The Political Pope

How Pope Francis Is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservatives


By George Neumayr

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The untold story of the left’s efforts to politicize the Vatican and the battle to stop it-before the Catholic Church as we know it is destroyed.

Pope Francis is the most liberal pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He is not only championing the causes of the global Left, but also undermining centuries-old Catholic teaching and practice. In the words of the late radical Tom Hayden, his election was “more miraculous, if you will, than the rise of Barack Obama in 2008.”

But to Catholics in the pews, his pontificate is a source of alienation. It is a pontificate, at times, beyond parody: Francis is the first pope to approve of adultery, flirt with proposals to bless gay marriages and cohabitation, tell atheists not to convert, tell Catholics to not breed “like rabbits,” praise the Koran, support a secularized Europe, and celebrate Martin Luther.

At a time of widespread moral relativism, Pope Francis is not defending the Church’s teachings but diluting them. At a time of Christian persecution, he is not strengthening Catholic identity but weakening it. Where other popes sought to save souls, he prefers to “save the planet” and play politics, from habitual capitalism-bashing to his support for open borders and pacifism.

In The Political Pope, George Neumayr gives readers what the media won’t: a bracing look at the liberal revolution that Pope Francis is advancing in the Church. To the radical academic Cornel West, “Pope Francis is a gift from heaven.” To many conservative Catholics, he is the worst pope in centuries.



The Pope They Have Been Waiting For

You must straighten out your position with the Church," Pope John Paul II shouted at a cowering Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest turned Marxist activist. In violation of his religious vows, Cardenal had joined the communist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and Pope John Paul II was scolding him before the cameras of the entire world. That sensational scene in 1983 on a Managua airport runway provided one of the most startling images of Pope John Paul II's anti-communist pontificate.1

So strong were Pope John Paul II's anti-communist credentials and so effective was his anti-Soviet advocacy that Kremlin leaders, according to historians, hired a Turkish gunman to assassinate him.2 That attempt failed, and Pope John Paul II continued to denounce the Soviets until their empire crumbled in 1991.

Joseph Ratzinger also opposed communism fiercely. After serving as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in 2005 and took as his papal name Benedict XVI. In his role as doctrinal guardian of the Church, Ratzinger repeatedly warned the faithful to reject "liberation theology," a Marxist-inspired ideology disguised as concern for the poor that the Soviet Union's KGB spies had helped smuggle into Latin America's Catholic Church in the 1950s.

"The movement was born in the KGB, and it had a KGB-invented name: liberation theology," according to Ion Mihai Pacepa, who served as a spymaster for Romania's secret police in the 1950s and 1960s.3

The Soviets had long eyed the Catholic Church for infiltration. In the 1950s, Bella Dodd, the former head of the Soviet-controlled Communist Party of America, testified before the U.S. Congress that communists occupied some of the "highest places" in the Catholic Church. "We put eleven hundred men into the priesthood in order to destroy the Church from within," she said. "The idea was for these men to be ordained, and then climb the ladder of influence and authority as monsignors and bishops." As an active party member, Dodd said that she knew of "four cardinals within the Vatican who were working for us."4

According to Pacepa, the KGB took "secret control of the World Council of Churches (WCC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, and used it as cover for converting liberation theology into a South American revolutionary tool." Seeking to spread atheistic Marxism among the religious peasants of Latin America, Soviet leaders instructed the KGB to send agents into ecclesiastical circles. In 1968, Latin America's bishops loudly endorsed liberation theology at a conference in Medellín, Colombia. The KGB served as a puppet master at the event, reported Pacepa.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, most Latin Americans were poor, religious peasants who had accepted the status quo, and [Soviet premier Nikita] Khrushchev was confident they could be converted to communism through the judicious manipulation of religion," he wrote. "In 1968, the KGB was able to maneuver a group of leftist South American bishops into holding a conference in Medellín, Colombia. At the KGB's request, my [spies] provided logistical assistance to the organizers. The official task of the conference was to help eliminate poverty in Latin America. Its undeclared goal was to legitimize a KGB-created religious movement dubbed 'liberation theology,' the secret task of which was to incite Latin America's poor to rebel against the 'institutionalized violence of poverty' generated by the United States."5

Against this historical backdrop, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI viewed the spread of liberation theology in Latin America with alarm. They feared that a Marxist-influenced ideology, which progressive theologians within the Catholic Church were harnessing to their own long-percolating socialist politics, would corrupt the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict XVI called liberation theology a "singular heresy."6 He argued that it deceives the faithful by concealing "Marxist dialectics" within seemingly harmless advocacy for the lower classes. He drew attention to Marxism's philosophical incompatibility with Christianity and disputed the claim of many churchmen that Christianity could purify the Marxist elements of socialist thought.

