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CONVERGENCE OF THOUGHT: FROMM’S NEW SOCIETY AND THE

CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY OF THE SOCIAL TEACHINGS OF THE


CHURCH

My attendance in the lectures on Erich Fromm affords me the


realization that Erich Fromm envisions for a society not too different
from the one proposed by the Social Teachings of the Church.
Certainly, there are occasions that I see the teachings of the popes in
the suggestions and critiques that Fromm provides in order to address
the pressing concerns of the world. This allows me to say that there
are indeed convergences between the teachings of the pope and that
of a secular thinker like Erich Fromm.
This paper is then an articulation of these convergences. The
rationale of this paper is inspired by the recent work of a group of
theologians at the John Paul II Research Center who talked about the
theological constants. This reflection is certainly not a theological
reflection, but it would borrow the concept of the constants in
reflecting about the social issues that are obviously present in our
contemporary world. The search for the constants is founded on the
idea that convergences of thought prove that such concepts are truly
important because they emerge even in the reflection of people who
may be separated by their context or background. The recurrence of
concepts testifies that they are important.
To proceed with this reflection then, allow me to mention several
items which I think are present both in Fromm’s philosophy and the
social teachings of the Church. They are as follows:

1. As reactions to the Enlightenment Project


Fromm is obviously a thinker who is a product of the enlightenment
period. This is obviously seen in the fact that Fromm emphasizes more
on his freedom rather than his faith. In fact, Fromm argues in several
of his books that man’s faith in Christianity could at times even
constitute his alienation from himself. For Fromm, man’s freedom is of
paramount value. Freedom is a value of the enlightenment movement.
Freedom reacted against the Middle Ages, and argues even that the
middle ages are years of slavery and bondage. The enlightenment
movement reacted against several practices of the middle ages. It was
meant as a movement of liberation from the chains that the authorities
(the State and the Church) of the Middle Ages have created, namely:
the state and the church. The state, especially the monarchs, had
great power over the people. The monarchs were the laws. They
dictate to the people. They create the truth. They govern the people
through their whims and caprice. They wield the power of the sword
and force to quell the criticisms of the objectors.

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The Church was also the same. She utilizes the concept of salvation
to govern the masses. Everyone trembles when the issue of salvation
is at stake. Even the nobilities, including the monarchs, tremble in fear
when their salvation is at risk. The people were willing to offer
everything they have just to procure salvation. The wealthy have
donated as much as they can just to procure indulgences. The poor
were also willing to bear their poverty just to assure themselves of
their salvation in heaven. Hence, the simple folks, despite being
abused, would have no guts to complain, for to complain against the
church is to compromise the promised salvation of the Church.
Since the people were bonded to their loyalty to both the monarchs
and the Church, freedom was blurred and was lost. The people of the
middle ages were enslaved. They were enslaved by their own ideals.
They were enslaved by their own faith. This slavery is what Fromm
calls as alienation. The people of the Middle Ages were alienated from
themselves.
The birth of the enlightenment has then become an alternative to
medieval way of life. It was also accompanied by the rise of technology
during the industrial revolution. These things have given the people a
new sense of hope. The enlightenment project abides with the ideal of
self-direction. It teaches that each person has the right to direct his/her
own life. A poor individual, as long as he exerts his own effort, can
finally hope for liberation, material liberation at that, for the future. The
rich people could not just also stand complacent over their wealth
because once they mismanage their wealth, they too may become
poor.
This is where Fromm begins also. He even expressed in his book, To
Have or To Be?, that with the enlightenment “men and, increasingly,
women experienced a new sense of freedom; they became masters of
their own lives: feudal chains had been broken and one could do what
one wished, free of all shackles.”1 His emphasis on the freedom of man
and man’s capacity to overcome his limitations brings into the surface
a good deal of enlightenment philosophy. Even if Fromm disagrees
with the enlightenment’s economic fruit, capitalism, Fromm is certainly
influenced by its thoughts on freedom. However, Fromm was also
criticizing the kind of absolute freedom that the enlightenment
presupposes. For him, man’s freedom does not guarantee his absolute
superiority towards nature and the world. So he says, ”with industrial
progress, from the substitution of mechanical and then nuclear energy
for animal and human energy to the substitution of the computer for
the human mind, we could feel that we were on our way to unlimited
production and, hence, unlimited consumption; that technique made
1
Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be? (USA: Harper and Row, 1976), p. xxiii.

