Is Pope Francis a Socialist?

12-13-web-cover Priest + Grace

"It's nothing short of miraculous," Don Franco Ottonelli says as he admires his brainchild, a modern, new apartment complex for immigrants and the homeless near the center of Acqui Terme, a town in northwest Italy. Its 26 apartments, grassy courtyard, and adjoining soup kitchen were built with funds from the local church and the town council.

Some might find any collaboration of Catholic priests and local politicians miraculous - the church of Rome moves slowly, and Italy's burdensome bureaucracy can hobble even the most agile politician. But for Ottonelli, who worked on this project for 10 years, the miracle lies elsewhere: townspeople are stopping him in the street, offering to help.

"In over 35 years as a parish priest, I've never witnessed anything like it," he says. "They come up and say, 'Papa Francis says we should do something to help the poor. What can I do?' "

Last February, when Benedict XVI became the first pope in 700 years to resign, his announcement shook the Catholic Church to the core. But soon the sense of shock subsided as his successor, the first Latin American pope - Papa Francis - charmed the world. Here was a man very different from his immediate predecessors.

He was clearly humble and self-effacing. He was plainly uncomfortable with much of the pomp and circumstance and the lavish trappings of his office in the Vatican that helped conjure the awe and authority of popes down the centuries. And his early actions, too, suggested that here was a pope quite unlike any other.

By taking the name Francis - after Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint - the new pope made a declaration of intent one that no previous pope had dared make: He renounced the fortune and status he was born into, to live humbly among the poor.

The question 2 billion Christians and even more nonbelievers around the world are asking themselves as they try to discern what to make of the new leader of the Catholic Church's 1 billion followers is a simple one: Is the pope a socialist?

He has opted to live in a modest guest house adjoining the Apostolic Palace rather than in the sumptuous papal apartments. He regularly ditches the papal motorcade and security, carries his own cases, and telephones ordinary Catholics who seek his help. He also - his Bishop of Alms has hinted - sneaks out at night to feed the poor.

Even the secularist press, traditionally the church's most vociferous critics, is impressed by this 76-year-old pontiff. "The Vatican press officers are amazed," says Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo of the Pontifical North American College in the Vatican. "They were used to an almost weekly attack against Benedict XVI.

"Now, the mood has changed completely. The pope is so popular, a spokesman for CBS says his network runs an item on the pope every few days."

The left-leaning Guardian, which routinely heaped opprobrium on the Vatican for its mishandling of the pedophile priests scandal, hails Francis as the liberals' new poster boy. Literally: Tomorrow's undergraduates, predicts Jonathan Freedland, will adorn their rooms with posters of Francis instead of Che Guevara. And Time just named him their Person of the Year.

After a decade of seeing their church trashed for child abuse and money-laundering, Catholics are basking in the goodwill generated overnight by the thoughts and actions of their new leader. George Pitcher, former advisor to the archbishop of Canterbury, says, "Francis is affecting the way people see Christianity as a whole."

For many conservative Americans, who believe socialism begins with street lighting, the question of whether the pope is a socialist is not moot. Before they join in the songs of praise for the pope they need to know which side the pope is on.

Of course, the notion that Pope Francis is a true socialist is absurd. Socialists believe in the state taking control of the commanding heights of the economy. They believe the free market should be substituted by a command economy in which goods are produced according to need and prices are fixed to ensure fairness.

Nothing Pope Francis has said or done would suggest for a moment that he is a dangerous radical or even that he secretly harbors socialist thoughts.

But if you listen to his statements and look at his actions, a pontiff emerges who is far more critical of the rampant materialism that drives the Western world than any pope in living memory. In doctrinal matters he remains a conservative. But one thing is certain, he is not afraid of change.

Pope Francis leans out to touch a child's head as he arrives in Saint Peter's Square for his inaugural mass at the Vatican, March 19, 2013. Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural mass on Tuesday among political and religious leaders from around the world and amid a wave of hope for a renewal of the scandal-plagued Roman Catholic Church. REUTERS/Paul Hanna Paul Hanna/Reuters

On September 10, Francis visited the Astalli Centre, the Jesuits' refugee center in the heart of Rome, and met with Adam, a 33-year-old soldier from Darfur, and Carol, a teacher who fled Syria last summer. The pope listened to the two of them speak of their plight in exile before turning to his fellow churchmen - among them a cardinal and an auxiliary bishop - with a challenge: Instead of selling your disused convents and empty monasteries, why not turn them into refugee shelters?

That audacious proposal, followed up a few days later by a pledge to reform the Vatican's administration, set Francis on a collision course with the Roman curia. (The word comes from the Latin coviria, gathering of men, and includes the bishops, priests, laymen and women who run the Vatican administration.)

The curia are charged with a variety of functions, from the suspension of theologians deemed to have strayed from the church's teaching to the appointment of Swiss Guards, and its thousand-plus members are commonly regarded as uniformly resistant to change. And they also enjoy controlling a vast fortune.

Renouncing the income from the sale of important assets would be a radical step for a group Professor Hans Kung describes as "the reactionaries at the heart of the Vatican." The German theologian, who was barred from teaching Catholic theology by the curia's Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in 1979, argues that they "have an interest in preserving the status quo" and will prevent Francis "from translating his words, which are so permeated with mercy and pastoral work, into action. He has the necessary qualities of the captain of the ship to steer the church by the Gospel, not by medieval canon law with its insistence on absolutism, clericalism and celibacy."

Many agree with Kung that the Vatican under Francis runs the risk of being turned into a battleground. "The curia live an insulated existence and breathe a rarified air," says Ottonelli, "whereas this pope hails from the trenches. He knows firsthand what people want and how to speak to them. A clash is inevitable."

