In response to critics who label him a Marxist, Pope Francis is taking a page from the famous Seinfeld scene: No, my critique of capitalism is not because I'm a Marxist (not that there's anything wrong with that) -- it's because I'm a Christian.
Since his election last March, the pope has been offering a critique of what he has called "unfettered capitalism" and the "idolatry of money." Just days after the papal conclave, the new pope declared, "Oh, how I would like a poor Church for the poor," and in May he slammed the global financial system for "tyrannizing the poor" and turning humans into expendable consumer goods. And he has consistently been articulating the critique ever since.
But it was the pope's more recent comments that really freaked some people out -- and even drew the labels "radical" and "Marxist" from detractors. In his recent apostolic exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote:
"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 response, Rush Limbaugh, among others, went on a tear: "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. Unfettered capitalism? That doesn't exist anywhere. Unfettered capitalism is a liberal socialist phrase to describe the United States. Unfettered, unregulated."
In response, Pope Francis offered the Italian newspaper La Stampa this measured explanation on Saturday:
"Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended." Then Pope Francis went on to say "there is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the church."
Translation: I care about the poor not because I'm a Marxist, but because I'm a Christian.
Pope Francis' identity is wrapped up in being a pastor called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to care for all people. So when Pope Francis sees people who are hungry, homeless, and dying every day only because they are poor, he feels that it is his holy obligation to ask why this is happening and what can be done about it.
My great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch had a similar mission. Walter Rauschenbusch served as a pastor in New York's Hells Kitchen a century ago. Walter Rauschenbusch was a pastor who loved and served the needs of his congregation. It was through this pastoral relationship with people who he loved that he became aware of the incredible suffering that they experienced because they were poor.
If you want to understand Rauschenbusch it all goes back to the funerals he performed for the families whose little children had died because of poverty. The little boxes that contained the dead children broke his heart and so he realized that to be a pastor meant to care for both the spiritual and the physical well being of his congregation.
In that time, New York had extreme disparities between those who were wealthy and those who had nothing and the struggle of the poor made him go back to the Gospel to see what Jesus had to say about poor. The result was his book Christianity and the Social Crisis which has, over time, influenced many people, including Martin Luther King, Jr., to consider the obligation of the Christian in the face of the suffering of the poor and the hungry.
In a poignant reconsideration of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Rauschenbusch explained that while it was a good thing that the Samaritan helped that individual who was beaten down and robbed, if the same thing happened again and again, the compassionate response would be to organize to stop the attacks before they happen. Likewise, it was not enough for the church just to keep on mopping up and caring for the human wreckage that the economic system was creating, it had to go to the source to stop humans from being wrecked.
We find a later echo of this call in the famous quote made by Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara who was Archbishop of Olinda and Recife, Brazil that goes: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Personally, I agree with Pope Francis' rejection of Marxism. I spent too much time in repressive "Marxist" countries to believe that "unfettered" Marxism can be a successful economic system. But if Marxism has failed, then we must also dare to say that capitalism has failed. You cannot have such inequality and such continued suffering in the world and declare an economic system a success.
Just look at the city of New York. The median price of a Manhattan apartment is about 1 million dollars in a city where 20,000 children are homeless. Worldwide, every three seconds a person dies from extreme poverty. The disparities between the wealthiest and the poor are reaching levels not seen since the gilded age of 100 years ago. Pope Francis' critic of 'unfettered capitalism' is correct -- this kind of suffering is unacceptable.
Instead of being defensive, business, economic and political leaders should take Pope Francis' critique as a challenge to do better. There are so many brilliant people who are in finance including some of my most beloved friends and relatives. If all of us together work to end poverty it would be the greatest accomplishment the world has ever known.
Christians should be equally challenged by Pope Francis' witness. For those who would sideline the Gospel special focus on the poor and the oppressed to secondary concerns or charity should read Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation and realized that a structural critique of economic and political systems are part of a whole cloth of piety to which Jesus calls us.
It is commonly agreed that for the first time in human history we can put an end to extreme poverty if we have the economic, political, moral and spiritual will to do it.
Let's do it.
In the meantime, 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.