Skip to main content

The pope as Marxist: Is Limbaugh right?

By Robert Ellsberg
December 3, 2013 -- Updated 2255 GMT (0655 HKT)
Talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh, left, condemns Pope Francis' proclamation of the Catholic gospel as
Talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh, left, condemns Pope Francis' proclamation of the Catholic gospel as "pure Marxism."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rush Limbaugh says Pope Francis sounds Marxist for his statements on poverty
  • Pope decries the idolatry of money, extreme materialism and disregard for poor
  • Limbaugh says remarks "would have been unthinkable for a pope" to say few years ago
  • Robert Ellsberg: But concern for the poor above all is not Marxist, it's the core of Catholicism

Editor's note: Robert Ellsberg is the publisher of Orbis Books and the author of several books, including "All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time." He is the son of Daniel Ellsberg.

(CNN) -- Radio personality Rush Limbaugh declared himself bewildered by recent papal statements "about the utter evils of capitalism." In his broadcast, titled "It's Sad How Wrong Pope Francis Is (Unless It's a Deliberate Mistranslation by Leftists)," Limbaugh said the remarks add up to "just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope." This would indeed be remarkable, if true. Is it?

Limbaugh is referring to the new apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium," or "The Joy of the Gospel," in which Pope Francis lays out his vision for the church's proclamation of the gospel.

For Catholics, enthusiastic about the Pope's unguarded style, the document offers a refreshing departure from the traditional voice: "There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter," the Pope laments. "I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber." He decries a kind of "spiritual worldliness" that "hides behind the appearance of piety," warns against "sourpusses" who would substitute love of Jesus Christ with a love of the church, and rejects a defeatist "tomb psychology" that would transform Christians into "mummies in a museum."

Robert Ellsberg
Robert Ellsberg

And yet certainly the press has focused on those several pages -- in a document of 50,000 words -- that offer a vivid critique of the global economic system, what Pope Francis terms "an economy of exclusion and inequality." Here, Limbaugh charges, "The Pope has now gone beyond Catholicism, and this is pure political." More "saddened" than outraged, Limbaugh states that "it is very clear (the Pope) doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism, and so forth."

Actually, the words "capitalism" and "socialism" do not appear in the document. But it is not difficult to discern the Pope's meaning: "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."

As the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, as one who experienced the financial meltdown of the Argentine economy, as a bishop who encouraged his priests to work in the slums, Pope Francis knows the global economy from the perspective of those at the bottom. Decrying the idolatry of money, he sets himself firmly against a "deified marketplace" in which the masses of human beings become powerless spectators, if not disposable "leftovers."

Limbaugh, who concedes that he is not Catholic, though he says he's "been tempted a number of times to delve into it," nevertheless "knows enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago."

But little distinguishes Pope Francis from the prophetic utterances of his predecessors. What he is offering is not "Marxism," as Limbaugh says, but bedrock Catholic social teaching that goes back more than a century. Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI were explicit in their warnings against liberal capitalism and the dictatorship of the marketplace, producing encyclicals which, for their emphasis on social justice and the "option for the poor," would surely qualify for Rush Limbaugh as the very elixir of "Marxism."

Yet Pope Francis may have touched a particular nerve. In the most often cited paragraph of his document, he notes, "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.

Limbaugh: Pope's writings 'Marxist'
Limbaugh: Pope's writings 'Marxist'

"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."

Here, you might say he is getting personal, stepping beyond familiar pleas for the poor to confront a central article of faith among the elite beneficiaries of our economy: The notion that whatever benefits the wealthiest -- tax cuts or financial deregulation -- will inevitably benefit those at the bottom.

Apart from whether this is confirmed by the facts, Pope Francis attacks the corrosive effects of such an ideology on our capacity for compassion and concern for others.

"The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us." Limbaugh finds this particular statement so bewildering that he repeats it three times.

Business commentators may rise to the defense of the marketplace. But Pope Francis is not primarily interested in a debate about "wealth creation." He stands in a tradition that goes back to the prophets of Israel, whose moral litmus test was the welfare of society's least and most vulnerable members.

Pope Francis has taken it upon himself to speak for those who have no voice, to arouse the conscience of Christians, and to contribute to a culture of solidarity. He longs, he says, for a "Church which is poor and for the poor." Perhaps what distinguishes him from his predecessors is simply that he has identified this as a central focus, and that he evidently intends to hold the church accountable to this mission.

Of course no one is troubled by a pope who embraces the sick and loves the poor. But when he dares to reflect on the moral and structural causes of poverty, that is a different matter.

As Dom Helder Camara, another prophetic archbishop from Latin America, famously observed, "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Some things never change.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Ellsberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT