Critics of Pope Francis and his statements heretofore about economics and the environment have become increasingly vocal. And an interview excerpted in La Stampa on January 12 will do little to quell their concerns. That interview, which will appear in a book entitled ‘The Economy Kills’ that will be published this week in Italian, the Argentine pontiff insists that his preoccupation with poverty and the worldwide economic system is not inspired by communist ideology but is instead the “touchstone” of Christian faith. He is frequently critical of consumerism, while he promotes a Catholic Church “that is poor and for the poor.” Addressing his critics, who include some Republicans in the United States, the Pope that his message is echoed in the Gospel itself and the writings of the earliest Christian writers such as John Chrysostom.
 
In the interview, Francis says "The Gospel does not condemn the wealthy, but the idolatry of wealth, the idolatry that makes people indifferent to the call of the poor." He also summarized the Jesus Christ’s teaching on charity thus: "I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was in prison, I was sick, I was naked and you helped me, clothed me, visited me, took care of me."
 
"Caring for our neighbor, for those who are poor, who suffer in body and soul, for those who are in need: this is the touchstone. Is it pauperism? No. It is the Gospel."
 
He expressed incredulity that anyone who has knowledge of early Christian writers would seek to accuse him of “giving a Marxist homily."
 
"As we can see, this concern for the poor is in the Gospel, it is within the tradition of the church, it is not an invention of communism and it must not be turned into some ideology, as has sometimes happened before in the course of history." This was interpreted by some as a reference to Liberation Theology, which was a movement that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and which sought to reconcile Christianity thought with aspects of Marxism. This was evident in Sandinista Nicaragua and some of the Latin American leftist movements of the 1960s and 70s
 
"Markets and financial speculation cannot enjoy absolute autonomy," he said. The Pope pleaded for ethics in economic activity as well as a distribution of resources. "We cannot wait any longer to resolve the structural causes of poverty in order to cure our society of an illness that can only lead to new crises," said the Pope.
 
Conservative Catholics, particularly in the United States, have criticized some of his past pronouncements on the economy, with several openly calling him a Marxist. But the Argentine pope said he was just stating Church teachings.
 
"If I repeat some sermons by the first fathers of the Church in the second or third centuries about how the poor must be treated, some would accuse me of preaching a Marxist homily," he said. "The New Testament does not condemn wealth but the idolatry of wealth."
 
At the Vatican, Pope Francis has made practical changes in the administration of the Church that reflect his thinking. Just before Christmas last year, he gave a homily to his closest advisors in which he said “The Curia is called upon to improve itself, always improve itself and grow in communion, holiness and knowledge to fully realize its mission,” adding, “Yet like every body, like every human body, it is exposed to illnesses, malfunctioning, infirmity. They are illnesses and temptations that weaken our service to God.” In a separate homily to Vatican staff, the Pope begged forgiveness for the failings of churchmen and what he called “spiritual Alzheimer’s”  and “existential schizophrenia.”
 
Early in his papacy, Francis signalled that change was coming to Church administration. To that end, he fired a German bishop who spent $43 million on a residence and also effectively demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke – an American who is widely regarded for his defense of traditional marriage.
 
The Pope has also condemned huge salaries and bonuses as symptoms of greed, while he denounced speculation in food commodities.
 
Among the Pope’s critics is syndicated columnist Dennis Prager, a non-Catholic, who recently wrote an article that saw Marxist motivations in the Pope’s pronouncements.  “By all accounts, Pope Francis is a wonderful man. Conservatives understand that good people can hold left-wing positions. If only bad people held left-wing positions, leftism wouldn't be the world's most dynamic religion. Unfortunately, however, being a wonderful person doesn't mean you will be a wonderful pope. Any Catholic who tweets, "Inequality is the root of social evil," as Pope Francis did last March, should be a socialist prime minister, not a Christian leader. The moral message of every Bible-based religion is that the root of evil is caused by poor character and poor moral choices, not by economics. The pope's tweet is from Marx, not Moses.”
 
