We may never know why Pope Francis chose to channel Robespierre and the slogan of the French Revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, but there is no denying that the chilling motto headlines section 103 of the papal document, and inspires much of its content.
Although the slogan may be shocking to see in a papal encyclical, the content is not at all surprising, as Pope Francis has been denigrating capitalism since the earliest days of his papacy. Envisioning a utopian world “without borders,” Fratelli Tutti admonishes us that in order to enjoy a “fraternity that is born not only of a climate of respect for individual liberties,” we must cultivate the “fraternity” through “education, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment.”
Pope Francis may not have intended to shape the outcome of the presidential election, but the Left has certainly welcomed its release in this most divisive season. In “The Pope’s Unexpected Election Message,” published in the Washington Post earlier this week, progressive Catholic columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. claimed that the pope’s condemnations of “an empty individualism,” and a “narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt” will make it hard for conservative and right-wing Catholics to insist that the only orthodox vote is for Trump.” Likewise, the left-leaning Catholic publication National Catholic Reporter welcomed the document as an “important teaching document that must be read” by all — especially politicians who need to “see everyone as our brother and sister.”
Indeed, Fratelli Tutti admonishes politicians about the need to find “effective solutions to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences.” A common theme throughout this pontificate, Fratelli Tutti warns against what he sees as capitalism’s “selfishness and financial speculation,” which “continues to wreak havoc.” For Pope Francis, the pandemic has shown that “not everything can be resolved by market freedom and that human dignity must be put back at the center.” Denouncing what he calls the “dogma” of neoliberalism that the market by itself can resolve any problem. Pope Francis calls such a dogma as resorting to “the magic theories of spillover or trickle down to solve any societal problems.”
While Pope Francis has never claimed to be a socialist or a communist, it is clear that his sympathies lie with the Left. He fondly recalls learning about communism through readings provided to him by his mentor, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a woman he has described as “a fervent communist … a courageous person.” This commitment to educating himself about communism continued throughout Pope Francis’s years as a Jesuit priest, a religious order of priests that has been committed to redefining the very purpose of the Catholic Church itself — from one of spiritual otherworldliness with a concern for eternal salvation to a Church of Humanity involved in the here and now and the struggle to create a new sociopolitical system by helping to redistribute the Earth’s resources and goods.
During a visit to Bolivia in July 2015, Pope Francis publicly and graciously accepted a gift of a crucifix shaped in the form of a hammer and sickle from Bolivia’s Marxist president Evo Morales. Ignoring the murderous history symbolized by the hammer and sickle, Pope Francis told those on the plane ride back to Rome that “I understand this work…. for me it wasn’t an offense.”
Continuing their commitment to the ideals of communism, the Jesuit flagship publication, America Magazine, published a lengthy essay in July 2019, with the incendiary title “The Catholic Case for Communism.” Written by Dean Dettloff, a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, who describes himself in his biography as “researching the intersection of media, religion, and politics,” the article draws on essays, published by the Communist Party USA, “affirming the connections between Christianity and communism and encouraging Marxists not to write off Christians as hopelessly lost to the right.”
Although Dettloff acknowledges that “some communists would undoubtedly prefer a world without Christianity,” he denies that the goal of communism is to destroy the Church. For Dettloff, “the history of communism, whatever else it might be, will always contain a history of Christianity.”
Today, after decades in the shadows, Liberation Theology is once again ascendant as Pope Francis has used every opportunity to promote what he appears to view as the liberating theology of his Latin American home. In one of his first interviews after his election as pope, Francis said that liberation theologians have a “higher concept of humanity.” A few months after he became pope on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis welcomed the founding father of Liberation Theology, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, to the Vatican as an honored guest. Gutiérrez had been absent from ecclesiastical circles under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI after making a Marxist appeal for “effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against their oppressors.”
A few years later, Pope Francis elevated Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian from Brazil, who had been disciplined in 1984 by Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by inviting Boff to serve as an advisor for Laudato Si, his 2015 papal encyclical on climate change. Pope Francis also reinstated the priestly faculties of Miguel d’Escoto Brockman, who had been suspended because of his participation in Nicaragua’s Marxist revolutionary government. D’Escoto now lobbies for the Libyans, remains a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and continues to serve as an adviser to Daniel Ortega, the left-wing Nicaraguan guerrilla leader, member of the Sandinista junta that took power in 1979, and the current three-term president of Nicaragua.
Although progressives continue to applaud the many ways in which Pope Francis has embraced change, inculturation, and denigrated capitalism — excoriating what he claims are the profit motives of those he views as the “greedy” business owners — many faithful Catholics have experienced a growing unease about the Holy Father’s public pronouncements on the evils of capitalism. These concerns emerged in the earliest days of the papacy and grew with the release of his 2013 papal document, Evangelii Gaudium, in which Pope Francis denounced capitalism as a “new tyranny,” and decried the “idolatry of money.” Conservative radio-host Rush Limbaugh called the pontiff’s economic principles and denouncement of capitalism “pure Marxism.” Michael Savage, the radio-host of The Savage Nation, took to Twitter to call Pope Francis “Lenin’s Pope.” And in the summer of 2015, the Economist published an essay describing the pontiff as “The Peronist Pope.”
Fratelli Tutti — a document that is more sociological than theological — will do little to dispel Catholic concerns throughout the United States that their Church is being led by a pope who is hostile to the true meaning of liberty and freedom as envisioned by the founders of their own country.
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. She is author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications).