Papal Marxism and Other Mental Infections: On the U.S. Reception of Evangelii Gaudium

There is a rumor going around about Pope Francis in the United States,  after the promulgation of his exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG). Apparently he is a Marxist, or something like that. Rush Limbaugh seems to have been the first one to say it, or at least the loudest one, calling EG “pure Marxism.”

Add to that the recent bone-headed column at Fox News, comparing Francis to Obama, and I think you can see a pattern. If you can’t, then there is this, too: the always classy Limbaugh has returned for a second helping, this time saying that Francis is giving Obama an orgasm. (More on that here, by the indomitable Mark Shea; also read Rebecca Hamilton’s faithful take, here.)

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I am not interested in refuting these claims outright through analysis, argument, or journalistic coverage. I am more inclined to share some thoughts about them and the other ones like them that are out there.

These sorts of “debates” often win by forcing and faking questions into existence, when the truth of the matter is that the questions themselves are highly questionable to begin (and end) with. They are not out to win; they are out to infect.

We don’t need a winner right now; we need medicine. Antacid. Crazy pills require sanity. And we are, I fear, in the midst of a national pandemic that is having an allergic reaction to Francis and the Gospel.

These defensive claims are baseless and insane distractions. The problem is not the truth-value of their propositions, the real problem is the sort of distraction they represent, and the sorts of games they play, forcing us to play along.

This is, first and foremost, a waste of time.

My only partial absolution in it all is the fact that I have found time to read EG already, in English and Spanish. But this delays the more serious work of praying and studying the document and sharing it with others.

Francis is instructive here, I think. He tells us to get messy and not be afraid of getting beat up on the streets. I’ll take his advice and toss some swinging thoughts into the mix.

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About the Papal Marxism horseshit: let’s be honest and clear and stop talking stupid.

Rule number one: if you use words like ‘Marxism,’ ‘Marxist,’ ‘Marxian,’ ‘Socialist,’ ‘Communist,’ and other equivalents, and don’t know what those terms refer to with some degree of context and depth, then, you are most likely using those words to say something like the following: “such and such is a thing that I don’t like.” The difference between calling me a “pretentious, self-absorbed asshole I disagree with” and a “Marxist” is not a great one in this mindless formulation.

Calling people names you don’t understand, but that those who agree with you already will recognize under similarly irrational and childish antics, pat you on the back, and nod their heads, is empty, dead, and void. These are dead words and dead ideas and dead ideological positions. This is sentimental nihilism. Nothingness that feels good. And guess what? You didn’t come to this yourself. These scripts are written for you. You’ve been fed this garbage and, in the process, trained, like a parrot, how to speak and not think. This is how vomit works, regurgitated waste.

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A quick overview: Karl Marx marks an important transition in the political history of modernity, a transition that critiques liberalism, offering a collectivist alternative during the 19th century. In many ways, during the 18th century, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s romantic political philosophy anticipates the collectivist revolutionary tendencies in Marx.

The key point to understand is that liberalism and socialism are not complimentary ideas. Liberalism is individualistic, socialism is the converse. The ideological clash of the Cold War outlines this exact conflict. These views and political manifestations are not mutually exclusive either. As we see in Scandinavian socialist democracies or the capitalist communism of China, liberalism and socialism have found ways to co-exist, but this does not mean that they can be conflated willy-nilly. It also means that one must qualify what sort of liberalism, socialism, and so on one is trying to talk about.

Imagine trying to talk about football rules without knowing anything about the differences between the college game and the pro game, and the history of the different divisions and leagues. You’d be ESPN. Don’t become the ESPN of politics, or anything for that matter.

You may find this terribly tedious. It is. That so few have even the slightest dose of respectable rigor to their ideas, that the blades that we fight each other with are so bland and dull, is a sign of how out of shape and lazy our political conversation is.

No wonder no one wins this forsaken cultural war. Both sides shoot blanks. Loud, empty noises.

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In the US, we have allowed the term ‘liberal’ to float away into an ahistorical usage. This is the new normal, I know, but it sucks. Royally.

The effect has been to decouple politics from history and, in the process, reality. When you look at the evolution of liberalism from Locke to Mill to Rawls you hear a conversation, clearly identifiable and self-consistent, with substance and context behind what it means to be a “liberal.” If you understand this tradition you begin to see that Marxists are quite different from Liberals, historically and presently. You also see that today’s “conservatives” are in almost all respects liberals, in the meaningful and descriptive sense of the term.

The lesson is simple: if you want to be serious and not use language in a way that degrades the conversation into nothing more than  a cheap, sentimental joke, then don’t drop these scare-tactic buzzwords into a discussion. Be clear. Show what you mean to show. Be specific. Try to be careful, but, most of all, be honest. Don’t talk nonsense.

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That’s what the talk about Francis’ Marxism is: nonsense. It is born of a blunt, unabashed, and near total ignorance. I doubt Limbaugh has read EG or Capital or the Manifesto — much less understood any of them. And there are, I think, thoughtful ways to make the exact same claim (or just about any claim, for that matter), but this is anything but thoughtful. It is junk food, addicting and bloating us into mindless, mendicant, and slobbering idiot children, starving as we feed on words that are empty, cardboard taco shells, void of content, love, or life.

Don’t buy it. Refuse to eat it. Disabuse yourself of it. Do your homework, ask questions, have honest conversations, seek the truth and escape the lies built into the ideological machine that is creating a quiet, subservient insanity, echoing as predictable as it is boring.

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Here is Francis’ truly vexing political ideology: he is a Catholic. He doesn’t give a shit about US political factions and tribes and pet theories about theories most of us haven’t read. He sees things from a geopolitical place, sure, but also from a spiritual and pastoral worldview.

Hope.

He can see that we are suffering and dying inside. He can see how scared we are, cloistered in our safe little binaries and bad guys and anger and cynical pessimism. Maybe he is scared, too, even as he offers consolation and joy.

He is not offering us something easy, he’s not a materialist like Marx was. He is a refreshing realist who avoids the pitfalls of materialism. He preaches an incarnate Gospel that doesn’t lose the Spirit. He is offering us the healing wounds of Christ.

Why do we doubt?


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