Religion July 03, 2014

Why Pope Francis Is Not a Communist

The latest papal interview raises a question that's been gnawing at some Catholics.

Mark Gordon
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Mark Gordon
July 03, 2014
AFP PHOTO/FILIPPO MONTEFORTE
The world was roiled again by something Pope Francis said in an interview published Sunday by Il Messaggero, a Roman newspaper.  

First, the Holy Father was asked whether the Gospels speak more to the poor or the rich.

"Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel,” the Pope replied. “You cannot understand the Gospel without understanding poverty, taking into account that there is also a great poverty of spirit: to be poor before God because God fills you up. The Gospel is addressed equally to the poor and to the rich. It speaks of a poverty that accompanies wealth. Do not condemn the rich at all, but rather riches when they become idols. The god of money, the golden calf.”

But then the interviewer asked Pope Francis how he would respond to a recent column in The Economist that claimed he takes an “ultra-radical” line and speaks like Vladimir Lenin.

"I say only that the Communists have stolen the flag,” Francis responded. “The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. Take Matthew 25, the protocol over which we shall be judged: ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, naked.’ Or look at the Beatitudes, another flag. The communists say that this is communist. Yeah, right, 20 centuries later.”

The Holy Father concluded with a joke: “So you could say when you speak to them: ‘But you are Christians.’”

Some precincts of the American hard right went predictably bonkers. “NUTS,” was Jim Hoft’s headline at Gateway Pundit. Rush Limbaugh wondered if the pope was claiming Jesus as a communist. The comboxes at Free Republic, the Washington Times, Newsmax and The American Catholic swelled with insults aimed at the Holy Father. There will be more where this came from, but the week is young.

So, is there a sense in which communism borrowed from Christianity? I would say there is, and particularly in two ways, both of which have historically played an important part in attracting people to communism.

The first, as the Holy Father noted, is a concern about justice, especially justice for the poor. The Servant of God Dorothy Day, who had been a communist in her early years, wrote, “I have said …  that the mass of bourgeois smug Christians who denied Christ in His poor made me turn to Communism.” The conservative hero Whittaker Chambers, in his magnificent book Witness, similarly wrote “educated men become Communists chiefly for moral reasons.”

Communism, like all secular and atheistic philosophies, grows out of a cultural context that supplies a hidden moral structure that even its originators may not perceive. Karl Marx was raised in Trier, in the Prussian Rhineland, a largely Catholic area of Germany. He came from a long line of rabbis, including his maternal and paternal grandfathers, yet his parents baptized him in the Lutheran Church at the age of six. Though Marx later rejected God completely, the moral scaffolding of his early life is evident in his empathy for the working class struggle in a rapidly industrializing Europe. Marx even understood the role of religion in helping people cope with the sadness of the world. “Religious suffering,” Marx wrote, “is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

Suffering. Oppression. Soullessness. These are terms freighted with an acute sense of justice, which in turn implies a moral order to the universe. All the pseudo-scientism of Marx’s philosophy, which he dubbed “dialectical materialism,” couldn’t hide that appeal to a higher moral order, which was a direct product of the Christian milieu in which Marx lived and of which he was an heir. It is for this reason that the historian Arnold Toynbee called communism a “Christian heresy,” a judgment with which the great Thomist Jacques Maritain agreed. When Pope Francis rhetorically says to communists, “But you are Christians,” this is what he means.
The world was roiled again by something Pope Francis said in an interview published Sunday by Il Messaggero, a Roman newspaper.  

First, the Holy Father was asked whether the Gospels speak more to the poor or the rich.

"Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel,” the Pope replied. “You cannot understand the Gospel without understanding poverty, taking into account that there is also a great poverty of spirit: to be poor before God because God fills you up. The Gospel is addressed equally to the poor and to the rich. It speaks of a poverty that accompanies wealth. Do not condemn the rich at all, but rather riches when they become idols. The god of money, the golden calf.”

But then the interviewer asked Pope Francis how he would respond to a recent column in The Economist that claimed he takes an “ultra-radical” line and speaks like Vladimir Lenin.

"I say only that the Communists have stolen the flag,” Francis responded. “The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the heart of the Gospel. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. Take Matthew 25, the protocol over which we shall be judged: ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, naked.’ Or look at the Beatitudes, another flag. The communists say that this is communist. Yeah, right, 20 centuries later.”

The Holy Father concluded with a joke: “So you could say when you speak to them: ‘But you are Christians.’”

Some precincts of the American hard right went predictably bonkers. “NUTS,” was Jim Hoft’s headline at Gateway Pundit. Rush Limbaugh wondered if the pope was claiming Jesus as a communist. The comboxes at Free Republic, the Washington Times, Newsmax and The American Catholic swelled with insults aimed at the Holy Father. There will be more where this came from, but the week is young.

