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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.

Stressing the church’s social doctrine provides a vocabulary by which conservatives can talk about the socioeconomic causes of evil without slipping into secularism. Evil isn’t only a spiritual phenomenon, the pope writes. It begins as a social one. The solution is reform of the system. “The toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear.” Moreover, “an evil embedded in the structures of a society has a constant potential for disintegration and death. It is evil crystallized in unjust social structures, which cannot be the basis of hope for a better future.”

Limbaugh wasn’t entirely wrong: while there are hints of Marx in “The Joy of the Gospel” (the English translation of the title of Francis’s exhortation), it isn’t because Francis is a Marxist. It’s because Marx himself exhibited conservative proclivities, if by “conservative” we mean, as he and Friedrich Engels did in The Communist Manifesto, being aware of the inexorable erosion of communities, families, values, and traditions by economic forces beyond our control. To be a capitalist society is to be in a constant state of revolution, they wrote, leading to “everlasting uncertainty and agitation,” so that “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

For Pope Francis, the remedy for social ills is for governments to do something about inequality. That would entail, among other things, “decisions, programmes, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income.” If you think that sounds like he’s talking about “redistribution,” you’d be right. If you think no American conservative would even get behind such a notion, you’d be wrong.

A survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2011 revealed that more than half—53 percent—of white evangelical Americans, the most conservative of conservative voters, believe that socials ills can be mitigated with a more equal distribution of income. Even 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Tea Partiers believe as much. Over the past decade, there has been a marked turn among evangelicals from the personal to the social. If Pope Francis and a majority of white evangelicals are to be believed, perhaps redistribution isn’t such a radical notion after all.

Someone should tell the White House. President Barack Obama grew allergic to the word “redistribution” after it dogged him throughout his 2008 campaign. With the Affordable Care Act now taking full effect, his administration is doing everything it can to avoid talking about the law’s redistributive qualities. And during his last speech on inequality, which was hailed as a return to form among Democrats, not once did Obama use any variation of “distribution.” He did, however, use “opportunity” or “mobility” almost 30 times.

That tells you something. While liberals insist on a safety net, they are generally OK with free markets as long as most Americans have a shot at upward mobility. But catching people when they fall, as Obama said, isn’t enough for Pope Francis. Advocating equality of opportunity is merely a first step. Only “decisions, programmes, mechanisms, and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income” can undo the evil that is injustice. Liberals have rarely been that concerned about evil in recent times. That’s something conservatives usually worry about.

Perhaps Francis is challenging liberals to expand their moral horizons, too. He’s doing so by reminding us, though without saying it, that laissez-faire capitalism is the historical legacy of liberalism. Free markets, free trade, and globalization are the hallmarks of a liberalized world economy. So while contemporary liberals are gaga for Francis right now, maybe they should reconsider. He’s not only revealed that Rush Limbaugh isn’t a conservative. He’s revealed that Limbaugh is a champion of a certain kind of liberalism.

John Stoehr is the managing editor of The Washington Spectator.

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#1 Comment By Jonny On January 16, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

Good article. Insightful and thought-provoking. I much appreciate the distinction between historical “conservatism” and American colloquial “conservatism.”

It must be pointed out, however, that the statement “Liberals have rarely been that concerned about evil in recent times.” is extraordinarily incorrect, both in the classical and modern contexts of the term.

Liberals and conservatives care deeply about evil and both believe the State has an important place in ameliorating it. They do, however, often disagree about what is evil, when the State should be involved, and how the State should be involved.

#2 Comment By Reinhold On January 16, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

“Marx himself exhibited conservative proclivities, if by “conservative” we mean, as he and Friedrich Engels did in The Communist Manifesto, being aware of the inexorable erosion of communities, families, values, and traditions by economic forces beyond our control.”
This is why I suspect there are Marxists, I among them, who appreciate this here periodical: there really is no incompatibility between Marxist economics and social conservatism; indeed, those who try and push social conservatism and economic liberalization together do not deserve to be called conservatives but reactionaries (Marxists almost always speak relatively highly of ‘conservatives’ and absolutely despise ‘reactionaries’). I don’t think the Pope is a Marxist either, since his solution is just redistributive fairness, not proletarian equality; and Marx also had some relatively horrible ‘liberal/humanist’ tendencies, and made nasty comments about families and religions; but thankfully not all Marxists have carried these on.

#3 Comment By Michael N Moore On January 16, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

Marx posited that the central problem of capitalism is that the efforts of factory owners to drive down wages backfired on them by destroying their customer base and creating depressions. The only remedy for this was a brutal class war over control over “the means of production”.

