That Pope Francis... Marxist in Disguise?!

From the February 2014 PNL #831

by Dave Pasinski

Perhaps the strangest critique bestowed on this new and engaging pope is the condemnation by Rush Limbaugh that Francis was spewing “pure Marxism.” It reminds some of us of the famous quotation of the popular bishop of Recife, Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, who famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Argentinian Jorge Marie Bergoglio lives in this example, even if he does not name it as the politically charged “liberation theology” of 30 years ago.

To be sure, Pope Francis is no Marxist but he has said publicly that he respects many Marxists and atheists, and in his Christmas address he called on believers and unbelievers alike to find common ground to work together “for the betterment of humankind.” He vexes many liberals in maintaining the traditional Catholic teachings against women’s ordination, rejecting abortion, and by not endorsing same-sex marriage. Yet, overshadowing these issues is his emphasis on social justice and commitment to the poor that resonates with more traditionally liberal coalitions. He has gone further than any pontiff in calling for a far greater role and respect for women, in reaching out personally to women in troubled pregnancies, and saying of gay and lesbian persons, “who am I to judge?”  The press is fascinated that he can “walk the talk” on simple living, on his commitment to the disenfranchised, and in his critique of an unbridled capitalist system.


Pope Francis holds a sick person in Saint Peter’s
Square at the end of his General Audience in
Vatican City. Source: EPA (European Press Agency)

Theologians have pointed out that this call for social justice is by no means new and is well rooted in Catholic tradition. Even the more doctrinally conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI issued strong—if academically dense—documents on social justice and charity. For example, Pope Benedict XVI once said to Mexican bishops in 2005, “It is not enough to relieve the greatest needs, but to go to their roots, proposing measures that will give social, political, and economic structures a more equitable and solidaristic configuration.” But their demeanors were not nearly as engaging or congruent in the eyes of a world hungry to see a human face and more straightforward vocabulary.   


Consider these phrases from Pope Francis in his first singular exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”:

“While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.”

More pithily yet, “The socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.”

Perhaps his most repeated quotation is: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Statements like these have already roused suspicions at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and among some church fundraisers who wish to dismiss his evaluation of capitalism as naive. Yet it would be naive and wrong if we thought that his critique is only for those political conservatives or those with deep pockets. “The “traditional” part of Pope Francis’ message is his call for respect for every human life, but what has been newsworthy is his daily example in that regard. Whether it be in the liturgical ceremony of washing the feet of incarcerated male and female juveniles including those of Islamic faith, in celebrating his birthday with the homeless, or in kissing a disabled youth and also the head of a man with multiple growths in the example of his twelfth century model St. Francis, who famously kissed a leper, he is bringing substance to traditional teachings. Many different Scriptural quotations might be apt in describing this personalism, but perhaps it is Matthew’s last judgment account that is most descriptive..., “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers (and sisters), you have done unto me...”  Readers of the Peace Newsletter, many Catholics, and varied persons of goodwill may find much to argue with him about in some areas noted above. Yet many will also find a resonance and something to emulate in his simpler lifestyle; his call to seriously review international, national, and personal monetary and political policies; and in his personal commitment in some way to those who are poor.

Perhaps a final admonition of his is applicable to all of us concerned with justice and peace. “One of the more serious temptations which stifle boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists—sourpusses. This is no way to assist others to appreciate our point of view.” How about that for a resolution—even in a debate with Rush Limbaugh!