In 1992, the Catholic Church officially apologized for persecuting 17th-century astronomer Galileo, who dared to assert that the Earth revolved around the sun. In 2008, the Vatican even considered putting up a statue of him.
Could a certain 19th-century atheist philosopher be next?
It is true that in 2009, a Vatican newspaper article put a positive spin on one Karl Marx. The author, German historian Georg Sans, praised Marx for his criticism of the alienation and injustice faced by working people in a world where the privileged few own the capital. Sans suggested that Marx’s view was relevant today: “We have to ask ourselves, with Marx, whether the forms of alienation of which he spoke have their origin in the capitalist system....” Indeed.
Pope Benedict XVI certainly sang a different tune, denouncing Marxism as one of the great scourges of the modern age (of course we must always distinguish the "ism" from the man). But Francis is a pope of a different feather. His recent comments on capitalism suggest that he is a man who understands something about economics — specifically the link between unbridled capitalism and inequality. In an 84-page document released Tuesday, Pope Francis launched a tirade against a brutally unjust economic system — a tirade that Marx himself would have cheered:
“Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills….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.”
Whoa! Where did that come from? To understand the answer, you need to know something about liberation theology, a movement that originated in Pope Francis’s home region of Latin America. Liberation theology, a Catholic phenomenon centered on actively fighting economic and social oppression, is the fascinating place where Karl Marx and the Catholic Church meet.
Though Marx was certainly an atheist, Catholics who support liberation theology understand that his attitude toward religion was nuanced. He saw it as a coin with two sides: a conservative force that could block positive changes as well as a reservoir of energy that could resist and challenge injustice. In the United States, religious movements such as the Social Gospel movement, seen today in theReverend William Barber’s Moral Monday crusade against right-wing oppression of the poor in North Carolina, express the protest potential of Christianity.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian Catholic priest who grew up in abject poverty, used Marx’s ideas about ideology, class and capitalism to develop a perspective on how Christianity could be used to help the poor while they were on here on Earth rather than simply offer them solace in heaven. As Latin America saw the rise of military dictatorships in the 1960s and ‘70s, Gutiérrez called on Catholics to love their neighbor and to transform society for the better. Followers of the new liberation theology insisted on active engagement in social and economic change. They talked about alternative structures and creative, usually non-violent ways to free the poor from all forms of abuse.
The official Church hierarchy has had a tense relationship with liberation theology, but some Francis watchers detect that a new chapter in that history is opening. In early September, the new Pope had a private meeting with Gutiérrez. Reacting to the event, the Vatican newspaper published an essay arguing that with a Latin American pope guiding the Church, liberation theology could no longer "remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe.”
The Catholic world has now snapped to attention as the faithful pore over the Pope Francis’s recent communication, which calls upon politicians to guarantee “dignified work, education and healthcare” and blasts the “idolatry of money.” The flock is on notice: Francis will be talking a great deal about economic inequality and defending the poor. Unfortunately, his opposition to women as priests indicates that he is not yet ready to embrace equal treatment for women, something that would greatly enhance progress on both of those issues, but Francis did take a step forward in saying that women should have more influence in the Church.
While the Vatican has become a cesspool for some of the most shady financiers and corrupt bankers on the planet (see: “God’s Racket”), Pope Francis has made clear his abhorrence of greed, eschewing the Apostolic Palace for a modest guest house and recently suspending a bishop who blew $41 million on renovations and improvements to his residence, including a $20,000 bathtub.
Catholics, particularly in the United States and Europe, are not sure what to make of all this solidarity with the poor and anti-capitalist rhetoric. For a long time now, many have considered Marx and his critique of capitalism over and done with. But others have watched deregulation, globalization and redistribution toward the rich unleash a particularly nasty and aggressive form of capitalism that seems increasingly at odds with Christian values. Instead of becoming more fair and moderate, capitalism has become more brutal and extreme. Marx, who predicted that capitalism would engender massive inequalities, is looking rather prescient just about now.
Pope Francis may prove himself open to considering Marx’s ideas in order to think about a more human-centered economic system. The American press is already buzzing nervously with the idea: “It would make for some pretty amazing headlines if Pope Francis turned out to be a Marxist,” wrote Helen Horn of the Atlantic, before quickly concluding that, no, “happily for church leaders,” such a thing couldn’t be true.
Maybe not. What is true is that, like his fascinating predecessor, Pope Leo XIII (who presided from 1878-1903), Francis has specifically denounced the complete rule of the market over human beings — the cornerstone of the kind of neoclassical economic theory embraced by Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and much of the American political establishment. He wrote:
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
That's a pretty good start. We’ll take it.