I'm Not a Communist, Just Following the Gospel, Says Pope Francis

Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic palace in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican October 26, 2014. Max Rossi/Reuters

Pope Francis denied being a communist at a meeting in Rome yesterday, saying that he simply urges activism against the "structural causes" of poverty, and follows Christian doctrine.

The pope made the remarks yesterday, while addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements which is holding a conference in Rome to discuss problems facing the poor and the unemployed.

Calling for the movements to "keep up the fight" for workers' rights, the pope said: "Let's say together with our heart: no family without a roof, no peasant farmer without land, no worker without rights, no person without dignified labour!"

But Francis distanced himself from communism, saying that previous pronouncements on economic policy and welfare derived from Church doctrine rather than any leftist ideology.

"Land, roof, and work … It's odd, but for some, if I talk about these [subjects], it turns out the pope is a communist," Francis quipped.

"The fact that the love for the poor is in the center of the gospel is misunderstood," he said. "Those [values] for which you're fighting for are sacred rights. It's the Church's social doctrine."

He also strayed into the political, saying that grassroots movements around the world "express the urgent need to revitalise our democracies, which are often held hostage by numerous factors".

The pope's remarks follow years of speculation about his political affiliation, in the wake of a number of public demands that governments redistribute social benefits to the needy, and calls for his church to be a "poor church, for the poor".

Last year, Francis attacked "unfettered capitalism" in a speech, prompting the conservative US talk show host Rush Limbaugh to brand his proposals for government redistribution of wealth as "marxism" and "socialism".

The pope responded to the allegations in an interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa shortly afterwards, and condemned the far-left ideology outright.

"Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended," he said. "There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the Church."

In a separate interview, he even joked that communists were "closet Christians", who had simply appropriated elements of Christian thought.

In a recent Newsweek cover story, Paul Vallely, the author of Pope Francis: Untying the Knots wrote that the pope's progressive attitude only emerged in the 1980s, prior to which he had been widely viewed amongst church figures in Argentina as a conservative, traditionalist figure.

During the 1960s and 70s Francis deviated from the views of many of his fellow Argentinian Jesuits. While progressive Jesuits pushed for the church to work for the economic and political enfranchisement of the poor, Francis took a more conservative line. He was eventually promoted to the role of Jesuit Provincial by the authorities in Rome, replacing a dissenting colleague in the process.

Nicholas Farrell, Newsweek's Italy correspondent said that it is difficult to know where the pope stands as Francis's comments on a number of issues have betrayed a lack of consistency.

"Whatever issue you take, whether it's holy communions for divorced couples, abortion, contraception, the treatment of homosexuals - even whether or not we should go to war in the Middle East to defend Christians, it's difficult to see where he really does stand."

"One of the main things about this slippery pope is that it's impossible to pin him or his views down. When asked about the treatment of gay people by the church and society, for instance, [the Pope] said 'if a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?'"

"Although this sounds good in theory, in practice he's just washing his hands of the issue", Farrell added.