Anarchism and Catholicism: An Introduction

By Chase Padusniak

“Anarchy,” a scary word to many, doesn’t get much use in Catholic circles. It seems downright frightening, either theologically or personally-it seems to threaten longstanding traditions of justice, not to mention the personal comfort and status of the West’s largely comfortable and assimilated Catholic population. Witness, for example, the Catholic Encyclopedia :

“The theory of anarchy is against all reason. Apart from the fact that it runs counter to some of the most cherished instincts of humanity, as, for instance,family life and love of country, it is evident thatsociety without authority could not stand for a moment. Men whose only purpose would be to satisfy all their inclinations are by the very fact on the level of the animal creation. The methods they already employ in the prosecution of their designs show how the animal instincts quickly assert themselves.”

Harsh words. Although the Encyclopedia is a useful resource in many ways, it was published in 1907, and, in some spots, is rather clearly a product of its time. I can say this, because, in spite of this absolute dismissal, anarchism became popular with more than a few Catholic thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Fr. Thomas Hagerty, Peter Maurin, Dom Léonce Crenier , Dorothy Day, Emmanuel Mounier, Ammon Hennacy, (arguably) Simone Weil, Fr. Ivan Illich, and Fr. Dan Berrigan all come to mind, and that’s not even to mention famous examples from Orthodoxy and Protestantism such as Nikolai Berdyaev (along with Leo Tolstoy) and Jacques Ellul. Yet, unsurprisingly, the word continues to frighten us-comfortable as we are. In the interest of clarification, really of de-mystification, I’d like to ask: what is anarchism? And why did it appeal to so many Catholics?

First things first then: “anarchism” refers to a good number of traditions with a variety of commitments. For my purposes here, the central distinction is between individualist forms of anarchism-à la Max Stirner, Benjamin Tucker, and, I would argue, Murray Rothbard (insofar as his ideas can be called by the “a word” at all)-and communitarian forms, often associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin.


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