Thoughts on Pope Francis


By Michael Löwy*

An analysis of the profile and actions of Jorge Bergoglio, the Pope who redirected the positions of the Catholic Church

Max Weber's Hypothesis

Max Weber argued, in his famous essay on the sociology of religions, that the Protestant ethic was favorable to the development of capitalism, especially in England and the United States; we find an analogous hypothesis, half a century earlier, in certain writings of Marx (in particular, in the floorplans). However, in this same text, Weber suggests that Catholic ethics were, on the contrary, fundamentally hostile to the spirit of capitalism.

In a footnote, in the context of a polemic against the works of Franz Keller, he states that the Catholic Church's positions in relation to capitalism as such are determined by a “traditionalist aversion, most often felt in a confused way against the growing power impersonal of capital – hardly susceptible, for that very reason, of ethicalization”[I]

During the debate that provoked the publication of his book, Weber proposed a new concept: that of an incompatibility (Unvereinbarkeit) between the ideals to which the seriously convinced Catholic believer subscribes” and the “'commercial' pursuit of gain”. In fact, this incompatibility does not exclude adaptations, but, adds the sociologist, “I cannot interpret the numerous practical and theoretical 'commitments' other than precisely as 'commitments'”[ii]. In other words: if there are compromises, it is because two hostile powers are confronting each other, and the Unvereinbarkeit remains the dominant tone of the Catholic relationship with the spirit of capitalism.

He returns to this issue in several other texts, notably in his Economic History: “The profound aversion of Catholic ethics, followed by Lutheran ethics, to every capitalist tendency rests essentially on the repugnance that they feel for the impersonality of relations within the capitalist economy. This impersonality withdraws from the church and its moralizing influence certain human relationships, thus excluding all infiltration and all ethical regulation on its part.”[iii]

The Weberian hypothesis seems to me to be essential for understanding various socio-religious phenomena, from the XNUMXth century until today. In fact, this hostility, this aversion, this “antipathy” (another term used by Weber) against capitalism assumed, particularly in the XNUMXth century, a conservative, retrograde character, in a word, reactionary. These manifestations had not escaped the attention of Marx and Engels, who ironically called them “feudal socialism”.

Here's what they say about it on the Communist Party Manifesto, who denounces them, even acknowledging their critical (anti-bourgeois) dimension: “Feudal socialism, a mixture of lament, lampoon, echo of the past and prediction of future threats – sometimes hitting the bourgeoisie in the heart with bitter verdicts and wittily heartbreaking, but always making an amusing impression, thanks to their complete inability to understand the course of modern history.”[iv].

It was probably a question of authors such as the romantic and Catholic social philosopher Johannes von Baader, a firm supporter of the Church and the King who denounced, however, the miserable condition of the proletairs (their term) in England and France, more cruel and inhumane than serfdom. Criticizing the brutal and unchristian exploitation of this class deprived by the interests of money (Argyrokratie), he proposes that the Catholic clergy become the defender and representative of the proletairs.[v]

Having said that, an anti-capitalist leftist current appears within capitalism. Paradoxically, the growth of a Catholic left appears in relation to the fact that the Church was increasingly willing to seek a compromise with bourgeois society. After the scathing condemnation of liberal principles in the Syllabus (1864), Rome seemed to admit, since the end of the XNUMXth century, the advent of capitalism and the establishment of a modern (“liberal”) bourgeois State as irreversible facts.

The most apparent manifestation of this new strategy was the rapprochement of the French Church (until then an unconditional defender of the monarchy) with the Republic. Intransigent Catholicism takes the form of a “social Catholicism” which, while always criticizing the excesses of “liberal capitalism”, no longer truly calls into question the existing social order and economy. All the documents coming from the Roman magistracy (the pontifical encyclicals) as well as the social doctrine of the Church, the rerum Novarum (1891) to Ratzinger (Benedict XVI).

It was precisely at the moment of the “reconciliation” – real or apparent – ​​of the Church with the modern world that a new form of Catholic socialism appeared, notably in France, which would become a consequent minority in French Catholic culture. At the turn of the century, one sees the simultaneous flowering of the most reactionary forms of Catholic anti-capitalism – Charles Maurras, the French Action movement and the regressive wing of the Church, which would take an active part in the sinister anti-Semitic campaign against Dreyfus – and a form of anti-capitalism no less “intransigent”, but now on the left, whose first representative was the Dreyfusian philosemite writer and libertarian socialist, Charles Péguy, who became a Catholic in 1907 despite never having been received by the Church. This current was not free from ambiguities, but its fundamental commitment was to the left.

