State of the Union

How Pope Francis Challenges the Right (and Left)

A consensus has emerged since Pope Francis issued his very first “apostolic exhortation”: this is the most liberal pontiff since Pope John XXIII ushered in the ecclesiastical reforms of Vatican II.

I exaggerate, slightly. But after Rush Limbaugh characterized his exhortation as “just pure Marxism,” the die was cast. This impression was deepened even further last month after an Italian newspaper published an interview with the pontiff in which he indirectly responded to Limbaugh. When asked about the “ultraconservative” outcry, Francis told Turin’s La Stampa that, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

He continued:

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “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 was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

So while the “ultraconservatives” in this country are gnashing their teeth over the pope’s “Marxist” exhortation, Francis is reminding us of what classical conservatism looks like. Pointing out that the economy is not doing what powerful people have long said it would doesn’t make you a Marxist. Pointing out capitalism’s destructive tendencies, however, especially with respect to the most vulnerable around the world, just might make you a conservative.

Institutional Christianity has always been concerned about poverty and other faceless forces of dehumanization. In a sense, by making the distinction between Marxism and Catholic social doctrine, the pope is challenging American conservatives (as represented by Limbaugh & Co.) to expand their moral horizons. If they can’t, then their conservatism, however much it aims to provoke moral outrage, is exposed as being merely good for business.

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