The Pontiff Versus the Pontificator

Pope Francis’ economics keep with long Catholic teaching – it’s Rush Limbaugh who’s radical.

By SHARE
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Pope Francis meets children at the Vatican, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. Pope Francis has received a candle-topped birthday cake three days early, a surprise from children at the Vatican. The pontiff turns 77 on Dec. 17. A group of children on Saturday presented him with the treat after he visited a Vatican dispensary which provides pediatric care. Francis blew out the candles. Thanking the youngsters for the cake, he promised: "I'll tell you later if it's good or not." The dispensary on the Vatican grounds has been distributing for more than 90 years milk, clothing, diapers, toys and even baby carriages to families in need.

Round two of the pontiff versus the pontificator got underway this weekend when Pope Francis defended his recent encyclical on economic inequality. After Rush Limbaugh denounced the pope's economic views as "pure Marxism,"Francis offered a measured response. "The ideology of Marxism is wrong," he told the Italian newspaper Il Stampa. "But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended."

In the wake of the encyclical, journalists have largely focused on Francis, seeing his economic views as part of a bold new direction for the church. Time magazine even went so far as to applaud his "rejection of church dogma," a claim they quickly retracted. But the encyclical broke no new ground. It reflected the church's long-standing opposition to both excessive centralization and unrestrained capitalism, a stance most fully detailed in the 1891 encyclical "Rerum Novarum."

Also not new? Conservative media personalities tangling with the Vatican. In 1936 Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (a papal secretary who three years later would become Pope Pius XII) arrived in the U.S. on a diplomatic mission. One of his objectives was to assure Franklin Roosevelt that the popular radio priest Charles Coughlin, a fierce Roosevelt critic, did not speak for the Vatican. The Holy See would spend the rest of the 1930s attempting to rein Coughlin in.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Likewise, National Review generated controversy after the release of the 1961 papal encyclical "Mater et Magistra" ("Mother and Teacher"). Unhappy with the encyclical's focus on poverty rather than communism, the magazine's Catholic editor, William F. Buckley, published the quip: "Mater si, Magistra no." The glib dismissal of church authority landed Buckley and co. in hot water with both conservative Catholics like Phyllis Schlafly and liberal Catholics like the editors of the Jesuit weekly America. So in his tussle with Pope Francis, Limbaugh is in good company.

What is new here – newer, at least – is Limbaugh's position: that free-market capitalism and Christianity are not just compatible but inseparable. Historically, God and mammon have been antithetical. For most of the 20th century, mainstream Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) worried about the market's corrupting influence, the way it nurtured greed, materialism, individualism and violence. With the rise of progressivism in the early 20th century, Protestant minister Walter Rauschenbusch celebrated that "the ethical principles of Jesus are once more taught without reservation as the only alternative for the greedy ethics of capitalism." And in "Mater et Magistra" Pope John XXIII argued the economic order must be subordinated to the moral order.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

So what changed? The Cold War, to be sure, began intertwining free enterprise and religion. People of faith had as much to fear from communism as advocates of free markets did, and conservatives like Buckley did their best to ensure religious Americans made that connection. But in the 1950s and 1960s, both the idea of free-market Christianity and the conservatives who championed it remained in the minority.

The rise of the New Right and the Moral Majority in the 1970s mainstreamed the notion that the invisible hand of the market was actually the hand of God. Uniting savvy political entrepreneurs with popular evangelical preachers, the New Right forged a new form of Christian free enterprise. By 1980, as historian Neil J. Young has noted, Jerry Falwell was preaching that "the free enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs." God and mammon, enemies no more.

As Pope Francis continues to grab headlines and magazine covers (including this week's New Yorker), journalists will continue to frame his positions as something novel. But that's exactly backwards: Francis carries on the older tradition, while America's conservatives careen headlong into the new.

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