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An Agnostic analyses Catholicism: interview with Leszek Kolokawski

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 Contents - Jul 1989AD2000 July 1989 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: No subscriptions under false pretences - B.A. Santamaria
Making a revolution by changing the meaning of words - Frank Mobbs
An Agnostic analyses Catholicism: interview with Leszek Kolokawski - Paul Gray

'AD2000' staff writer, Paul Gray, interviewed Professor Kolakowski at Oxford recently on several aspects of the present condition of Western Christianity. Professor Leszek Kolakowski, until 1968, Professor of the History of Philosophy at Warsaw University and now a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, is one of the Western world's leading scholars in the field of the history of political and religious philosophy.

Formerly a Marxist and a staunch opponent of Christianity, in 1978 he published a three-volume history of Marxist thought (Main Currents of Marxism, Oxford University Press) which is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject yet published. Since publishing Main Currents of Marxism, he has written on some of the major issues in Western philosophy and politics. As an historical scholar he has made devastating analyses of modern intellectual trends.

GRAY: The Christian Churches are presently experiencing serious problems of internal division. In the light of these divisions, how do you view the present condition of Western Christianity?

KOLAKOWSKI: All over the world there is a widespread feeling of uncertainty and disarray. There are threats of all kinds which hang upon us, and this feeling does not spare Christianity. Throughout its history Christianity has undergone many changes.

The Church has had to adapt itself to various forms of civilisation - we may speak of a medieval church, a baroque church, and so on. That is quite natural. The liturgy has changed, the language of theology has changed in accordance with the change in cultural pattern.

Nevertheless, the very idea of Christianity loses its fundamental meaning if we presume that everything is subject to change. There must be a "hard core", so to say, in Christianity, which remains immutable.

The Church has itself made this distinction between immutable substance and changing expressions, forms which have to change with the changes in civilisation. The question is, of course, what belongs to this substance, this core, and what is subject to change. I don't know exactly how to make this distinction. It is obvious, for instance, that the celibacy of the clergy is not de iure divino. It could be changed. The Church admits that the celibacy of the clergy is an historical institution, a system which emerged historically, for various reasons, and the Church could move from it without changing any part of its teaching or of its doctrine.


But there are other reasons why the Church's hierarchy in general, at the head of them the Pope, oppose this. As to the priesthood of women, I'm not familiar with theological arguments for or against.

It would be silly, foolish, to object to the Church on the grounds that it is "traditionalist". The whole strength of the Church is that it is faithful to its tradition - otherwise, what is the Church for? If the Church is going to become a political party which merely adapts its beliefs to changing opinions, it can be safely dismissed altogether, because there are political parties doing such things. If the Church is there to sanctify and bless in advance every change in intellectual and moral fashion in our civilisation, then again - what is the Church for? The Church is strong because it has a traditional teaching, a spiritual kernel, which it considers its immutable essence. It cannot just yield to any pressure from people who think that whatever is in fashion at the present moment should immediately be adopted by the Church as its own teaching, whether in the field of political ideas or of daily life.

I think the Church is not only right in keeping its historically shaped, traditional identity. Its very role, its very mission on earth would become unclear if it did not do that. And so I would not be afraid at all, and I would not take it as an insult, that critics describe the Church as traditionalist or conservative.

There must be forces of conservatism in society, in spiritual life, by which I mean the forces of conservation. Without such forces, the entire fabric of society would fall apart.

GRAY: Are the Western churches adhering substantially to their own tradition, or is there a serious problem of their not adhering to it?

KOLAKOWSKI: The social teaching of the Church requires very serious attention, and perhaps revision, It is true that social teaching doesn't belong to the dogmatic core of the Church - it's not dogmatically binding - nevertheless, it is an important part of the Church's educational role.

Now it's true that from the beginning of the 19th century onwards, the Church for a long time saw its main enemy in liberalism. It was expressed in various official or semi- official documents of the Church, that the Church opposed strongly the idea of the separation of the Church from the state.