John Maynard Keynes posited that the Marxian contradiction could be ameliorated by government interventions such as minimum wage, old age pensions, and government spending. The Pope sounds like a Keynesian.

#4 Comment By tz On January 16, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

“A better distribution” does NOT mean having a tyrannical government redistribute at the point of a gun.

But Jamie Diamon, John Corzine, and the other Banksters who stole their client’s money and wrecked their company were bailed out by the poor and middle class. TARP was redistribution. So billionaires could pay themselves bonuses.

Today, you don’t build a better mousetrap, you have the CPSC, EPA, IRS, SEC, or whatever destroy your competitor by paying lobbyists (bribes).

Today’s income inequalities represent nothing so much as how much is contributed to the bipartisan tyranny. Yet it has proven to be the best investment.

But ought that not be fixed? Justice says you have to actually earn your income – and that doesn’t mean bribing the politically connected.

#5 Comment By The Wet One On January 16, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

Just to emphasize the point made here:

“A survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2011 revealed that more than half—53 percent—of white evangelical Americans, the most conservative of conservative voters, believe that socials ills can be mitigated with a more equal distribution of income. Even 35 percent of Republicans and 37 percent of Tea Partiers believe as much. Over the past decade, there has been a marked turn among evangelicals from the personal to the social. If Pope Francis and a majority of white evangelicals are to be believed, perhaps redistribution isn’t such a radical notion after all.”

I’m bring my fellow readers’ attention to this:


That said, clearly the Pope (like most people) is a Communist. It obviously goes without saying. As are most Americans (according to this video, which I’m sure is skewed in some way, but I’ve yet to see the critique of it).

#6 Comment By WorkingClass On January 17, 2014 @ 9:30 am

This is a brilliant little essay placing Marx, Limbaugh, The Pope, Conservatives and Liberals all in correct relation to one another. Very helpful. Thank you John Stoehr and TAC.

#7 Comment By Aegis On January 17, 2014 @ 11:45 am

““A better distribution” does NOT mean having a tyrannical government redistribute at the point of a gun.”

This is to totally miss the point. Remember: you are talking about a two-thousand year old institution. It took on its basic organizational form under the Caesars and had its most productive intellectual periods under the successors of those Caesars. It remembers when the Magna Carta was a novelty to be spurned, and has had it’s bones to pick with liberalism and capitalism from the very outset of those relatively new (in the eyes of the Church, anyway) institutions.

Why would such an institution necessarily give a damn whether a given government’s methods get the doctrinaire libertarian seal of approval?

#8 Comment By Clint On January 17, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Principle of Subsidiarity.

1883: Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”

#9 Comment By Bob Wilcox On January 17, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

Rush Limbaugh’s social and economic views seem more Calvinist (possibly even Rushdoonyite) than Catholic. So it’s no wonder he doesn’t like the Pope. It’s not an economic issue, it’s a sectarian issue. Economics, in many ways, is downstream of theology. If Limbaugh read what Eastern Orthodox thinkers had to say about economics, the environment, etc., he’d probably have a seizure.

And, one way to redistribute income WITHOUT resorting to income is, you guessed it, the Church! The Church helps, or ought to help the poor and generate a more equitable society and it does so via the money it collects from tithes. Unfortunately, ever since Zwingli and some of the other reformers (who waged a veritable war on tithing) Protestants have never understood this as being a proper role of the Church. Therefore, the State stepped in to take over what had formerly been the Church’s role. Resulting, of course, in the modern welfare state.

#10 Comment By Fred Farkle On January 18, 2014 @ 7:38 am

We have, and have had redistribution of wealth. The tax payers have been subsidizing Big Business for years, this is the main reason Government cannot be used to control wealth or provide us with “equality” as it is not capable of doing it. Government, unless it is responsible to the people it governs will always abuse the power to enrichen itself, Crony Capitalism is not the same as free market Capitalism, redistribution can only occur responsibly if it is done on a voluntary basis, as is done by the church, and the moral decay is lessing this daily, Marx and Engels both promoted the destruction of Religion and may in someones opinion be “conservative” but they were both rich spoiled brats who never worked a day in their collective lives and where like many “Liberals” ideologues of the highest degree..

