Pope Francis is once again insisting that he is not a communist, that his abiding concern for “the poor” is grounded in the Gospel of Christ, not the ideology of Marx, Engels, or any other communist.
Back in 2010, while still a Cardinal, he felt the need to do the same.
It may very well be inaccurate to describe the Pope as a communist. But—and it pains this Catholic writer to admit this—one can be forgiven for suspecting that he is friendlier to this noxious ideology than many of us would care to think.
First, neither Francis’ recent remarks nor those from 2010 include an express repudiation of communism. That his concern for the poor reflects Francis’ commitment to Christianity in no way speaks to his thoughts on communism. Logically, subscription to one theory is perfectly compatible with respect for and appreciation of any number of others—and it certainly doesn’t entail an unqualified rejection of all others.
That is, one can believe that Christianity contains “the fullness of truth” while simultaneously affirming what truth is found in other systems of thought. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are two notable examples of Christian thinkers who did precisely this vis-à-vis the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, respectively.
Similarly, while Francis derives his motivation from Christianity, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he cannot and/or does not sympathize with communism.
Secondly, “communism” can mean different things to different people. For instance, Martin Luther King, Jr. denied that he was a communist on the grounds that he rejected “materialism,” the philosophical doctrine that matter is all that there is, the doctrine underwriting Marxism.
However, to reject Marx’s theory of communism, much less his theory of materialism, does not translate into a rejection of communism as such. To suggest otherwise is like saying that if I reject Calvin’s theology of Christianity, I must reject Christianity as such.
The closest Francis has come to criticizing communism is when he articulated a heavily qualified criticism of “liberation theology,” a hard leftist approach to Christianity. And even then, the Pope simply noted that its “Marxist interpretation of reality”—again, whatever exactly this means—was a “limitation” while commending liberation theology for “its positive aspects.”
When communism is understood as most of us understand it, as an ideology demanding a radical redistribution of goods for the purposes of “Equality” or “Fairness” or whatever, then it should be obvious that it can afford to dispense with philosophical materialism and even its “Marxist interpretation of reality.”
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.