Some reactionary commentaries on the Pope‘s recent “Apostolic Exhortation” equated the papal critique of 21st-century capitalism with Marxism. Rush Limbaugh, for example, insinuated that someone must have “gotten to” Pope Francis. In an interview with Andrea Tornielli published yesterday on the Vatican Insider (La Stampa) website, Francis was asked “what does it feel like to be called a ‘Marxist’ by “ultraconservatives in the USA”? Francis replied, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.” Marx may or may not have gotten to Bergoglio, but as many have remarked this week, Jesus apparently did.
The takeaway here, for most Americans, could simply be that this Argentinian pope has a set of presuppositions quite different from ours. He and his interviewer speak matter-of-factly of “ultraconservatives” and good Marxists, just as educated and cultured western Europeans would do. We in the USA live in a climate where Democrats, from the President on down, are just starting to get up their nerve to speak of poverty and inequality in the stark terms used by this pope: “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?”
Pope Francis is, for good reason, unruffled by the implication that he is a useful idiot for socialist and Marxist tyranny. In the interview with Tornielli he made clear that he is not pretending to offer detailed technical analysis of economics, but rather to give a “snapshot” of current conditions based on the social doctrines of the Catholic Church that have been affirmed by each pope going back to the late nineteenth century. (If a free-market ideologue is looking for a blunt assertion that the gap between rich and poor is increasing–a debatable point–he or she might well look at paragraph I.7 of the 1984 “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology,” the literary product of those noted socialist stooges, John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger.) The one reference to a “specific theory,” said Francis, was his criticism of “‘trickle-down theories,’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass is full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor” (from “Never Be Afraid Of Tenderness,” Vatican Insider, 12/14/13).
Francis’s vivid language is not often heard in mainstream American political discourse, but he is helping to place and keep inequality and poverty on the world’s agenda. Does he give too little credit to the “magic of the market,” the marvelous workings of the invisible hand? Does he presume some special insight into the proper path to a more Pareto-optimal distribution of resources? I think not. Francis is not oblivious, as John Cassidy noted in The New Yorker, to the remarkable productivity engine of modern capitalism. But he cannot help but point out the idolatry of “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” I would add that such trust is also too often a self-serving and malignant ideological facade.
P.S. Those interested in encountering the work of an eminent South American Jesuit theologian who engaged with Marxist thought as well as hermeneutics can look up Juan Luis Segundo, S.J. Segundo, born in Uruguay, taught in North America and Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, and was, along with Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, the dean of the liberation theology movement.