Religion & Liberty Online

Are Christianity and Communism mutually exclusive?


Did Pope Francis just publicly endorse Communism? Recent comments have prompted many to suggest he has. During an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, they had the following exchange:

[Scalfari:] You told me some time ago that the precept, “Love your neighbour as thyself” had to change, given the dark times that we are going through, and become “more than thyself.” So you yearn for a society where equality dominates. This, as you know, is the programme of Marxist socialism and then of communism. Are you therefore thinking of a Marxist type of society?
[Francis:] “It it has been said many times and my response has always been that, if anything, it is the communists who think like Christians. Christ spoke of a society where the poor, the weak and the marginalized have the right to decide. Not demagogues, not Barabbas, but the people, the poor, whether they have faith in a transcendent God or not. It is they who must help to achieve equality and freedom” (emphasis added)

Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, suggests that there’s something else going on. In a recent article for The Stream, he begins: “Marxists, Marxist ideas and Marxist regimes have brought death and destruction to millions. Yet according to Pope Francis, “if anything, the communists think like Christians.” What’s going on here?” He goes on to note that though some have accused the Pope of “Marxist sympathies,” that is simply not true:

For one thing, Francis has specified that Communism is a mistaken idea. Back in a 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, the pope stated that “Marxist ideology is wrong.” Likewise, the Argentine home-grown “theology of the people” which has influenced Francis’s thought explicitly rejects Marxist philosophy and analysis. Nor has Francis hesitated to canonize Catholics martyred by Communist regimes. He’s even conferred a cardinal’s hat upon an Albanian priest, Father Ernest Troshani Simoni, who was twice sentenced to death by Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship — one of the very worst Communist regimes. These aren’t the words or actions of a Communist fellow-traveler or apologist.

Rather than offering a ringing endorsement for Communism and Marxism, Gregg offers this interpretation of the pope’s remarks:

One possible interpretation of the pope’s words about Communism is that they reflect his belief that some people are drawn to Marxism because they regard Communism as being on the side of the world’s underdogs. During a 2015 interview, the pope suggested that Communists were, in a way, closet Christians. They had stolen, he said, “the flag of the poor” from Christians.

These themes resurfaced in a more recent interview of Francis — this time conducted by the self-described atheist, the 92 year-old Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari.

Caution is advised when reading any of Scalfari’s interviews. Scalfari’s renditions of his conversations with prominent figures are based on memory rather than notes or recordings. That’s bound to raise questions about the veracity of what’s written (not to mention the prudence of talking to Scalfari, but that’s a different matter). Scalfari’s questions are also designed to encourage the pope to make controversial remarks. In most cases, Francis politely deflects them.

Gregg points out that communism, by definition, is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity:

In the first place, Marxism is rooted in atheism and philosophical materialism. Christianity is not. That’s a rather fundamental and irreconcilable difference. Second, virtually all Marxist thinkers and practitioners — Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Che Guevara, Pol Pot, etc. — hold that the ends justifies the means. Small “o” orthodox Christianity, with its insistence upon moral absolutes which admit of no exception, specifically refutes that claim. Third, Marxism, Marxists and Marxist movements don’t see the poor as Christianity does: i.e., as human beings who need to be loved and assisted.

Instead Communism views the poor — like all human beings — as simply moving-parts of the dialectics of history. The economically less-well off, from a Marxist standpoint, have no intrinsic worth by virtue of their poverty or status as human beings. Such a materialist and instrumentalist perspective is light-years away from Christianity’s view of those in poverty and human beings more generally.

The problem, according to Gregg, is that while Pope Francis is no Marxist, his imprecision with language lends itself to generating the type of confusion that’s arisen from this interview. So too does the pope’s tendency to conflate economic equality with poverty, which occurs in several places in the interview. But poverty and inequality are not, Gregg points out, the same thing. He concludes with this thought:

One of Pope Francis’s many paradoxes is that, while he consistently and rightly denounces any idolatry of wealth and the type of materialist mindset which reduces everything to economics, the pope often articulates curiously economistic explanations for the world’s ills. Material poverty is something all Christians must be committed to working to reduce. Let’s not pretend, however, that Christians and Marxists think the same way about poverty — or equality for that matter. The simple truth is that they don’t.

Read “Does Pope Francis really believe that ‘Communists think like Christians’?” at the Stream