12/09/2013 04:36 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Of Marxists, Mouthpieces and Men of the Cloth

No less a learned philosopher than Rush Limbaugh has called Pope Francis a Marxist. Worse things, far worse, have been said about men of the cloth, some of them actually true --- but not this particularly ignorant remark in reference to the Pope's recent statements. While Limbaugh's wingnut accusations are more risible than deplorable, they are also, quite simply, wrong.

To be clear, this is what Pope Francis actually wrote about economic justice in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospels:

"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. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

"Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a "throw away" culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society's underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised - they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the "exploited" but the outcast, the "leftovers".

"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. 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."

The pope is hardly alone in criticizing trickle-down economics. David Stockman, one of the architects of Reaganomics, was no pinko commie when he expressed grave second thoughts about supply-side economics. At least Francis did not use the horse manure analogy of John Kenneth Galbraith.

Pope John Paul II, surely one of history's great foes of communism, wrote a passionate encyclical on social justice in which he said clearly that the defeat of communism did not mean that unfettered capitalism should prevail, and that, in fact, "...a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom..." is unacceptable. (Centesimus Annus) JPII, like Francis, was simply restating what popes through the ages have said: economic justice IS central to Catholic teachings, an integral part of the teachings on human life and dignity. John Paul II said so much about the moral imperative of the rich to care for the poor it will take years for Pope Francis to equal his output.

For a pope more interested in giving humble witness than pandering to the witless, remarks such as Limbaugh's actually help to magnify the compelling moral goodness of Francis's teachings about charity, humility and common sense in a world whose social and civic leaders are, too often, woefully lacking in any of those virtues. His concern is pastoral, not political; he wants to rekindle the sense of missionary spirit in the Church, breaking through bad old habits of self-absorption and self-protection to re-ignite the Church's once-considerable influence as an agent of social change. Almost as if he anticipated the pushback from critics like Limbaugh, the pope notes the danger of "occasionally biased media coverage" and out-of-context excerpts of moral teachings of the Church. He emphasizes a patient, wholistic approach that " not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed."

Comments like Limbaugh's and Sarah Palin's (who accused the pope of "sounding kind of liberal," a comment for which she later apologized) have the benefit of exposing the corruption that can infest both religion and politics when both are conflated into the hyperbolic stew of contemporary American political discourse. Political conservatives still struggle with the destructive tentacles of the religious right whose operatives once tried to claim the Roman Catholic Church as a wholly owned subsidiary, creating a devastating tear in the fabric of the American Church when some members of the hierarchy seemed to play into that political soul-grab. True, the same challenge exists when more liberal political groups want to lay their own exclusive claim to Catholicism, a problem exacerbated when the media try to reduce this intellectually challenging belief system into a few simplistic sound bites "for" or "against" one secular political issue or another.

So, reporters who are now characterizing Pope Francis as "liberal" then seem perplexed that he has not yet overturned Church teachings on moral issues like abortion. Guess what, guys, it's not going to happen! The Church's teachings on social justice and human life are internally quite consistent, but the constant political battle of one side or the other to claim them for more secular political purposes has strained and frayed the teaching authority of the Church. American Catholics don't want bishops telling them how to vote, nor do they want talk radio mouthpieces for hatred telling them what their faith actually means.

Pope Francis's clear message is to heal the teaching authority not by fiat but by the force of example and pastoral care. He wants the Gospel message conveyed in total, not in random chunks. He has not stepped back one millimeter from the fundamental teachings of the Church, but with astute, unambiguous gestures (kissing a disfigured man, riding in an old car) and plain language (do not speak more about law than about grace, beware the "sourpusses" among us!) he is establishing the foundation for change in the way the Church does business, which must be, in many ways, the theme and goal of his papacy.

As he did in his remarkable interview in America magazine, Francis has used the power of plain words and accessible ideas to create a sense of openness and fresh air in spaces that have felt too closed and musty for too many Catholics. He is challenging his brother bishops to do the same --- and not taking "no" for an answer. His fearless, faith-filled example is astonishing and compelling.

Francis has a new way of writing and speaking about the Church's culture as well as some of the Church's most timeless teachings --- which means that some people who never heard any of this before will think that it's all very new. While the bigoted tripe of Rush Limbaugh deserves nothing more than dismissal, it can have the perverse value of actually encouraging more people to read what the Pope actually wrote, and the other source documents that set forth the Church's teachings on economic and social justice. If Rush doesn't like Francis, I dare him to try out Leo XIII!