In a recent interview Pope Francis said that although he is not a Marxist, a Marxist can be a good person. Pope Francis is remarkable for several reasons, but one worth considering is his ability to go behind and beyond the labels that would otherwise separate humanity and make people strangers and enemies to one another.
The labels Francis works to overcome are the words which carry so much baggage of other meanings and implications. All of it comprising an unfortunate context, that the very letters that make up the word cease to spell the very word, and the word becomes something more than it was ever meant to be. It becomes a symbol for something larger and more often than not something deemed to be bad, dangerous or threatening. One example of this is the word “Marxist.”
Recent statements by Pope Francis have sent chills through conservative communities, that the new Pope, heaven forbid, might be a little “pink.” They do not go so far as to say that he is an outright communist or socialist, but fear that he may be “pink,” perhaps in the Liberation Theology sense, late of Central America.
Liberation Theology drove the late Pope John Paul II to stony anger. He judged those who partook in it and castigated those who wrote about it. He shunned it as if it were the work of the devil. One always wondered why John Paul II was so lenient towards the liberation movement of his homeland and so harsh on the liberation movements of Central America. After all, the members of both camps wanted the same things: personal freedom, work, a responsible wage to support a family, enough food and adequate shelter. While John Paul II would applaud and hug Walesa in Gdansk, he publicly reprimanded the Liberation Theologian and priest, Ernesto Cardenal of Managua, Nicaragua.
Why the distinction? It is because John Paul II had an understandable revulsion for the Marxism of Poland after 1945. The only problem was, the Marxism of 1945 Poland was not Marxism at all. It was Stalinism, and Stalinism was nothing more than one sociopath’s oppressive regime in a century of totalitarian oppression.
The Marxism resident in Liberation Theology is that part of Marx’s theories that concerns the health and well-being of the poor. It asserts that capitalism ultimately fails to treat the working poor with the fairness and respect they deserve. Evidence of this would be the crushing poverty in third world countries, like Nicaragua. In such situations, the poor work for and have nearly nothing, and the rich do not work at all, but receive everything.
Obviously, this a representation of an extreme situation, a situation that drove Cardenal to write his theses. However, even the barest discussion of such situations and the mention of the word raises the red flag, so to speak, of those horrors, such as wealth re-distribution. Visions of all those other leveling devices, like a fair tax code, that drive the wealthy nuts in their weekend conclaves carry the same power to raise the alarm.
It is virtually impossible to assess Marx with a clear head, without the built-in bias, since his theories, suspected to fail in any event, have been forever smeared and hidden behind the opaque black walls of Chairman Joe’s Kremlin. The ideology Stalin sputtered and tried to sell as his brand of Marxism was no ideology at all. For an intelligent man known for his encyclopedic memory, his work habits and his astute assessment of literature, he was a thug. He was all and only about power; his power, its acquisition, its use and the terror it could cause. Stalin did not believe in having problems. He equated problems with men. His solution was simple: No man, no problem. In the thirties he killed millions.
Joseph Stalin was one of the most evil men who ever lived. His stain still deforms the best hopes and aspirations of the people of the Russian Federation. Evil like his leaves long and indelible marks that chill debate, discussion, thought and study. It moves people to look upon one another with distrust and fear. It eschews the middle where understanding and compromise might occur. It divided a city, a country, and an entire world.
To say that one is a Marxist in modern day America might not be as bad as it would have been in the 50s. During the Red Scare, Joe McCarthy conducted his witch hunt that served little and ruined many, but the admission will still move one’s name down the list of preferred guests at any number of polite functions.
With all of that as forethought, please note that Pope Francis iss capable of saying that although he was not a Marxist, a Marxist could be a good person. The line is such a toss off one might miss its significance, the depth and meaning of what happened. When pressed to contend with one of those divisive words, more symbol than word, the Pope opened his arms rather than closed them. He did not wag his finger. He welcomed rather than shunned. In a sense he invited the tax collector to join him for a simple meal. In a sense he sat down and ate with a leper, an AIDS patient, a criminal, a prostitute, a drug addict, a lost soul and a bad man.
The word did not scare him away from the love he is compelled to share in the way that the Lord he believes in is said to love the least of us. For thirty years or more Catholics have fled their church to follow the lights of their own conscience in matters where the Church’s counsel has failed or has lost its credibility. It is too early to say, but Pope Francis, whether he intends to do so or not, might remake the damaged Catholic Church into an institution that welcomes and heals rather than repels and judges.
By Michael Hogan