How shockingly different statements from the Holy See sound today under Pope Francis. The first Latin American pope in Church history, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has generated headlines not for scolding Marxists but for supporting them, not for rebuking liberation theologians but for honoring them.

Under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the Western media spoke disapprovingly of a "holy war against liberation theology." Now media outlets eagerly run stories about Pope Francis's sympathy for it. "Liberation Theology Rehabilitation Continues at Vatican," ran a characteristic headline on a story from the Associated Press.7

In one of his first major interviews, Pope Francis said that liberation theologians have a "high concept of humanity."8 A few months after he became pope on March 13, 2013, Francis welcomed the founding father of liberation theology, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, to the Vatican as an honored guest. Gutiérrez had disappeared from high ecclesiastical circles under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI after making a Marxist appeal for "effective participation in the struggle which the exploited classes have undertaken against their oppressors."9 But after the elevation of Francis, Gutiérrez suddenly found himself basking in praise. Vatican officials pronounced him an impeccable thinker, responsible for one of "the most important currents in 20th century Catholic theology." The Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, asserted that the election of Pope Francis would bring liberation theology out of the "shadows to which it has been relegated for some years, at least in Europe."10

Leonardo Boff, who has long gloried in his status as a renegade liberation theologian from Brazil, also enjoyed a stunning change of fortune after the election of Pope Francis. Owing to his open Marxism, Boff was silenced by Pope John Paul II's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Boff was also condemned by the Vatican for his threatened hijinks at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, activism that eventually led Boff to leave the priesthood. But these days Boff finds himself back in the Church's good graces. Pope Francis recruited him to serve as an adviser for Laudato Si', his 2015 encyclical endorsing the political agenda of climate change activists.11

Taking advantage of the new wind blowing from the Vatican, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, whose role in Nicaragua's Marxist revolutionary government in the 1970s led to his suspension from the priesthood, sent in 2014 a request to Pope Francis that his priestly faculties be reinstated. Pope Francis granted the request. "The Holy Father has given his benevolent assent that Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann be absolved from the canonical censure inflicted upon him, and entrusts him to the superior general of the institute (Maryknoll) for the purpose of accompanying him in the process of reintegration into the ministerial priesthood," announced the Vatican.12

D'Escoto, among his other Marxist activities, had served as an official at the aforementioned KGB-controlled World Council of Churches. No sooner had Pope Francis granted d'Escoto's request than the recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize resumed his Marxist polemics, calling capitalism the "most un-Christian doctrine and practice ever devised by man to keep us separate and unequal in a kind of global apartheid." He condemned Pope John Paul II for an "abuse of authority" and rhapsodized about Fidel Castro as an inspired figure whose murderous regime heralded "the reign of God on this earth that is the alternative to the empire."13 Even now as a priest in good standing under Pope Francis, d'Escoto lobbies for the Libyans, remains a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and continues to serve as an adviser to Daniel Ortega, whom the Soviets planted in the presidency of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

According to Boff, Pope Francis will eventually rehabilitate all of the condemned liberation theologians from Latin America. Boff believes that Pope Francis is waiting until their old critic, Pope Benedict XVI, dies. "I believe that as long as the retired pope lives, he will neither reconcile nor redeem these theologians," according to Boff. "But, when he is by himself, he will rescue the 500 theologians whose heads were severed. I believe this pope is capable of dismantling this machine of punishment and control, and leave it to the local churches."14

A Radical Pontificate

After only four years of his pontificate, Francis has emerged as one of the most political popes in the history of the Church. His left-wing activism is relentless, ranging across causes from the promotion of global warming theory to support for amnesty and open borders to the abolition of lifetime imprisonment. That alone would make this papacy historically significant. But the ambitions of Pope Francis go well beyond an unusually aggressive political dilettantism. As this book will detail, he is not only championing the radical political agenda of the global left but also subverting centuries-old Catholic teaching on faith and morals, evident in his unprecedented support for granting the sacrament of Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried and in his drive to dilute the Church's moral and theological commitments.

At a time of widespread moral relativism and assaults on marriage, his 2014–2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family served not to strengthen the Church's stances but to weaken them. For the first time in the history of the Church, a pope approved of Catholics in a state of adultery. He also authorized his aides to float unprecedented proposals in favor of blessing the "positive aspects" of gay relationships and couples living together outside of marriage.15

Amidst this doctrinal confusion, many cardinals are beginning to feel buyer's remorse. "The more he talks, the worse it gets," says a Vatican official, who asked to remain anonymous, in an interview for this book. "Many bishops and cardinals are terrified to speak out, but they are in a state of apoplexy. The atmosphere is so politicized and skewed. The Church is becoming unrecognizable."

