Having blogged last week about John Beaumont’s book, The Mississippi Flows Into The Tiber, with all the extraordinary, uplifting and grace-filled stories of conversion that it includes, I can’t resist drawing particular attention to one of them: the conversion of Bella Dodd. Her name probably won’t ring any bells this side of the pond beside the river Thames, but in the US in her day she was famous both as a professor of political science as well as a lawyer, but also for her work in labour organisations and as a leading member of the Communist party of America in the 1930s and 1940s.
Bella Dodd was a “revert”. Raised a Catholic, she rejected her faith in adult life and finally returned to the Church under the guidance of Bishop Fulton Sheen in 1952. She died in 1969. What interested me was how she gradually came to see Communism for what it was: a false religion. She had been drawn to it by her genuine love for the poor, thinking that it was the “poor man’s party”. When her eyes were opened she saw that “with the best motives and a desire to serve the working people of my country, I and thousands like me, had been led to a betrayal of these very people”.
In particular, the party had constantly presented the Catholic Church as “reactionary, totalitarian, dogmatic, old-fashioned. For years [these words] had been used to engender fear and hatred in people like me”. When she met Bishop Sheen for the first time, he took her to a little chapel in his house to pray before a statue of Our Lady and gave her a rosary. Dodd realised he understood her position: “He knew that a nominal Christian with a memory of the Cross can easily be twisted to the purposes of evil by men who masquerade as saviours. I thought how Communist leaders achieve their greatest strength and cleverest snare when they use the will to goodness of their members. They stir the emotions with phrases which are only a blurred picture of eternal truths… I accepted this programme which had been made even more attractive because they appealed for ‘sacrifice for our brothers’.”
Learning more about the Church and the real brotherhood of men, only possible under the fatherhood of God, Dodd saw how she had been brainwashed by the party, “a dominant, aggressive force which contained many evil features of the existing materialist society” and in which “individual life and liberty were expendable in the interests of the class”. Her account matters because it shows so eloquently how the deepest, most idealistic instincts in human nature, the impulse to love, to suffer for a cause, to sacrifice oneself and to long to change society for the better can be perverted by evil men and twisted truths.
Pope Francis alluded to this in his annual foreign policy address to Vatican-based ambassadors, when he referred to the “tragic slayings” in Paris, saying that those responsible “had become ‘enslaved’ by new fads and ‘deviant forms of religion’.” Young men attracted by jihad are, like all human beings, made by God to worship him in truth and in love; they long to give themselves to a cause greater than themselves. When, through life circumstances, bad influences and a potent but lethal ideology, they believe violence and death are the answer, they have truly come under the sway of “deviant forms of religion”, just as much as Bella Dodd in her Communist days. She thought that the “liquidation” of the enemy was necessary for the “purification of the party” – until the grace of truth showed her how wrong her way of thinking had been. More important than educating volatile young Islamists to tolerate the democratic right of a French magazine to publish obscene cartoons is the requirement to show them the beauty, truth and freedom of Christian love.