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Is The Pope A Marxist?

September 2, 2015 Frontpage No Comments


Is the Pope a Marxist? You are hearing the charge more and more frequently of late, especially in the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to South America in early July. The headline in The New York Times on July 12 read: “In a Fiery Speech, Francis Excoriates Capitalism.” The article went on to quote Francis’ remarks in a speech in Asuncion, Paraguay, where he described the unfettered pursuit of money as “the dung of the devil.” The Times called attention to Francis’ insistence that “poor countries should not be reduced to being providers of raw material and cheap labor for developed countries.”
Prominent defenders of free market theory, such as Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation and Rush Limbaugh, have responded. Moore, a Catholic, has called the Pope’s “vocal skepticism about capitalism and free enterprise…very troubling.” Limbaugh used the term “pure Marxism” to describe some of Francis’ comments about economic inequality.
Moore’s and Limbaugh’s reactions deserve to be taken seriously. We should listen to the case they make. And respond that they should know better: Not every criticism of global capitalism is motivated by Marxist beliefs.
Moore and Rush should know that the Church’s social teachings have rejected since the 19th century an extreme and doctrinaire form of free-market economics, which the Church has labeled “economic individualism.” Others use the term “social Darwinism,” for this view that the government has no responsibility to provide a safety net for those left behind in a market economy.
It is not a figment of someone’s imagination that there are people who call themselves “capitalists” who seriously think that the world would be a better place if the poor were left to die out, that their plight is “not my problem”; that applying the rule of the survival of the fittest makes sense in the human world, as well as among animals. I have known a few such individuals.
The principle of “subsidiarity” found in the social encyclicals condemns totalitarian socialism, but it also condemns a dog-eat-dog pursuit of profit by private business owners that ignores the legitimate needs of their workers and society as a whole. It calls for government intervention in the economy to protect the private property rights of smaller companies confronting corporate power. You can get the specifics, scripture and verse, if you will, in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Paul VI’s 1967 Populorum Progressio, and John Paul II’s 1991 Centesimus Annus.
There will be no mistaking what you will find in those encyclicals: The Church calls for the state to play a role in the pursuit of social justice on economic matters. The principle of subsidiarity articulated in the Church’s social teachings insists that the state should intervene to regulate private businesses when the “lesser agencies” in society — private charities, trade unions, civic and business associations, and local governments, for example — have proven inadequate to the task at hand. When big government is necessary, it is necessary.
When should the central government step in? When should it not? The social encyclicals do not provide the yardstick for us. Individual Catholics, acting in good faith and with their knowledge of economics and the historical record, are left morally free in the social encyclicals to make the case for a greater or lesser role to be played by the state, to quote economists on both the left and the right all they want in the process.
Some observers make the case that Pope Francis’ Argentine background is responsible for his openness to government regulation of the economy, specifically the legacy of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Nick Miroff makes this case persuasively in the August 2 edition of The Washington Post. Maybe there is something to that. “Peronism” advocated a strong role for the central government and an identification with the needs of the working class and the trade union movement in Argentina.
But I would argue that the future Pope, as a young Argentinean, was as likely to be influenced by the distributist theories of G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Heinrich Pesch circulating in Catholic circles at the time. Many observers have argued that “Peronism” in Argentina was an attempt, perhaps a clumsy and questionably motivated attempt, to apply these principles.
Chesterton, Pesch, and Belloc sought to illustrate what the social teachings of the Church would look like if they were put in place in an actual economy; they all called for government intervention to prevent unjust concentrations of economic power and to preserve the private property rights of small businesses. There is nothing “Marxist” about protecting the private property rights of small businesses.
There’s something else that needs to be said: It should not be overlooked that there is more to Communism and Marxism than a socialized economy. That is why the quotation from Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI, found on the opening page of The Wanderer each week, bears repeating: “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.”
The word “true” is the key. By a “true socialist” Pius XI meant someone who championed the policies of the radical Marxists of the late 19th century. Those policies went far beyond the mere regulation of the economy by government officials.
Marxism advocates violent revolution to get the government into the position to control the economy — “revolution of the proletariat.” It calls for the socialist government to be a totalitarian government, a single party state — “dictatorship of the proletariat.” It calls for that dictatorial, totalitarian socialist government to foment revolutions motivated by Marxism wherever else in the world they see an opening — “world revolution.”
It also calls for Marxist dictators to use their power to wipe out religion in the countries that they control, since religion, the Marxists insist, is the “opiate of the people,” used by the ruling classes down through history to deaden the revolutionary ardor of those suffering economic injustice.
In his private thinking, Pope Francis may be more favorably disposed toward an activist role for the central government on economic matters than Stephen Moore and Rush Limbaugh. I would say that such a disposition shows through in his public statements. But the Pope does not believe in atheism, in violent revolution and a totalitarian dictatorship run by men like Stalin and Mao.
If I were forced to make a guess, I would say Francis’ private economic views are similar to those of the European Social Democrats. The Pope is entitled to those views about the best path toward social justice. As is Moore to make the case for why he disagrees.
What we are looking at is secular leftists seizing this moment in history to affiliate themselves with Pope Francis’ popularity on the world stage; that is why they are throwing out comments about the Pope being a Communist, hoping some of them will stick. Either they don’t know what they are talking about, or they are guilty of intellectual dishonesty of serious proportions. Pope Francis deserves the benefit of the doubt that it is the social encyclicals, and not Marxism, that motivate his view on economic matters; that he is not a Marxist, but a Catholic.

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