"We haven't hit bottom," says an American priest interviewed for this book. He describes his parishioners as "distressed," so much so that he carries around a list of all the popes to remind them that "bad popes don't live forever."

"I have never been so discouraged about the prospects for the Church," an unnamed prelate said to Traditionalist magazine in 2015. In an interview with the Spanish Catholic weekly Vida Nueva, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former head of the Vatican's highest court who was removed from that position by Pope Francis in 2013, disclosed that "many have expressed their concerns to me" and that "at this very critical moment, there is a strong sense that the Church is like a ship without a rudder."16

These are "dark times," Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan has said. The liberalism of this pontificate, he argues, is exposing the faithful to "spiritual danger" and creating the conditions for the "fast and easy spreading of heterodox doctrines."17

"There are evident manifestations of uneasiness," according to the Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister in an interview with Italia Oggi.18 "It's beginning to look as if the cardinals made a terrible mistake when they decided that this particular Catholic should be a pope," wrote the British Catholic journalist Damian Thompson.19

"In the Vatican, some people are already sighing: 'Today, he has already again another different idea from yesterday,'" the German philosopher Robert Spaemann has said. "One does not fully get rid of the impression of chaos."20

In an interview for this book, Michael Hichborn, president of a Catholic watchdog organization in Virginia called the Lepanto Institute, recounted, "I had a meeting with a bishop who turned to me and said, 'How do you remain loyal to Peter when Peter is not loyal to the Church?' He was genuinely confused and felt stuck."

Such bewilderment leaves Pope Francis untroubled. He even romanticizes his reckless heterodox activism. "I want a mess," he said at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. "We knew that in Rio there would be a great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!"21 Many Catholics found this a puzzling goal to set for the Church. But his pontificate has undeniably lived up to it. "Mission accomplished," quipped Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, in 2014.22

Supremely confident in his chaotic course, Pope Francis is shrugging off the mounting concerns and delighting in his reputation as a socialist and modernist maverick. After Pope Francis early in his papacy decried capitalism as "trickle-down economics"—a polemical phrase coined by the left during the Reagan years that Francis frequently borrows—radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh commented, "This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope." Talk show host Michael Savage called him "Lenin's pope." Pope Francis took such comments as a compliment. "I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don't feel offended," he told the Italian press.23

His Communist Mentor

Pope Francis grew up in socialist Argentina, an experience that left a deep impression on his thinking. He told the Latin American journalists Javier Cámara and Sebastián Pfaffen that as a young man he "read books of the Communist Party that my boss in the laboratory gave me" and that "there was a period where I would wait anxiously for the newspaper La Vanguardia, which was not allowed to be sold with the other newspapers and was brought to us by the socialist militants."24

The "boss" to whom Pope Francis referred is Esther Ballestrino de Careaga. He has described her as a "Paraguayan woman" and a "fervent communist." He considers her one of his most important mentors. "I owe a huge amount to that great woman," he has said, saying that she "taught me so much about politics." (He worked for her as an assistant at Hickethier-Bachmann Laboratory in Buenos Aires.)

"She often read Communist Party texts to me and gave them to me to read. So I also got to know that very materialistic conception. I remember that she also gave me the statement from the American Communists in defense of the Rosenbergs, who had been sentenced to death," he has said. Learning about communism, he said, "through a courageous and honest person was helpful. I realized a few things, an aspect of the social, which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church." After entering the priesthood, he took pride in helping her hide the family's Marxist literature from the authorities who were investigating her. According to the author James Carroll, Bergoglio smuggled her communist books, including Marx's Das Kapital, into a "Jesuit library."25

"Tragically, Ballestrino herself 'disappeared' at the hands of security forces in 1977," reported Vatican correspondent John Allen. "Almost three decades later, when her remains were discovered and identified, Bergoglio gave permission for her to be buried in the garden of a Buenos Aires church called Santa Cruz, the spot where she had been abducted. Her daughter requested that her mother and several other women be buried there because 'it was the last place they had been as free people.' Despite knowing full well that Ballestrino was not a believing Catholic, the future pope readily consented."26

These biographical details throw light on the pope's ideological instincts. Yet many commentators have ignored them, breezily casting his leftism as a bit confused but basically harmless.

"I must say that communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian," he said in 2014.27 Such a comment would have startled his predecessors. They didn't see communism as a benign exaggeration. They saw it as a grave threat to God-given freedom, as it proposes that governments eliminate large swaths of individual freedom, private property, and business in order to produce the "equality" of a society without economic classes.

