In November, America’s most listened-to radio talk show host told his audience that Pope Francis was preaching “pure Marxism.” Either that, Limbaugh said, or the “worldwide left” had deliberately mistranslated the pope’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
Many Catholics were outraged at the distortion. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good called on Limbaugh to apologize. (When asked in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa how it felt to be called a Marxist by ultraconservatives in the United States, Pope Francis responded, “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”)
Yes, it’s important for us to correct Limbaugh’s misstatements, but we should also thank him for bringing to light the incompatibility between Catholic social teaching and the views of Limbaugh and his followers in the Tea Party movement.
While Catholics in this country historically identified with the Democratic Party, there’s a perception in recent decades that the Catholic hierarchy leans Republican. We’ve seen public debates over whether politicians who support legalized abortion (almost always Democrats) can receive communion, massive campaigns against ballot initiatives for same-sex marriage, and a Fortnight for Freedom rally primarily targeting contraception-related provisions in the Affordable Care Act.
This public perception of the Church being politically conservative surfaced when Sarah Palin said she was “taken aback” by statements of Pope Francis that sounded “kind of liberal.” She later clarified her comments, saying she did not intend to criticize Pope Francis and that her Catholic friends and family had assured her that Francis was a “sincere and faithful shepherd of his church.”
But the mere fact that she would be “taken aback” if Pope Francis said something “kind of liberal” says a lot about how Americans—including a high-profile politician—view the Catholic Church.
Was Palin aware that the U.S bishops accept the consensus of scientists on climate change and have called for the United States and other powerful nations to lead on this issue, to protect God’s creation as well as vulnerable people living in developing countries? Do she and other Americans know that the U.S. bishops, longtime advocates of universal health care, withheld support for the Affordable Care Act, not just over abortion and contraception, but also because the bill does not allow undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance on the new exchanges? Have Palin and others heard the U.S. bishops’ vocal support for a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally?
These are just a few examples since 2001. Palin would be more than taken aback if she read some of the bishops’ statements from the 1980s.
It doesn’t take much research to see that the church is “liberal” on a range of issues, from immigration to labor, from healthcare to welfare and Social Security. Traditional Catholic teaching–long before Pope Francis–looks out for the common good, specifically the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized.
Enter Rush Limbaugh, who read a Reuters article about Evangelii Gaudium and commented on it the next day on his show, which reaches at least 14 million Americans.
“Somebody has either written this for him or gotten to him,” Limbaugh told his audience on November 27. “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”
“So reading what the pope’s written about this is really befuddling because he’s totally wrong — I mean, dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong,” Limbaugh added.
The talk show host who repeatedly claims to be right 99.7 percent of the time made several errors here.
For one, the pope never championed–or even mentioned–socialism, communism, or marxism. He merely condemned excessive materialism and unregulated capitalism. But in the mind of Rush Limbaugh and his listeners, perhaps any increased regulations amount to marxism. In fact, he said in the same segment that communism today is, in large part, the “Democrat party,” feminism, and AFL-CIO-type unions.
But a much more significant error was Limbaugh’s statement that that Evangelii Gaudium marked a striking juxtaposition against Pope John Paul II, who “had as his primary enemy, communism.”
“I’m not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago,” Limbaugh said, later adding, “What has been attributed to the pope here doesn’t make sense, with 50 years of the Catholic Church. It doesn’t jibe.”
No, Rush, it jibes seamlessly with papal teachings going back 123 years, to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which addressed capital and labor:
When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the defenseless and the poor have a claim to special consideration. The richer class has many ways of shielding itself, and stands less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back on, and must chiefly depend on the assistance of the State. It is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong to the latter class, should be specially cared for and protected by the Government.
And if he wants to invoke Pope John Paul II, whose suffering under communism did not lead him to support of unregulated capitalism, Limbaugh should read the late pope’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, marking the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In it, John Paul II wrote about the dangers of capitalism and the crucial role of the state in protecting workers:
The more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority.
In addition to Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus, Limbaugh might also read Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, and Benedict XVI’s Caritas et Veritate.
As recently as January 2013, Pope Benedict spoke of “hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.”
Add to these papal teachings the statements of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops and you find a consistent warning against the dangers of unregulated capitalism. You also find a long tradition that jibes seamlessly with Francis’ words, one that has been, for more than a century, diametrically opposed to the laissez-faire economic views espoused today by Limbaugh and Tea Party groups.
That’s not to say that the Catholic Church aligns with the Democratic Party. There are significant differences there, too. But these differences surface often in our public discourse. What is less known, especially to Palin, Limbaugh, and countless others, is that Catholic social teaching has long affirmed that government–not just charities and free market systems–has a responsibility to provide for the poor, workers, immigrants, and the environment.
Limbaugh and Tea Party activists and supporters, on the other hand, are rooted in an individualistic ideology, one that has, in the last six years, proposed to cut Medicare, food stamps, and environmental regulations, while denying a path to citizenship even to students who were brought here as children by no choice of their own.
Limbaugh acknowledged that he is not a Catholic, but said he admires Catholicism profoundly and has “been tempted a number of times to delve deeper into it.”
Thanks to a pope who has captured the attention and admiration of the world, Limbaugh has delved deeper. And he doesn’t like what he sees. His attacks on Pope Francis are attacks on traditional Catholic social teaching.
As a result, we are finally seeing a public debate between years of Catholic tradition and the Tea Party movement.
This is healthy for our Church and healthy for our country—and long overdue.
Thank you, Rush, for helping illustrate just how significantly our worldviews differ.
Vincent Gragnani is former staff writer for The Southern Cross in San Diego. He has also written for America, One, St. Anthony Messenger, and U.S. Catholic, as well as various non-Catholic newspapers and websites. He currently works for a publishing company in New Jersey and blogs about New York City history at ihappentolikenewyork.com.