Kung is hopeful about the outcome: "The enormous capital of credibility he has earned should make him powerful against the dictatorship of the curia."

Pope Francis is silhouetted against window light at the end of a meeting with Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo at the Vatican October 25, 2013. REUTERS/Max Rossi Max Rossi/Reuters

Because they operate behind the scenes, Vatican bureaucrats can all too easily get away with secrecy - and crimes. Scandals involving clerics' visits to gay brothels and money laundering by the Vatican Bank have sealed the curia's reputation as Da Vinci Code baddies.

"They have a lot at stake in things continuing as they are," claims one Vatican watcher, referring to conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 after only 33 days. "They will see off anyone, even a pope, if they suspect opposition."

Francis seems determined to bring the curia to heel. He has appointed a team to investigate the Vatican Bank and eight cardinals to tackle the reform of the curia. The move drew the expected "murmurings of concern from within the Vatican," according to Figueiredo, and it was hailed by Professor Alberto Melloni, a church historian at the University of Modena, as the "most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries."

"Francis believes in change by committee," says Father Gerard Whelan of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, explaining that Francis is allowing his Jesuit colors to show. "He trusts the consultative process. It is embedded deep in the Jesuit system. Listening and serving on committees are features of the order."

Last month, Francis instructed Catholic bishops worldwide to invite parishioners' views on a range of issues, from birth control to divorce. The consultation "does not mean the church is a parliamentary democracy," Whelan explains. Francis has no intention of changing doctrine to please the majority.

"There is no question that he is doctrinally conservative - he has set down markers like women's ordination and abortion," said Whelan. But issues such as divorcees remarrying are different. "That is a real runner. He will approach the issue through a big participative synod."

The pope's experience as a Jesuit in Buenos Aires laid the foundation for his faith in consultation. It also shaped his vision of the church's mission - which is already proving controversial.

When Francis - known then as Jorge Maria Bergoglio - was named to lead the Jesuits in Buenos Aires, he was 37 years old. "He was charismatic but arrogant, autocratic, and difficult," says his biographer, Paul Vallely. Bergoglio later admitted to making "hundreds of mistakes" then.

One was to withdraw his order's support from two Jesuits working in the slums of Buenos Aires. Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics had embraced Liberation Theology, which called on the church to improve the political and economic status of the poor as well as promote their spiritual life.

Both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI viewed Liberation Theology as Marxism by stealth, as did the right-wing military junta that seized power in 1976, launching Argentina's Dirty War. More than 30,000 people were "disappeared" during that period: when Bergoglio washed his hands of Yorio and Jalics he condemned them to torture and imprisonment.

Vallely, who investigated the incident for his book, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots, found witnesses in Argentina who claimed that a remorseful Bergoglio worked tirelessly behind the scenes to free the two priests. His fellow Jesuits never quite trusted him again, though, and at the close of his tenure he was banished first to Germany and then to Cordoba, Argentina's second city.

There, according to Vallely, Bergoglio embarked on a 30-day retreat, during which he underwent the rigors of the spiritual exercises designed by Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.

He came back to Buenos Aires in 1992 a changed man. He worked in the slums, and threw himself into organizing the poor who lived in the capital's garbage heaps into a union. By the time he was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires he had "learned humility," says Vallely, and become a "champion of the poor."

Some, including Vallely, read huge significance in the pope's meeting last summer with Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian founder of Liberation Theology: Francis was bringing in from the cold the radical, egalitarian activist that Polish and German popes, raised in the shadow of Soviet communism, had flatly rejected.

The pope's apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, did nothing to dispel this perception. Indeed, the 288-page document set out charity as the moral imperative for a Catholic conscience, decried the growing gap between rich and poor, and condemned the capitalist system that produced it.

This inequity, he argues, is based on the mistaken assumption that "economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably bring about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system."

Peggy Noonan, the doyenne of U.S. conservative political columnists, heard a "revolutionary" call to be "a saint" in that. Others heard alarm bells.

Sarah Palin said she was "taken aback" by the pope's "liberal" message - before being forced to apologize. Rush Limbaugh lambasted the papal words as "pure Marxism." The Economist agreed: "Francis is subtle and thoughtful when he approaches so many issues," says Bruce Clark, who edits the magazine's religious blog, "But his views on the economy sound ill-thought-out."

If the pope is to be judged by his enemies, he certainly appears to be heading in the right direction. He may not be a socialist, but he is certainly willing to bring to bear all the powers at his command to make the world a more compassionate place, and he is plainly unafraid to upset vested interests that get his way.

The argument about Pope Francis is not confined to economics; it goes to the very heart of Catholic teaching: What is the church for? Are its priests glorified social workers who assist the vulnerable and marginalized? Or are they spiritual guides who, through liturgy and rituals, promote individual salvation?

It is a tribute to the pope that the answers to these questions suddenly engage American shock jocks and English economists as well as ordinary Catholics.

Suddenly, a church that was increasingly irrelevant is leading a fundamental argument about social and economic policy. This is all because of a charismatic man who delights and disconcerts in equal measure.

Much of the world is pulling for Francis to work miracles as he takes on the curia to make the church more responsive to criticism and amenable to change. To some, that sounds like someone too eager to rock the boat. But, looking back at the horrors that have emerged and the innocents let down by complacency and secrecy, few Catholics can honestly say the church is not due for reform, and most believe Francis has been sent for that purpose.

If Francis can change the institution he leads, that won't be socialism; it will be a miracle.