of the very real abuses chargeable to the liberalistic economic order” and demand “a more equitable distribution of this world’s goods—objectives entirely and undoubtedly legitimate” (§15). Indeed, in a line sure to displease defenders of capitalism and libertarianism, Pius XI judges that it was “the religious and moral destitution in which wage-earners had been left by liberal economics” that smoothed a path for communism’s triumph (§16). Its proponents use propaganda skillfully (§17) while the press of the “free” world remains culpably silent, due to conspiratorial forces (§18). Once again, here’s a pope unafraid to recognize, with all good historians, the presence and operation of hidden agents.
The communists have recourse to murder and pillage when it will advance their cause. “Tear the very idea of God from the hearts of men, and they are necessarily urged by their passions to the most atrocious barbarity” (§20)—words that have a chilling relevance in the Western world of 2021, which floats on an ocean of infant blood. The pope observes that in the long run communism is doomed to failure by its own denial of morality, because without a clear and broadly accepted public code of morals, the conditions for ethical responsibility do not exist, and no one can be trusted by anyone else. “Terrorism is the only possible substitute [for morality], and it is terrorism that reigns today in Russia” (§23).
The Catholic Vision of Civil Society
Based on the findings of reason and the teaching of divine revelation, Part III outlines the Catholic vision of civil society and the place of the person in it (§25–§38). Both society and the individual have their source in God, who created man to be a social animal seeking his perfection in community. Man’s spiritual and immortal soul gives him a worth immeasurably greater than that of the entire universe of irrational creatures. Greater still is his dignity when elevated by grace to a sharing in the divine life.
In view of such a destiny, God has endowed man “with many and varied prerogatives: the right to life, to bodily integrity, to the necessary means of existence; the right to tend toward his ultimate goal in the path marked out for him by God; the right of association and the right to possess and use property” (§27). The pope explains that “society is for man and not vice versa” (§29), in the sense that the happiness of the individual is attained through an “organic union with society and by mutual collaboration,” not “in the sense of liberalistic individualism, which subordinates society to the selfish use of the individual” and which has “plunged the world of today into lamentable ruin” (cf. §32). The sum-total of goods in a society, and all the opportunities and responsibilities of social life, are at the service of the good of persons, instead of one individual being subjugated to some other individual as a slave is at the service of his master. Thus, against despotic regimes, the encyclical asserts that the State exists for the good of persons, but against liberal individualism, it denies that the sole good of persons is their private good.
The Church’s political doctrine, continues the pope, is characterized by a “constant equilibrium”: “authority is reconciled with liberty, the dignity of the individual with that of the State, the human personality of the subject with the divine delegation of the superior,” a balance between solicitude for the soul’s eternal welfare and promotion of sound earthly progress (§34). Christianity is the first and only revealer of the “real and universal brotherhood of all men of whatever race and condition”; it “raised manual labor to its true dignity” and spurred the formation of charitable organizations and artisans’ guilds (§36–§37). Christianity, in fact, is the parent and provider of the goods that communists promise in vain.
Defensive and Constructive Program
Part IV (§39–§59) and Part V (§60–§80) speak of what is to be done and who is to do it. Since communists more easily win converts where faith is lukewarm, where earthly goods are too much prized, and where Christians neglect the poor, reversing or at least resisting these trends is the first and fundamental challenge (§43ff.). Serious social ills such as inadequate workers’ wages require the intervention of public authorities; private charitable efforts, though obviously indispensable, are not enough. Again, for the benefit of society, a prudent regime would restrain excessive accumulation of property and business competition (§49ff.; cf. §75). Divini Redemptoris is best understood when read in light of Pius XI’s 1925 encyclical Quas Primas on the kingship of Christ, and his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, where the principles and economic structures of a just social order are expounded in detail.
The pope warns Catholics to be vigilant and not to be taken in by propaganda that reassures the world of communism’s good intentions (§57). No Catholic may collaborate with communists (§58)—a policy that was not reversed until “good Pope John” and his Second Vatican Council.
