During a recent on-air meltdown, radio talk show host and lay theologian Rush Limbaugh said he was "saddened" by the "pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope."
In the offending apostolic exhortation that has Rush bent out of shape, Pope Francis wrote, "Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. ...
"This opinion ... expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."
Because Mr. Limbaugh can't imagine that a spiritual leader of any significance would be against the mindless accumulation of wealth -- a false god that Jesus himself called "Mammon" -- he left some wiggle room for the newly elected pontiff by suggesting that Pope Francis is the victim of "deliberate mistranslation by Leftists" in the media and the Vatican.
Of course, such a thing would be evidence of a conspiracy far more elaborate than anything author Dan Brown ever came up with in "The Da Vinci Code." It would point to a history of "mistranslations" going back 2,000 years, when disapproval about accumulating wealth for its own sake was a major tenet for a once tiny sect that claimed an itinerant, penniless preacher for its namesake.
"The culture of prosperity deadens us," Pope Francis wrote. "We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us."
While it should be noted that Pope Francis' two immediate predecessors were also highly critical of unfettered capitalism, they weren't perceived to the same degree as threats to the spiritual complacency of the rich. Their conservative pronouncements on women's ordination and on homosexuality drowned out their economic critiques.
That isn't the case with Pope Francis. During his short time in office, he's already sacked a controversial German bishop who lavished an estimated $42 million on a compound in Limburg. It has been reported that the new pope also slips away "in disguise" some evenings to minister to the poor and the homeless.
Given that Pope Francis would probably sleep on the floor of his simple Vatican apartment if he could get away with it, he sent a powerful signal to the "princes of the church" that the spectacle of clergymen living large and ignoring the Gospels' social imperative to help the poor will not be tolerated.
We've already seen images of Pope Francis washing the feet of a Muslim woman and kissing the deformed head of a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, so his pronouncements about the poor and the economically exploited are seen as more than just bloviating. This pope is serious about changing the status quo.
A cynic might snort that his best way to truly help the poor would be to empty the Vatican treasury, but this pope is wise enough to know that it takes more than a transfer of wealth to change hearts. Give a poor person all the money in the world and he could still act like a soulless scoundrel.
President Barack Obama, who has been denouncing income inequality in this country lately, quoted Pope Francis in a speech: "How can it be, [Pope Francis] wrote, that it's not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points."
Mr. Limbaugh responded, "This is the president citing the pope, his new best friend, because the pope is ripping America, the pope is ripping capitalism." He suggested that Pope Francis has replaced Jeremiah Wright as the president's favorite preacher.
It is interesting that the faintest echo of the Gospels is perceived as something so alien and threatening that Mr. Limbaugh is willing to blame an imaginary cabal of Marxists for warping a message that was synonymous with Christianity before it became a state religion.
"It is very clear [that Pope Francis] doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to capitalism and socialism, and so forth," Mr. Limbaugh told his audience of "dittoheads," who know in their hearts that God only helps those who help themselves.
I'm a Protestant, but there's not a religious leader in the world I respect more than this new pope. Not because I agree with him on everything -- I don't. I respect him because he's determined not to lose his soul in a world where the powers-that-be would prefer he made everyone, especially the poor, kiss his ring.
Tony Norman: email@example.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.