Capitalism or Communism? – S.D. Dom Hélder Câmara (1984)

[First published as Des Questions pour vivre in 1984; Dom Hélder Câmara’s (who, it should be noted, is now a Servant of God, and whose case for beatification is open) book was translated into English in 1987 under the title Questions for Living. From the introduction to the book: “In June 1983, under the auspices of the Catholic weekly La Vie, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife traveled throughout western France. His trip had been prepared over a period of several months by diocesan communications committees and various associations and movements involved in the struggle for solidarity, justice, and peace. Rennes, La Roche-sur-Yon, Nantes, Angers, Cholet, Laval, Poitiers—each day at one of these stops Dom Helder would hold meetings with organizers and activists, with the press, and in the evenings with crowds of several thousand persons who had come to hear of ‘the hope of the poor.’ The audiences would be told, ‘Ask your questions in writing. Dom Hélder will not be able to answer them all this evening, but he will answer them later, in writing, and La Vie will publish his answers. ‘’ All together more than five hundred pieces of paper were handed in, many of them listing a number of questions.” ]

Just what is your position on communism?

Up to the present, communism has always started out as a machine to seize power in the name of the people, and then it has become a machine to preserve and extend power against the people. I have never put any hope in communism. But I don’t think that communism is danger number one. The number one danger is misery and injustice, the despair of human beings in which the false hopes of communism sink roots.

Do you pray for Yuri Andropov?

Like all men, Yuri Andropov is my brother. We have the same father. He has grave responsibilities and certainly works under great difficulties. I pray that he may, once at least, allow himself to be touched by the look in a poor person’s eyes. Through this glance the Lord will show him the path of true revolution, the revolution of love.

If a communist country awarded you a peace prize, would you go there as readily as you went to Japan to receive a Buddhist prize?

No, because I’ve always said I would never go anywhere that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to speak with love and with freedom and without having my words used for propaganda. There is only one country where I’ve been willing to be without freedom, and that is Brazil, because that is my country.

Can Christians seeking to change the world in the name of their faith and hope actually choose a path as radical as that of the Marxist influenced revolutions?

I have a great deal of respect for those who in all good conscience make this choice. But I have to tell you frankly, that if it means the route staked out, directed, and protected by the great capitals of state communism, while I still respect it, I don’t share it. It may mean breaking away from one slavery, but it means falling into another slavery. Still, there are many situations in which waging a battle for the human being side by side with communists can advance the cause of justice. So that’s a different matter. We all know communists who are communists because that’s their way of believing in men and women and serving their brothers and sisters, and not because they want to grab power so they can hand it over to Moscow, Peking, or Havana.

Can there be justice in communism?

Marx thought so. But his successors have not proved him correct.

You say that you have no need of Marxism, that the church is enough for you. But don’t you think that the use of Marxism’s economic theory could facilitate a better understanding of the mechanisms of exploitation from which you seek to free human beings?

You know, there is no human thought that doesn’t contain at least a particle of truth, a particle of the Creator’s thought. I love those who have the wisdom and humility to search the thought of others for what might help them understand the great human problems better and solve them better. I also love those who, without being Christians, listen to us when we say that the gospel reveals to us the true roots of misery, injustice, violence, and exploitation.

Do you think, as Father Gutiérrez does, that the only way out of the situation of misery and exploitation in Latin America is socialism?

The difficulty here is to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Socialism has meant, and still means today, very different political and economic teachings and practices, from state Marxism, in all of its heartless purity, to a social democracy that is rather more democratic than socialistic. My thinking is that neither American-style capitalism nor Soviet-style communism can provide the poor with a future of justice, dignity, and freedom. So we must look for something else. And when we find it, if it is called socialism that won’t bother me.

There is a third way that seems to have wedged its way in between capitalism and communism, with its own particular organization and means. You don’t mention this. Could you tell us what you think about it?

I am neither an economist nor a politician. I have no organization or means to propose. I do see this, though, that all over the world, east and west, north and south, more and more people are rejecting both unbridled capitalism and totalitarian communism. Surely this must be true in France, too, on the left as on the right, as you say, and among Christians and non-Christians. They search, they try, in the unions, in the universities, in businesses, in political or other group movements. So all I can tell you is: Find these people who are searching, who are trying. Join them, help them.

Aren’t you taking on a terrible responsibility, raising people’s hopes like this without offering them some means of attaining what they hope for?

It would be an even more terrible responsibility not to share the hope I receive each day from the Lord, from my people, from everyone I meet. What I have I give you [Acts 3:6]. Forgive me if I am unable to give you what I do not have: a knowledge of the means—which will be different in each situation—to transform hope into effective will. It seems to me that this is your responsibility, where you are, as it is mine in my diocese.

If the church recognizes its mistake in having collaborated with the right in the past, isn’t it making the same mistake in taking its position on the left today?

When I tell my own story and draw lessons from it, I recognize the error of having been too closely tied to power. I don’t mean just power on the right. Besides, in our country it’s often difficult to tell the difference between right and left. The real difference is between more or less democracy and more or less oligarchy, authoritarianism, dictatorship. The governments with which the church in Brazil, and I myself, have been too closely connected have been of every shape and shade. My experience has taught me that if the church wishes to stay free for the gospel and free to hear and serve Christ among the poor, it must not be tied to any power, right or left.

You say communism isn’t the number one danger. There are Christians willing to ally themselves with the communists to combat the anticommunist dictatorships. Don’t you think that dictatorships that suspend civil liberties are at least better than communism, which crushes the freedoms of heart and soul?

To me, all dictatorships are horrible. We must fight them all. We only have to be careful not to escape the clutches of one only to fall into another