From the end of the 1948th century, and even more so after the Russian Revolution, it was evident that the main enemy of the Vatican was no longer bourgeois “liberalism”, but definitely the socialist labor movement and, in particular, “atheistic communism”. Pius XII distinguished himself in this combat, excommunicating the communists in Italy (1950) and interdicting, in France, the activity of worker priests, excessively close to the CGT (XNUMXs). Woytila, John Paul II, the Polish Pope, will resume this initiative in a new historical context.

Despite Roman hostility, the Catholic left continues to develop in Europe and even more so in Latin America, with the rise, from the 1960s, of Liberation Theology. One of the main characteristics of this current, represented by student, workers and rural movements, by base communities, theologians, but also bishops, is the intransigent moral and political condemnation of capitalism, in terms in which the influence of Marxism is visible. .

See, for example, the conclusion of the document Marginalization of a people: the cry of the churches, signed by the bishops and superiors of religious orders in the Midwest region of Brazil: “It is necessary to defeat capitalism: it is the greatest evil, the accumulated sin, the rotten root, the tree that bears all the fruits we know so well: poverty, hunger, disease, death. Therefore, private ownership of the means of production (factories, land, commerce, banks) must be overcome.”[vi]

If Paul VI showed a certain tolerance towards liberation theology, the same was not the case with the two following pontiffs: John Paul II and Benedict XVI actively persecuted its representatives, even imposing a year of “obsequious silence” on the theologian Leonardo Boff.

Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis

What to expect from Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pontifex Maximum in March 2013? In fact, he was a Latin American, which already meant a change. But he had been chosen by the same conclave that had sworn in the conservative Ratzinger, and he came from Argentina, a country where the Church does not excel in progressivism – with several of its dignitaries actively cooperating with the bloodthirsty military dictatorship. This was not the case of Bergoglio – according to certain witnesses, he even helped those persecuted by the Junta to hide or leave the country – but he was not an opponent of the regime either: a “sin of omission”, one could to say. If some left-wing Christians like Adolfo Perez Esquivel (Nobel Peace Prize winner) always supported him, others considered him a right-wing opponent of the government of the “left-wing Peronists” Nestor and Christina Kirchner.

Whatever it was, once elected, Francisco – the name he chose, in reference to Saint Francis, the friend of the poor and the birds – immediately distinguished himself by taking engaged and courageous positions. In a sense he is reminiscent of Pope Roncalli, John XXIII: elected as a “transitional pope” to ensure the continuity of the tradition, which initiated the most profound transformation in the Church in centuries: the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In fact, Bergoglio had thought, at first, of assuming the name “John XXIV”, in honor of his predecessor of the 1960s.

The new pontiff's first trip outside Rome took place in July 2013, in the Italian port of Lampedusa, where hundreds of illegal immigrants arrived, while many of them had drowned in the Mediterranean. In his homily, he was not afraid to take the countercurrent of the Italian government – ​​and of a good part of public opinion – in denouncing the “globalization of indifference” that leaves us “insensitive to the cries of others”, that is, to the fate of “the dead immigrants at sea, in these boats that, instead of being a path of hope, were a route to death”. He would return on several occasions to this critique of the inhumanity of European policy towards immigrants.

As for Latin America, a remarkable transformation has also taken place. In September 2013, Francis met with Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology, and the Vatican newspaper, Roman Osservatore, published for the first time an article favorable to this thinker. Another symbolic gesture was the beatification of Archduke Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the military for having denounced the repression against the population.[1]  – a hero celebrated by the Latin American Catholic left, but ignored by previous Pontiffs. On the occasion of his visit to Bolivia in July 2015, Bergoglio paid an immense and vibrant tribute to the memory of his companion[2]  Jesuit, Luis Espinal de Camps, a Spanish missionary priest, poet and filmmaker, killed under the dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza, on March 21, 1980, due to his engagement in social struggles. In his meeting with Evo Morales, the Bolivian socialist president offered him a sculpture made by the Jesuit martyr: a cross placed on a wooden hammer and sickle.

