Tractatus de Tradinistis: a brief appraisal

NOTE: This article presumes familiarity with the Tradinista Manifesto. Please read that manifesto entirely before proceeding here.

I deliberately titled this post de Tradinistis not contra Tradinistas.

I commence with a seemingly unrelated digression.

When Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds first hit the theaters, I was one of those who eagerly lined up for a midnight showing. As a Tarantino fan, I already knew that I would love the film; needless to say, it exceeded all my expectations. Afterwards, I gushed with praise about the movie to everybody I knew at my college. However, not everybody shared my wild enthusiasm for Basterds. Aside from those who took issue with the unfiltered violence (how could anybody expect anything else from Quentin is beyond reason), a good number of my acquaintances– history majors all– took Tarantino to task by nitpicking the historical revisionism leading to the film’s climax. “Hitler wouldn’t have just two guards outside his room”; “Why would Hitler go to Paris for a public event at this stage in the war?” I could only shake my head in contempt at the banal, trite commentary. Such amateurish potshots at a cinematic tour-de-force apparently missed the entire point of the movie. Tarantino himself did not intend Basterds to be historical drama but “a spaghetti western with World War II iconography”. Classic western motifs like guys-on-a-mission, shootout-in-a-tavern, rescue-from-prison, Mexican standoff, the unmistakable music of Morricone, the scalping of enemies, the name “Aldo Raine”– all these obviously flew straight over the heads of my friends who, while attempting to mount an intelligent assault on Tarantino’s masterpiece, ended by unwittingly exposing their severe lack of culture. Their dislike of the film was not so much due to a fault of the movie, but of their inability to perceive the nuanced depth and complexity which made Basterds both a critical and a financial triumph.

On socialism and the Church

Perhaps an analogous inability for discernment underlies the hastily constructed polemics which condemn the Tradinista project wholesale as an unacceptable graft of Marxist thought onto Catholic thought. Like my friends who could only see Basterds strictly through the lens of historical drama without recognizing its affinity with a great American cinematic genre, I’ve found that those who rushed to discount the Tradinistas likewise are unable to see past the socialist linguistic iconography in the 20-point manifesto, failing to recognize in its content a real desire for justice, a sincere solidarity with the poor, and an ardent Catholic spirituality.

More often than not, criticisms against the Tradinistas display an unwarranted fixation on the better known (and gravely flawed) historical manifestations of socialism (in primis, Soviet communism). This approach is, of course, totally contrary to the demands of charity, of prudence, and of intellectual integrity. Instead of engaging individual points in detail and in depth, much of the anti-Tradinista reaction essentially pronounces a guilty-by-association verdict, justified by the mere presence of the words “socialism” and “Marxist” in Tradinista texts; to these critics, terms like these unfailingly conjure an image of the Soviet Red Menace, against which both St. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan (himself often hailed in flowery hagiography by Tradinista critics) fought tenaciously, each in his own way. The very word “socialism” is thus loaded with an almost magical quality; once intoned, it incites knee-jerk reactions among many political conservatives, even those of sincere good will. The residual legacy of McCarthyism on the American consciousness still proves impervious to permanent erasure, and the deep-seated tendency to reject socialism in any and all forms constitutes one of the most stubborn obstacles on the path toward fruitful intellectual engagement on this matter.

When Senator Bernie Sanders, an avowed proponent of democratic socialism, was still mounting an effective challenge to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, many politically conservative Catholics brandished a widely-circulated syllabus of proof-texts taken from the popes which, at first glance, seem to imply a total incompatibility of Catholicism with anything claiming to be “socialist”. The chief among these quotes comes from the encyclical Quadragesimo anno in which Pius XI wrote that socialism “is based nevertheless on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

