Is the pope a socialist? During this month’s papal visit to our country a few vocal critics raise the question.
Why would someone call Pope Francis a socialist?
First, there is still a strain of anti-Catholicism in corners of our society. Socialist conjures up abhorrent communism. The socialist label is thus a covert slur. In addition, there are a few disgruntled U.S. Catholics who over the past 40 years have not liked many Catholic leaders, including the current pope.
A further source of the socialist label is worth more comment. Many people in our society follow an ideology of individual liberty. They—be they moderately rich or be they working class–mostly think about life in relation to their individual situation, usually in monetary terms. Pope Francis is quite clear in condemning this individualism and this consumerism.
For example, in his recent visit to South America Pope Francis condemned selfish individualism because it blocks any chance of peace, harmony and true happiness. A spirit of community must replace individual regard, he preached. This pervasive outlook is part of our so-called free market economy. The current economy, which has become an extreme type of capitalism, “promotes inordinate consumption, increases inequality, damages the social fabric and increases violence,” he writes.
Yet despite the evidence of the 2007-2008 economic collapse, many people still defend laissez-faire or nearly unregulated markets. Pope Francis challenges them in a frequently quoted section of Joy of the Gospel: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness.” This opinion “has never been confirmed by the facts… Meanwhile the excluded are still waiting.”
So, maybe this pope is a socialist? No. Let’s get real. No one becomes a Catholic bishop who is extremely liberal in the way that term is thrown about in our culture. “The Marxist ideology is wrong,” Pope Francis emphatically states. Catholic doctrine has always defended private property and opposed any total state system.
On the other hand, Catholic doctrine is not conservative in the way that term is used by the influential libertarian strain in our society, residing comfortably now within the Republican Party. Catholic doctrine is not, without a boxcar full of qualifiers, pro-capitalist in the way that term is now used by free market enthusiasts. Private market forces alone do not translate individual gain into socially efficient outcomes, says Catholicism. Yet, the same is true of government alone. Its prying regulations and accompanying bureaucracy stifle creativity and undermine families and local groups. Catholicism is not liberal on lifestyle. Catholicism is not conservative (libertarian) on economics. Catholicism does not want government to be the only responder to social problems. Catholicism does not want private enterprise to be the only means of advancement.
Even in anticipation of the papal visit, some commentators are sideling Pope Francis. They say he is out of step with his recent predecessors. This is inaccurate. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), for example, was just as critical of consumerism and runaway capitalism. But he is remembered selectively. Some recall only one side of his economic critique: the opposition to communism.
Some commentators say Pope Francis is not scholarly like his predecessors. This is nonsense. Pope Francis uses more interesting idioms and provocative one-liners than previous popes. But his content is solidly and consistently mainstream Catholicism.
Where do Pope Francis and other Catholic teachers get their social doctrine? To be continued….
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter on social doctrine.