Is Pope Francis a Marxist? That is one of the questions that has swirled around this pontificate since Francis first walked out onto the loggia overlooking St Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, released that same year, he said that the global financial system was one that “kills”, and he criticised the “trickle-down theory” associated with laissez-faire capitalism. He has described the unfettered pursuit of profit as the “dung of the Devil”.

As a result, some economists have accused Francis of belonging to the far-Left. Those on the far-Left seem to agree. “I don’t know whether it’s communism,” said Bolivian president Evo Morales, after hearing Francis give an impassioned speech on poverty, “but it is socialism.”

Admirers of Francis who are uncomfortable with his economic views try to downplay their significance. His overriding message is mercy, they point out, and he has no special expertise on financial matters. But the Pope himself rejected this argument last Saturday, when he insisted that economic matters were at the heart of his mission. Looking out on a sea of yellow hard hats at the Ilva steel factory in Genoa, Francis said that, because the world of work is a human priority, “it’s also a priority for the Pope”.

Francis took questions from a manager, a union official, a worker and an unemployed woman. His answers offered his most sophisticated analysis to date of the modern workplace. His response to the manager was especially notable for its positive view of entrepreneurship. In remarks that might have caused Karl Marx to rotate in his grave, Pope Francis praised the “entrepreneur’s virtues”: creativity, passion, empathy and pride in work well done. He contrasted these with the vices of the “speculator”, a figure who disregards employees’ welfare in the singleminded pursuit of profit. Francis argued that the economy was ailing partly because of a “progressive transformation of businessmen into speculators”. The knock-on effects were serious, he said, because “when work is weakened, it’s democracy that enters into crisis”. Good morals, therefore, make for good business.

The Pope has deflected suggestions that he is a crypto-Marxist by referring to the long Christian tradition of care for the poor. His “dung of the Devil” remark, for example, was an allusion to the 4th-century St Basil of Caesarea. “If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers about how we must treat the poor,” he has said, “some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily.” In other words, communists have usurped Christians’ claim to stand with the poor. Pope Francis is reasserting it. If that shocks you, he implies, then you are ignorant of Church history.

Do the Pope’s remarks in Genoa suggest that his views have evolved? Has he suddenly grasped that the economy cannot flourish without entrepreneurs who create jobs and products? That seems improbable. It’s more likely that he has always regarded entrepreneurship as a noble calling. But commentators have focused on his critique of capitalism gone awry, giving the misleading impression that he opposes the free market itself.

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