Project Canterbury

Discerning the Lord's Body
The Rationale of a Catholic Democracy

By Frederic Hastings Smyth, Ph.D.
Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth

Louisville, Kentucky: The Cloister Press, 1946.

Appendix I. Christian Over-Pessimism versus Humanist Over-Optimism

It needs to be said, however, that even merely human efforts, if they be rational and carried through with determination, can accomplish much more for the improvement of human life than a good many people seem to imagine. It is a curious paradox of today that many so-called Christians tend to be pessimistic in this regard. They (e.g. Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and other Neo-orthodox) hold too low an opinion of man's natural rational powers for improving his present and his future in this world; for, even though man in his own unaided right cannot reach those roots of his difficulties which stem from the past, he can make substantial, if partial, contributions to the restoration of order to God's world. These Christian pessimists give too much weight to the burden of Original Sin as this operates in the natural order. But this is very understandable. Since many nominal Christians today are thoroughly steeped in prejudice against deep social change or revolution of any kind whatever, an over-emphasis upon the effect of Original Sin as this operates in the time dimension provides an excellent excuse for human inaction--and indeed, for unashamed reaction.

On the other hand, Dialectical Materialists (Communists), who dogmatically deny the existence of any power transcending our time and space, entertain an almost apocalyptic optimism concerning the possibility of the perfection of human life, without any reference to the inherited burden of past disorders. Such Materialists therefore are making the opposite mistake of denying Original Sin and its effects altogether. This mistake does doom those who persist in it to eventual disappointment and to the danger of despairing disillusion. However, Communists at least work for a better world at this moment of history, one more in accord with the will of God than is our present capitalist one. And they are not afraid of secular revolution. Therefore, in so far as they succeed in moving human life in the direction of a greater justice and a greater realization of a non-competitive, brotherly economic community, they move in the direction of God's further purpose.

Hence, their over-optimism is, at this point, infinitely preferable to the deadening and paralyzing effects of exaggerated Christian pessimism. And to the solution of that ultimate and time-transcending part of the problem which Communists now ignore, we may hope [198/199] that guidance may be given by genuine Christians when the present preliminary work accomplished by the Communists shall become ready for a divine consummation. In that future we may well believe that all men, including the inheritors of the materialist tradition themselves, will welcome the transcendent validation of their human efforts within the ultimate redeeming action of the Incarnation of the Son of God. But if radical Christian pessimists reject all possibility of any contributory human work, for such there seems no hope at all.

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