#11 Comment By Frank Stain On January 18, 2014 @ 9:12 am

I like this essay, but I would like to see the idea of a moral critique of capitalism pushed far beyond simply redistribution. Conservatives who care about the devastation of communities and their values by the destructive whirlwind of laissez-faire capitalism, and lefties who care about social justice, might well be able to come together by focusing on the deeper moral rot of capitalism. A society that privileges the accumulation of wealth above all other values is eventually going to find itself dominated and controlled by the minority of sociopaths that specialize in that particular endeavor. It’s about time the two groups that have retained a moral conscience call this rot for what it is. I agree that redistribution is a key issue, but it is crucial for the dignity of the rich, as well as the poor. There is nothing dignified or morally commendable in rich people using political power to escape paying their share of taxes, nor is there any dignity in using front organizations to stir up a civil war between the young and old in order to deflect attention from your own rapacity. Yet that is the morally corrupt behavior that has become the hallmark of our economic elite.
A society dominated by free markets unleashes passions that destroy moral community.The evidence of that is staring us right in the face.

#12 Comment By TZx4 On January 18, 2014 @ 8:29 pm

I my view, free markets and capitalism are vital to any society. They are powerful forces that can to great good. That said, like fire or a strong horse, if left to run wild it is a destructive force. It needs to be tamed and domesticated. Is there any other institutions other than government that can do this?
This why government has been vilified by our current “conservatives” for the past few decades. They konw that government will limit its evil motives, and there wants government to “get out of the way”.

#13 Comment By Christopher Manion On January 19, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

Karl Marx hated the individual, the family, property, land-owning farmers (and country life in general), the church, and everything else that contributes to “community” as understood by any “conservative” tradition.

The only “community” he descried addressed the class struggle, which inevitably led to the (coming) Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the most violent period of human history.

Like many leftists, he was an able critic of the results of the Fall of man – that is, evil in the world. Trouble is, he didn’t believe in free will, only class consciousness and the mindless dialectic of history.

After that, what’s left of his “conservatism”?

#14 Comment By Reinhold On January 19, 2014 @ 4:04 pm

I don’t know about all churches, but Catholic churches have been decrying the cuts in welfare benefits because they say it puts an unmanageable burden on them to run charities and breadlines. These conservatives advocating for less government welfare and more church charity haven’t asked the churches what they think.
As for the cure for crony capitalism being free market capitalism––the presupposition is that private firms competing for market share will somehow be dissuaded from becoming oligopolies and concentrating economic and political power in their hands. So they’ll deny their very nature once gov’t lets them free––a true utopian fantasy. Libertarian free markets have been the ideological excuse for massive economic and military expansionism for nearly two centuries––the only way to keep perfect competition and information is to dramatically legislate and regulate capitalism.

#15 Comment By Mikhail the History Grad Student On January 20, 2014 @ 11:26 am

People, I think, tend to misunderstand Marx, and confuse basic Marxism with the variant ideologies of Lenin and Mao.

Basically, Marx made a critique of the world he saw around him — the unfettered capitalism of the mid-19th century. He said that it was abusive and destructive, and in this he was correct. Keep in mind that at the time he was writing, there wasn’t really such a thing as, say, old-age pensions or child labor laws.

Where Marx was wrong was that he figured that these abuses would continue indefinitely, until the people could take no more and would revolt. His thinking about the Revolution was always more of a prediction than a prescription — he was talking about what would happen, not what should happen.

Marx was proven incorrect because people — including certain very prominent conservatives such as Bismarck — realized that if things went on as they would, a Revolution would occur. They implicitly accepted the Marxist position, and then took steps to ameliorate the position of the working class so that the abuses of capitalism never boiled over to the point where it prompted a revolution. I point out Bismarck’s work on old-age pensions in late 19th century Germany as a particularly clear case of this.

#16 Comment By Reinhold On January 20, 2014 @ 6:28 pm

Mikhail, you’re correct to some degree, but not that Marx would have been content with capitalism if only the most destitute––the elderly, children, &c.––were taken care of. He knew that regardless of the reforms that were made to capitalism, it would still be based fundamentally on the exploitation of labor for private profit, and therefore that the capitalist class would––by economic laws––fight forever to keep costs down, including the costs of labor and public services. There’s no truth in the idea that his concepts and conclusions only apply to the 19th c., because the analysis that he did will always apply to capitalism, so long as employees receive wages for their labor.

#17 Comment By Rossbach On January 24, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

If the Catholic Church (and most other major Christian denominations in the US) were really concerned about the maldistribution of income in the US, they would stop supporting mass immigration and illegal immigration, which serve only to enrich the top 1% by saturating labor markets and driving down wages. In addition, by importing more poverty, mass immigration generates social unrest and increases the likelihood of a leftist authoritarian government emerging in the US in another decade or two. Perhaps Oswald Spengler was right when he said, “Christianity is the grandmother of Bolshevism”.

#18 Comment By dfclisdfvdecbjh On May 10, 2014 @ 10:13 am

to say that rush Limbaugh is not conservative smacks of characteristic bakazwardupsidedowninsideout lunatic liberal mindset