So, is there a sense in which communism borrowed from Christianity? I would say there is, and particularly in two ways, both of which have historically played an important part in attracting people to communism.

The first, as the Holy Father noted, is a concern about justice, especially justice for the poor. The Servant of God Dorothy Day, who had been a communist in her early years, wrote, “I have said …  that the mass of bourgeois smug Christians who denied Christ in His poor made me turn to Communism.” The conservative hero Whittaker Chambers, in his magnificent book Witness, similarly wrote “educated men become Communists chiefly for moral reasons.”

Communism, like all secular and atheistic philosophies, grows out of a cultural context that supplies a hidden moral structure that even its originators may not perceive. Karl Marx was raised in Trier, in the Prussian Rhineland, a largely Catholic area of Germany. He came from a long line of rabbis, including his maternal and paternal grandfathers, yet his parents baptized him in the Lutheran Church at the age of six. Though Marx later rejected God completely, the moral scaffolding of his early life is evident in his empathy for the working class struggle in a rapidly industrializing Europe. Marx even understood the role of religion in helping people cope with the sadness of the world. “Religious suffering,” Marx wrote, “is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

Suffering. Oppression. Soullessness. These are terms freighted with an acute sense of justice, which in turn implies a moral order to the universe. All the pseudo-scientism of Marx’s philosophy, which he dubbed “dialectical materialism,” couldn’t hide that appeal to a higher moral order, which was a direct product of the Christian milieu in which Marx lived and of which he was an heir. It is for this reason that the historian Arnold Toynbee called communism a “Christian heresy,” a judgment with which the great Thomist Jacques Maritain agreed. When Pope Francis rhetorically says to communists, “But you are Christians,” this is what he means.
 


The second sense in which communism has stolen the Christian flag is in its promise of an eschaton, the culmination of history. For Marx, history was intelligible, a progression from one state to another. In dialectical materialism, Marx believed he had uncovered the key to apprehending the progress of history, and through that key was able to describe, at least in vague terms, its culmination in communism, a term meant not to denote an ideology, but this very end-state Marx envisioned.   

“Nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes,” Marx wrote, describing communism, “society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

The parallels between communism – what we might call the Kingdom of Man on Earth – and the Christian Kingdom of God are obvious. Nearly everything about Marx’s conception contains an echo of the Heavenly City: eternal peace, abundance, self-fulfillment, brotherhood, equality and love. Everything, of course, except the Beatific Vision, unless one counts the reflection of man upon his own divine image.

The Marxist eschaton has proven to be a powerful lure for generations of Westerners who, having inherited a Christian vision of Heaven, nevertheless reject God and His Church. And it has inspired a spirit of self-sacrifice, especially among the communist young, that ranks with that of the Christian martyrs. “Communists are that part of mankind,” Whittaker Chambers wrote, “which has recovered the power to live or die – to bear witness – for its faith … the communist vision is the vision of Man without God. It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world.”

One need not elaborate on the horrific details of the communist philosophy – the eradication of the individual in favor of the collective, the elimination of private property and the family, the rejection of the most basic human freedoms – in order to defend Pope Francis against the charge, lodged by many, that he is a Marxist. One need only cite the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who answered similar charges in a 1963 sermon titled “Can a Christian Be a Communist?”

“Can a Christian be a communist? I answer that question with an emphatic ‘no.’ These two philosophies are diametrically opposed. The basic philosophy of Christianity is unalterably opposed to the basic philosophy of communism, and all of the dialectics of the logician cannot make them lie down together. They are contrary philosophies. How, then, is communism irreconcilable with Christianity? In the first place, it leaves out God and Jesus Christ.”

Those who would like to label Pope Francis a Marxist deliberately avoid what he said in the interview last Sunday: Love for the poor isn’t a communist thing; it’s a Christian thing. It’s our flag, and if we don’t wave it, the communists will steal it. That’s a bracing rejoinder to the Pope’s critics, many of whom are committed to odious ideologies, like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, that lack even the sense of justice Marx unwittingly borrowed from Christianity.

The final scenes in Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, are set in what was an actual historical event, the June Rebellion of 1832 in Paris. During the following semester at the Sorbonne, a 20 year-old Catholic student found himself in a heated debate with several colleagues who had embraced socialism and atheism. “Your Church does nothing to help the poor,” they charged. “It always sides with the powerful against the weak.”
 


The Catholic student was shaken by the encounter, not least because he recognized a grain of truth in what his opponents had said. He realized that in her lack of identification with the poor, her support for structures of oppression, the Church in France had opened the door to alien philosophies that traded on Christian morality but rejected God.  The student spoke about this with some close friends, and together they resolved to pick up the challenge laid down by the socialists, to recapture the flag they had stolen, the flag of love for the poor.

The student’s name was Frederic Ozanam, founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Now, that’s how you deal with communists.


Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.
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