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us omnipotent; that science made us omniscient. We were on our way
to becoming gods, supreme beings who could create a second world,
using the natural world only as building blocks for our new creation.” 2
But given this desire to rule the world, Freedom calls man as
superman whereby he quoted Albert Schweitzer saying, “man has
become a superman…but the superman with the superhuman powers
has not reason to the superhuman reason. To the degree to which his
power grows, he becomes more and more a poor man… it must shake
up our conscience that we become all the more inhuman the more we
grow into supermen.”3
The Social Teachings of the Church is also a response to the
enlightenment movement. The social encyclicals are basically
clarifying the stand of the Church as she confronts primarily the basic
criticisms of the enlightenment movement. As the Church defends
herself from these critiques, she also managed to re-evaluate some of
her policies, and humbly admits that some of her own ideals are not
yet really lived by her people. The social encyclicals were then written
in order to specifically remind the Catholic faithful to live the seemingly
forgotten ideals and practices of Church. The encyclicals are the
concrete reminders of the Church addressed to the bishops and the
faithful, urging everybody to follow the examples of Christ; and if we
would look into the life and examples of Christ, then we would see that
he too had already lived the values of the enlightenment specifically,
freedom. Reminding the faithful about the prophecy of St. Paul on the
myths that could possibly capture the people’s attention, nay in this
case the enlightenment’s myth on absolute freedom, the Compendium
of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “At the dawn of this Third
Millennium, the Church does not tire of proclaiming the Gospel that
brings salvation and genuine freedom also to temporal realities. She is
mindful of the solemn exhortation given by St. Paul to his disciple
Timothy, ‘Preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season,
convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching,
but having itchy ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to
suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and
wander into myths. As for you, be always steady, endure suffering, do
the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”4 The Church wanted
her people also to be free, in the very same way that Fromm does in
his own philosophy. But as pointed out, such freedom is never

2
Ibid.
3
Ibid., p. xxv.
4
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine
of the Church (Manila: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and
Word and Life Publications, 2004), 3-4.

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absolute. It has to serve the higher purpose of preserving the dignity of
man, and of preserving the good order that God has designed for the
earth.

2. Pointing out the Insufficiencies of Capitalism


Another basic similarity in the thought of Erich Fromm and that of
the Catholic social thinkers is the articulation of the weaknesses of
capitalism. Currently, we are even facing serious problems in our
economy that are rooted in the peoples’ seeming indifference in the
problematic policies of capitalism against which Erich Fromm and the
Catholic social thinkers reacted. Erich Fromm has criticized the
capitalistic spirit of self-direction. But Fromm also argues that the
capitalist ideal for self-direction. Fromm argues, “In contemporary
society, since the eighteenth century, “history” and the “future” have
become the substitutes for Christian heaven: fame, celebrity and even
notoriety… The craving for fame is not just a secular vanity – it has a
religious equality for those who do not believe in the traditional
hereafter any more.”5 Sadly however, this desire for a kind of a secular
immortality, accompanied by the license to do whatever one wants
because of the ideal for self-direction, has become, for Fromm, the
basic fundamental and philosophical rationale for people to acquire
much more than what one needs. The indestructibility of one’s
properties would speak of one’s immortality, and so people are urged
to pile up things until they become indestructible. Fromm continues:
“But perhaps more than anything else, possession of property
constitutes the craving for immortality…”6 This has then become the
reason why some people acquire so many things, way beyond that
what he and his family needs, while at the same time the majority are
living in poverty, who do not even have the basic necessities for a
decent human life.
This unequal distribution of material goods and wealth, which is a
basic effect or character of capitalism, is also subjected to the criticism
of Catholic social thinkers. Rev. Fr. Pedro Salgado, OP, who writes a
commentary on the social encyclicals even said, “in its first paragraph,
Rerum Novarum points out the problem then taking root in society –
the social problem, the problem namely where wealth is monopolized
by a few, with the majority living in misery.”7 The social encyclicals