In the early twentieth century, as Marx's socialism spread across the world, Pope Pius XI declared the theory anathema. "No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist," he said. To hear Pope Francis speak today, one might conclude the reverse: that no can be at the same time a good Catholic and an opponent of socialism.

"Inequality is the root of all evil," Pope Francis wrote on his Twitter account in 2014.28 One can imagine Karl Marx blurting that out, but none of Francis's predecessors would have made such an outrageous claim. According to traditional Catholic theology, the root of all evil came not from inequality but from Satan's refusal to accept inequality. Out of envy of God's superiority, Satan rebelled. He could not bear his lesser status.

He was in effect the first revolutionary, which is why the socialist agitator Saul Alinsky—a mentor to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (who did her senior thesis at Wellesley on his thought)—offered an "acknowledgment" in his book, Rules for Radicals, to Satan. Alinsky saw him as the first champion of the "have-nots."29

Were the twentieth-century English Catholic satirist Evelyn Waugh alive today, he would find the radical left-wing political flirtations of Pope Francis too bitterly farcical even for fiction. Could a satirist like Waugh have imagined a pope happily receiving from a Latin American despot the "gift" of a crucifix shaped in the form of a Marxist hammer and sickle? That surreal scene happened during Pope Francis's visit to Bolivia in July 2015.

Evo Morales, Bolivia's proudly Marxist president, offered the pontiff that sacrilegious image of Jesus Christ. Morales described the gift as a copy of a crucifix designed by a late priest, Fr. Luís Espinal, who belonged to the Jesuit order (as does Pope Francis) and had committed his life to melding Marxism with religion. Pope Francis had honored Espinal's memory upon his arrival in Bolivia.30

Had John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI seen such a grotesque cross, they might have broken it over their knees. Not Pope Francis. He accepted the hammer-and-sickle cross warmly, telling the press on the plane ride back to Rome that "I understand this work" and that "for me it wasn't an offense." After the visit, Morales gushed, "I feel like now I have a Pope. I didn't feel that before."31

Under Francis, the papacy has become a collage of such politicized images: friendly papal meetings with communist thugs like the Castro brothers, a papal Mass conducted under the shadow of the mass murderer Che Guevara's mural in Havana, papal audiences with a steady stream of crude Marxist theoreticians and anti-capitalist celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, "selfies" while holding up an anti-fracking T-shirt, a pro-amnesty Mass said on the border between Mexico and America, a succession of sermons, speeches, and writings that rip into capitalism and tout greater government control over private property and business.

By pushing the papacy in such a "progressive" direction, Francis has become a darling of the global left. His program of promoting left-wing politics while downplaying and undermining doctrine on faith and morals has turned him into the ecclesiastical equivalent of Barack Obama. "Pope Francis is a gift from heaven," the radical academic Cornel West said to Rolling Stone. "I love who he is, in terms of what he says, and the impact of his words on progressive forces around the world."32

Pope Francis, as liberals once said of Barack Obama, is the "one they have been waiting for." The world is witnessing nothing less than a liberal revolution in the Catholic Church—a revolution that is emboldening the Church's enemies and alienating her friends.


"Who Am I to Judge?"

In one of his last speeches before leaving office in 2013, Pope Benedict XVI dissected the destructive liberalism that spread within the Church after the council of Vatican II. The secularism of Western culture and the media elite had seeped into the Church, he lamented.

"[T]here was the council of the Fathers—the true council—but there was also the council of the media. It was almost a council in and of itself, and the world perceived the council through them, through the media. So the council that immediately, effectively, got through to the people was that of the media, not that of the Fathers," said Pope Benedict XVI. "[It] did not, naturally, take place within the world of faith but within the categories of the media of today, that is outside of the faith, with different hermeneutics. It was a hermeneutic of politics."

To this liberal influence, Pope Benedict XVI traced much of the crisis in the Church. The absorption of modern liberalism into Catholicism had produced, he said, "so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy was trivialized."1

Little did Pope Benedict XVI realize that his mysterious resignation would pave the way for the very liberal Church he feared and for a successor who embodies the very "hermeneutic of politics" he decried.

As the cardinals met to decide on a new pope in March 2013, the Western liberal elite began beating the drum for the selection of a "progressive" and "pastoral" churchman, by which editorialists and activists meant a politically liberal and doctrinally lax one. James Salt of Catholics United, a front group Democrats set up in 2005 to infiltrate the Church, seized on the news of Pope Benedict XVI's resignation and demanded that the Church elect a pope from the "global south" who would "radically shift the agenda of the Church," away from "issues of human sexuality" and toward the "imminent threat of global climate change and its effect on the poorest."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio exceeded their expectations. From the first moment of his appearance on the Vatican balcony, left-wing Western journalists, intellectuals, and politicians showered him in praise. Customarily skeptical of the papacy, they suddenly became cheerleaders for it.