In an email response to Spero News, Father Shay Cullen – a Catholic priest and human rights advocate in The Philippines, wrote, “Pope Francis is extremely popular because he is speaking and teaching and showing the same compassion and love of justice of Jesus of Nazareth for the poor and the downtrodden the marginalized and excluded. Jesus taught equality and fairness for workers and women and children. Pope Francis does the same.”
 
Rev. Cullen, a syndicated columnist, cited the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which reads in part:
 
    At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
 
Furthermore, responded Rev. Cullen, “ We are long awaiting such a Pope. He has exceptional credibility as a true representative of Jesus of Nazareth and shows it in his simple life-style , no pontifical pomposity or pretence and speaks with clarity and directness that is astonishing.”
 
“Extremist conservatives,” wrote the Irish priest, “have stifled the gospel message of justice ,equality freedom and  the dignity of all for generations. They are entitled to their opinions but their time has passed when they can use such opinions to dominate and intimidate the faithful with fear and damnation.  Now it is the time of Francis and the poor and the gospel of the magnificat  and Sermon on the Mount.” Rev. Cullen is known worldwide for his spirited defense of children in The Philippines, especially those who are caught up in sex trafficking, prostitution, and other forms of abuse. He is a co-founder of PREDA.org - a non-profit dedicated to ending the exploitation of children. 
 
William Doyle, who chairs the department of  economics at University of Dallas – a Catholic institution in Texas – responded, “Pope Francis is a very wise man.”
 
“Pope Francis's argument has little to do with Karl Marx, except for Marx's definition of "commodities" which (in Marxian terms) are things that are produced for sale at a profit."
 
 
Furthermore, wrote Doyle, “Pope Francis's argument is based on the thesis of the great economic historian and economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi that a global self regulating economy requires than everything be produced and allocated as if they were "commodities," including what he called "fictitious commodities" (Labor, Land and Money).”
 
“Pope Francis,” wrote Doyle, “expands Polanyi's termed "Land" to include all of Nature, which I think enhances Polanyi's argument.”
 
Doyle says the pontiff raises a question that should be considered very seriously:
 
 "What things do we want to have allocated and produced based on market prices and profits, and what things should be allocated and produced based on other considerations, including those that flow logically from religion and morality?”
 
Doyle answered, “For example, a social consensus has developed over time that body parts (kidneys, livers, etc) should not be allocated on the basis of money prices. People are another obvious example: no civilized society recognizes property rights in people and allows them to be owned, bought and sold based on the profit motive. That would be slavery. Pope Francis raises one of the most profound questions that can be raised in economics:  Who and what determines how things will be used and ‘who gets what?’ Answering the question becomes far more difficult when we are talking about Polanyi's "Fictitious Commodities" which are not produced by people for profit, but rather come into existence for other reasons.”

(Karl Polanyi)
 
Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) was the founder of a school of economic thought called ‘substantivism,’ which seeks to understand economic activity as being rooted actual societies and cultures. It has long been utilized by anthropologists and other social scientists. While he was once a supporter of democratic socialism and Christian socialism, he left his native Hungary in 1919 when a communist government seized power. The author of The Great Transformation, which was published during the same year as the equally influential Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (1944), taught at Columbia University (1947-1953). Since his wife had history of participation in a Communist party, she was not able to secure a visa. It was thus that Polanyi commuted to the New York City campus of the university from his home in Canada.
 
Some Catholics have criticized Pope Francis for what they regard as the impossible task of reconciling Catholic faith with economic imperatives. The Wall Street Journal reported, that Ken Langone – who chairs the Invemed Associates LLC investment bank attributed the Pope’s critique of free markets to having been familiar only with the "crony capitalism" of his native Argentina. Another executive the paper quoted is Domingo Sugranyes Bickel, the former vice chairman of Spanish insurer Mapfre SA, saying "If the pope's message is going to be effective, it has to be realistic."
 
Other Catholic businessmen were more sanguine. According to the Wall Street Journal, José Ignacio Mariscal – who directs Grupo Bimbo in Mexico – averred that an efficient structure requires rationalization. However, said Marical, "But the result is that, at the end, we have more employment than when we started because it grows. We develop the market." And one of the biggest candy-makers in the world, Francesco Paolo Fulci of Ferrero SpA – said "What I can tell you is that we here in Ferrero are not distressed at all by the papal message."  His company holds its annual meetings at a shrine to the Virgin Mary in France.
 