On his visit to Bolivia, Francis visited a World Meeting of Social Movements in the city of Santa Cruz. His speech, at the time, illustrates the “profound aversion” to capitalism that Max Weber spoke of, but at a level never reached by any of his predecessors. A passage, which has become famous, from this intervention follows: “The land, the peoples and the people are being punished in an almost savage way. And behind so much suffering, so much death and destruction, one can smell what Basil of Caesarea – one of the first theologians of the Church – called “the dung of the devil”: unbridled ambition for money reigns. This is the devil's dung. Service to the common good takes a backseat. When capital becomes an idol and directs the choices of human beings, when the greed for money dominates the entire socio-economic system, it ruins society, condemns man, turns him into a slave, destroys inter-human fraternity, makes people fight against people and even, as we can see, it puts our common home, our sister and mother earth, at risk.”[vii]

Francis' initiative encounters, predictably, significant resistance from the more conservative sectors of the Church. One of his most active opponents is the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump, who also came into contact, on the occasion of a trip to Italy, with Matteo Salvini, the head of the Legga del Norte… opponents accuse the new pontiff of being a heretic, or even a… Marxist in disguise.

To Rush Linebaugh, a reactionary Catholic (American) journalist, having described him as a “Marxist Pope”, Francis responded by politely refusing the adjective, adding that he was not offended because “he knew several Marxists who were good people”. In fact, in 2014 the Pope received in audience two eminent representatives of the European left: Alexis Tsipras, then leader of the opposition to the right-wing government of Athens, and Walter Baier, the coordinator of the network Transform, made up of cultural foundations linked to the Party of the European Left (such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany). On this occasion, it was decided to start a process of dialogue between Marxists and Christians, which took the form of several meetings. Which culminated, in 2018, in a common Summer University on the island of Syros, Greece.

It is true that, regarding the right of women to dispose of their bodies and sexual morality in general – contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality – Francis maintains his conservative positions in Church doctrine. But there are some signs of openness, of which the violent conflict, in 2017, with the leadership of the Order of Malta, a very rich and aristocratic institution of the Catholic Church, is a glaring symptom. The arch-conservative Grand Master of the Order, Prince (!?) Matthew Festing had demanded the resignation of the Chancellor of the Order, Baron de Boeslager, for the terrible sin of having distributed contraceptives to poor populations threatened by the AIDS epidemic in Africa. The Chancellor appealed to the Vatican, which ruled against Festing; the latter – supported by Cardinal Burke – refusing to comply, was ousted from his position by the Vatican. This is not yet the adoption of contraceptives by the Church's moral teaching, but it is a change.

Evidently, Pope Francis is far from Marxist, and his theology is far removed from liberation theology in its Marxizing form. His intellectual, spiritual and political formation owes much to people's theology, a non-Marxist Argentinian variant of liberation theory, whose main inspirers are Lucio Gera and the Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone. The theology of the people does not claim the class struggle, but recognizes the conflict between the people and the “anti-people”, and makes the priority option for the poor its own. It manifests less interest in socioeconomic issues than other forms of liberation theology, and greater attention to culture, and especially to popular religion.

In a 2014 article, “Pope Francis and the Theology of the People,” Juan Carlos Scannone rightly insists on everything that the pope’s early encyclicals, such as Evangelium Gaudi (2014), owe to this popular theology, vilified by its left-wing critics as “populist” (in the Argentinian, Peronist rather than European sense of that term). It seems to me, however, that Bergoglio, in his critique of the “capital idol” and of the entire current “socioeconomic system”, goes beyond his Argentine inspirers. This is particularly the case with his last Encyclical, Laudato si ' (2015), which deserves a Marxist reflection.

Laudato si '

The “Ecological Encyclical” of Pope Francis is an event of planetary importance, from a religious, ethical, social and political point of view. Considering the enormous influence of the Catholic Church, it is a crucial contribution to the development of a critical ecological conscience. Enthusiastically received by true defenders of the environment, it aroused disquiet and rejection on the part of religious conservatives, representatives of capital and ideologues of “market ecology”.

It is a document of great richness and complexity, which proposes a new interpretation of the Judeo-Christian tradition – in rupture with the “Promethean dream of world domination” – and a profoundly radical reflection on the causes of the ecological crisis. Under certain aspects, such as the inseparable association between the “cry of the earth” and the “cry of the poor”, one can see that liberation theology – in particular that of the ecologist Leonardo Boff – was one of its sources of inspiration.

In the brief notes that follow, I try to underline a dimension of the Encyclical that explains the resistance it encountered in the economic and media establishment: its anti-systemic character..

For Pope Francis, ecological disasters and climate change are not solely the result of individual behavior – although these also play a part – but of “current models of production and consumption”[viii] (26). Bergoglio is not a Marxist, and the word “capitalism” does not appear in the Encyclical… But it remains quite clear that for him the dramatic ecological problems of our time are the result of the gears of the current globalized economy – gears constituted by a global system, a “system of commercial relations and structurally perverse property” (Section 52 of the document).