Such cut-and-paste argumentation cannot but be blind to the particular historical conditions which informed the condemnation of Papa Ratti (and of popes back to Pio Nono): the violent anticlericalism and atheism that went part and parcel with the most successful 19th century socialist movements lie at the root of the Holy See’s quondam intransigence vis-a-vis socialism. Note that the Lateran Treaty, by which the Holy See and Italian monarchy ended their mutually hostile non-recognition, was signed only during Pius XI’s reign (1929). The status ante, however, was the age of the so-called “Roman Question” in which the popes branded themselves “prisoners in the Vatican”; besieged by the tumultuous anticlerical fever that helped push the Church out of power in Italy, the successors of Peter saw the Savoyard state as the rotten fruit of anticlerical socialist revolts which shook the peninsula in the first half of the 19th century. For the generations of Roman prelates who came of age under Pio Nono, the loss of temporal power remained indelibly stamped on their minds as the greatest ecclesiastical tragedy since the Reformation; from the Italian side, the renaming of important urban thoroughfares as XX Settembre and Cavour served as the bitterest of taunts, a perpetual sic transit in the face of the Church. We must underestimate neither the animosity of the secular socialists toward the papacy, nor the effect of the Risorgimento on papal sentiment, especially concerning those movements that contributed to the end of the Papal States.

When Quadragesimo anno was promulgated in 1931, merely two years after the Lateran Treaty, the wounds of “prison” were still fresh in the mind of Pius XI. Furhermore, when Ratti, Pacelli, and Roncalli continued to condemn socialism in the succeeding years, it was for the same underlying reason as that of their predecessors– the growing specter of Soviet aggression, like the revolutionary socialist movements of 19th century Europe, explicitly aimed to shut God out of everything.

With this contextual background, we can better understand the oft-invoked Quadragesimo anno nos. 117-118. Behind the unequivocal diction and indignant tone, we nevertheless can see that Papa Ratti made a sublime yet critical distinction which we must always bear in mind as we continue this appraisal of socialism in general and of Tradinistas in particular:

117.  But what if Socialism has really been so tempered and modified as to the class struggle and private ownership that there is in it no longer anything to be censured on these points? Has it thereby renounced its contradictory nature to the Christian religion? This is the question that holds many minds in suspense. And numerous are the Catholics who, although they clearly understand that Christian principles can never be abandoned or diminished seem to turn their eyes to the Holy See and earnestly beseech Us to decide whether this form of Socialism has so far recovered from false doctrines that it can be accepted without the sacrifice of any Christian principle and in a certain sense be baptized. That We, in keeping with Our fatherly solicitude, may answer their petitions, We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.

118.  For, according to Christian teaching, man, endowed with a social nature, is placed on this earth so that by leading a life in society and under an authority ordained of God he may fully cultivate and develop all his faculties unto the praise and glory of his Creator; and that by faithfully fulfilling the duties of his craft or other calling he may obtain for himself temporal and at the same time eternal happiness. Socialism, on the other hand, wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone.

QED, atheism— not particular political and economic proposals– are the ultimate target of the papal anti-socialist pronouncements. The severence of man from his supernatural duty and end is the foundational assumption which made that form of socialism, as Pius XI understood it in his time, incompatible with a Christian conception of human society.

Such does not describe the Tradinista project. From the outset, the Tradinista Manifesto rejects atheism and proclaims Jesus Christ as the supreme principle and subject of man’s salvation.

Others have noted (better than I can) that socialism, like any political philosophy or system, is a multifaceted phenomenon which defies any blanket characterization (see Chase Padusniak’s comments; the Tradinistas themselves address, in a most able manner, the relationship of the Church to socialism in three parts: Part I, Part II, Part III). Accordingly, the criterion of 1 Thess. 5:21 comes into play: “test everything, retain what is good.” If certain aspects of Marxian socio-political and economic analysis can stand on their own without the rabid atheism of 19th and 20th century socialism, perhaps these can indeed be “baptized” and reappropriated into a Christian framework. This, in a nutshell, describes the Tradinista project.