5
Fromm, 1976, p.69.
6
Fromm, 1976, p.70
7
Pedro Salgado, OP, Social Encyclicals: Commentary and Critique (Manila:
Lucky Press, Incorporated, 1997), p.9; cf. Rerum Novarum paragraph 1 and 6,
where it says, “the whole process of production as well as trade in every kind
of goods has been brought almost entirely under the power of a few, so that
a very few rich and exceedingly rich men have laid a yoke almost of slavery

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that follow after the Rerum Novarum would identify the same problem
again and again. The Church strongly believes that along this area,
capitalism has failed. In tolerating the excessive wealth of the few and
the supreme lack of the majority, capitalism has endangered the world.
In fact, the problem experienced in the Great depression was used
as a strong proof against this failure. The Quadragesimo Anno of Pius
XI, written in 1931 even pointed out the hypocrisy of capitalism: ”Free
competition is dead; economic dictatorship has taken its place.
Unbridled ambition for domination has succeeded the desire for gain;
the whole economic life has become hard, cruel and relentless in a
ghastly measure.” (no.111). These characteristics of the capitalist
world criticized by the Quadragesimo Anno were all contributing
factors for the setting in of the Great Depression starting 1929. The
uneven distribution of wealth that has been sadly condoned by
capitalism (which in fact argues that it is perfectly just and normal to
see people who are extremely rich and those who are extremely poor,
arguing that richness and poverty are the creations of the individuals
themselves) has been the reason for that disastrous economic crisis.
And yet, we seemed not have learned from it. Now, we are again
facing the possibility of another major crisis, which still happens within
the context of the unchecked capitalistic policies.

3. Reaction versus socialism


Interestingly, Fromm’s rejection of capitalism does not also bring
him to the extremist positions of the communist. Despite seeing many
bad implications within the capitalistic world, Fromm does not also
believe that communism could offer a viable and sane solution.
Probably, the primary reason of this hesitation to accept socialism is
also the latter’s rejection of freedom. Freedom is certainly lost in the
control-freak policies of communism, which views private ownership as
the primary cause of the uneven distribution of wealth in the
community. Communists thought that the very structure that condones
and even makes possible the huge divide between the rich and the
poor in the society is the concept of private property. The communists
believe that when properties become private, its use has also already
become exclusive. In effect, those who do not have any property were
also deprived of their use.
Therefore, the communists think that the capitalists’ ideal for
freedom is hypocritical. It was a delusion to think that a poor person in
the capitalist society remains to be free. Indeed, there is no real
freedom if there is no capacity to carry out one’s choice. For example,
an unwatched three year old kid may have the choice to go out of the
house but because he does not have the power to unlock and open the

on the unnumbered masses of non-owning members.”

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door, the opportunity to go out of the house is not a real option for
him. Therefore, the kid is still not free. The same is true in the
capitalist societies. There is no real freedom for the poor. All the talks
of freedom are only genuinely true for the rich but not for those who
do not have the capacity to carry out or live out their choices. But what
allows a person in a capitalist world to carry out his choices? Certainly,
it is money and the rest of his properties. The haves (those who have
properties) in our world are the able people. In Filipino, we even call
them as maykaya (with power, with the capacity to do things). This
means, they are the ones who are capable to bring their desires into
fruition. On the other hand, the have nots (those who do not have
anything) are the most powerless people in the community. In Filipino
we call them mga kapos palad. These are the people who cannot reach
their desired thing because their arms are not lengthy enough to reach
for them. They are certainly the powerless people in the community
(mga walang kaya).
Realizing this, the communists think that the only way to maintain
the equality of peoples is to take out the system of private ownership
and make things available for communal ownership. Things have to be
shared by everybody. In this sense, no one is more privileged, or more
powerful than others. In the very same way also, no one is deprived
simply because he/she does not have the means to do so.

