Under the leadership of John Paul II, the Catholic Church was once a bastion of anti-communist reaction. But is there a more prominent critic of capitalism today than Pope Francis?
“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.”
“It is also painful to see the struggle against hunger and malnutrition hindered by market priorities, the primacy of profit, which reduce foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation and financial speculation in particular.”
Has a red flag been smuggled into the Vatican? Should we start calling Francis “Comrade Pope?” He claims the reverse: Communists stole the egalitarian agenda from Christianity. In some ways, perhaps he has a point: Christianity’s founding sacred texts clearly advocate a type of radical egalitarianism.
Matthew 19:20-23 “The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou has, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said unto the disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (An identical story is repeated in Mark 10.)
Acts 2:41-45 “Then they that gladly received his words were baptized…And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
Acts 4:32 “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things in common.”
So, it should be fairly clear that believing Christians living in large, suburban homes, driving luxurious SUVs, accumulating valuable property, or denouncing the redistribution of resources to the poor are doing so in stark opposition to the instructions of their Lord and Savior. Christianity is not only an egalitarian faith – it is, according to its founding sacred texts, an ascetic faith, teaching the rejection of material goods.
But while Communists are egalitarians, they are not ascetics. This may be difficult for those raised on Cold War anti-Communism to comprehend. In the version of the story passed down from J. Edgar Hoover to Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin, Communism meant a brutal leveling down: equality achieved by ensuring that everyone was wearing an identical, gray tunic, and living in vast, decrepit barracks. Yet, the only notable contributor to the Communist tradition who advocates asceticism (as well as identical tunics for all) is Thomas More – who, it should be noted, was a devoted Catholic.
Modern Communists – particularly those influenced by Marx, Engels, and Lenin – rejected asceticism in their picture of the egalitarian society. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, for example, Marx dismisses a simplistic leveling of wealth as “crude communism.” In the same text, he ridicules the idea of a life not lived to the fullest, enjoying the material pleasures of drinking, dancing, and going to the theatre. Here is Friedrich Engels describing the nature of a post-capitalist society:
“The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products…that reach their height in the crises [i.e., recessions, depressions]. Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here…”
The aim of a post-capitalist society, in other words, is not to grind its members down to a uniformly low level, but to ensure that everyone can enjoy the riches a highly developed economy is capable of producing.
Christianity and Communism, then, differ with respect to both asceticism and a vision of the future. Pope Francis’ concern for those on the brutal, losing end of contemporary capitalism is more than welcome and much-needed. Yet, his criticism of capitalism lacks any positive way forward. It is not enough to criticize the commodification of food or the valuing of profits over people without suggesting some alternative economic arrangements. Comrade Pope? Are you ready to take back that flag and run with it?