Analysis of the Tradinista Manifesto: The good points

My own conclusions after reading the manifesto are as follows: of its 20 points, 14 are generally good (10 placent, 4 iuxta modum). The remaining six are problematic for various reasons which we will examine later. What follows are a few brief (very brief) comments on each of the 20 points, beginning with the manifesto’s strong points.

Point 1, as noted above, declares the Christian and Christological basis of the project, immediately setting the Tradinista movement in contrast to atheistic socialism. Point 2 advocates a revitalization of the traditional understanding of Church-state relations; in support of this understanding, Tradinistas may do well to lean on the Pinckaers/Wojtyla (Thomistic) reading of Dignitatis Humanae, as opposed to the dominant John Courtney Murray paradigm which favors the secular liberal order. Point 3 sets politics within the framework of a proper Thomistic teleology. Point 4 presents the correct reading of subsidiarity as given in Rerum Novarum and subsequent pronouncements on social doctrine, contra the idea of subsidiarity read through the prism of American conservative politics. Point 5’s claim about economic life is a corollary of Point 3. Point 9 (“Everyone has a right to private property”) is unequivocally affirmed by the entire Catholic tradition. Point 10 is a corollary of Point 4. Point 11 speaks rightly of the incorporation of all citizens in political and economic participation without undue discrimination. Point 12, controversial to the secular Left at large, is a coherent encapsulation of the Church’s doctrine on life and on the family. Point 13 follows necessarily from Point 12. All these were quite unobjectionable.

Analysis, continued: The good points requiring clarification

Now we consider the points iuxta modum. Point 16, despite its sloppy wording, upholds the tradition of Catholic just war theory. “Given the nature of modern weaponry,” the point reads, “it’s difficult to imagine that any war today, offensive or defensive, could satisfy the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”. As a military officer accustomed to precise terminology in the exercise of my craft, phrases like “the nature of modern weaponry”, especially when issued from the pen of civilians, compel me to seek clarification. From context, I assume the author meant the expansive, destructive power which technology has bequeathed to military arsenals. However, as a non-layman, I also know that technology also brings massive improvements in non-lethal and precision munitions, more accurate targeting systems, a more robust ability to gather and process intelligence, and more rapid sharing of information in real time– all of which have in turn effected revolutionary developments in military doctrine, especially in the realm of civilian considerations and mitigating collateral damage. The author obviously did not consider this aspect of “the nature of modern weaponry”; thus it is far less difficult for me, as a warfighter, to conceive of a moral application of military force, given the wide array of options available. (Of course, this will inevitably invite a debate on the proper allocation of resources to the military-industrial complex, but that discussion need not concern us here.) In any case, the central proposition of Point 16 is undoubtedly correct: wars should not waged without first applying rigorous moral analysis according to just war doctrine.

Point 17 (on immigrants): the wording of this point is deliberately reminiscent of Pius XII’s 1952 Apostolic Constitution Exsul familia nazarethana on the Church’s care for migrant peoples. Those legitimately seeking asylum from the tumult and tragedy of their homelands deserve to be welcomed; the migrant’s right to transit and refuge is, as the manifesto correctly notes, a natural right. However, like the Apostolic Constitution which inspired it, Point 17 does not address the urgent question of security. It is silent on the obligation of a polity to provide adequate safeguards for the common good both within and at the border, and says nothing about the difficult task of balancing the provision of aid on one hand and maintenance of law and order on the other.

Points 18 and 19 are quite vague but not necessarily objectionable in se; they are a summation in general terms of the entire Tradinista project. More than anything else, they look like placeholder statements which simply allow the manifesto reach the nice round number of 20 points.

