Marxists, Marxist ideas and Marxist regimes have brought death and destruction to millions. Yet according to Pope Francis, “if anything, the communists think like Christians.” What’s going on here?
Within the first year of his pontificate, Francis’s strong criticisms of economic globalization and capitalism resulted in him being accused of having Marxist sympathies. Such charges, however, are demonstrably false.
For one thing, Francis has specified that Communism is a mistaken idea. Back in a 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, the pope stated that “Marxist ideology is wrong.” Likewise, the Argentine home-grown “theology of the people” which has influenced Francis’s thought explicitly rejects Marxist philosophy and analysis. Nor has Francis hesitated to canonize Catholics martyred by Communist regimes. He’s even conferred a cardinal’s hat upon an Albanian priest, Father Ernest Troshani Simoni, who was twice sentenced to death by Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship — one of the very worst Communist regimes. These aren’t the words or actions of a Communist fellow-traveler or apologist.
Nevertheless, in the same interview in which Francis described Communism as wrong, he immediately added, “But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.” One wonders if the pope would say something similar, for example, about Nazis: “But I have met many Nazis in my life who are good people.”
There’s little in Marxist ideology (let alone practice) to suggest that “communists think like Christians” about very much at all.
Somehow, I doubt it — even though political movements and regimes lead by Marxists and guided by Communist ideologies invariably embrace methods indistinguishable from those of National Socialist Germany. Indeed, if one goes simply by the numbers, Communists have slaughtered millions more people than the Nazis. In Pope Francis’s Argentina, Marxist movements such as the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo had no qualms about engaging in kidnappings and assassinations in the late-1960s and early-1970s as part of their effort to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Do Communists Care About the Poor?
One possible interpretation of the pope’s words about Communism is that they reflect his belief that some people are drawn to Marxism because they regard Communism as being on the side of the world’s underdogs. During a 2015 interview, the pope suggested that Communists were, in a way, closet Christians. They had stolen, he said, “the flag of the poor” from Christians.
These themes resurfaced in a more recent interview of Francis — this time conducted by the self-described atheist, the 92 year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari.
Caution is advised when reading any of Scalfari’s interviews. Scalfari’s renditions of his conversations with prominent figures are based on memory rather than notes or recordings. That’s bound to raise questions about the veracity of what’s written (not to mention the prudence of talking to Scalfari, but that’s a different matter). Scalfari’s questions are also designed to encourage the pope to make controversial remarks. In most cases, Francis politely deflects them.
At the same time, some of Francis’s comments in his latest Scalfari interview mirrors odd statements he’s made on other occasions. Consider what Francis says about Communists in response to Scalfari’s comments about equality:
Eugenio Scalfari: So you yearn for a society where equality dominates. This, as you know, is the program of Marxist socialism and then of communism. Are you therefore thinking of a Marxist type of society?
Francis: It has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom.
The problem with these words is that the most cursory reading of standard Marxist texts soon indicates that there’s little in Marxist ideology (let alone practice) to suggest that “communists think like Christians” about very much at all.
In the first place, Marxism is rooted in atheism and philosophical materialism. Christianity is not. That’s a rather fundamental and irreconcilable difference. Second, virtually all Marxist thinkers and practitioners — Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, Pol Pot, etc. — hold that the ends justifies the means. Small “o” orthodox Christianity, with its insistence upon moral absolutes which admit of no exception, specifically refutes that claim. Third, Marxism, Marxists and Marxist movements don’t see the poor as Christianity does: i.e., as human beings who need to be loved and assisted.
Communism views the poor — like all human beings — as simply moving-parts of the dialectics of history.
Instead Communism views the poor — like all human beings — as simply moving-parts of the dialectics of history. The economically less-well off, from a Marxist standpoint, have no intrinsic worth by virtue of their poverty or status as human beings. Such a materialist and instrumentalist perspective is light-years away from Christianity’s view of those in poverty and human beings more generally.
Inequality, Inequality, Inequality
So what does Francis mean when he says that “the communists think like Christians”? A clue to the pope’s thinking may be found with his references to equality in his most recent Scalfari interview. The pope argues, for instance, that
What we want is a battle against inequality, this is the greatest evil that exists in the world. It is money that creates it and that goes against those measures that try to make wealth more widespread and thus promote equality.
From his pontificate’s beginning, Francis has focused, laser-like, on this inequality theme. As the words above indicate, the specific inequality which the pope has in mind is economic inequality.
But is economic inequality really the greatest evil in the world today? Is economic inequality at the root of Islamic terrorism, dictatorial regimes like North Korea, the termination of millions of unborn-children in the West, resurgent anti-Semitism, or the relentless efforts to legalize euthanasia? There’s no evidence, for instance, that economic inequality causes terrorism.
Moreover, economic inequality isn’t always wrong. There’s nothing in Catholic teaching to suggest that wealth and income inequalities are intrinsically evil. They’re often quite justified. The person willing to take on more responsibility, for instance, in creating and managing an enterprise is usually entitled to a greater share of profits than the employee who assumes less responsibility and who didn’t take the risk of starting the business in the first place.
Another thing that Christians should keep in mind — but sometimes don’t — is that inequality and poverty aren’t the same thing. It’s theoretically possible for everyone to be economically equal because they are equally poor. It’s also conceivable for a society to have vast wealth and income disparities, and for the very same society to have very few people who are materially poor.
Of course, some forms of economic inequality are unjust. One contemporary example is crony capitalism. In these economic arrangements, collusion between businesses, politicians and regulators replaces free competition under the rule of law. If there’s a major culprit (“the money”) for unjust forms of economic inequality today, it’s crony capitalists and their political and bureaucratic enablers.
Crony capitalism should be — but isn’t — the target of Christian critique. Catholic social teaching says exactly nothing about the subject. Part of the difficulty with the pope’s commentary on these issues is that he, like many other good people, doesn’t seem to recognize that market economies are premised on the rejection of governments granting privileges to any particular group. That’s the core argument made in Book Four of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).
One of Pope Francis’s many paradoxes is that, while he consistently and rightly denounces any idolatry of wealth and the type of materialist mindset which reduces everything to economics, the pope often articulates curiously economistic explanations for the world’s ills. Material poverty is something all Christians must be committed to working to reduce. Let’s not pretend, however, that Christians and Marxists think the same way about poverty — or equality for that matter. The simple truth is that they don’t.
This article first appeared at The Stream.