Why conservatives just don't get Pope Francis' anti-poverty crusade
On Sunday, Pope Francis matter of factly announced that he was not actually a Marxist, telling Italy's La Stampa, "The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended." It was an incredible thing for a pope to proclaim about himself, especially since it was directed at one particularly loud group of critics: U.S. conservatives.
Since outlining his vision for the Catholic church in late November, Pope Francis has endured an amount of criticism from the American right wing commensurate only with the praise piled on by the remainder of global Christianity. For most, Francis' moving exhortation to spread the gospel and engage personally with Jesus was a welcome and invigorating encouragement. But for many right-wing pundits in America, Francis' call to relieve global poverty through state intervention in markets was unconscionably troubling.
Francis' message likely raises American conservative hackles because the American right wing has invented such a convincing façade of affinity between fiscal conservatism and Christianity over the last few decades. Though free markets, profit motives, and unrestrained accumulation of wealth have no immediate relationship with Christianity, the cross and the coin are nonetheless powerful, paired symbols of the American right wing. Catholic conservatives thus must carve a way around Francis' difficult insistence that governments be harnessed toward the relief of poverty, not the creation of it.
A popular conservative criticism has thus been to accuse the pope of having an unhealthy, non-theological affinity for the political Left. Rush Limbaugh labeled Francis a "Marxist" for that reason, while Fox News's Adam Shaw wrote him off as akin to President Barack Obama, derisively noting that "anti-Catholics in the left-wing media are in love with him." Ross Douthat at The New York Times put the same argument more delicately, writing that Francis' "plain language tilts leftward in ways that no serious reader can deny."
It is no surprise that aligning Francis with the whole of the political Left brings with it the arguments critics on the Right usually lob against liberals: That the Left is corrupt on the moral issues, such as abortion and gay marriage; that the Left is incorrect as to how poverty comes to exist; and that the Left means to replace Christian charity with soulless, dependency-producing state aid programs. Between Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat, Francis has been accused of each of these errors, all in an effort to drain the religious content from Francis' message in order to dismiss him as just another leftist.
But the reality is that this method of criticism does little more than demonstrate the ordering of right-wing priorities: Though they claim Francis' message arises from an unduly political place, their arguments rely on a uniquely American political frame rather than a Christian one. Limbaugh, Shaw, and Douthat may claim to object to Francis as Christians, but they argue against him first and foremost as conservatives invested in the free market.
Douthat, for example, argues that global capitalism has been responsible for an overall reduction in poverty. But Francis' exhortation never called for an elimination of capitalism, only that states, as creations of humankind, be structured so as to alleviate the poverty that arises after capitalism has done its work. For Francis, all institutions created by humanity — and yes, distributions of wealth are created, not spontaneous — must be intentionally shaped to further just goals. Since Francis' notion of justice is informed purely by the teaching of Christ, just goals include establishing an equitable distribution of wealth that alleviates poverty and contributes to peace.
That Francis' right-wing Christian critics are informed by a uniquely American belief in the moral neutrality of markets and distributions is especially clear when they're compared with their European Christian counterparts, whose intellectual traditions differ broadly from what Thomas Nagel has called America's "everyday libertarian" approach to politics. When Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jose Bergoglio, the British party known as the Christian People's Alliance stated the following in their 2010 platform:
The Christian Peoples Alliance believes that Britain will return to economic prosperity when government chooses instead to put human relationships in right order. This requires power, income, and wealth to be redistributed and for greater equality to be achieved. These are deeply spiritual convictions and reflect a Biblical pattern of priorities... [Christian People's Alliance]
It would be disingenuous to label the British Christian People's Alliance a left-wing party: They're opposed to abortion and support the teaching of Christian values in public schools. But because they are firstly a Christian organization, their sentiments regarding the distribution of wealth track perfectly with those expressed by Francis, as is the case with numerous European Christian parties. This is because for the pope as well as Christian groups organized outside of the American tradition, the primacy of Christian ethical thought is applied to all aspects of human existence, markets and the distribution of wealth included.
But the sanctity of markets is a foregone conclusion for his right-wing critics. Their politics precede their religion, and their criticisms belie their accusation that Francis is the one who displays an overly strong affinity for politics. So far, no serious theological arguments have been raised by the Right contra Francis, and I doubt any will be raised: For the pope's conservative critics in the U.S., the first concern is not religious.