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, has explained the liberal obsession with the papacy by writing that "the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism."2 The liberal elite immediately sized up Pope Francis, with his transparent political liberalism and his distaste for doctrine, as falling on the right side of its self-serving understanding of that "struggle."

That he selected Francis as his papal name was the first act to charm liberals, as they opportunistically portray St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of socialism, pacifism, and environmentalism. Instead of challenging this liberal caricature, Bergoglio reinforced it. He told reporters that he adopted Francis as his name because Francis of Assisi was a "man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation."3 In truth, St. Francis of Assisi was a rigorously orthodox medieval churchman who would have regarded the liberalism of this pope with horror.

Pope Francis explained that the inspiration to name himself Francis came to him when Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Brazil, whispered in his ear moments after his election, "Don't forget the poor." His mention of Hummes was music to the ears of the media. Hummes has long been known to reporters as a critic of the free market with friendly ties to socialist organizations in Brazil.4 (He is also known for saying that he "didn't know" if Jesus Christ would have disapproved of gay marriage.)

The Western media was also charmed by the opening gestures of Bergoglio, which amounted to a carefully choreographed casualness at the expense of Catholic tradition. Bergoglio declined the traditional vestments a new pope wears upon his election—a red velvet cape—and instead wore a white cassock. Before blessing the crowd, he asked the crowd for a blessing and he pointedly referred to himself not as the pope but merely as the "bishop of Rome." As Bergoglio explained later, his use of that reduced title and his modest description of the meaning of his election ("the diocesan community of Rome has its bishop") were intended to make non-Catholics comfortable with his papacy. "Placing emphasis on the number one title, that is, Bishop of Rome, favors ecumenism," he said.5

Less than a year before Bergoglio became pope, in a foreshadowing of the liberal direction of his pontificate, he ran into John Quinn, the ultra-progressive former archbishop of San Francisco, at a coffee shop in Rome. Quinn is the author of The Reform of the Papacy, a book that explicitly rejects traditional teaching on the papacy, calls for Protestant-style "collegiality," and urges the Church to adopt the politics and morals of the modern Western world. "I've read your book and I'm hoping what it proposes will be implemented," Bergoglio told a pleased Quinn.6 In retrospect, Pope Francis has largely implemented it and the left-wing American churchmen that Quinn represents—the so-called seamless garment bishops—have enjoyed a return to power.

All of Pope Francis's heterodox opening gestures after his election caused murmuring among Pope Benedict XVI's former aides and confusion among the faithful, but it excited members of the liberal wing of the Church. The former cardinal of Los Angeles and Cesar Chavez acolyte Roger Mahony tweeted to his followers, "So long papal ermine and fancy lace!" and gushed about the left-wing political orientation of the new pope.7

Ernesto Cardenal, the Marxist activist whom Pope John Paul II rebuked, was excited by the emergence of Pope Francis. "We are seeing a true revolution in the Vatican," he wrote.8

The openly heretical German theologian Hans Küng said he "was overwhelmed by joy" at the news of Bergoglio's election. "There is hope in this man," said Küng, who correctly predicted that Francis would deviate from the "line of the two popes from Poland and Germany." It has since been reported that Pope Francis and Küng have been exchanging friendly letters and that Francis has signaled an openness to hearing Küng's criticism of papal infallibility.9

Formerly condemned liberation theologians immediately grasped the significance of Bergoglio's election, too. Leonardo Boff was quoted in the German press as gloating that Francis is "more liberal" than the college of cardinals realized. "I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals," he said.10

It didn't take long for Boff's confidence in this pontificate to deepen. After hearing several of Pope Francis's first speeches and homilies, Boff put his finger on one of the most revolutionary tendencies of this pontificate: "[He] has signaled that everything is up for discussion, which not long ago would have been unthinkable for any pope to say."11


  • "[A] comprehensive and exhaustive work, a fine example of investigative journalism."—Chronicles magazine

On Sale
May 2, 2017
Page Count
288 pages
Center Street

George Neumayr

About the Author

GEORGE NEUMAYR is co-author of the national bestseller No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom. He is a contributing editor to (and former executive editor of) The American Spectator. He was op-ed editor for Investor’s Business Daily and has written on politics and religion for many publications, including The Washington Times, The Daily Caller, National Review Online, Human Events, New Oxford Review, and The Guardian. He is the former editor of Catholic World Report and a former media fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Learn more about this author