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The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh

When a radical pope says it's time we stopped treating capitalism like it's a religion, American conservatives get preachy.

Wow. This pope really is good at getting people riled up. A few days ago, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church issued a 224-page document (an "apostolic exhortation," to be precise) that laid out some of his thoughts on how the church should conduct itself in the modern world. It's a thoroughly religious document. But a few of his observations have touched off gales of indignation.

Most of the aggravation has to do with the pope's criticism of what he calls "the new idolatry of money." In his text he assails the problem of inequality, asks that we pay greater attention to the needs of the poor, and attacks the idea that the urge to accumulate wealth is an end unto itself. Sure, the bible has a lot of harsh things to say about the wanton rich: "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotten and your garments have become moth-eaten.... You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter." And so on.

But Francis is going straight after Milton Friedman: Few of his remarks have attracted greater attention, for example, than the one where he criticized the notion that "trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world."

Nowhere in the document does he mention specific policies to counter these problems. He doesn't call for increased taxation of the rich. (The word "tax" occurs only once in the document, in a passage that criticizes tax evasion and corruption.) He doesn't sing the praises of collectivism. He doesn't attack the principle of private property, nor does he advocate public ownership of the means of production.

It's worth noting that this pope has a long track record of opposing liberation theologists in his homeland of Argentina. Still, I guess it's theoretically possible that the pope really is a closet Maoist. After all, he does say (in one of my favorite passages): "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security."

That's pretty subversive stuff. But the point here is that he doesn't actually offer up specific policy proposals to cure the problems he's describing. That's because he's analyzing a spiritual crisis. He's not outlining programs. He's describing a malaise that he sees in the world and challenging us to fix it.

But who cares? Why would anyone actually trouble to read what the guy is saying? It turns out that it's much more satisfying to scold the pope for wading into such controversial waters. It turns out there are plenty of red-blooded (mostly American) men out there who are keen to defend capitalism's honor against even the slightest of slights.

Take, for example, Louis Woodhill, a commentator for Forbes magazine. Woodhill works himself into a tremendous lather over the pope's musings. Francis, he writes, "has lent the prestige of the Catholic Church to leftist/socialist whining about the 'new tyranny' of 'inequality,' 'exclusion,' and 'marginalization.'" Woodhill is appalled. How dare the pope claim that such things exist! If there are poor people in the world, it's their own damned fault.

Or perhaps the Vatican itself is to blame. After all, Woodhill explains, the world suffered from low economic growth during the 1,500 years or so when the church played a major political role in the life of Europe. Luckily, though, the Reformation came along, and self-starting Protestant culture liberated us from the scourge of Jesuitical socialism. Given this record of poor economic management by the church, Woodhill contends, the pope should hold his tongue.

The conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, America's premier political entertainer, was keen to pile on (though not quite so ingenious in his arguments). He was especially upset by this part of the pope's critique: "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle. They fail to move us."

This sounds pretty keenly observed to me. But Limbaugh just couldn't bear it: "That's going way beyond matters that are ethical," he spluttered. "This is almost a statement about who should control financial markets. He says that the global economy needs government control."

Well, no. Actually, Francis doesn't say anything of the kind. Instead he's exhorting us (a pronoun that expressly includes politicians and world leaders) to look closely at our own behavior and its consequences. That's precisely why his text is an "exhortation," a rumination on issues of justice and charity, not a white paper from some Washington think tank. Francis is inspired by the radical message of Jesus: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise."

Does this sort of thinking make Christ a proto-socialist? I'm not sure the question makes much sense, to be honest. For Limbaugh, though, it's a clear case: Pope Francis is a "Marxist." Just for good measure, he draws a stark contrast between Francis and Pope John Paul II, who stared down the Soviet Union and made a signal contribution to the collapse of communism. John Paul II, in this reading, was the ultimate Cold Warrior, a man at the opposite end of the spectrum from this sentimental, pinko Francis.

Except that he wasn't. Here's a sample from John Paul II's own writings in 1991. "The Marxist solution has failed," he noted. And yet, he continued: "Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces."

That bit about blindly trusting the market sounds to me like vintage Pope Francis. Those who believe in the panacea of trickle-down economics express, he says, "a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Francis, in short, isn't saying that capitalism is inherently bad. What he's saying is that we shouldn't fetishize it. We shouldn't treat it as if it's beyond reproach, something that we can't even dare to change. "We have created new idols," he says at one point. "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose." Elsewhere, he worries about the "interests of a deified market."

I think he's right to warn about this -- and his American conservative critics are the proof. For them, the rightness of "unfettered capitalism" is an article of faith. Their adherence to the free enterprise system has become a new, secular religion, and they just can't bear the idea that someone with the pope's spiritual authority would dare to question it. The pope, to them, is quite simply a heretic. In such minds, the very notion that capitalism could do with reform -- that we should make capitalism work for us, rather than the other way around -- is blasphemy. "The problem with modern capitalism -- a problem that escaped the scrutiny of His Holiness -- is not too much freedom, but too little," as another of the pope's American critics intoned.

Really? I wonder how many other people in the world will agree?

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