Today, The Guardian (the leading British newspaper) reported the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation, according to the paper, “the first major work he has authored alone as pontiff,” — important because in it, he denounces unfettered capitalism as a “new tyranny.” And at one point in what amounts to his first exposition of his official views, the Pope rhetorically elevates the moral demand to end poverty to the level of Commandment: “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.” 
In this, the head of the Catholic Church is in virtually perfect agreement with the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, who suggested that capitalism is “almost unequivocally demonic.” Barth also goes on in further explication, asserting that “[t]he main task of Christianity in the West is … to assert the command of God in face of [capitalism], and to keep to the ‘left’ in opposition to its champions, i.e., to confess that it is fundamentally on the side of the victims of this disorder and to espouse their cause.”
And in a surprisingly rare (though maybe quixotic) promise for pluralism in a world so oft divided by its religious differences, the Pope is of a similar mind with the Dalai Lama, who describes himself as a Marxist in political matters, explaining why in his belief that “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair.”
But quite beyond his similarities with other, more distinct religious traditions, the Pope’s remarks here reflect a rich heritage of social concern and commitment in the Catholic Church, well encapsulated in its “preferential option for the poor” (Puebla). One need not be reminded that liberation theology, which Pope John Paul II had called “useful and necessary,” and which has had no small impact on Latin America, for instance, was largely the project of Catholic theologians. And the Vatican as well, even at the highest levels, has kept alive a rich tradition of progressive social thought. John XXIII, for instance, suggested that in self-financing enterprises, workers should become co-owners . And the Vatican holds true the almost-inherently subversive notion that
The powerful and almost irresistible aspiration that persons have for liberation constitutes one of the principal signs of the times … This major phenomenon of our time is universally widespread, though it takes on different forms and exists in different degrees according to the particular people involved. It is, above all, among those who bear the burden of misery and in the heart of the disinherited classes that this aspiration expresses itself with the greatest force.
If the Church does not go on to spell out why this doctrine is so radical, its radicalism hardly goes unobserved by the United States government, for example, which, in its infamous Santa Fe document, suggested that “U.S. policy must begin to counter … liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the ‘liberation theology’ clergy.” In this document, the US government outlined plans to stop the spread of liberation theology and to use evangelical organizations to “take charge of the initiative of ideological struggle” because irrational Latin Americans continued to cling onto such antiquated sentimentalist principles as democracy, liberty, and equality. Though the policy was initiated by Reagan (unsurprisingly), it was supported continuously through the regimes of Bush and even Clinton.
This Catholic tradition itself stretches all the way back to Augustine, who believed that “God willed that this earth should be the common possession of all and he offered its fruits to all. But avarice distributes the rights of possession,” and beyond–back to the scriptures themselves, which are for precisely the reasons mentioned above, politically radical. I might challenge you, for instance, to see the socialist vision of the Gospel of Matthew which is the plain meaning of the text, or the Gospel of Luke, whose God promises to fill “the hungry with good things and sen[d] the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).
Or observe the radical socialist vision alive in the Acts of the Apostles–a vision which Friedrich Engels, for instance, did not fail to observe. In his essay ‘On the History of Early Christianity,’ noting the religious nature of the modern socialist movement, he agrees with Renan’s words: “If I wanted to give you an idea of early Christian communities I would tell you to look at a local section of the International Workingmen’s Association,” and goes on to say:
I should like to see the old “International” who can read, for example, the so-called Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians without old wounds reopening … How many of the most zealous propagandists of the sixties would sympathisingly squeeze the hand of the author of that epistle, whoever he may be, and whisper: “So it was like that with you, too!”
As Engels recognized, the socialist cause, and its commitment to eradicate poverty, is neither a secular nor a religious ideal per se, but is rather an aspiration which inspires both, or as the Vatican called it, an “almost irresistible aspiration” which is “universally widespread”–attested to by the fact that the socialist tradition has been upheld by religious individuals like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and Dorothy Day as well as by secular individuals like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell.
For the reasons given, it is well to remember that when the Pope says “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems,”–he is not speaking alone, but with the weight of the tradition of the Church, the company of the world, and the authority of the Word of God.
1. “Pope Francis calls unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’ and urges rich to share wealth, The Guardian, 26 November 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/26/pope-francis-capitalism-tyranny
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, qtd. in Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p.65
3.Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 544, quoted in Ben Meyers, ‘Karl Barth on Capitalism,’ Faith and Theology, 24 November 2006, http://www.faith-theology.com/2006/11/karl-barth-on-capitalism.html
4. Ed Halliwell, “Of Course the Dalai Lama’s a Marxist,” The Guardian, 20 June 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/jun/20/dalai-lama-marxist-buddhism
5. John Paul II, Letter to the Bishops of Brazil, April 1986, qtd. in Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, London, SCM, 1988, p.42
6. Mater et Magistra, nos. 75-77, cited in Jose Miranda, Marx and the Bible, London: SCM, 1977, pg.30
7. Libertatis Nuntius, I, I, qtd. in Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, London, SCM, 1988, p.10
8. Chronology of Liberation Theology, Online: http://home.comcast.net/~chtongyu/liberation/chronology.html
9. Barbara Aho, ‘The Council for National Policy,’ Online: http://watch.pair.com/cnp.html
10. Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, London: Fontana, 1971, p.211
11. “Pope Francis calls unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’ and urges rich to share wealth, The Guardian, 26 November 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/26/pope-francis-capitalism-tyranny