The War on Pope Francis

By M. Anthony Mills

Fox News' Adam Shaw is at it again, this time accusing Pope Francis of having "no time for nuance." In the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Mr. Shaw tells us, the newly elected leader of the Catholic Church "blunderingly" attacks the aspirations of hard-working Americans.

To defend the belittled "hardworking fathers," Mr. Shaw eschews the blunt hammer in favor of the following deftly crafted criticisms: "Like his vague, open-to-every-interpretation interviews, [Pope Francis] blunders in, slamming the market and its adherents without any clarification;" "Please, your Holiness, tell me again about the raging prosperity of socialist Latin American countries?" In a coup de grâce the following claim is attributed to the Pope: "capitalists making a better life [sic] for themselves...are godless heathens who desire a Dickensian nightmare."

Attacking the aspirations of hard-working Americans certainly would be "derisive;" claiming that "capitalists" "desire a Dickensian nightmare" would be bizarre. Mr. Shaw is right to say these assertions deserve "clarification." However, since these assertions are nowhere to be found in the Pope's exhortation, but only on the pages of Fox News, the burden of clarification does not rest with the pontiff.

Mr. Shaw appears additionally confused in his remarks about the history of Catholic social teaching. We are assured, for example, that since 1891 the Church has been far friendlier to the "struggle for prosperity" than the current Pope. The following words from Pope John Paul II's Sollicitudo Rei Socialis are thereby implicitly and unceremoniously expunged from the Church's "traditional understanding:"

The Church's social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. [...] in what way and to what extent are these two systems capable of changes and updatings such as to favor or promote a true and integral development of individuals and peoples in modern society? [...] By virtue of her own evangelical duty the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good.

Next we have the characterization of Pope Francis's exhortation as a "declaration of war" on "those who aspire to provide a better life [sic] for themselves and their families." A serious accusation. Valid? Observe with what bellicosity the Holy Father introduces the subject of the now infamous second chapter:

In this Exhortation I claim only to consider briefly, and from a pastoral perspective, certain factors which can restrain or weaken the impulse of missionary renewal in the Church, either because they threaten the life and dignity of God's people or because they affect those who are directly involved in the Church's institutions and in her work of evangelization.

Let slip the dogs of war!

Theologically, John Paul II's linking of liberal capitalism to Marxist collectivism is no coincidence. Both ideologies stem from an Enlightenment idea of progress that has been more than once subject to criticism by the Church. Pope Francis's emphasis on the first is an artifact of our times. The Sollicitudo was written in 1987, Evangelii Gaudium in 2013. Let me back up.

Walter Benjamin, the great German cultural and literary critic, once said that with "the idea of a classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing." From the Catholic perspective, it most certainly was not.

In the Marxist scheme, class struggle is the motor of an historical progression in which capitalism is one socio-economic stage, or "mode of production." Though necessary, capitalism is inherently "contradictory," requiring the exploitation of the laboring class. It was thought the latter would inevitably grow conscious of this condition, fomenting revolution and ushering in a new socio-economic system in which exploitation was no longer necessary because there would be no classes. This is the endpoint of history.

In Marxism, the Christian narrative of slavery and redemption, the progressive movement from oppression towards an ideal state, is thus, as Benjamin put it, "secularized" and brought down to earth. This is also how Pope Benedict XVI described it:

A revolutionary leap was needed. Karl Marx took up the rallying call [...] Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now [...] Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world [...] [comes] from a scientifically conceived politics that [...] points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.

Human exploitation in the present will one day be redeemed; with Marx, this becomes a political exigency.

The problem with this narrative, as Pope Benedict XVI points out, is that it takes for granted that man's nature can and will change with socio-economic progress. A new form of socio-economic organization is thought to usher in a new form of human life. Marx thus "forgot that man always remains man." His narrative assumes, wrongly, that the City of Man can and will become the City of God.

From the Catholic point of view, the end of exploitation is not possible on earth because man's nature has been corrupted. It is only through God's grace that we enter the City of God. Marxism blames man's concupiscence on the ideology of a particular mode of production, Christianity on original sin; Marxism places responsibility for redemption into the hands of men, Christianity into the hands of God. "We cannot 'merit' Heaven through our works," wrote Pope Benedict XVI, since "Heaven is always more than we could merit."

This reasoning applies not merely to Marxism but to all "secular religions of progress."

