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How Pope Francis Challenges the Right (and Left)

He reminds what classical conservatism looks like, and liberalism's roots in it.
Pope Francis lecture

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.