Leftists have issued a petition that calls for putting an end to what they call attacks on Pope Francis. It was directed, on one hand, at several cardinals (Burke, Brandmuller, Caffara, De Polis, Pell and Muller) who leftists say have strengthened opponents who view the Pope “as a ‘danger’ that must be stopped at all costs.”  These cardinals defended dogma and practice concerning marriage during the 2014 Synod on the Family against those demanding that persons in “irregular” sexual unions be permitted to receive Holy Communion. 
 
On the other hand, the petition severely criticized Vittorio Messori – one of the world’s experts on Vatican affairs. In late December 2014, Messori wrote in Corriere della Serra that the Argentine pontiff has a “perplexing” habit of revealing contradictions between his actions and statements. This is “disturbing the tranquility of the average Catholic,” wrote Messori.
 
Messori, writing on Christmas Eve, said “My evaluation of this papacy oscillates continually between adhesion and perplexity.” Pope Francis, he wrote, has even caused “some of the cardinals who were among his electors to have second thoughts.” “I was among those who expected a South American and a pastoral man, [with] daily experience of government, [an] almost admirable balance of a professor, a theologian far too refined for some palates, which was the beloved Joseph Ratzinger.” Such a pope was “not unexpected,” … “But now, since that very first ‘good evening,’” on the night he assumed the papacy, Pope Francis “has proved unpredictable.” The pontiff’s swings between opposed ideas encourages Catholics to merely “follow the pope” without thinking too much about their faith.
 
One of the figures most critical of Messori is the Brazilian Leonardo Boff, a theologian and former priest. Writing on his blog, Boff said that the Italian journalist “does not know the meaning of the mercy and spirituality of this pope.”  Boff has been an outspoken supporter of Pope Francis. Of his election, Boff said “I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals.”
 
(Leonardo Boff)
 
“Behind the words of compassion and understanding, [Messori] brings a poison. And he does so in the name of so many others who are hiding behind him and did not dare to appear in public.” Boff said that these Catholics are but “cultural Catholics accustomed to the figure of a Pharaonic Pope with all the symbols of the power of the emperors Roman pagans.” 
 
The acerbic former priest was one of the leaders of Liberation Theology worldwide. Boff accused Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985 of “religious terrorism” when the future Pope Benedict XVI silenced him for his theories that were at variance with Catholic dogma. Messori is famous for ‘The Ratzinger Report’ – a book-length interview with Ratzinger that was influential for decades. 
 
In his critique of Messori, Boff rejected Messori’s mention of Benedict XVI. Said Boff, “Unfortunately, it was this vision [of Pope Benedict’s] that has made the Church a citadel, unable to understand the complexity of the modern world, isolated in the midst of other Churches and the spiritual paths, without dialogue and learn from each other, they also enlightened by the Spirit.” Among the other signatories are We Are Church - a giant among leftist campaign groups, Italian Base Communities, the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, and Marco Tarquinio, who in two pages of comments denounced the “bitter caricature of the Pope” as an effort to create divisions in the Church.
 
Boff has a history of clashing with previous popes and with established Catholic teaching. In 2012, he and some 200 other leftists and feminists signed a document that called for the “democratization” of the papacy and the Catholic Church. Among the signatories of the “Catholic Scholars' Declaration on Authority in the Church,” included radicals from 40 years ago, including former priest Hans Küng, Gregory Baum, as well as radical feminists Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sandra Schneiders, and Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza.
 
A recent announcement from the Vatican made it known that Pope Francis will soon release an encyclical letter on the natural environment. While progressives and free-marketeers are already waging a war of words over the as yet unpublished document, it is unlikely that the Pope will say that human overpopulation is the cause of pollution, or that he will advocate contraception or abortion as effective methods of addressing environmental degradation. Since Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Catholic, is believed to be planning to ask the Pope to address a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis may have ample opportunity to convey his vision of social justice and environmentalism to skeptical lawmakers.


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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