Whether the endpoint of history is a classless society or an ideal liberal state, whether the motor of history the class struggle or technological advancement, progressive narratives encourage the idea that progress is inevitable. But Christianity, as G. K. Chesterton observed in Orthodoxy, encourages the idea that progress must be sought because it is not inevitable. Moral betterment cannot be deferred to the endpoint of history; it is an ideal that spurs "eternal revolution." "At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam."

Marx was not the first to "secularize" messianic time. Rather, he was, in this sense, heir to a particular Enlightenment tradition in which mankind is held responsible for its own fate. It was Marx, after all, who said "mankind does not pose problems for itself for which it does not already have a solution." For some, the solution would come from reason, for others, technology, still others, revolution.

This is why Pope Benedict XVI framed Marxism in the broader context of Enlightenment ideology, calling for a theological critique, not only of Marxism, but also of the concept of progress as such. Here is Benedict: "A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. [...] First we must ask ourselves: what does 'progress' really mean?" Similarly, Pope John Paul II emphasized that Catholic social doctrine is critical of both "liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism."

But when Pope Francis argued something similar last year, it caused a maelstrom in the American news media. The Holy Father urged that to submit fully to an ideology of greed and self-interest is to overlook grossly the realities of human suffering. For this, he was decried a "liberal," a "Marxist."

To do justice to Pope Francis's remarks, a few distinctions are in order. First, there is the distinction between capitalism as an ideology and capitalism as a "mode of production." Capitalism in the latter sense developed at a certain point in time and will, if history is any guide, one day come to an end (for better or for worse). Ironically, in contrast to his two predecessors, Pope Francis downplayed the philosophical dimensions of the Church's teaching on the historical forces shaping modernity. As he writes: "I take for granted the different analyses which other documents of the universal magisterium have offered." He focused not on the impersonal forces of capitalism, but on the personal sin of greed and the idolatry of money. Accordingly the word "capitalism" does not appear anywhere in the text.

Thus a second distinction: between the political philosophy that cautions against a centrally managed economy, and an ideology that fetishizes the market or assumes a particular socio-economic system will inevitably lead to progress. Many associate the latter ideology with the American Republican Party, and it doubtless finds fertile ground in that soil from time to time. But this ideology also flourishes elsewhere, for example, among the technologists of Silicon Valley.

These distinctions -- call them "nuances," in deference to Mr. Shaw -- bring clarity to previously muddied waters. Given that we currently possess a capitalist "mode of production," many questions arise about how best to achieve a morally satisfactory polis. Some will have the federal government play a large role, others will leave it to state governments, local communities, or the market; some even will call for revolution.

Whichever prevails, the Church's social doctrine will remain unaltered. A healthy economy may or may not be necessary for a moral society, but it is certainly not sufficient. Let the most laissez-faire of economic theories be proved beyond all scientific doubt, this would not settle the moral question. Let perfect Pareto efficiency be attained, this would not alter the commandment, issued on an ancient mountaintop, to have no false idols. It's hard to imagine Moses halting destruction of the golden calf had one among his tribe shouted: "private vices lead to public good!" A rising economic tide may or may not lift all boats, but it will not lift them into the City of God.

Orthodoxy, Chesterton believed, does not provide a political ideology distinct from Liberalism, conservatism, socialism, or progressivism, but rather a moral framework within which to assess these alternatives. In this Chesterton was, fittingly, orthodox. Nearly a century later, Pope John Paul II wrote:

The Church's social doctrine is not a 'third way' between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even a possible alternative to other solutions [...] rather, it constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology, but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, [...] in the light of faith and of the Church's tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching on man and his vocation [...] its aim is thus to guide Christian behavior.

The Church's teaching provides a source for moral imperatives, what Chesterton called an "unalterable vision of perfection," in accordance with which the Christian ought to evaluate political and economic life. One of those imperatives is not to have false idols; another, to tend to "the least of these."

Is this "liberal?" If so, William F. Buckley, Jr. betrayed his ideology when he wrote: "back of all political institutions there are moral and philosophical concepts, implicit or defined." Pope Francis is a welcome reminder that our provincial distinction between "liberal" and "conservative" fails to capture the theological nuances bequeathed by two millennia of tradition. If his remarks were casus belli in the American political context, then perhaps that context is worth warring against.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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