No matter how noble the intentions of the communists are, the


Church and Erich Fromm have rightly objected against them. Fromm’s
objection stems from the communists denial of freedom. When
communism affirms the value of communal ownership, it was also
confronted with the issue of use. Who would determine or regulate the
uses of these common things? There has to be a regulator. The
communists answer to this concern is the government. However,
ultimately, the communist policy redounds to affirming one thing: the
government has the right to dictate everything to the people. Hence,
the communists have failed in their desire to uplift the freedom of men
because ultimately they end up denying from men the very same
freedom which they boldly wanted to uphold. When freedom was
limited and was denied from people, Fromm realizes that communism
is as hypocritical as the capitalistic policies that it wanted to criticize.
The Church does not also fully approve the philosophy of
communism. The basic disagreement lies in the latter’s accepted
means for solving the social problem. Communism believes that the
only way to topple down the oppressive structure of capitalism is
through a bloody revolution. But the Church could not tolerate any
form of violence. No matter how noble is the intention, the means have

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to be always morally sound. Otherwise, the result could not possibly
justify the means.
Despite the insufficiency of capitalism, the Catholic social
philosophers and Erich Fromm does not also resort to communism as a
viable solution to the problem. Fromm sees the death of freedom as
his basic objection against socialism, while the Catholic social
philosophers are concerned with communists’ drive for revolution.
a. The Dream for a new world
Erich Fromm believes that both capitalism and communism failed
to create a better world. Fromm strongly believes that capitalism was a
real failure. The Great depression is a proof of such failure. With this,
the hope brought by the enlightenment was also lost. In fact, even the
enlightenment project that promotes reason and freedom was also
proven to be a failure because they too have become the primary
culprits of the many atrocities of our time. The tendency of reason to
control and manipulate has even made human life more vulnerable. In
the same way, the economic policies of capitalism did not succeed in
making human life better. The gap between the rich and the poor has
even been widened. Poverty went to the extreme and the few rich
people also enjoyed excessive wealth.
But even with capitalism, the life of the poor was not made
better. The wealthy ones certainly have a better life but the majority
still suffered from poverty. Furthermore, as we have already argued
above, Fromm does not also see communism as a possible alternative.
Fromm believes that communism kills the free spirit of man. When
everything is under the control of the government, individuality and
personal freedom are lost. In effect, no man is free. Instead, all are
subjected under the demands and whims of the government.
Seeing the failure of capitalism, Fromm was proposing for a new
alternative. This was his dreamed new society. But the question that
we will now raise is: how do we form this new society? He claimed that
it has to start with the formation of a new man, which ultimately is
hoped to form a new community.
The formation of the new man and the new community has to
start with some affirmations. The basic affirmation that Fromm
suggests is the acceptance of the presence of the problem. Such
acceptance of the problem would possibly lead to the realization about
the ways to address the currently perceived problem. Then, the
resolution is hoped to create the new world that is neither communist
nor capitalistic, but one that upholds control and freedom at the same
time.
Fromm argues that the basic step for growth is one’s awareness
and affirmation that there is indeed a problem. Knowing the problem is
half of the solution. Hence, if we have to recreate the world, we need

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to affirm the scandals of our present world, and we need to be
bothered by them. One basic problem is the unequal distribution of
goods: others have a lot of extras (surplus) while some are truly
lacking. Whereas there are many luxurious things in the most
advanced cities, there would also be scarcity of resources among the
least developed countries.
Fromm further adds that knowing the problem should lead into
knowing the root of the problem. It is essential for us to discern the
oppressive structures of our community. If we are to talk about the
problem of poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, then a
possible root which we could trace are the structures of free trade,
which opens the resources of poor countries to the exploitation of the
rich. Furthermore, free trade simply provides more markets to rich
countries that are capable of producing surplus. The poor nations could
not participate in free trade for the simple reason that they actually
have nothing to trade.
Another example of an oppressive structure would be the media.
Fromm argued that one essential step for the formation of the new
society, which he wanted to establish, is the availability of accurate
information. But if the media is simply governed by the principles of
economics, then the accuracy of information can always be sacrificed
on behalf of income and profit.
Fromm believes that it is essential for man to believe that there
are possible solutions to the problem. Without this belief, one’s
resignation would easily transform into despair. When you simply
resign that there is nothing that can be done, then we are already
despairing about the ill being of our society. We lose the hope to move
on because we no longer believe that something can still be done to
make our human situation better.
Furthermore, if we are to believe for a positive future, this belief
should be accompanied by the implementation of norms or structures
that would aid us overcome our ill-being. Moral Imagination may not be
enough. It has to be aided by the implementation of certain structures
and norms. Poststructuralist thinkers would call this as the
structuration or the discovery and implementation of alternative
structures which fight the oppressive structures that perpetuate the
problem. We learned even in our traditional moral philosophy that the
best way to get rid of a vice is to live a virtuous life. For example, if one
wants to overcome his vice of lying, he would have to live the virtue of
honesty and integrity; or if one wants to avoid sinning, he would have
to focus his energies simply on doing good things.
Fromm believes that there are concrete ways of overcoming our
ill-being. This should be done by fighting against the oppressive
structures that have long governed our ways of life. For example,

