Spiritual Lessons from the Victims of Communism

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Hill of Crosses, Lithuania

This summer I had the privilege and pleasure of interning with a most intriguing organization in Washington, DC: the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC for short).  VOC’s mission is to honor the more than 100 million victims of communist regimes (from the Soviet Union to China, Cuba and Vietnam) and educate future generations about communism’s legacy.  To this end it produces online resources and school curricula, awards an annual Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom, and in a few years plans to open an International Museum on Communism in Washington.  If you’re of the Millennial generation like me, chances are you never learned about the history of communism in school; such is the media blackout that surrounds what is arguably the central story of the twentieth century.  The saga of communism, as I learned through the reading and writing I did during the internship, is not merely a political story but also a moral and spiritual one—and a potential source of theological reflection about God, man, and our blackest moral pitfalls.  My Catholic self came away from the internship richly edified—as I’m sure you will be by taking this brief journey with me.


Before communism was ever a political system it was a philosophy; and at the heart of the philosophy is the denial of God.  Perhaps no one saw this more clearly than the ex-communist writer Whittaker Chambers.  In the Forward to his great 1952 autobiography Witness, Chambers (a fervent Christian though not a Catholic) submits communism to a stark theological analysis.  Mincing no words, he calls communism “the great alternative faith of mankind” and identifies it with the original sin of Adam and Eve; its vision is “the vision of Man without God….the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.” And man’s mind, according to this ideology, is not a reflection of the Eternal Reason but a mechanism—the result of a constellation of evolutionary forces.  Man is merely “matter in motion.”

So atheism and materialism are the fundamental premises of the communist ideology, and from these premises many things flow.  We hear a good deal in current Catholic discourse about the errors of radical individualism, and rightly so.  Yet our Christian faith does not suppress individuality.  The Christian sees human beings not as identical cogs in a machine but as parts of a Body – each with its own integrity and its own value.  God has constituted us as “individual substances of a rational nature” and cares for us individually.  What are the Psalms but a chronicle of the intimate relationship between God and the individual human person? Communism, by contrast, grants the individual person value only insofar as he or she is a constituent part of the collective (“the people,” “the workers”).  This collectivism is worthy of just as strong a rebuke by Catholics as radical individualism.

Too, we hear much today about the importance of social justice.  But the story of communism teaches us that with a materialist anthropology in place, the quest for social justice becomes irredeemably distorted.  Karl Marx proposed to do what is ascribed to God in the Magnificat: feed the hungry and send the rich away empty.  Yet under the guise of improving man’s material condition, communist ideology reduced his moral stature.  Creativity, moral agency, personal responsibility, and what the Catholic author Michael Novak has called the soul’s “knowledge of itself as a subject”: these are among the traits which make the human person human.  By reducing man to his material needs and wants, communism crushed those higher aspirations which help the human person flourish.

It is necessary to change the world.”

For the communist it is not God but an impersonal “History” which moves the world, and the human will is merely the instrument of History’s inevitable “progress.” Life becomes mechanistic and utilitarian, no longer focused on contemplating being but on creating the perfect society.  Since there is no God and no heaven, we must create a heaven here on earth. (William F. Buckley in his inimitable style used to call this “immanentizing the eschaton”; in terser language it’s known as “utopia.”) Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has said that with Marx there arrived a new concept of truth and reality: “makeability,” a preoccupation with what man can make of the worldA simple way of putting this is that instead of accepting the world as a gift from a gracious God, one seeks to remake it from scratch.  And remaking the world from scratch entails tearing down the pre-existing scaffolding of human reality, such as tradition.  And since communism has no room for mystery or the transcendent, destroying tradition inevitably means stamping out religion.


During the internship I read about the travails of the Catholic Church in Soviet-dominated Lithuania.  A historically Catholic country, Lithuania fell under Soviet control in 1944 and was promptly put through a program of what one writer calls the “de-Christianization of space and time.”  Religious feasts were replaced by secular holidays; St. John’s Day, for example, lost its religious dimension and regressed into a summer solstice celebration.  Religious publications were stopped, churches monasteries and seminaries were closed, and the church of St. Casimir in the capital city of Vilnius was desecrated by being turned into a Museum of Atheism.  Priests, monks and most of the bishops were imprisoned or sent to forced labor camps (the Gulag).  The Soviet authorities eventually realized that outrageous anti-religious acts were liable to create a revolt, so they turned to more subtle methods of subverting the Church, such as putting it under the supervision of a state council.  But little by little by little the Church fought back.  Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae became a catalyst for resistance, as did the election of the Polish Pope St. John Paul II in 1978.  An underground publication chronicling abuses of freedom and an “underground seminary” were established.  The Church (both clergy and laity) put increasing pressure on the authorities to grant them their religious rights, and the Soviets’ iron grip on the Church was gradually loosened.  Lithuania declared its independence in 1990, the first Soviet-bloc country to do so; the Soviet system as a whole collapsed in 1991.

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Hill of Crosses (image courtesy of englishrussia.com)

The most eloquent symbol of the Catholic resistance to communism is also one of the most unusual pilgrimage sites in the world: the Hill of Crosses outside of the town of Šiauliai in northern Lithuania.  I have never been there, but the pictures I have seen suffice to convey the eerie power of the place.  From a distance, it’s as if we’re looking at a pile of rubble. Get closer and the outlines of the Cross appear—a whole sea of crosses, of every size and shape.  It’s not known for certain how the Hill of Crosses originated, but it may have been to commemorate the dead during the Polish-Russian War of the 1830s.  During the communist oppression the crosses gained extra meaning.  The Soviet authorities bulldozed the site three times, but to no avail: the Lithuanian people doggedly rebuilt it.  The crosses are now believed to number about 100,000—a proud symbol of the Lithuanians’ national identity, but more importantly a symbol of their strong faith in the face of a brutal atheistic regime.  So the Cross of Christ surmounts the rubble of human suffering, a beacon of hope and consolation.

The history of communism remains relevant—not only because there are still five communist countries in the world, but because the ideology holds out perennial temptations and delusions.  If you are a historically-minded Catholic, I am sure you will find the history of communism stimulating.  To learn more, a good place to start is VOC’s website, www.victimsofcommunism.org and its online Global Museum on Communism, www.globalmuseumoncommunism.org.  For a look at how the Church was involved in the collapse of communism, be sure to check out George Weigel’s The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Fall of Communism.  And for an authoritative Catholic rebuttal of Marxist/communist ideology, you can do no better than the second chapter of Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus.  St. John Paul, of course, is credited with a key role in bringing Soviet communism to its blessed demise.  Yet in a 1993 interview he attributed it to a higher cause:

“I think the crucial role was played by Christianity itself: its content, its religious and moral message, its intrinsic defense of the human person.  All I did was recall this, repeat it and insist on it.”

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