Did Pope Francis know what he was getting into when he spoke from his heart and from the heart of Roman Catholic doctrine? At the very least, if the pontiff didn’t know who Rush Limbaugh was before, he sure does now.
In his recent apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote, “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 naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.” Meanwhile, he added, “the excluded are still waiting.”
It was enough to set off Limbaugh, who on his show called “Evangelii Gaudium,” the papal statement, “pure Marxism.” Before this latest flap, Sarah Palin had made, then backed away from remarks that she was taken aback by some of the pope’s earlier “liberal” words. You would have thought they had never listened to similar support of social and economic justice from his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, words that charged the faithful, as Pope Francis wrote, “to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.”
But the emphasis Pope Francis places on these issues, backed up by his modest personal style — modest by pope standards — has startled those who believed Catholicism begins and ends with opposition to abortion. The religion is big enough to accommodate many approaches and emotions. Pope Francis’ defense of unborn children is still as strong; it also includes his belief that “we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty.”
The impulse to boil everything down to a liberal vs. conservative, for-or-against sound bite is ill suited to theological discourse. Sometimes the pope sounds more like Catholic politician U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), except when Ryan is in his fiscal conservative, Ayn Rand-admiring mode. Other times, he’s more Barack Obama, except when the president is affirming abortion rights.
Pope Francis and the teachings of the Catholic Church resist partisan battles, even as they become mired in them.
President Obama got the chance to sound more pope-like on Wednesday in his remarks on income inequality. He acknowledged the public’s frustration over a Republican-led government shutdown and his administration’s poor implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He then made his own case that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain “that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.”
Perhaps church leaders should not be held above the fray, though it’s a bit unseemly when they become just another subject of a radio rant. While the pope may not be calling into an AM-talk fest to tell his side, he is wary of the danger of simplistic praise or condemnation of what he and all religions stand for.
“Intellectuals and serious journalists frequently descend to crude and superficial generalizations in speaking of the shortcomings of religion, and often prove incapable of realizing that not all believers – or religious leaders – are the same. Some politicians take advantage of this confusion to justify acts of discrimination. At other times, contempt is shown for writings which reflect religious convictions, overlooking the fact that religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart.”
So critics should first take in his words and consider them. The message will endure long after accusations of who is and is not selling Marxism.