I recently wrote here on the interesting embrace of Sister Simone Campbell and her “Nuns on the Bus,” the self-described “social-justice lobby” of crusading liberal nuns. Embraced by whom? Embraced by some curious bedfellows: People’s World, house organ of Communist Party USA and successor to the Daily Worker.
It’s fascinating that after a century of denouncing, demonizing, jailing, and, in some cases, even killing nuns and other religious -- especially in the Roman Catholic Church -- communists have suddenly embraced a group of nuns. Why? Because they agree with the nuns and their agenda.
Well, in that same spirit, I have an addendum, and it pains me to report this. It honestly does.
After decades of slandering, attacking, denigrating, and even trying to kill various popes in the Roman Catholic Church -- from Pope Pius XII to Pope John Paul II -- communists are suddenly embracing a pope. It is Pope Francis. Imagine my shock, as a Catholic convert drawn to the Church initially in large part because of its stalwart anti-communism across centuries, when I did my regular perusal of People’s World and found not one but two pieces exalting the Bishop of Rome.
The first, published September 27, 2013, was tellingly titled, “Welcome Pope Francis, campaigner against corporate greed!” It began excitedly: “The campaign against corporate criminals and their gluttonous greed just added a new speaker with a very loud voice, Pope Francis I.”
The article quoted the pontiff several times. To be sure, few of us would disagree with any of the quotes. Indeed, the People’s World correspondent, to his credit, noted that “we shouldn’t be surprised at the Pope’s strong words against galloping greed and corporate despotism. He’s repeating what has been part of official church teaching for the last 130 years or so, Catholic Social Thought. Catholic Social Thought, we should note, is very pro-worker and pro-union.”
Yes, it is. It is also pro-property, which communism is not. The first principles of Karl Marx, stated unequivocally in the Communist Manifesto, preached “the abolition of private property.” The People’s World writer, by harkening back 130 years, was probably referring to the seminal encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, which, for the record, insists that a just society allow as many people as possible to become property owners. Ownership and property are sacred ideals defended by the Catholic Church for millennia. It goes back to the Mosaic Law and God’s commandments, beginning with “Thou shall not steal.” No one should steal someone else’s property. Of course, communists did just that with militant, murderous abandon.
So, Pope Francis is merely reaffirming what his predecessors preached in that regard. But that raises an interesting question: Why are communists suddenly hailing the words of the pope?
Well, it appears they prefer the words and emphasis and intentions of this particular pope. They trust him to take a stance closer to theirs. Consider the enthusiastic take of People’s World: “Pope Francis has provided a moral bully pulpit to rally the world’s workers in the ongoing crusade against corporate greed.”
Workers of the world unite … around the pope? A crusade by communists in concert with the Vatican?
That’s the hope of People’s World: “The presumed spiritual guide for one-seventh of the people on the planet has a certain legitimacy when he speaks, after all. If Francis’ words can marshal more people into the streets to stand up for ourselves and against the capitalist chieftains who rob us of our money, dignity, self-respect, right to organize and right to keep the fruits -- all the fruits -- of our labor, all the better. He might even prick the conscience of a capitalist or two. Who knows?”
Yeah, who knows? Who knew that communists would be on board with the Bishop of Rome?
This is something that Pope John Paul II couldn’t have imagined merely eight years after the end of a papacy that crushed the communist world and won the Cold War.
But People’s World wasn’t finished with its encomiums for the new pontiff. That was clear three days later in a September 30 opinion piece, likewise tellingly titled, “Pope Francis: a breath of fresh air.”
The launch point for this piece was Francis’ recent controversial interview stating that the Church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” To be fair to Francis, the biggest problem with that interview wasn’t so much what he said as how it was interpreted by non-Catholics, anti-Catholics, and dissenting Catholics. And this opinion piece in People’s World, written by columnist Henry Millstein, is a perfect illustration.
The piece stated: “A recent interview with Pope Francis … has excited Catholic and other progressives and ruffled the feathers of some Catholic conservatives -- with good reason…. His remarks point to a new atmosphere and attitude in the leadership of the Church -- and an implicit rebuke to some U.S. bishops who have allied themselves with the political right.”