Pius XI has no illusions: “the evil which today torments humanity can be conquered only by a world-wide crusade of prayer and penance” (§59). Priests should consider themselves missionaries to the working class, setting the example of a life that is humble, poor, and disinterested, as did St. Vincent de Paul, the the saintly Curé of Ars, St. John Bosco, and others who brought so much help and consolation to the poor people they served (§60ff.). Pius XI sees the world situation to be so grave that he exhorts non-Catholics and even non-Christians to lend their aid in opposing “the powers of darkness” if they wish to avoid “anarchy and terrorism” (§72).
Our Desperate Need for a Pope Like Pius XI
Divini Redemptoris, together with its companion encyclicals on Fascism, had a worldwide effect on public opinion and left a mark on international diplomacy during the 1930s—a reminder to us that the papacy less than a century ago used its considerable moral authority to promote the truth and to expose error. The encyclical gave a powerful boost to the “crusade against communism” and against all forms of totalitarianism, which became a hallmark of Catholic social theory and activism.
The close collaboration between Pius XI and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli ensured that the policies of Pacelli under his papal name Pius XII would follow the same lines, doctrinally and diplomatically, during the darkest days of the Second World War and into the post-war period.
As a regime, Soviet communism eventually collapsed. Yet, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider says, its fall was rather like a seedpod falling from a plant in order to release its seeds in every direction, to be carried by the wind across the world. The spread of Russia’s errors about which Our Lady of Fatima spoke has unfolded over the course of the many decades during which even doctrinally conservative popes like Pius XI and Pius XII refused to consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart in accordance with her express wishes. Their successors not only maintained this policy of disobedience to heaven’s message, they went increasingly lax on the centuries-old condemnation of political liberalism, of which communism is only an aggravated extrapolation. With communism now circulating in its bloodstream, the Church on earth is like a hospital patient suffering the ravages of an autoimmune condition.
We beseech Our Lord to send us a pope who will unite, for the first time, a fearless confession of the orthodox Faith against modern errors with a humble obedience to Our Lady who crushes the serpent’s head.
Author’s note: As an opportunity for prayer and penance, readers should consider joining Sophia Press’s “Eucharistic Reverence and Reparation Novena” from January 24 to February 2. More details here.
 For translations of and commentaries on Mit Brennender Sorge, Divini Redemptoris, and Nos Es Muy, see Sidney Ehler and John B. Morrall, eds., Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1954), 516–92.
 See the eye-opening articles by Matthew Hoffman (“Vatican II’s lost condemnations of communism revealed to public for first time”), Paul Kengor (“Vatican II’s Unpublished Condemnations of Communism”), and Edward Pentin (“Why Did Vatican II Ignore Communism?”).
 See Rodger Charles, Christian Social Witness and Teaching, vol. 2: The Modern Social Teaching: Contexts, Summaries, Analysis (Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1998), 52–100.
 See R. Gómez Pérez, “El tema de Marxismo y cristianismo ante la realidad de la fe [a propósito del 40 aniversario de la encíclica Divini Redemptoris],” Scripta Theologica 9 (1977): 623–44.
 See E. Cahill, The Framework of a Christian State  (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books / Catholic Media Apostolate, n.d.), see 156–220.
 For a fuller treatment of how the common good is most perfective of the individual, see my article “The Foundations of Christian Ethics and Social Order: Egoism and Altruism vs. Love for the Common Good” at The Josias.
 See articles listed in note 2.
 See J. Derek Holmes, The Papacy in the Modern World, 1914–1978 (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 77–117. One wonders how popes like Leo XIII, Pius X, or Pius XI would have reacted to Paul VI’s Ostpolitik or Francis’s Sino-Vatican alliance.
 See John Patrick Lerhinan, A Sociological Commentary on Divini Redemptoris, Studies in Sociology 17 (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1946); François-Xavier Dumortier, “Totalitarianism,” in The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought, ed. Judith A. Dwyer (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 955–59.
 On the collaboration between Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli, see Oscar Halecki and James F. Murray, Pius XII (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954), 52–88.
 It is quite true that Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis have all condemned economic liberalism, and, to a lesser extent, have occasionally condemned political liberalism. But it is difficult to see these condemnations as more than obiter dicta, considering that in so many other respects they embraced the liberalism of the modern West, as seen for instance in the acceptance of laicité and the corresponding repudiation of integralism.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eleven books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020) and The Holy Bread of Eternal Life: Restoring Eucharistic Reverence in an Age of Impiety (Sophia, 2020). Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.