Rush Limbaugh and the Pope

Canada Free Press – by Ronald J. Rychlak

Ever since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, his “common man” approach to the world has impressed observers and made many Catholics feel closer to their church. For just about as long, activists in and outside of the Catholic Church have tried to claim him as a voice for the Left.

Despite some early confusion introduced by an interviewer with an agenda, the pope’s words and actions relating to abortion, gay marriage, contraception, the ordination of women, and more clearly have taken him out of that camp as far as social doctrine is concerned. Economic policy, however, seems still up for grabs.  

When Francis released his 224-page exhortation,Evangelii Gaudium, he explained that it was about the joy of the Gospels. The pope wanted “to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” Despite the principal focus on evangelization and ecclesiology, attention immediately fell to the paragraphs on economic policy.

Many conservative Catholics read these paragraphs without raising an eyebrow. When press reports made them out to be an indication of economic Leftism in the papacy, they were convinced that, as with the social issues, it was another case of the Left trying to claim the pope for their camp. That changed, however, when radio personality Rush Limbaugh also put the pope on the Left. In fact, Rush called the papal pronouncement “pure Marxism.”

Whatever else you might think of Rush Limbaugh, you cannot call him a shill for the Left. His analysis means something to conservatives, but in this case it needs to be carefully evaluated.

Rush is not a Catholic, and like many people he evaluates Evangelii Gaudiumas if it were a political document instead of a pastoral one. Catholics who go to Mass and take the pope seriously have heard words very close to these since at least Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio. They have heard numerous homilies denouncing commercialism and materialism while also encouraging assistance for widows, orphans, and the poor. At the same time, these Catholics are aware that the central planning that the Left seems to urge, does not lead to a better society.

Breaking down the paragraph at the center of most discussions (54), it says:

In this context, 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 naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Of course, the term “trickle down” is politically charged in the United States, and while that term may be an adequate translation for the original Spanish term that Francis used (some suggest that it is not), it should not be understood in the same political manner that it might be used in an American magazine. In reality, the pope here is saying that even if free markets lead to economic growth, that by itself will not provide for the poor and needy. Catholics know this. They know that compassion, charity, and the rule of law are all prerequisites for justice and equity. The pope knows that too.

Paragraph 54 continues:

Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Here, the leader of the Catholic Church is encouraging members of that church to avoid worshiping money, to feel compassion for the poor, and to engage in charity. His warnings about greed and materialism relate to constant temptations, and most people need to hear them on a regular basis. Catholics also believe that their religion requires good works. “Faith alone” is not a Catholic concept. Catholics are always urged to work for a more moral and just society.

In paragraph 203, Francis calls business “a noble vocation,” provided that businessmen are “challenged by a greater meaning in life” that enables them “truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” That is certainly not a Socialist’s view of business. In fact, in paragraph 204, the same paragraph in which the pope calls for a “better distribution of income”,  he also derides the “simple welfare mentality.”

In paragraph 205, Francis most clearly sets forth his view that there is no inherent problem with business or economic development, provided that charity is also an important principal. The pope demands that Catholics work to find a better way to help the poor, but he stops short of saying how to do that. In the final analysis, it is left to the laity, through elected officials, to find resolutions to these problems. In this same paragraph he calls on those elected officials to turn to God as they seek just answers.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were thought of as true conservatives, but even they opposed a completely unbridled market. Like Francis, they called for a “safety net” to help the “excluded.” Also like Francis, John Paul and Benedict knew that market economies produce the prosperity that enables people to flourish and to engage more fully in charitable activities. (Francis has said that “Money contributes greatly to many good works for the development of the human race. The real problem is a distorted use of money, attachment and greed.”) With his experience in South America, however, Francis has seen truly unbridled capitalism – crony capitalism, if you will – and he is well aware of its dangers. In paragraph 202, he wrote of the “absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation.” That simply does not exist in the United States or Canada. Remember, in this document the pope was talking to the whole world, not specifically to North America.

Francis may not be a free-market Libertarian, but Rush is certainly wrong to the extent that he suggested that Pope Francis is a communist. In the book On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century, which is based on an interview with Cardinal Bergoglio, the future pope shares his thoughts on communism: “Man has no hope in communism… because it denudes man of his spirit, and makes him merely material.” He has opposed unbridled capitalism for the same reason: it also makes man believe he is merely material.

Pope Francis has not changed Catholic doctrine or teachings from the Magisterium, nor will he; it’s beyond his authority. The teaching from Pope Pius XI remains: Socialism is based “on a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity. Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” It should go without saying that Francis is a good Catholic. It is also certain that he is not a socialist.

Given the battle over the Left’s claim to Pope Francis, the slant that the mainstream media (Rush calls them the “drive-by media”) has given Evangelii Gaudium, and the time it always take to digest a new papal statement, it should not surprise anyone that much confusion abounds. The battle and the slant are likely to continue for some time. We can hope, however, that Rush and other commentators begin to see through the disinformation and let the truth come forth.

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