(CNN) — Radio personality Rush Limbaugh declared himself bewildered by recent papal statements “about the utter evils of capitalism.” In his broadcast, titled “It’s Sad How Wrong Pope Francis Is (Unless It’s a Deliberate Mistranslation by Leftists),” Limbaugh said the remarks add up to “just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.” This would indeed be remarkable, if true. Is it?
Limbaugh is referring to the new apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which Pope Francis lays out his vision for the church’s proclamation of the gospel.
For Catholics, enthusiastic about the Pope’s unguarded style, the document offers a refreshing departure from the traditional voice: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” the Pope laments. “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber.” He decries a kind of “spiritual worldliness” that “hides behind the appearance of piety,” warns against “sourpusses” who would substitute love of Jesus Christ with a love of the church, and rejects a defeatist “tomb psychology” that would transform Christians into “mummies in a museum.”
And yet certainly the press has focused on those several pages — in a document of 50,000 words — that offer a vivid critique of the global economic system, what Pope Francis terms “an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Here, Limbaugh charges, “The Pope has now gone beyond Catholicism, and this is pure political.” More “saddened” than outraged, Limbaugh states that “it is very clear (the Pope) doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism, and so forth.”
Actually, the words “capitalism” and “socialism” do not appear in the document. But it is not difficult to discern the Pope’s meaning: “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.”
As the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, as one who experienced the financial meltdown of the Argentine economy, as a bishop who encouraged his priests to work in the slums, Pope Francis knows the global economy from the perspective of those at the bottom. Decrying the idolatry of money, he sets himself firmly against a “deified marketplace” in which the masses of human beings become powerless spectators, if not disposable “leftovers.”
Limbaugh, who concedes that he is not Catholic, though he says he’s “been tempted a number of times to delve into it,” nevertheless “knows enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago.”
But little distinguishes Pope Francis from the prophetic utterances of his predecessors. What he is offering is not “Marxism,” as Limbaugh says, but bedrock Catholic social teaching that goes back more than a century. Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were explicit in their warnings against liberal capitalism and the dictatorship of the marketplace, producing encyclicals which, for their emphasis on social justice and the “option for the poor,” would surely qualify for Rush Limbaugh as the very elixir of “Marxism.”
Yet Pope Francis may have touched a particular nerve. In the most often cited paragraph of his document, he notes, “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.”
Here, you might say he is getting personal, stepping beyond familiar pleas for the poor to confront a central article of faith among the elite beneficiaries of our economy: The notion that whatever benefits the wealthiest — tax cuts or financial deregulation — will inevitably benefit those at the bottom.
Apart from whether this is confirmed by the facts, Pope Francis attacks the corrosive effects of such an ideology on our capacity for compassion and concern for others.
“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.” Limbaugh finds this particular statement so bewildering that he repeats it three times.
Business commentators may rise to the defense of the marketplace. But Pope Francis is not primarily interested in a debate about “wealth creation.” He stands in a tradition that goes back to the prophets of Israel, whose moral litmus test was the welfare of society’s least and most vulnerable members.
Pope Francis has taken it upon himself to speak for those who have no voice, to arouse the conscience of Christians, and to contribute to a culture of solidarity. He longs, he says, for a “Church which is poor and for the poor.” Perhaps what distinguishes him from his predecessors is simply that he has identified this as a central focus, and that he evidently intends to hold the church accountable to this mission.
Of course no one is troubled by a pope who embraces the sick and loves the poor. But when he dares to reflect on the moral and structural causes of poverty, that is a different matter.
As Dom Helder Camara, another prophetic archbishop from Latin America, famously observed, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Some things never change.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Ellsberg.
Editor’s note: Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.” He is the son of Daniel Ellsberg.