Bernie Sanders is wrong: Pope Francis is no socialist

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation through March 1. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.

In Bernie Sanders' fascinating interview with Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica released Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate made the bold claim that Pope Francis -- like himself -- is a socialist.

When Rosica asked for Sanders to clarify what he meant, here's how he responded:

"Well, what it means to be a socialist, in the sense of what the pope is talking about, what I'm talking about, is to say that we have got to do our best and live our lives in a way that alleviates human suffering, that does not accelerate the disparities of income and wealth."

While Sanders is correct that fighting inequality is at the heart of the social mission of the Catholic church and of Francis' pontificate, his claim that the pope is a socialist is a step too far.

Socialism is in the service of the political and economic ideology of collectivism, while Christianity -- at its best -- is fully in the service of the human person -- which can be fulfilled in a number of political and economic systems. Francis has little time for economic and political theories that are disconnected from reality. "Reality," Francis says, "is greater than ideas."

F​rancis knows what can happen when poor governing​ ​theories go on for too long​ -- whether inspired by ideologies of the left or right.​ In Argentina, he suffered through both a military dictatorship and the Kirchner presidencies. The poor enthusiastically elected the Kirchners, who defeated the previous government by promising to govern differently. But little changed.

Related: In Catholic TV interview, Bernie Sanders praises pope's 'socialism'

In short, Francis isn't a socialist, capitalist, or any other political or economic label, but a radical Christian who takes Jesus Christ's command to exclude no one and put the poor first seriously. With that being said, there is room for some measure of socialism within the Christian worldview.

Ironically, Benedict XVI -- wrongly mischaracterized as a hardline conservative -- made the best defense of Sanders' democratic socialism in a 2006 essay for First Things. In it, Benedict argues that democratic socialism provided a third alternative to the radical left-wing and right-wing political movements that dominated Europe in the 20th century.

"In many respects," Benedict argues, "Democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness."

Of course, socialism isn't without its limitations. There are strands of socialism, particularly in Europe, that too often value the collective good of society over the well-being of individual persons. In the Christian worldview, those are false dichotomies. We value both the individual person and society. In short, we're called to care for each person and all persons.

Socialism's shortfalls play out, in particular, in questions related to the protection of human life. Most socialists claim to support progressive policies that promote full human equality, but fail to practice it. From the purely secular, materialist economic perspective that undergirds socialism, some lives matter more than others. But from a Christian worldview, assisted suicide is not progressive; abortion is not progressive. These are things that devalue human life. From a secular economic perspective, you could argue assisted suicide adds value for society, as those who are viewed an inefficient burden are discarded. There is no room for that in Christianity. In Christianity, you will never value the totality of humanity over and above a single human person. They are in tandem. ​

[Christopher Hale is a co-founder of Millennial and a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. He and his work have been featured in Time magazine, USA Today, The Washington Post, CNN and Fox News, among other publications.]

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