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Bernie Sanders is Wrong. Pope Francis isn't a Socialist. He's a Radical Christian.

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 1/03/2016 John Gehring

America's most famous democratic socialist and presidential contender Bernie Sanders has never been shy about expressing his admiration for Pope Francis. The first Jew and non-Christian to win a presidential primary of a major political party, Sanders frequently praises the pope for blasting unfettered markets and economic inequality. In a television interview with a Catholic priest released last week, Sanders not only applauds the pope for his "very radical critique of the hyper-capitalist system," but also says the pope is a socialist.

Not so fast.

Sanders has good reason to love a pope who skewers "trickle-down" economic theories as "naïve" and makes fighting an "economy of exclusion and inequality" a signature theme of his papacy. But Pope Francis is not a socialist. He is radically Christian. From Jesus of Nazareth to the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to Rev. Martin Luther King, Christians have drawn inspiration from the Hebrew prophets' denunciation of injustice and greed. Gospel means "good news," and it's the poor and downtrodden who are at the center of a liberation story that challenges the powerful and the status quo.
For more than a century, traditional Catholic social teaching has insisted on a "preferential option for the poor," living wages for workers, the right to unionize, and a defense of human dignity that puts people before profits. In words that would make even most Democratic politicians jittery and Donald Trump apoplectic, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican under Pope John Paul II, is clear that "wealth exists to be shared." The Catechism of the Catholic Church, not exactly known for its liberal political dogmas, cites "sinful inequalities" that are "in open contradiction to the Gospel." Although often considered to be more conservative leaders, Pope John Paul II spoke of "the priority of labor over capital," and Pope Benedict XVI denounced the "scandal of glaring inequalities." In Ecuador last year, in his typically accessible way, Pope Francis crystallized what often remains hidden under a dense thicket of theology. "Our faith is always revolutionary," he reminded those struggling in the shadows of globalization's bright promise.

Even so, Pope Francis probably won't judge Sanders' understandable instinct to label him.

"If I repeated some passages from the early fathers of the church - say of the second or third century - about how we should treat the poor, there would certainly be someone saying my homily is Marxist," the pope has said. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later elected Pope Benedict XVI, made an important distinction between "totalitarian" socialism and "democratic" socialism. "In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of social consciousness," the future pope said in a 2004 speech to the Italian Senate.
When Pope Francis gave an historic address to Congress last fall, he cited Dorothy Day, the radical activist who founded the Catholic Worker, in a pantheon of great Americans that included Abraham Lincoln, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King. Before her conversion to Catholicism, Day wrote for socialist newspapers and hung out with anarchists. As a Catholic, she earned the suspicion of both the FBI and the Catholic hierarchy for her resistance to World War II and all forms of militarism.

The first pope from the global South also brings personal experience to battles over politics and ideology.

As a young Jesuit priest in Buenos Aires, and later as archbishop, Pope Francis rejected Christian activism he believed was aligned too closely with Marxist ideology. When "liberation theology" caught fire across Latin America, Francis embraced its challenge to unjust social structures, but disagreed with those clergy who took that mandate to mean overt political activity that in some cases included armed struggle with the poor. Even with these reservations, during a time when the Argentine military junta murdered and "disappeared" thousands of people in the name of stamping out leftist movements, Francis quietly worked to help mothers who organized to pressure the military over the atrocities. When the daughter of his early mentor, Esther de Careaga, was arrested by the junta and eventually released, de Careaga still kept up her campaign. Fearing arrest, the mother turned to the future pope for help. Francis went to her house, boxed up compromising books, including "Das Kapital," and hid them in a Jesuit library. His old mentor was eventually kidnapped by the military. When her body washed up on the shore, Francis had her buried in the garden of the church where she had been captured. "Marxist ideology is wrong, but in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don't feel offended," the pope said decades later when conservative critics like Rush Limbaugh took aim at the pope's statements on economic inequality.

Pope Francis now finds himself a part of the presidential race for preaching ancient Christian principles about human dignity and the common good. Whether he is clashing with Donald Trump over the border or held up for praise by Bernie Sanders, a pope who defies labels and challenges the powerful is proving to be the conscience of our time.

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