What, for Francis, are these “structurally perverse” characteristics? Above all, a system in which the “limited interests of companies” (127) and an “arguable economic rationality” (127) predominate, an instrumental rationality whose only purpose is to maximize profits. Consequently, “the principle of profit maximization, which tends to isolate itself from all other considerations, is a conceptual distortion of economics: as long as production increases, it matters little that this is achieved at the expense of future resources or the health of the population. environment” (195).

This distortion, this ethical and social perversity, does not belong more to one country than another, but rather to “a current world system, where speculation and a search for financial income predominate, which tend to ignore the entire context and effects on human dignity and the environment. This shows how intimately linked environmental degradation and human and ethical degradation are” (56).

The obsession with limitless growth, consumerism, technocracy, the absolute domination of finance and the deification of the market are so many perverse characteristics of the system. In a destructive logic, everything boils down to the market and the “financial calculation of costs and benefits” (190). Now, it is necessary to understand that “the environment is one of the assets that market mechanisms are not able to adequately defend or promote” (190). The market is incapable of taking into account qualitative, ethical, social, human or natural values, that is, “values ​​that exceed any calculation” (36).

The “absolute” power of speculative finance capital is an essential aspect of the system, as the recent banking crisis has shown. The commentary on the encyclical letter is radical and demystifying. “Saving the banks at all costs, making the population pay the price, without a firm decision to review and reform the entire system, reaffirms an absolute domination of finance that has no future and can only generate new crises after a long, costly and apparent cure. The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was the occasion for the development of a new economy that was more attentive to ethical principles and for a new regulation of speculative financial activity and virtual wealth. But there was no reaction to rethink the obsolete criteria that continue to govern the world” (189).

This perverse dynamic of the global system that “continues to govern the world” is the reason that led to the World Summit Meetings on the environment: “there are too many particular interests and, too easily, economic interest comes to prevail over the common good”. and manipulate information so as not to have their projects affected” (54). As long as the imperatives of powerful economic groups predominate “one might expect only a few superficial proclamations, isolated philanthropic actions and even efforts to show sensitivity towards the environment, while in reality any attempt by social organizations to alter things will be seen as a nuisance caused by romantic dreamers or as an obstacle to overcome” (54).

In this context, the Encyclical develops a radical critique of the irresponsibility of the “responsible”, that is, the dominant elites, the oligarchies interested in the conservation of the system, in relation to the ecological crisis: “Many of those who hold more resources and economic or political power seem to focus mainly on masking the problems or hiding their symptoms, seeking only to reduce some negative impacts of climate change. But many symptoms indicate that such effects could get worse if we continue with the current models of production and consumption” (26).

Faced with the dramatic process of destruction of the planet's ecological balances and the unprecedented threat posed by climate change, what do governments or international representatives of the system (World Bank, IMF, etc.) propose? His answer is the supposed “sustainable development”, a concept whose content has become increasingly empty, a true flatus vocis as the scholastics of the Middle Ages used to say. Francisco is not deceived by this technocratic mystification: “the discourse of sustainable growth becomes a diversion and a means of justification that absorbs values ​​from the ecological discourse within the logic of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of companies reduces if, in most cases, to a series of publicity and image actions” (194).

The concrete measures proposed by the dominant technical-financial oligarchy are completely ineffective, such as the so-called “carbon emissions trade”. The pope's scathing criticism of this false solution is one of the Encyclical's most important arguments.

Referring to a resolution of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference, Bergoglio writes: “The strategy of buying and selling 'emission credits' could lead to a new form of speculation, which would not help to reduce the global emission of polluting gases. This system appears to be a quick and easy solution, with the appearance of a certain commitment to the environment, but which in no way implies a radical change in line with the circumstances. On the contrary, it can become a diversion that allows sustaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors” (171). Passages like this explain the lack of enthusiasm in “official” circles and supporters of “market ecology” (or “green capitalism”) for Laudato si '.

If the diagnosis of Laudato si ' about the ecological crisis is impressively clear and consistent, the actions he proposes are more limited. Certainly, many of his suggestions are useful and necessary, for example: “to facilitate forms of cooperation or community organization that defend the interests of small producers and safeguard local ecosystems from predation” (180). It is also very significant that the Encyclical recognizes the need for more developed societies to "slow down a little bit, set some reasonable limits and even go back before it's too late". In other words, “the time has come to accept a certain decrease in consumption in some parts of the world, providing resources for healthy growth in other parts” (193).

