Taking the Measure of England’s Failed Catholic Left Movement
Jay Corrin’s book explores the religion’s socialists
The only way to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth is through socialism: that was the argument of Britain’s Catholic New Left (CNL), a group of revolutionary thinkers in the 1960s and ’70s after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). For these Catholics, Vatican II’s liberal church reforms weren’t nearly enough, Jay Corrin writes in his book Catholic Progressives in England after Vatican II.
Corrin (GRS’76), a College of General Studies professor of social sciences, interviewed leading CNL figures for the book. He explores Catholic social thinking after World War II, leading to the CNL; the rise of Slant, a journal that published CNL thinkers; the conservative blowback against Vatican II from the Roman Curia (the Holy See’s administrative bureaucracy); and the CNL’s ultimate failure to achieve its goals.
Failure notwithstanding, Corrin calls the Catholic New Left “an unappreciated but significant episode in the history of Catholic social and political thought.” For one thing, he says, the movement helped develop liberation theology, which uses Christian thinking to support socialism and concern for the poor; some liberation theologians have earned Pope Francis’s backing.
BU Today: Why should readers and Catholics today care about the Catholic New Left?
Corrin: Although the Catholic New Left failed to achieve its aims, the history of the movement illustrates how far intellectual and theological inquiries can be reached within the confines of the Catholic tradition. They also had influence on a variety of other radical reform movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Their primary importance is in the area of theory and ideas.
The CNL pioneered radical sociological, economic, and political ideas that dovetailed with the secular New Left in Britain (far more radical than their American cousins). Both the secular New Left and the CNL in alliance played a significant role in the Vietnam antiwar movement; played leading roles in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, along with various peace movements with international connections; and most important, anticipated and worked for the development of liberation theology, which is currently taking on new resonance because of Pope Francis’ support.
Why did the New Left fail, and how much was its own fault, rather than insurmountable opposition from the Catholic Church and society?
In some respects, they were ahead of their time, as is illustrated in some of the more recent papal encyclicals as well as the impact of Pope Francis.
You discuss the radicals’ “contempt for conventional politics,” especially political parties. They sound like the type of radical Bernie Sanders disdains—those preferring ideological purity to winning and making change.
The CNL were primarily intellectual revolutionaries, not reformers, and as I explain in the book, this had considerable pragmatic limitations. What we can see here is the gap between theory and practice. The same criticism can be leveled against pathbreaking sociologists such as C. Wright Mills, Max Weber, Peter Berger, a BU professor emeritus, and others: their impact was intellectual and theoretical rather than pragmatically political.
You write that the CNL thought its program embraced “the original intention of scripture.” Is there a danger when any modern movement, right or left, claims biblical approval for its program?
Your question gets us into the woods of biblical exegetics. However, I think philosopher Enrique D. Dussel and Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino do an excellent job showing how Christ’s preference for the poor finds application in Marx’s criticism of capitalism.
Is Pope Francis an avatar of a new New Left with his critique of capitalism?
Pope Francis appears to be a social progressive, but is clearly a supporter of the status quo when it comes to doctrinal matters. Hence we find his efforts to reform the Curia; sympathy for liberation theology and talks with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez; his passionate concern for the poor in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which highlights the evils of capitalism and the economics of exclusion but outraged neoconservatives; his empathy for gays; and a recognition of the perils of authoritarian leadership, especially regarding the sins of the Church in Latin America. Yet he holds firm on not accepting females in the priesthood, is strongly pro-life, and is an ardent supporter of traditional family values. In general, I think it significant that he seems to have turned the Church away from a preoccupation with the cultural wars. Several of the old CNL people that I’ve interviewed certainly see Francis moving in the direction of their values.