The symbol of the Pope Francis era has to be the “Marxifix”—the crucifix in the shape of a hammer and sickle presented to the pope by Bolivian socialist Evo Morales.
It might actually have been an appropriate symbol—if it had been offered to commemorate all of the Christians martyred in the 20th century by Communist regimes. That’s something a previous pope would have understood well. But that’s not what it means. The Marxifix was created by radical Jesuit Luis Espinal as a symbol for Liberation Theology, an attempt to blend Marxism and Christianity—or rather, to take over the latter as an instrument of the former. The previous pope who understood the evil of Communism—John Paul II—made a significant effort to suppress Liberation Theology during the 1980s, particularly in its stronghold in Latin America. So the presentation of the Marxifix to Francis is a deliberately provocative act, aimed by a socialist at a fissure within the Church.
That’s why Francis’s response is ominous. He took Morales’s gesture, not as an affront to the faith, but as an opportunity for “dialogue” between Christianity and Marxism.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday the pope had no idea that Espinal had designed the crucifix and was surprised to receive it—a reaction clearly visible in the footage of the encounter. Some reports suggested the pope told Morales “This isn’t good;” one of Francis’ friends sent a tweet quoting him as saying such. But Lombardi said it wasn’t known what the pope had said.
Lombardi said Espinal had designed the crucifix as a symbol of dialogue and commitment to freedom and progress for Bolivia, not with any specific ideology in mind.
Later, Francis was asked about it directly and gave a meandering answer in which he skirts around endorsing Espinal’s Marxist views but describes him as “a special man abounding in human genius, a man of good faith.”
This idea of a “dialogue” between Christianity and Marxism represents a form of “syncretism,” an old process by which two religions are merged together, often an old faith folded into a new one, in order to make them more compatible and lessen the conflict for believers caught between two creeds. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Catholic Church employed syncretism to ease the conversion of barbarians by incorporating their customs and legends, but within a new Christian context. (A fair bit of a traditional European Christmas, for example, is borrowed from Germanic winter festivals.) But it was clear which creed was coming out on top and that Christianity was the new, rising faith.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. The modern process is what I think of as reverse syncretism: modern, secular philosophies have been taking over Christian traditions and institutions, keeping some of their outward forms and ceremony, but bending the old faith to the dictates of the new. (The People’s Cube gives you a taste of what this would look like taken to its logical conclusion.) Which is winning out in this case?
We have an indication from the speech Francis gave at about the same event where he received the Marxifix. He was in Bolivia to give a speech to the “World Meeting of Popular Movements.” “Popular” here is a euphemism for “lefitist.” Because the left, don’t you know, stands for “the people,” whether the people agree with this or not. But I digress.
Francis’s speech starts with a lot of vague rhetoric about the need for “hope” and “change.” Sound familiar? But then it turns into a scathing attack on capitalism and free markets, in decidedly theological terms.
[B]ehind all this pain, death, and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil.” An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home. I do not need to go on describing the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship: you are well aware of them.
“Subtle dictatorship”? That’s a line that could only be spoken by a man who has forgotten what the old, unsubtle Marxist dictatorships were like.
One of the central charges against Liberation Theology was that it made a mere economic and political crusade into a matter of theology, a means of redemption and salvation, as opposed to these being internal spiritual issues. Yet that is precisely the kind of rhetoric Francis uses. He talks about the vague “change” he seeks as being “redemptive”; he talks about “a truly communitarian economy” as “an economy of Christian inspiration”; he condemns “a system”—later he calls it “the world market,” by which he clearly means capitalism—as “an idolatrous economy” that “runs counter to the plan of Jesus.” I didn’t realize that Jesus had a five-year plan.
Of course, you could point out—and many people will—that capitalism is the only system that has ever lifted the mass of people out of poverty, wherever it has been adopted and to the extent it has been adopted. And there’s a whole body of work on economics demonstrating why this is so, including the invaluable work of Hernando de Soto, who specifically addresses Latin America and argues that poor countries’ real problem is too much Byzantine regulation and too little recognition of property rights.
But one suspects that none of this would have an impact on Pope Francis, because he has already made this a theological issue, not a practical one. He is attempting to incorporate Marxist “exploitation” theory and leftist politics into the theology of the Church.
And he is attempting to bring leftist organizations under the wing of the church—or vice versa. He tells the gathering:
I am pleased to see the Church opening her doors to all of you, embracing you, accompanying you, and establishing in each diocese, in every justice and peace commission, a genuine, ongoing, and serious cooperation with popular movements. I ask everyone, bishops, priests, and laity, as well as the social organizations of the urban and rural peripheries, to deepen this encounter.
So Francis is recruiting the Church as a political activist organization.
The Church has never been immune to outside philosophical influences. In its earliest years, Christianity was deeply influenced by philosophical ideas picked up from the Classical world in which it spread, even as it ended up rejecting much of the Classical legacy. During the Enlightenment, the pulpit became a conduit for the promotion of Enlightenment ideas about independent thinking and individual rights, particularly in America.
So it’s not that surprising that the Church can’t quite resist being pressed into the service of more recent political crusades, the 20st century ideology of socialism and its 21st century replacement, environmentalism. And there’s no reason to think it will end with economic issues. For example, someone has just put together a “gay-friendly Bible” known—and don’t blame me, because I didn’t make this up—as the “Queen James” edition. (I had half-hoped that in this version, God would finally get around to creating Adam and Steve, but it seems all they did was bowdlerize a half-dozen passages that condemn homosexuality as a sin.)
I am not a Catholic nor even a Christian, and I know many American Protestants who, shall we say, were never deeply invested in the moral authority of the pope. So what does it matter to us whether or not this pope is surrendering the Church to the left?
Historically, it does matter, because in the 20th century the Church helped change the course of history, vastly for the better, by offering ideological and material resistance to Communism. It mattered that there was a large institution with deep historical roots that was independent from the socialist state and politically correct orthodoxy, driven a different set of values. And it’s discomforting to think what might happen if that’s no longer true.