Analysis, continued: The problematic points

Point 6, which speaks of abolishing capitalism, and Point 7, which speaks of erasing class society, must lead the critical reader to ask: “what are the concrete means to achieve these ends without causing a tumultuous revolution in which many people, even the poor, will suffer more”? To quote a foundational American text, “all experience hath shown that mankind are most disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”. The tendency toward inertia is caused by a legitimate concern that dethroning a long-established system carries the risk of massive collateral damage which afflicts even those whom the revolution wishes to assist. Of course, the Declaration essentially declared a state of war after listing the King’s insufferable evils, and I surmise that Tradinistas see the grave flaws of liberal economy as similarly insufferable, especially for the poor. Yet, the language of “abolition” and “erasure”, with all their connotations of radical urgency, do little to allay fears of a revolution wrought by force, even as Point 16 upholds the requirement for rigorous moral analysis prior to application of violence.

Point 8 states: “the polity should ensure that no basic needs– food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc.– go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market”. As others have noted, this is difficult to square with 1 Thess 3:10 (“he that shall not work shall not eat”), and perhaps even with the socialist principle “to each according to his contribution,” which necessarily defines the state of affairs under the lower stage of communism (socialist society). Point 8 obviously describes the ideal state under the higher stage of communism (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”), but, like Points 6 and 7, it describes an endstate without either articulating the means to achieve it or justifying its feasibility.

Point 14 on climate change is perhaps the most controversial of the entire manifesto. Certainly, uncontrollable natural factors contribute to global warming, but human activity is indisputably a larger contributor. While many may dispute the accepted findings of climate change research (namely, that the consistent post-1980 warming trend clearly points to the anthropogenic nature of climate change), my own objection is that, like many other points in the manifesto, this point proposes an impossibly high standard (“climate change must be halted”) without proposing the practical means either to achieve it or to make substantial progress toward that target. Sorely lacking is an analysis of what achieving such a lofty goal requires of a carbon-emitting human population 7 billion strong and growing, especially when Point 12’s staunch anti-Malthusianism precludes methods of population control. Merely wishing to halt climate change (instead of mitigating its effects or decreasing humanity’s carbon footprint through concrete measures) usually ends up as mere wishing. Because of its sheer ambitiousness and idealism (and the manifesto in toto is already is very ambitious), Point 14 seems the most out of place in the manifesto, and I wonder if it’s importance can’t be downplayed without compromising the Tradinista vision as a whole.

Point 15 claims that “the nation-state, corrupted by its bureaucratic structure, has proven itself incompetent in facing modern challenges”; yet Point 4, in its discussion of subsidiarity, notes that “some tasks can only be done at a federal level”.  Furthermore, the proposal for “a genuine international authority governed by Christian principles” seems to imply the existence of the nation-state as an intermediary level in accord with the doctrine of subsidiarity. This point is perhaps the most incoherent one in the entire text.

The manifesto concludes with an utter condemnation of capitalism in Point 20. Just as, at the start of this article, I repudiated any wholesale rejection of the term “socialism”, I now ask whether Tradinistas cannot see any good produced by the liberal order, in addition to its sins? Has liberal economy not facilitated the flourishing of large sectors of society, even if other sectors have yet to enjoy full distribution of its goods? Have not men and women of good will drawn concrete benefits from the general prosperity of the last century?

Jose Mena, who recently wrote an apologia for the Tradinista movement in the Catholic Herald, once offered some thoughts in a 2012 interview that might be just as relevant four years later:

Especially in an election year, it seems to me that we should all of us give thanks for living in a place like 21st-century America. We’re an astonishingly fortunate people to live in such prosperity and freedom, and while it’s often difficult to remember in times of recession and fractious political debates, even at our lowest America is still the greatest country in the world. We’re uniquely capable of doing amazing things in the world, because at the end of the day, we’re all on the same side, and we’re all fighting for the same things. And when Americans decide together to tackle a great problem in the world, nothing can stop us.

