The Vatican's Journey From Anti-Communism to Anti-Capitalism

The pope's strong condemnation of income inequality and free markets shows how much has changed in the Catholic Church since the Cold War.

Reuters

Pope Francis is once again shaking things up in the Catholic Church. On Tuesday, he issued his first “apostolic exhortation,” declaring a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism. “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,” he wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

He couldn't be much clearer. The pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States. His explicit reference to “trickle-down” economic policies—the hallmark of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their political successors—is just the beginning: Throughout 224 pages on the future of the Church, he condemns income inequality, “the culture of prosperity,” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

Taken in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism, this is a radical move. Fifty years ago, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders quietly declared a very different economic enemy: communism. But Pope Francis’s communitarian, populist message shows just how far the Church has shifted in five decades—and how thoroughly capitalism has displaced communism as a monolithic political philosophy.

***

In 1962, as the Second Vatican Council opened in Rome, Europe was deeply divided. In his book What Happened at Vatican II, Jesuit historian John O’Malley set the scene:

The Iron Curtain had fallen. For Catholicism this meant, among other things, that even the simplest communication with bishops and the faithful in Eastern Europe was difficult and fraught with dangers. The arrest and trial of the primate of Hungary, Cardinal József Mindszenty, in 1948, opened the public’s eyes to the brutal attitude of the Communist regime toward the Church. The even more brutal suppression of the revolution there by Russian troops in 1956 was just one more confirmation that no reconciliation was possible between “the free world” and “the Soviet bloc.”

Thirteen years earlier, at the end of World War II, the Holy Office had officially excommunicated communists from the Catholic Church and declared the ideology at odds with fundamental tenets of the faith. But in the lead-up to the Council, it wasn't clear whether the broader body of Church leaders would make a similar statement. Several bishops from communist countries weren’t able to travel to Rome because their visas were denied. Although certain bishops, particularly those from the Eastern bloc, pushed for a sweeping statement against communism, the Council never formally considered a proposal to make a statement.

Before he died in 1963, the pope who convened the Council, John XXIII, did issue an encyclical, Pacem in Terris, which addressed the issue of “universal peace.” While he didn’t condemn communism, he did endorse democracy. “The fact that authority comes from God does not mean that men have no power to choose those who are to rule the State, or to decide upon the type of government they want,” he wrote. “Hence the above teaching is consonant with any genuinely democratic form of government.”

The following year, John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, made a much clearer statement against communism in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. “We are driven to repudiate such ideologies as deny God and oppress the Church,” he wrote. “These ideologies are often identified with economic, social and political regimes; atheistic communism is a glaring instance of this.”

Albeit in somewhat passive terms, the Church had made its political and economic position clear: It rejected communism, and specifically its suppression of religion, in favor of the West and democracy—which were tied tightly to free-market economic principles. Many years later, the Polish Pope John Paul II was given credit for helping to undermine communist rule in his country, where Catholic churches provided a space for anti-communist artists and thinkers to hold discussions and distribute anti-regime writings.

In light of this long-standing tension between the Church and communism, Pope Francis’s aggressively anti-capitalist posture seems all the more remarkable.  The bishop of Rome hasn't just condemned what he sees as a failed free-market—he'a condemned the ethic and ideology that underlie free-market economies. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase,” Francis writes. “In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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