But what is precisely missing are “drastic measures”, such as those proposed by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the climate: break away from fossil fuels (coal, oil) before it is too late, leaving them underground. We cannot modify the perverse structures of the current mode of production and consumption without a set of anti-systemic initiatives that question private property, such as that of the large fossil fuel multinationals (BP, Shell, Total, etc.). It is true that the pope mentions the usefulness of “great strategies that effectively stop environmental degradation and encourage a “culture of care” that permeates all of society” (231, p. 174), but this strategic aspect is little developed in the Encyclical.

Recognizing that “the current world system is unsustainable” (61), Bergoglio seeks a global alternative, which he calls “ecological culture”, a change that “cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the problems that are emerging around environmental degradation, the depletion of natural reserves and pollution. It should be a different look, a thought, a policy, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality that oppose resistance to the advance of the technocratic paradigm” (111). But there are few indications of the new economy and new society that correspond to this ecological culture. This is not a question of asking the pope to adopt ecosocialism, but the future alternative remains somewhat abstract.

Pope Francis endorses the “priority option for the poor” of Latin American churches. The Encyclical makes this clear, as a planetary imperative: “in the current conditions of world society, where there are so many inequalities and more and more people are discarded, deprived of fundamental human rights, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, as logical and inevitable consequence, a call to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest” (158).

However, in the Encyclical, the poor do not appear as the agents of their own emancipation – the most important project in liberation theology. The struggle of the poor, peasants, indigenous people, in defense of forests, water, land, against multinationals and agribusiness, as well as the role of social movements, which are precisely the main actors in the climate struggle – Via Campesina, Climate Justice, World Social Forum – constitute a social reality that is rarely present in Laudato si '.

However, that will be a central theme in the pope's meetings with popular movements, the first in church history. During the Santa Cruz Meeting (Bolivia, July 2015), Francis declared: “You, the most humble, the exploited, the poor and excluded, can and do much. I dare say that the future of humanity is largely in your hands, in your ability to organize yourselves and promote creative alternatives in the daily pursuit of the three 'T' – understood? – (work, roof, land), and also in your participation as protagonists in the great processes of change, national changes, regional changes and global changes. Do not be shy!”[ix]

Obviously, as Bergoglio emphasizes in the Encyclical, the Church's task is not to replace political parties by proposing a program of social change. For its anti-systemic diagnosis of the crisis, inseparably associating the social question and the protection of the environment, “the cry of the poor” and “the cry of the earth”, Laudato si ' it is a precious and invaluable contribution to reflection and action to save nature and humanity from catastrophe.

It is up to Marxists, communists and ecosocialists to complete this diagnosis with radical proposals for change, not only in the dominant economic system, but in the perverse model of civilization imposed globally by capitalism. Proposals that include not only a concrete program of ecological transition, but also the vision of another form of society, beyond the realm of money and merchandise, based on the values ​​of freedom, solidarity, social justice and respect for nature.

*Michael Lowy is director of research, in France, at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS)

Translation: Daniel Souza Pavan


[I]. WEBER, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism trans. José Marcos Mariani de Macedo. Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 2017; np Endnote No. 50.

[ii]. WEBER, Max. L'Éthique pritestante et l'esprit du capitalisme. Trans. Jean Pierre-Grossein, Paris, Gallimard. 2003, p.56. Free translation into Portuguese.

[iii], Weber, Histoire economique (1923), Paris, Gallimard, 1991, p.375 (Free translation collated with: WEBER, Max. General Economic History. Translated by: Frank H. Knight PhD The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1927

[iv]. ENGELS, Friedrich; MARX, Carl. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Trans. Sergio Tellarori. Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 2012; np

[v]. VON BAADER, Johannes. “Über des dermalige Missverhältnis der Vemögenslosen oder Proletairs..” (1835), in GK Kaltenbranner (ed.), Sätze zur Erotische Philosophie, Frankfurt, Ihsel Verlag, 1991, p.181-182, 186.

[vi]. Los Obispos Latinoamericano between Medellin and Puebla, San Salvador, UCA, 1978, p.78. Free translation into Portuguese from the author's translation into French.


[viii]. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si ' of the Holy Father Francisco On Care for our Common Home. Available in:> accessed on 25/01/2020.

[ix]. Available in:>. Accessed on: 25/01/2020

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