“Socialism” is increasingly losing its status as a dirty word in the United States, especially among young people. A Gallup poll from this year reports an increase in positive attitudes toward socialism and a decline in positive attitudes toward capitalism from Americans aged 18-29, consistent with other polling trends from previous years. Though there is no shortage of Christians wringing their hands over the changing political landscape, Christians have also shown up at strikes, campaigned for candidates endorsed by socialists, and joined socialist organizations.
There are many faithful Christians who have worked for radical change in the belly of the world’s wealthiest nation long before the 2016 primaries. Their experience brings lessons and context for today’s budding movements. One of these Christians is Sister Kathleen Schultz, a Roman Catholic sister who served as the National Executive Secretary of Christians for Socialism (CFS) in the U.S. for almost a decade. At 76 years old, she remains a thorn in the side of the powerful.
The Socialist Sister
“I think I’m retired. I’m trying to behave a little more retired,” Schultz says, right after talking about participating in three Moral Mondays events in Michigan, where some of her fellow sisters were arrested. Retired from her most recent paid employment as a grant writer, she is still active in mobilizations in her home city of Detroit around utility shut-offs, home foreclosures, and calls for a Community Benefits Ordinance that would allow citizens to define needs that would put legally binding requirements on corporate developers.
Born in 1942, Schultz has spent most of her life in the Motor City; she witnessed the automotive boom, the ‘67 Detroit Rebellion, and the painful collapse of much of Michigan’s manufacturing base. She describes a childhood saturated by Catholic life and practice. Beginning in the summer before 6th grade in Catholic school, she spent her vacation weeks attending daily mass with her grandmother, just as students did daily through the school year. At 18, she entered the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHMs) in Monroe, Michigan.
“My journey to socialist politics was quite rapid,” she says. Her theological education offered a thorough look at social papal encyclicals, and she completed her B.A. during the years of Vatican II, the church council called by John XXIII that transformed the way Catholics understood their role in the world and the central place of the poor in the Church’s mission. The Vietnam War raged as she completed her religious formation, binding her political and religious education together.
As a young religious, Schultz was particularly attentive to learning about committed Christians in other parts of the world. One who stands out is Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest-turned-revolutionary who was killed in 1966 in combat against the Colombian military. “I can remember reading a short article in the diocesan paper about him just before going out for a winter walk,” Schultz recalls. “I spent the whole walk trying to fit together the pieces of what it could possibly mean that he entered into his country's reality in that way.”
That international consciousness made Schultz aware of an especially dynamic group of Christians in Chile, rallying support for socialist president Salvador Allende, who was democratically elected in 1970. Calling themselves “Cristianos por el Socialismo” (CPS), the group, made up of clergy and laypeople alike, looked for ways to integrate their Christian faith into their country’s struggle against capitalism.
During Allende’s presidency, CPS organized among peasants and urban workers, brought researchers and organizers from around the world to study global capitalism, and received international visitors, including Fidel Castro. Among their visitors was a group of U.S. Catholics who came to Chile in the spring of 1973. Shortly after they left, however, a right-wing military coup led by Augusto Pinochet and backed by the United States, violently deposed Allende and established a brutal and repressive dictatorship. Thousands immediately fled in exile, followed by thousands more in the coming years, escaping a regime that became known for torture, disappearances, and executions.
“When people had to get out quickly, they moved to where their contacts were,” Schultz recalls. Many landed in the United States and were in touch with those who had visited them earlier, integrating into a lively period of Christian activism still organizing after the height of the civil rights Movement and anti-war demonstrations. The cross-pollination of organizers, says Schultz, is how she and others in the U.S. “became so caught up in the ferment coming out of Latin America, particularly Chile.”
Birth of Christians for Socialism
Christians for Socialism in the United States was soon underway, named in solidarity with their Chilean siblings, and spurred by an international meeting in Quebec, in 1975. One year later, Schultz began working for CFS and continued for the next eight years, coordinating chapters and organizing meetings and conferences, even as she continued engaging Detroit issues. Chapters sprung up across the U.S., with eight early and consistent chapters in Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Iowa, Madison, Northern California, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati.
Nationally, CFS supported a wide range of activities and actions. A delegation traveled to Cuba in 1978 and reported back on what they observed. In Northern California, the chapter opposed homophobic legislation, while in 1980 an Iowan CFS member, Gil Dawes, invited Angela Davis, then the vice presidential candidate of the Communist Party USA, to speak at his church in support of striking workers at a corn processing plant.
As CFS matured, so did its horizon of justice. Members participated in other conversations as a plurality of liberation theologies bloomed. Beyond just class, other forms of oppression like gender and race were understood to constitute the world of domination. “We didn’t use the notion of ‘intersectionality’ back then in our theory,” says Schultz, “but descriptively we were naming the same thing, the many forces that converge on individuals and communities and create the full picture of oppression at work. Ultimately, we learned that the way of responding to difference is to not shy away from it, not to oppose it, or say these people are trying to break in where they don’t belong, but to bring it in and understand what it is about.”
Things started to slow down in the early 80s and, after thorough discussion and reflection, CfFS voted to dissolve in 1984. But, Schultz emphasizes, the decision was made without disappointment or bitterness. “We had a sense that we had a good run. A solid eight years together, steady engagement on multiple local issues by each chapter, several large publishing projects, participation and leadership in two major theological conferences and two international gatherings of CFS groups, and our own national conference. While no chapter was in disarray, our membership was shifting, and the effort required for continued national projection was markedly more difficult.”
Then and Now
Schultz still has her international antennae. “It’s unbelievably sad when you look at parts of Puerto Rico,” she says, noting there are IHM sisters there. “From my political vantage point, Puerto Rico has always been a colony, it’s just now a storm-whipped colony.” Her attention to inequality causes her to find parallels between her own context in Detroit, riddled with food deserts and an ongoing housing crisis. “Parts of Detroit and Puerto Rico don’t look all that different.”
Looking back, Schultz says, “what the CFS years gave was multiple manifestations of a different way that Christians could participate in a society and let go of that great ideological block against Marxism and socialism.”
Today, as we try to make sense of a world with growing inequality, “it turns out that Marxism isn’t passé at all” says Schultz. “The theory brings an explanatory power to what we are seeing in front of us.” “Explanatory power” is an important phrase for Schultz, cutting against both ivory tower elitism and anti-intellectualism sometimes present on the left. “Explanatory power is what we take out of theory as organizers and popularizers,” she says, “as people trying to make things happen, as action groups that want to be effective.”
While she is no longer the executive secretary of a socialist organization, Schultz still hopes for a socialist society. “No person in a country as advanced as this one should be poor and unable to eat or educate their children. The future must be a way of social organization that is inclusive of everyone, every community, along with the necessary and vital elements of life: housing, food, education, health, earth-care, employment, and participation.”