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Fromm’s criticism against the oppressive character of free trade allows
him to propose his so-called sane consumption theory which can be
made possible only when we can drastically curb the right of the
stockholders and management of big enterprises to determine their
production solely on the basis of profit and consumption.
To promote sane consumption, Fromm proposes the establishment of
structures that would tolerate and even necessitate consumer strikes.
The people must realize that, as consumers, they have the power to
dictate the production of goods, and they should not allow to be simply
dictated by the media who are paid by the capitalists.
Fromm also argues that for the new society to thrive, the people
must be willing to accept that they would have to live with certain
norms which would incarnate the ideals of the new society. Along with
the change of attitudes, there should be accompanying changes of
people’s behavior.
If we would take the issue of consumption as an example, the
consumer strikes would never be possible unless the people would first
be educated in the way they behave in the market. Empowering the
people is very essential in the desire to put up the new society. But,
how do we empower the people? We provide them the means.
Fromm aims for a better world – the new society that would
evolve form our capitalistic world. He does not find much hope
however on the proposed alternative of communism. His new society is
somehow a hybrid of capitalism and socialism where freedom and
control shall hopefully be balanced.
The Catholic social thinkers also believe in the formation of a
new society. As mentioned above, the social teachings of the church
are focused on particular issues that are common in our communities,
and which at the same time offend the dignity of man.
Catholic social thinkers may not have a counterpart for Fromm’s
secular society, but they certainly think of bringing the heavenly world
here on earth. The earth has to become a foretaste of heaven. Hence,
in the new world of the Christian faith is one that is not tolerant of the
scandals of our present world. The heavenly world of Christians is one
that is characterized by love and justice. If Christianity has to affirm
the salvation of each man, then it is important that every person
should feel the salvation offered by Christ. I used to tell my students in
class that if we are to become authentic witnesses of Christ, then we
are in mission to let other people feel that Christ has truly come down
on earth in order to save us. Hence, a saved man is not deprived of
good shelter, of decent living, of good education. The basics of a good,
decent life are constitutive parts of our salvation, and it would be very
difficult to convince people of their salvation if they are not living an
authentically decent life here on earth.

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Hence, for Christian social thinkers, like Fromm, there is a need
to remedy the injustices of our time. We could not just tolerate the
many unjust things that we now see. We could not just be indifferent
towards these things, but instead, we need to bothered, to be
disturbed by them.

Fromm’s vision of a new world may not be identical with the Christian
world that the Church endeavors to create in the world. But, they
certainly have semblances. Both of them agree on finding an
alternative to the world that we now have, and both of them saw that if
the alternative has to come, then many of the now accepted practices
have to be changed.
There is really a need to change the world. The Christian
metanoia or change of heart has to be incarnated in the physical
world. Fromm would, I think also affirm as a psychologist, that a
change of outlook has to be accompanied by observable physical
changes. Without these changes in the world and the concrete lives of
men and women, all our wishes for a new world would just remain to
be words. If we truly believe in the freedom, dignity and salvation of
men and women, then we could not just tolerate the offenses against
them. But if we are not doing anything to change the world, then that
just also means that we are not really convinced of the scandalous
characters of these things.
Without the positive physical changes in the world, we would but
remain to be hypocrites. Fromm agrees with the Christian Church that
we are in mission to now search for a new world.

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