Millstein argued that “the most important point the pope made” concerned issues like abortion, contraception, gay marriage. “Why should this matter to progressives?” asked Millstein. “Because Catholic (and other) right-wingers, including, lamentably, some bishops, have latched on to this narrow set of issues to promote a broader right-wing agenda. If the essence of being Catholic is to oppose abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, then faithful Catholics (and some other Christians) can easily be hoodwinked into supporting rightist candidates who line up with this agenda, disregarding flagrant violations of other aspects of Catholic teaching. Pope Francis knocked the legs out from under this ploy.”
Millstein then delved into the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, lauding Francis’ interpretation, especially in contrast to his two predecessors: “[T]here does seem to be something new in Francis’ attitude. In practice, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, despite their verbal denunciation of the ravages of capitalism, seemed more concerned with enforcing doctrinal conformity, particularly on certain issues involving sexual morality, than with pursuing active solidarity with capitalism’s victims; for instance, in appointing bishops they seem to have privileged rigid orthodoxy over social conscience. While it is obviously too early to discern for sure the direction Francis’ papacy will take, there are signs that he gives the pursuit of social justice priority over enforcement of secondary points of church doctrine.”
As one example, Millstein underscored the pope’s response to a question about gay priests. More than that, however, he recommended that “progressives should take advantage of this to reinvigorate the relationship between the church and organized labor.”
The People’s World writer did not stop there, noting added signs from Francis that “progressives, and especially Communists, should take to heart and ponder” (this included the acknowledgement of mistakes).
Millstein concluded: “We Communists … have much to learn” from Pope Francis.
In short, it’s no exaggeration to say that communists, like secular progressives, are excited about this new pope, and not because they’re suddenly thinking about becoming Catholic. No, they believe he’s more like them. They like him because they think he agrees with them. They like him because they think he agrees with them not just on “social justice” and economics and the environment, but because they like what they perceive is his de-emphasis on crucial aspects of the Catholic faith that they heartily reject.
I know that some readers (faithful Catholics especially) will not like what I’m reporting here. They’ll insist that this pope is doing a good thing; he’s reaching out to and impacting secularists, agnostics, atheists, progressives, liberals, and even communists. He is indeed doing just that. I appreciate it. In the spirit of Saint Francis, he’s bringing the Gospel to the unconverted in a rapidly secularizing world. I understand. I get it.
In fact, there’s no question that Pope Francis is doing some really good things. His leadership on Syria was superb, and genuinely produced much fruit. He’s preaching forgiveness, mercy, humility, redemption, helping the poor, the Gospel. He is unquestionably pro-life and has made some solid pro-life moves. He even excommunicated a dissident liberal priest who supported gay marriage and female ordination. I’m on his side. We’re on the same team.
But, in all due respect and deference, this man needs to be extremely careful about what he’s saying and how he’s saying it, because every imprecise statement is ripe for severe misinterpretation, exploitation, and abuse by enthusiasts and activists on the left.
His statement on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage was utterly butchered and completely misrepresented, most notably by the predictably awful but extremely influential New York Times. Other troubling statements, however, have not been misrepresented at all. A recent one, highlighted at The American Spectator by George Neumayr, was this remark, made to a prominent Italian atheist interviewer: “Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good.” Interrupted by the amazed interviewer, Francis doubled down: “And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”
That statement is a jaw-dropper. I’m saddened and sorry to say that I cannot, by any stretch, defend that statement. As a Catholic convert regularly called upon to defend my faith and various papal statements, that’s one I will not be able to explain away. Let’s be honest: That remark is a disaster. I’m stunned to hear it from a pope. It is a major, major problem. All I can do is plea for a clarification or correction, which I’ve yet to hear.
Again, this man needs to be extremely careful about what he’s saying and how it will be received.
And so, back to my original point:
One manifestation of that is this: Communists, of all people, finally believe they have a pope who agrees with them, that they like, that they can embrace, that they can encourage. I knew that Francis’ controversial interview on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage had thrilled liberals, liberal Catholics, dissident Catholics, secular progressives, agnostics, atheists, and socialists. You can read their websites. They love this guy. But communists?
It seems to me that this is not the kind of praise that the pope should want. Unless he takes steps to clarify and be clearer, much of the confusion will be his own fault.