Catholic Church: Is Francis a “Red Pope”?

Daphne Lawless, Fightback.

Less than one year into his tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church and thus spiritual authority over 1.2 billion people, Pope Francis I (Jorge Bergoglio) has been shaking up a lot of leftist and liberal assumptions about Catholicism being a bastion of unforgiving reactionary politics and child abuse.

Deacon Eric Stolz lists just a few of the way the new Pope has set an example of humility:

Pope Francis has refused to wear the ermine-lined capes other popes wore. Rather than blessing the people in St. Peter’s Square on his election, he asked the people to bless him. He refuses to ride in a bulletproof Mercedes limousine. He rode on a bus with other cardinals right after his election.

Perhaps most notably, Francis has explicitly criticised the free-market agenda of neoliberal capitalism. In his document Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the Pope argues that:

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 naïve 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.

This quite timid reformist critique of capitalism has American conservative commentators screaming that the Pope has become a “Marxist”, while conservative Catholics argue that the Pope must have been “misquoted” or “misinterpreted”.

Bureaucratic reform

Perhaps more concretely, Francis seems to have an agenda for reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. The Pope has revamped the powerful congregation for bishops, removing the likes of the conservative US cardinal Raymond Burke – an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage. He has also dismissed all but one of the cardinals in charge of the Vatican Bank.

The infamous secrecy of the Vatican gives rise to conspiracy theories. John Paul I, who was Pope for 33 days before his sudden death in 1978, is sometimes said to have been murdered by the Mafia for seeking to reform the Vatican Bank. Hence, ideas that Pope Francis should “employ a food taster” lest he meet a similar fate.

Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Birtish Catholic weekly the Tablet, was quoted in The Guardian: “Many Catholics in recent years have experienced a certain amount of hostility from certain quarters for being Catholic and now that’s really changed and you don’t sense that so much.” She cites Internet comments on photos of the Pope embracing a man disfigured with tumours, which included such things as ‘The pope rocks’; or ‘I’m an atheist but this man could persuade me to believe in God.’

But sometimes the Pope’s new liberal fans don’t know what to make of the fact that he retains an orthodox opinion on women priests and homosexuality – for example, his excommunication of Greg Reynolds, an Australian priest who had pushed for a change in doctrine on these issues.

Feudal monarchy

Some people have an incorrect idea of how the Catholic Church operates. It’s not an absolute monarchy, where what the Pope says goes on all issues. It’s more like a feudal monarchy, where a reformist pope must overcome resistance and even outright rebellion from the bishops and the Vatican bureaucracy. For example, liberal bishops in Britain and the US fought tooth and nail (albeit behind the scenes) against Benedict’s attempt to restore the Latin Mass.

Added to this is the Catholic definition of “orthodoxy”. It is simply impossible for any Pope to simply change Church doctrine. Orthodoxy is defined as “that which has historically been believed everywhere by everybody”. What this means is that – even when speaking “infallibly” on doctrine – no Pope can change the essential nature of Church teachings, only adapt it to new questions.

Even if, for some bizarre reason, a Pope were to be elected who was sympathetic to gay marriage, women priests and reproductive rights, he would simply not be allowed to reverse Church teachings on those subjects. That is, not without a solid majority of supporters among the bishops and bureaucrats, and absolutely convincing written argument that this was not a departure from the Church’s eternal teachings.

Compared with Benedict

There is a simplistic view among leftists and liberals of Francis as a “Good Pope” worthy of support, as opposed to the contempt in which his predecessor, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), is usually held. But the differences between the two men – who, let’s remember, both embody the interests of the highest levels of Church leadership – are often exaggerated.

Benedict was decidedly favourable to the “Traditionalist” sector of Catholicism – those attached to Church tradition from before the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s – generally associated with homophobic, sexist and anti-Semitic attitudes. However, it has also recently been revealed that, in his last two years as reigning Pope, Benedict defrocked (dismissed) more than 400 priests accused of sexual abuse of children. This complicates the simple equation of Catholic tradition with child rape.

Detractors of Benedict often fixated upon his teenage service in the Hitler Youth – not that children in the last years of Nazi Germany had any say in the matter. But the more that Francis talks anti-capitalism and the need for a humbler, simpler lifestyle for clergy, the more that liberals are prepared to look the other way on his accomodation – as an adult priest – with the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1976-83.

Both men also shared an attitude to “liberation theology”. This was a radical movement within Catholicism in the 1950s and 1960s, led by priests from Latin America who interpreted Christianity as meaning support for the struggles of workers and oppressed people.

Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was leader of the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (the successor organisation to the Inquisition). As such, he led efforts in the 1980s to declare liberation theology a heresy, a form of “Christianised Marxism”. It is argued that this project had the support of US foreign policy. But it also had the support of Francis (then Archbishop Bergoglio) as the head of the Bishops’ Conference in Latin America.

The difference is a difference of emphasis. Benedict, a former “attack dog” for Catholic orthodoxy, was mostly interested in safeguarding the integrity of Church doctrine and tradition, and lacked the kind of media skills required to make himself likeable in the capitalist media. Francis, on the other hand, worked among the poor in Buenos Aires for decades, and is said to be quite indifferent to doctrinal details, while having a strong grasp of the primacy of the Church’s social mission.

Catholic social teaching

So certainly Francis is no Red. But some may be surprised to learn that, in criticising unbridled capitalism, Francis has not been acting against Catholic doctrine, but in full agreement with it.

The Catholic Church has been officially against the total dominance of capital over labour since 1891. That is the year that Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (Concerning New Things). Among other statements of Church social policy, this letter emphasised the right of all workers to a living wage and the right to bargain with employers on the basis of equality. It also promoted a welfare state, using phrases like:

the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due… wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

As an institution with origins in feudal times, and with an ideology based on charity, the Catholic Church has always had a horror of both class conflict, and the tendency of capitalism to overthrow traditional ways of life. It is not so much evidence that Pope Francis is a “leftist” that his comments about “unbridled capitalism” have caused consternation among American conservatives and traditional Catholics – it’s more a sign of how far the neoliberal agenda of class warfare from above has become the common sense of the Right. Francis’ comments would have been unremarkable from conservative politicians of the 1950s.

Religion and contradiction

It’s vital to remember that all mass organisations – including the Catholic Church – are contradictory entities. Like all religion, it embraces positive and negative features. It seeks to promote social justice and peace between opposing classes, at the same time as reinforcing “traditional” sexist and heteronormative family arrangements and an authoritarian social order. So those who declare that all religion is negative and evil are adopting an approach which will isolate them from those they hope to convince. The job of activists is to emphasise these contradictions, and to explain why a belief in social justice contradicts – for example – a woman’s right to control her own fertility.

Given that – according to some surveys – 95% of Catholics do not follow Church doctrine against the use of artifical contraception, it’s clear that the Pope is not the spiritual dictator which some atheist (or Protestant) writers have made him out to be. There are strong limits to how much his personal example or statements may change the minds of conservative members of his flock.

But what the Pope’s comments on capitalism, and his steps to bring in a simpler lifestyle for Church leaders, offer to working people and socialists is an opening of the debate. He’s not the first religious leader to do so – the Dalai Lama has accepted the label “Marxist” in the past. But Francis has greater influence in the United States and western Europe, the heartland of global capitalism. He has opened up more space in the “official” media for concepts critical of neoliberal capitalism. He might not be a Red, but by following the dictates of his Catholic conscience, he may be helping those of us who are.

See also


  1. Well said.

    A few thoughts on liberation theology: although Bergoglio distanced himself from it in its heyday, it seems he’s becoming more sympathetic to it recently (see – e.g. meeting with Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff. And it looks like he’s always understood Christian faith as being a struggle on the side of the poor for holistic justice and peace, and respected liberation theology for emphasising that… he just disagreed with some of the Marxist analysis of some of the liberation theologians (and, after all, even Marxists criticise some Marxist analysis). Also, as you partly point out, that’s not too far away from Ratzinger’s criticism of liberation theology, and, indeed, traditional Catholic teaching. It’s a mistake to assume prominent pro-capitalist American and European Catholics represent ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ Catholic thinking.

    Also, this is incidental to the main point of your article, but child/sexual abuse has been quite badly misrepresented as a specifically Catholic problem. Abuse and institutional protection of offenders are horrendous and inexcusable, but sadly the same things have happened even worse in other organisations… I’ve found this link, which obviously has an agenda but is a useful counterpoint to media/popular perception:

  2. Very well written Daphne; a good summary of things I think. One small clarification though:

    Francis was never head of CELAM (the Latin American bishops conference) although he had an influential role within it, especially at its last general assembly in Brazil (Aparecida) in 2007.
    There he was the coordinator of the group that wrote the final document which he has often given to people this year as a sort of summary of his thought (at least until the recent Evangelium Gaudium). At that conference there was a ‘reconciliation’ with various liberation theologians.As Jorge Bergoglio he was probably the head of the Argentine Bishops Conference for some time.

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