During the last few years transform!europe has been participating in a process of dialogue with Christians, more precisely, Catholics. The idea for this dialogue originated in a meeting in 2013 between Pope Francis and two representatives of the Party of the European Left: Alexis Tsipras, then head of the left opposition to the conservative Greek government, and Walter Baier, coordinator of transform!. Since then several meetings have taken place, with the participation of European leftists from Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France; and from the Vatican Mgr. Vincenzo Zani, the Vatican’s Secretary for Catholic Education, as well as several representatives of the Focolare Movement. Most of the meetings were held at the Sophia Universitary Institute at Lopiano (Italy), an academic centre connected to the Focolare Movement. Both sides of the dialogue were quite heterogeneous, with a wide diversity of views both among Marxists and Catholics – quite the opposite of ‘democratic centralism’.
A recent development is the very successful DIALOP (Dialogue Project) Summer School which took place on the premises of the University of the Aegean, on the Greek isle of Syros, with the support of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, transform!europe, and the (Syriza) government of Greece. (More information on this event can be found in the web pages of transform-network.net.)
Marxist-Christian dialogues had taken place in Latin America, since the 1960s. There, many Christians absorbed certain important Marxist concepts, while the left – or at least most of it – not only warmly welcomed the Christians into their ranks but also abandoned ‘atheism’ as a doctrinal basis for left politics. In Europe, the historical and political context is of course quite different. Various forms of dialogue had taken place in the past, but a new situation has been created because of 1) the disappearance of so-called ‘really existing socialism’, which was often in conflict with the Catholic Church; and 2) the election of José Maria Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, in 2013.
While on several issues such as family, sexual ethics, abortion, and feminism, Bergoglio has not innovated much in relation to the Church’s traditional doctrine, in many other areas there has been a surprising and very impressive change. His criticism of social inequality, the mistreatment of immigrants, and the dictatorial power of finance are some examples, as well as his openness towards Liberation Theology and his support for social movements. A powerful symbol was the canonisation of Mgr. Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador, killed by the military for his opposition to the repression of the popular movements. These and other initiatives are some of the signs of a ‘left turn’ (to use our terminology), particularly visible when compared with the orientation of the two previous heads of the Roman Catholic Church. A striking example of the new papal discourse is the Encyclical Laudato Si’ (2015), which deals with the ecological crisis.
For Pope Francis, ecological disasters and climate change are not merely the results of individual behaviour but are rather the result of the current models of production and consumption. Bergoglio is not a Marxist and the word ‘capitalism’ does not appear at all in his Encyclical. But it is very clear that for him the dramatic ecological problems of our age are a result of ‘the machinery of the current globalized economy’, a machinery that constitutes a global system, ‘a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse’.
What are, for Francis, these ‘structurally’ perverse characteristics? More than anything they are those of a system where ‘the limited interests of businesses’ and ‘a questionable economic mindset’ take precedence, an instrumental logic that has the maximisation of profits as its only objective. However, ‘the principle of the maximisation of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment.’ This distortion, this ethical and social perversity, is not unique to any one country, but rather of a ‘global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.’
Other characteristics of the perversity of the system include: obsession with unlimited growth, consumerism, technocracy, the total domination of finance, and the deification of the market. Its destructive logic reduces everything to the market and the ‘financial calculations of costs and benefits’. However, we know that ‘the environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces’. The market is unable to take qualitative, ethical, social, human, or natural values into account, in other words, ‘values that are incalculable’.
Predictably, the Pope’s theological orientation met with fierce opposition from the most conservative sections of the Catholic Church. One of the most active opponents is the US Cardinal Raymond Burke, an enthusiastic partisan of Donald Trump, as well as Matteo Salvini. Some of his enemies accuse Francis of being a heretic, or even a disguised Marxist. When Rush Limbaugh, a reactionary US Catholic journalist, denounced him as a ‘Marxist Pope’, Francis politely refused the definition, but added that he did not consider this an insult, since he knew ‘many Marxists who are fine people’. On the other side, Liberation Theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez - received by the Pope in 2013 - or Leonardo Boff, whom John Paul II and Ratzinger tried to silence, are openly supportive of Bergoglio, whom they see as a legitimate heir to Saint Francis. Next to these two outspoken positions, many people in the Catholic Church are sympathetic to the Pope but unable to share his radical anti-systemic commitment. This was also visible during the present dialogue.
The aim of this dialogue is not, obviously, to ‘convert’ our partners to Marxism, or (for us Marxists) to become faithful Catholics. Our discussions are not about faith versus atheism, materialism versus idealism, theology versus science, spirituality versus class struggle. It is a free exchange, in which each side tries to learn from the other, and both seek to discover common values, common interests, and common aims. Without hiding our differences, contradictions, and oppositions, the spirit of dialogue from the very beginning has been one of mutual respect, openness, and listening.
Future activities will include a new DIALOP Summer School, at a location in Europe still to be decided. But we would like to develop new forms of common activity: public debates, publications, and, why not, activist social initiatives. There is a common perspective, of strategic importance, on social, political, and moral issues, a perspective based on Pope Francis’s statements on key questions for the future of Europe:
1. the rejection of social injustice, inequality and exclusion, resulting from the idolatry of capital, and of the present perverse economic system;
2. the need for radical measures towards an ecological transition, beyond the false solutions of ‘emission markets’;
3. human fraternity, in opposition to xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, and other manifestations of intolerance actively promoted by far-right parties and some European governments (Hungary and Italy being only the most obvious examples);
4. hospitality towards immigrants, who should be received in Europe as human beings in distress, as our sisters and brothers, and not left to drown in the Mediterranean as is occurring today.
The Marxists of the European left and the partisans of Pope Francis in the Catholic Church share a strong social and ethical commitment on these issues – in contrast to most European governments and the governors of the European Union. The dramatic situation in Europe, and in the world, requires the coming together of hominum bonae voluntatis, that is, people who truly believe in humanist values, whether they consider themselves followers of Marx or of Jesus.