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On November 24, 2013, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” (full text here).   The pope’s comments advocating for the poor have been severely criticized by the right as being Marxist in origin. Rush Limbaugh blasts the pope, claiming his remarks are “pure Marxism”.  He says repeatedly that the pope criticized “unfettered capitalism” as a “new tyranny” and so on.  Since, I have been amazed at how many people I have seen on Facebook and other social media outlets echoing Limbaugh’s sentiments.  So, do they have any foundation?  Let’s take a look.

SIDE NOTE: It’s important to note that the pope never mentioned the word capitalism, let alone the phrase “unfettered capitalism” in the published text, however, he did say plenty to imply that in any economic system, human greed needs to be regulated in some way.  But is this idea purely socialistic or Marxist in any way?

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First, we need to understand the differences between Marxism and Socialism.  Socialism is an economic ideology that is based upon principles of shared or cooperative production, collective ownership, etc.   Marxism is more interested in power and political structure.  It envisions the working class (proletariat) becoming the ruling power in society – and it does so because the collective ownership of property and the means of production is embodied in the state.  That is to say, in Marx’s theory, if the state owns it and controls it, that is the same as the “people” owning it.  Marxism, then, is more directly related to communistic ideology than to pure socialistic economic theory.

If you’ve ever rented a car from Avis, or bought groceries from Hy-Vee or Publix, participated in a farmer’s Coop or any other “employee-owned” business or shared production venture, then you’ve supported a socialistic economic business model.   Furthermore, almost all major U.S. corporations are collectively owned by stockholders.  The value of the company is calculated and evenly assigned to a number of shares.  The percentage of total shares you own is then the percentage of the business you own.  This is another example of a socialistic economic principle (collective ownership) being merged into an overall capitalistic model.

Second, the difference between socialism and capitalism (considered as pure ideologies) is primarily centered on the ownership of property and the means of production (i.e. Capital).  Pure capitalism promotes private ownership, while socialism promotes collective or shared ownership.   In neither of these models does the Marxist idea of “state ownership or a planned economy” come into play.   Furthermore, neither capitalism nor socialism need to be greed driven to function, and neither is exempt from greed.  As we see in the corporate business structure even collective ownership models can exclude the less powerful.  While in a capitalistic system, the fact that you own your own property or means of production individually doesn’t mean you need to hoard more resources than you need, or oppress the weak to amass larger stockpiles of unneeded resources.

The Adam Smith version of American capitalism champions greed, but as we’ve seen American capitalism isn’t pure capitalism anyway.  But back to our question:  Did the pope’s comments in any way champion a communist or even a socialist economic theory?

Let’s look at what the pope actually said (again, the full text is available here):

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.

In another paragraph he says:

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.

And the paragraph Mr. Limbaugh referred to:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

What is clear is that the pope is criticizing any system which gives the market absolute autonomy.  He also criticizes the reduction in state’s rights, increases in national debt (all conservative values).   It doesn’t matter what model you put in place as the “profit-producing engine” of your economy, if you allow that engine to have absolute autonomy to do as it pleases, the human greed that drives the engine will create social chaos, injustice, and wide-spread poverty — among other social ills.

Saying as much is not advocating for a socialistic economy, or advocating against a capitalistic or free enterprise model.  In fact, the pope says specifically:

I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism [i.e. Socialism or communism], but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

What the pope “is” saying is that whatever our political and economic model is, it is our duty under God (he is speaking in a specifically Christian context, after all) to be responsible as a society to promote the common good, to look after the interests of all members of society, including the poor, disabled, homeless, widowed, orphaned, elderly, sick, mentally challenged, and so on. 

I suggest to my friends and colleagues in conservative Christian circles, that Pope Francis has solid biblical support for his statement.  Scripture doesn’t directly support or condemn either capitalism or socialism, but it is filled with condemnation for greed, the wealthy hoarding resources, oppressing the poor and weak etc. 

There is also the 1st century example of Christians practicing collective ownership as accounted in Acts 2:

44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Now, certainly, Christ no-where commanded collective ownership – these Christians did this on their own – nor did He criticize private ownership.  Jesus, however, did command generosity and giving one’s resources to the poor on multiple occasions, and condemned those who “built bigger barns” and hoarded their resources (the trademark of American capitalism).

Even in the Old Testament theocracy, there wasn’t a “capitalistic” model.  When Israel gained possession of their new land, the land was distributed unilaterally according to tribe.  The larger tribes received larger tracts of land, etc., and the tribe of Levi received none.  This wasn’t private ownership.  The land was collectively owned by the tribe.  Whatever tract of land I was allotted, if I decided to move across the world I couldn’t sell it to a foreigner at highest bid price.  The land belonged to my tribe, not to me.

Furthermore, every person of every tribe had to contribute 10% of all their gross assets into a pool that was used to provide for those who had no assets or means of production – this included the Levites, widows, orphans, the poor, visitors or immigrants (“strangers”), etc..

While scripture doesn’t support or condemn any specific government or economic structure, it certainly doesn’t lend much support to American capitalism — certainly not the “unfettered” greed and power-driven model we employ.  The one thing that no one who reads scripture with an open mind can avoid is that, regardless of social or economic structure, God demands shared social responsibility and social justice.  That is not Marxism, it is not socialism, and it is not capitalism – it is undiluted Judeo-Christianity.   In the words of Paul Brandeis Raushenbush:

…if you are Christian and someone calls you a Marxist just because you are questioning why extreme poverty persists in era of such extravagant wealth, know that you are in good company — because Jesus did it first.

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