His enthusiasm for the American enterprise has obviously been tempered since the last presidential election year, but his words still contain a kernel of truth. Certainly, the prosperity of the great nations has never been achieved by completely moral means, and the popes of the last century have been among the most vocal critics of the abuses wrought by unbridled liberalism. The tragic decadence of late capitalism is becoming more and more evident, and the current Roman Pontiff continues the prophetic cry of his predecessors on this issue. Still, the positive effects of a gravely flawed system cannot be simply discounted. The freedom and prosperity which facilitated the emergence of capitalism is the same freedom which allows public discussion and proposal of socialist-inspired political and economic policies, even radical ones that challenge the foundations of the reigning order; in countries like the United States, it is the same system which mostly upholds religious freedom, facilitates the flourishing of the Church, and promotes an active civic life for all people of good will.


On the level of form and style, I echo comments from Eliot Milco at The Josias, who observes that “the manifesto was very roughly constructed. It lacks consistent tone, is indefatigably vague, and is somewhat lacking in intellectual coherence”. For Milco, the apparent sloppiness conjures “an image of a dozen or so people logged into a single Google document, adding random paragraphs to the text, without much concern for their tone, intellectual coherence, or integration into a polished whole”. Whether or not Milco’s intuition is correct, or whether the manifesto is primarily the product of one author or of many, the clear lack of formal unity in the text is an indication of the movement’s immaturity– immature in the sense that, as a socio-political project in its infancy, Tradinismo has yet to effectively articulate– or even fully discover– all the implications of its socialist convictions.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Tradinistas, and while they gladly wear the socialist label, the manifesto evinces not only a critique of capitalism, but also a critical appraisal of the historical forms of socialism. They distance themselves from the atheism which led the first socialists into conflict with the Church. They advocate a return to a more authentic form of locally-based socialism in which laborers control the means of production. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the state-centered socialism of the old Warsaw Pact nations, of Venezuela, of North Korea, and other such dictatorships. Those nations, in fact, bastardized the term “socialist” just as they bastardized the word “democratic”, for example, in the official names of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the “German Democratic Republic” (East Germany). Point 15’s rejection of the nation-state places the Tradinista movement squarely against these historical manifestations of socialism. Nevertheless, due to the manifesto’s vagueness, the reader is left wondering how a Tradinista polity, as it takes a concrete form, would avoid the pitfalls of other socialist political programs which eventually established bureaucracies by necessity or even assumed ethnic or national identities.

My own wariness of Tradinista proposals stem from my preference for organic reform over revolutionary change. However, I consider this a prudential disagreement, and I appreciate that Tradinistas, signa temporum perscrutans et sub Evangelii luce interpretans (cf. Gaudium et Spes 4), have critically engaged with both liberalism and socialism in developing the manifesto. Thus, independent of its conclusions, the Tradinista Manifesto is a laudable and legitimate attempt to test everything while retaining what its author(s) discerned to be good (cf. 1 Thess. 5:21).

Let us conclude with a historical analogy: as Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean, the great patristic thinkers slowly but surely peeled away the polytheistic pagan shell of Graeco-Roman thought while retaining those critical insights which indicated an openness to Christian revelation. In time, Platonic hard dualities gave way to the sublime, dynamic distinctions of nature and grace, of matter and spirit, of human and divine. It is also interesting to note that in former times, terms like ὁμοούσιος, πρόσωπον, and ὑπόστασις carried nuances and connotations different from the meanings we assign to them today, and common men who earnestly pursued orthodox formulations disagreed vehemently on the usage of those words to the point of even coming to blows. The great achievements of the Fathers and early Councils imparted a new character on those words, defining them in ways that stabilized their meanings and excised heterodox tendencies. The result is twofold: first, these standard dogmatic terms, formerly considered heretical by many orthodox people of good will, have become the foundational sine qua non of Incarnational and Trinitarian theology; second, many illustrious infidels who lived nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi now hold an exalted position in the history of Christian doctrine. Therefore, any theoretical baptism of Marxist thought, if such a system takes Christ as a starting point and pursues the supernatural end of man, is no less possible than was the baptism of ancient Greek philosophy.

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