This has changed to some extent. I believe the Church can accept this idea. To accept that it does not deprive the Church of voicing its views and opinions in public, it doesn't prevent it, at least in democratic countries, from teaching what it considers true. But the Church should not demand that its own teaching must be inscribed in state law. There can be no objection to the Church teaching that marriage is indissoluble, and that the Catholic Church gives no recognition to divorces. It does not follow that divorce should be forbidden by the state law.

As far as I can say, in the present social teaching of the Church there remains a lack of clarity. Of course our Pope, in his various pronouncements, has very strongly stressed the idea of human rights as an idea of fundamentally Christian origin, which I think is true. What I mean is that this idea, in spite of all historical conflicts covering it, is essentially of Christian origin. The Pope is perfectly right in stressing this point. Nevertheless, human rights is not everything. The Church, as you know, never fully accepted the capitalist economy. The general tendency of its social teaching was rather paternalistic, so to say, corporatist. It condemned, on various occasions, an economy based on unlimited competition, a completely liberal economy. Considering its role going back to the middle ages, it was natural for the Church to take this kind of attitude.

On the other hand, the Church previously condemned communism by name, although not in the last few decades.

I think that a lot needs to be done to bring the social teaching of the Church to a more precise form. Not that I can do this. It is an extremely difficult task.

GRAY: Do you think that the flirtation between Christians and Marxists is now in the past? I'm thinking of movements like the "worker-priest" movement in France, and even today in Nicaragua there is the so-called "popular church" of Marxist Christians. Do you think that that is something which is finished with?

KOLAKOWSKI: No, it is not, especially in Latin America. In Latin America the conflict will continue to go on for quite a long time. In countries with tremendous problems, glaring inequalities, much appalling misery, these tendencies must emerge, time and again I remember having spoken in Brazil with some priests who were making great sacrifices in the poorest, most remote regions of Amazonia - very noble priests who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the poor and the oppressed, the underdog - the priests I spoke to identified themselves with what the Pope said in Mexico or in Brazil.

On the other hand, with many priests it is difficult to determine what is Christian in their teaching and what Christianity means to them, because they reduce Christianity to a political doctrine - Maoist priests, Trotskyist priests - to whom, simply, Christianity is nothing but part of a political struggle. Some of them are unfortunately being manipulated, exploited by various leftists and political movements and might, if something goes wrong, no matter what their intention, become fertiliser for communist tyranny. That is dangerous.

To the Pope the Latin American Church is very important and his language has to be guided by this consideration, among others, in order to avoid a deeper split in these countries. One cannot predict what will happen. But anyway, it is clear to me that a Christianity which is reduced to a political doctrine is of no use to anybody. It would no longer be Christianity in any recognisable sense.

GRAY: There seems to be some pressure on the Pope from certain Marxist factions within the Church in Latin America to adopt a more Marxist or pseudo-Marxist version of social teaching. Is that part of what you're referring to when you say that certain aspects have to be clarified?

KOLAKOWSKI: In my view, there is no way in which Marxist teaching could be reconciled with Christianity. Marxism is anti- Christian, not contingently, not by accident, but in its very core. You cannot reconcile it.

There is no Christianity where no distinction is made between temporal and eternal values. There is no Christianity where one accepts that all earthly values, however important, however crucial to human life, are nevertheless secondary. What the Church is about essentially is the salvation of human souls, and the human soul is never reducible to social conditions.

There is an absolute value in the human person. The Church believes that the world - the social world, the physical world - is merely an expression of the divine, and as such it can only have instrumental or secondary value. Without this, there is no point in speaking about Christianity.

GRAY: It seems that not just the Church in Latin America but the Church in the wealthier Western countries also has the problem that it doesn't articulate that distinction between the temporal and supernatural. Would you agree with that?

KOLAKOWSKI: Oh yes, very much so. Actually I believe that people in the Church very often attribute the secularisation process - the so- called laicisation of society - to the fact that the Church was too supernatural, too religious, concentrating too much of its teaching on other worldly problems and values. My view is that the opposite is the case: because we don't need the Church at all if the Church is reserved to blessing our passions, our greed, our never ending growth of needs and so on. What is the Church for?

Quite to the contrary, if, through the eyes of its observers, Christianity loses or seems to lose its spiritual foundation, it becomes simply irrelevant.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 2 No 6 (July 1989), p. 12

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