A New Path for the Pontiff?: Pope Francis and Socialism

cuba-popeIn his encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote, “A person who is deprived of something he can call ‘his own’ and of the possibility of earning a living through his own initiative, comes to depend on the social machine and on those who control it. This makes it much more difficult for him to recognize his dignity as a person, and hinders progress towards the building up of an authentic human community.” This declaration speaks to the history of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and socialist movements, which has been both extant and strained since the 19th century. Pope Francis has since taken a different stance in addressing socialism and the liberalist movement surrounding it, seemingly thawing the cold nature of this historically uncomfortable relationship between socialism and the historically more traditionalist Catholic Church.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as the “political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Though socialism has vastly differing connotations depending on one’s own ideology, it can almost always be interpreted as opposing unfettered market forces.

In 1878, thirty years after the publication of Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto and in the middle of a depression in the United States and Western Europe, Pope Leo XIII condemned “socialists, communists, [and] nihilists” for being part of “the deadly plague” corrupting society and “leading it on to the verge of destruction.” Leo denounced these activists for seeking to “debase the natural union of man and woman” and “assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law.” This centralization of economic power would have hurt the clout of local authorities, whom the Catholic Church has historically tended to support.

In 1891, amid another time of economic stagnation in parts of the West, Leo affirmed that “working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers—that is truly shameful and inhuman.” Leo adhered to the philosophy of earlier saints such as Thomas Aquinas while showing compassion to the 19th-century poor urban population. Aquinas’s philosophy developed what later Catholic philosophers would further develop and call subsidiarity: the principle that local, competent authorities should take priority in making decisions and settling disputes before more centralized ones do. Under this view, long espoused by Republicans and states’ rights activists, central authorities should only undertake tasks that local ones cannot do effectively. Because the central planning of socialism contradicts this principle of subsidiarity, there has historically been little room for it in the minds of Catholic popes.

Forty years later, during yet another time of economic downturn, Pope Pius XI admitted that laissez-faire capitalism was deeply flawed but reaffirmed the position of the Catholic Church against socialism, arguing that socialism had devolved into a communism that was “incredible and portentlike in its cruelty and inhumanity,” bringing “horrible slaughter and destruction” as “an enemy…to Holy Church and to God Himself.” This doctrine seriously threatened the local and hierarchical authorities of the church because of its comprehensive nature, assigning responsibility for local matters to a centralized government. In addition, it undermined the authority of the Church’s magisterium in favor of a non-religious, humanistic cultural system.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio inherited this historical Church distaste for socialism. However, Bergolio has a long personal history as a champion of the poor. The Argentinian Jesuit was the first to take the papal name of Francis, the patron saint of the poor. Hailing from South America, which has a long history of socialist regimes and popular movements, Pope Francis has a view of socialism that New York Times columnist Ross Douthat describes as “less hostile than [those of] his predecessors.” Since his election, Pope Francis has often spoken out against unbridled capitalism in the context of helping the poor. He has described unchecked capitalism as “the dung of the devil,” which, he claims, has “imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” and has declared that “we want change, real change, structural change.” In light of numerous Biblical verses decrying pursuit of wealth for its own sake (Christ himself did not seek to buy a home to lay his head), Francis appears to have a leg to stand on doctrinally. While still adhering to conservative Catholic doctrine on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, Francis has clearly shown more of an interest in discussing economic issues.

Francis is no stranger to the socialist-leaning dogmas of liberation theology, a doctrine found in both Catholic and Protestant churches advocating for the church to work towards the goal of both economic and political enfranchisement of the poor. Critics of liberation theology tend to focus on its tendency to form associations with communist or Marxist political movements. Douthat has said that Francis’s approach seems “to reflect the experience of a man who lived under a right-wing dictatorship in which left-wing dissidents were persecuted.” Known to be a conservative priest in the 1960s and 1970s, he opposed liberation theology and was made Jesuit Provincial at the young age of 36, but he alienated many with his authoritarian style of leadership. Exiled from his post in 1986, he underwent a period of spiritual development, from which he emerged a different kind of leader. He became Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, and began seeking out the poor in his region and spending time talking with them and speaking out on their behalf.

Since becoming pope, Francis has seemingly embraced aspects of the rhetoric of liberation theology and has criticized unchecked market systems, taking it as his mission to emphasize eliminating poverty by calling on governments to redistribute more resources to the poor. In 2013, Francis said that social inequality is caused by “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” In his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis called on “government leaders and financial leaders [to] take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” What is striking about Francis’s message, especially in comparison to earlier popes, is that while it comes in the wake of an economic downturn, it largely ignores populist movements of modern-day socialists such as the self-described democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders or proposed policies for nationalizing healthcare.

Where does this, then, take the Church going forward? Francis has not emphasized hot-button cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage as past popes have done and has not crossed official Church teaching in any of those areas. This puts conservatives in a bind. While they generally view Benedict XVI and especially John Paul II favorably due to their consistent social doctrinal conservatism, Francis is a different kind of pope. The secular left, in contrast, has expressed hope that Francis could usher in many new and progressive changes to Church doctrine, such as allowing abortion, contraception, and ordination of women. For them, the more liberal-sounding economic focus of Francis holds promise of change. But such change has not manifested itself in any major policy yet, creating some frustration that the 78-year-old Francis will do nothing to substantially change the Church during his years as pope. For other cardinals and bishops in the Catholic Church, many of whom took office during the papacies of the socially-conservative John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Francis’ speeches use different terms than the ones socially conservative clerics use to describe cultural battles. And while this language does not manifest itself in public debates, it is reflected in the bishops’ differing priorities. The priority list created at  June United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not highlight Francis’s themes in his encyclicals of alleviating poverty and addressing environmental concerns but instead focused on family and traditional marriage, evangelism, religious freedom, and abortion.

While Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI wanted governments to allow the Church to show benevolence to those suffering, Pope Francis wishes to attack the causes of poverty at their source at what he sees as the source, which he views as capitalist markets. Thus, it can be expected that Francis will do more in the future to attempt to bring about his vision, which while not explicitly one of socialism, is still one that emphasizes governments and corporations as holding the solutions, rather than local entities and the Church. The pope’s much more conciliatory attitude toward certain tenets of socialist economic policies may subtly shape the economic and political developments of certain countries, particularly in South America. If the old policies of democratic socialism do become increasingly fashionable, the words of the 20th century writer and Catholic lay member G. K. Chesterton might be appropriate: “It is the whole point of Socialism, the whole case for Socialism, that unless all printing presses are Government printing presses, printers may be oppressed.” For the printers of papal encyclicals defending traditional virtue, such a trade-off – even for the sake of eradicating such problems of inequality as socialism claims to solve – ought to be shunned.

James Haynes is a sophomore from Cullman, Alabama, and is majoring in the Classics Department. He can be reached at jh39@princeton.edu.

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