Follow by Email

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Is Pope Francis a Marxist? Rush Limbaugh Seems to Think So

Is Pope Francis a Marxist? No, not even close ("Is Pope Francis a Liberal?"), but he's probably to the left of his predecessors and his recently released apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has really gotten under the skin of Rush Limbaugh, leading Rush to call it "pure Marxism." An apostolic exhortation is a communication from the Pope that encourages the faithful to undertake a particular activity, but it doesn't define Church doctrine, which means that it isn't to be considered an "infallible" teaching (In order for a teaching by a pope to be recognized as infallible, it must be a decision of the supreme teaching authority of the Church, concern a doctrine of faith or morals, bind the universal Church, and be proposed as something to be held firmly and immutably).

Infallible or not, Evangelii Gaudium has attracted considerable attention because of its critique of free market capitalism. Here's a sample passage (Chapter 2, I: 53-54):
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 na├»ve 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.
Francis's critique attracted Stephen Dubner and the folks at Freakonomics, as they sought to answer the question, what is the role of markets in causing — or alleviating — human suffering ("Pontiff-icating on the Free-Market System")? To answer this, they turned to economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has spent much of his life as an advocate for both the free market and the poor (see a brief biography of Sachs at the bottom of this post; for a more complete biography click on Sachs's name above or the link at the bottom of the post).

Sachs can recall the very day he discovered that the way economics is taught and learned in academia, represents only "a sliver of a shard of a smidgen" of how economics works itself out in the real world. It was in 1985; the first time he landed in Bolivia:
I remember from the first moment, literally of getting off the airplane actually taking a deep breath and finding no oxygen there because you’re about 13,000 feet above sea level, that my mouth was absolutely agape and amazed, and I’ve never ceased that feeling. What I had learned in the classroom was such a small part of what one needs to understand to be able to apply tools of economics effectively that I’ve regarded the next 28 years as really being an extraordinarily intensive learning curve. And I continue to feel that way. The world’s very complicated. What we can learn from theory and from models and from econometrics is very useful. But if it’s done divorced from practice I think it is almost inevitably, profoundly misleading.
Sachs believes that Francis supports the free market, but what he is arguing for in his exhortation is that it be embedded in a moral framework in which all persons are valued:
I am a believer in a market economy … and I would imagine Pope Francis, too, is a believer in a market economy, but what the Church has taught … is the idea that an economy needs a moral framework. This is a very, very basic idea that we have mostly discarded but that I believe in.
Another economist, Joseph Kaboski, from Notre Dame and President of  CREDO, the Catholic Research Economists Discussion Organization, essentially agrees with Sachs. He believes that Francis makes important points but stresses that markets are crucial for eliminating poverty:
The pope has a point on a number of fronts. And you know, markets aren’t perfect, and ethics are important. I think that’s one of the things he’s trying to say. … But on the other hand, we’ve never seen an example of any country that has escaped extreme poverty because of foreign aid or NGOs. … More people have escaped extreme poverty in the past 25 years in part through the growth of China and India than in any period of human history. And all of these miracle countries — “miracle” in the economic sense, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile down in Latin America — they’ve all grown through, high levels of trade, market economies. And that’s important.
All I can say is that it is one of the more interesting Freakonomics podcasts in quite some time (although, I confess, that I enjoy most of them). You can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Freakonomics website ("Pontiff-icating on the Free-Market System") where the audio transcript is also available.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, having held the same position under former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He is Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He is co-founder and Chief Strategist of Millennium Promise Alliance, and is director of the Millennium Villages Project. Sachs is also one of the Secretary-General’s MDG Advocates, and a Commissioner of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Development. He has authored three New York Times bestsellers in the past seven years: The End of Poverty (2005), Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008), and The Price of Civilization (2011). Note: Bio from The Earth Institute Website at Colombia University:


  1. Great post, Dr Everton. I think this Pope is a breath of fresh air. I also agree that there must be a moral for any economic system to work fairly. Morality is what is missing from the systems that Sachs and company are defending. I'd love to hear their take on that aspect of it. Unfortunately, in today's America we are led to believe that morality is oppressive when it is discussed openly.