Pope Francis: Not the Vatican's First Marxist Leader

Michael Teague |

Much has been made in recent weeks of Pope Francis’s first apostolic exhortation, in which he brought to bear his strongest language to date against the excesses and unintended consequences of the prevailing market-based global economic system.

It is not hard to see why the reaction has been what it has, however, because the Pope’s language was harsh and seemed at times to take aim at the very pillars of free-market capitalism, and not just the often reprehensible behavior of certain individuals running the show.

Just one excerpt should be adequate to demonstrate this: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems...".

Fox News, for its part, thought it quite scandalous that the new Pope did not devote most of the exhortation to bread and butter culture-war tropes like reproductive rights, homosexuality, and telling the populations of the African continent not to wear condoms.

It is worth noting that Fox is currently engaged in a fierce battle to protect Christmas (and the whiteness of Santa Claus) from ravages of a godless, liberal, secular-humanist world in which "holidays" are celebrated rather than the birth of Jesus Christ. In a broader sense the station clearly sees itself as the guardian of Christian social and political values in an age of liscentious atheism. One can imagine their consternation, then, when the Pope was not adequately recognizant of their efforts to protect and preserve the faith, especially in these turbulent times.

More likely, however, the unapologetically conservative news channel was upset that a voice with as large an audience as the Pope’s seemed to be suggesting the existence of a structural connection between the free market system and the world’s most intractable social ailments. The outrage was palpable and ostensibly sincere. Adam Shaw, a writer for the Fox news website claimed, in a Dec. 4 piece titled "Pope Francis is the Catholic Church's Obama - God Help Us", that the seemingly warm welcome extended to the new pontiff, and his statements on the nature of market economics, was similar to the overwhelming electoral victory of President Obama in 2008.

Rush Limbaugh chimed in with the usual vitriol, when he said on his popular AM radio program that "this is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope". To list any other reactions would be a purely voyeuristic exercise, as just about anyone who has followed this story should have a good enough idea as to the overall tone of protest and outrage.

But for all of this hoopla, it should be remembered that pretty much every Pope at least since the dawn of the 20th century has made stiffly-worded pronouncements against certain aspects of capitalism, and has more or less railed against greed and the worship of money in general. Here is a look at some of the statements made by Pope Francis’s predecessors on the subject:

Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013)

Speaking to a general audience at St. Peter’s Square on August 22, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI echoed the words of the Apostle Paul when he stated his view that “greed is the root of all evil,” which he then qualified with the explanation: “in the light of the current world economic crisis, this still has great relevance. From this root, from greed, this crisis was born."

In his encyclical from the same year, Benedict also wrote the following: “The world's wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries, new sectors of society are succumbing to poverty and new forms of poverty are emerging. In poorer areas some groups enjoy a sort of ‘superdevelopment’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the ongoing situations of dehumanizing deprivation.”

Pope John Paul II (1978-2005)

While Pope John Paul II endeavored to put an end to socialist and communist totalitarianism in Eastern Europe in the waning years of the Soviet Union, and even made pronouncements in defense of free markets: “it would appear that, on the level of individual nations and of international relations, the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.”

But John Paul II was also critical of the effects of free-market economics, particularly with the negative consequences for family life: “The economy likewise has a vital part to play in ensuring the strength of the family. One of the main criticisms which the Church’s pastors have to make regarding the prevailing socioeconomic system, understood as the subordination of almost all other values to market forces, is that the family dimension of the work contract is generally ignored. Such a system makes little or no provision for the family wage.”

Pope Pius VI (1922-1939)

When speaking of one of his predecessora, Leo XIII who served as the Pope from 1878 to 1903, Pius VI was, like John Paul II, not critical of the capitalist system in itself, but rather those who would abuse the system in order to amass greater wealth: "Leo XIII's whole endeavor was to adjust this economic regime to the standards of true order; whence it follows that the system itself is not to be condemned. And surely it is not vicious of its very nature; but it violates right order whenever capital so employs the working or wage-earning classes as to divert business and economic activity entirely to its own arbitrary will and advantage, without any regard to the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic life, social justice, and the common good."

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

In June of 2004, shortly before the departure of the ailing John Paul II, the church published a text titled The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It was an ambitious and wide-ranging document that sought to lay out the foundations of the Catholic church's doctrine with regard to the conduct of various aspects of social life. Section IV is titled "Economic Institutions at the Service of Man", and the first subject it tackles is the role of the free market. While many interesting points are made in this section, one passage should suffice to explain the official position of the Church with regard to market economics:

"The free market cannot be judged apart from the ends that it seeks to accomplish and from the values that it transmits on a societal level. Indeed, the market cannot find in itself the principles for its legitimization; it belongs to the consciences of individuals and to public responsibility to establish a just relationship between means and ends. The individual profit of an economic enterprise, although legitimate, must never become the sole objective. Together with this objective there is another, equally fundamental but of a higher order: social usefulness, which must be brought about not in contrast to but in keeping with the logic of the market. When the free market carries out the important functions mentioned above it becomes a service to the common good and to integral human development. The inversion of the relationship between means and ends, however, can make it degenerate into an inhuman and alienating institution, with uncontrollable repercussions."

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