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Pope Francis Hates Populism, Except When He Loves It


I suspect I wasn’t the only person taken aback when Pope Francis recently stated in an interview with Germany’s leading liberal newspaper Die Zeit that “Populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century shows.”

The pope didn’t specify who he had in mind. Plenty assumed he was obliquely referring to Donald Trump and European politicians like Marine Le Pen. I’m sure, however, that others thought that the pope’s words verged on the kettle calling the pot black. For whether it’s his rhetorical style or the type of political movement to which he appears to lend his support, Pope Francis seems quite sympathetic to some forms of populism.

But Pope Francis Is All About ‘the People’

Nor are some of Francis’s principal supporters averse to invoking populist language when defending his program for the Catholic Church. Consider, for example, Archbishop Victor Fernández. The Argentine theologian is close enough to the pope that some phrases that appear in Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” bear an uncanny resemblance to expressions used in articles penned by Fernández in 1995, 2001, and 2006.

Asked in a 2015 interview whether he considered the pope isolated and surrounded by opponents in the Vatican, Fernández answered: “By no means. The people are with him, not his few adversaries. This pope first filled St. Peter’s Square with crowds and then began changing the Church. Above all, for this reason he is not isolated. The people sense in him the fragrance of the Gospel, the joy of the Spirit, the closeness of Christ and thus they feel the Church is like their home.”

“The people.” “Crowds.” “The people.” Such language has very specific meaning in Latin America. When used by figures such as the long-deceased Argentine populist Juan Perón or the more recently departed “twenty-first-century socialist” Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the purpose of this phraseology is the same. It is to evoke an almost mystical connection between the leader and “the people” as they struggle together against oppression.

This rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with tendencies to caricature real or perceived opponents. The speeches of Perón and Chávez are full of ad hominem rants against “enemies of the people.” Francis himself isn’t shy about applying labels. There’s even a blog that has compiled his more memorable phrases: “rigorists,” “fundamentalists,” “Pharisees,” “intellectual aristocrats,” “little monsters,” “self-absorbed promethean neopelagians,” to name just a few. The targets range from younger Catholics with a distaste for 1970s liturgy to theologians who insist that coherently preaching the gospel requires a concern for intellectual rigor.

Pope Francis Is Himself a Populist

But Francis’s populist side manifests itself most clearly in addresses he’s given to one particular group that he has clearly supported: an organization called The World Meeting of Popular Movements. The populist edge to Francis’s thought is very evident in, for example, a 2015 speech he gave to this group in Bolivia. At various points, the rhetoric employed by the pope—“tyranny of mammon,” “this economy kills,” “bondage of individualism” etc.—is decidedly charged, even polemical. Some of it isn’t that different from the language used by populist politicians throughout Latin America.

This last point is underscored by the fact that Pope Francis delivered these remarks while seated next to President Evo Morales of Bolivia. A self-described communitarian-socialist, Morales is a quintessential Latin American left-populist. Like all such politicians, he’s steadily removed constitutional restraints on his power in the name of “the people.” Morales’ prominence at the pope’s speech, as one journalist present remarked to me, reinforced the sense that “the whole event had the feel of a deeply political, very left-wing, and somewhat secular rally.”

The pope’s apparent empathy for a type of populism was further underscored when the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences held a conference in April 2016 to mark the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s encyclical “Centesimus Annus.” The two heads of states invited to speak were none other than Morales and another left-populist head of state, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. The event was tilted even further in a left-populist direction by the presence of the then-candidate for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also gave a speech.

By contrast, no center-right head of state was present at the meeting, let alone a “right-populist” such as France’s Le Pen. Her economic program, incidentally, isn’t all that different from that of the French Socialist party. She more than matches the Latin American left in denouncing free markets. In many respects, populists of the right and left have more in common than they’re often willing to admit.

It Seems Pope Francis Likes Populism In Only Some Cases

So what are we to make of all this? Does Francis believe that there’s “good populism” and “bad populism”? Doe he view populism as basically sound in Latin America, especially if it has a left-wing flavor, but essentially wicked in Europe, particularly if it has a right-wing character?

There’s some evidence this is Francis’s view. In an interview with the Spanish left-leaning newspaper El País, the pope described Latin American populism as healthy because it made “the people . . . the protagonists.” He then associated populism in Europe with the rise of the Nazis.

But does this mean that, from Francis’s standpoint, “the people” crushed by poverty in Latin America are the true bearers of the subcontinent’s destiny (even if their left-populist leaders destroy the economy in countries like Venezuela and trash civil liberties throughout the region), whereas “the people” in Western Europe fed up with unaccountable Eurocrats are closet racists who, sotto voce, want to take Europe back to the dictatorships of the 1930s?

And where do European left-populists (of which there are just as many as right-populists) fit into this picture? Is the left-populism of Greece’s Syriza party or Spain’s Podemos party, both of which have more than an element of neo-Marxism about them, somehow more acceptable than that of the Netherlands’s far-right Geert Wilders? If so, why?

There’s no clear answer to these questions. But they do highlight two points about populism that all Christian religious leaders should consider before they either jump aboard or simply lambast populist movements.

How Religious Leaders Should Approach Populism

The first is that whether it’s associated with the left or right, and regardless of whether it’s located in Europe, Latin America, Asia, or North America, populism is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon. It’s one thing to critique not-so-elite political and bureaucratic elites who have run out of ideas or whose purpose has become self-perpetuation. That’s a good and often necessary thing. But populism is much better at articulating frustration and generating anger than at producing workable long-term solutions. That’s just as true in Latin America as it is in Europe.

Christians should insist we cannot emote our way through questions of poverty, wealth, and power.

This brings me to the second point: the primary political role of Christian leaders—lay, clerical, priests, ministers, bishops, or, dare I say, popes—cannot be that of proto-populist activists.

The focus of populists is forever on the immediate. Nor are they especially interested in reasoned discussion about political and economic challenges. Indeed, in a time marked by political short-termism and bombastic emotivism, we don’t need more populist tirades, whatever their political flavor, taking up oxygen in the public square, least of all from the pulpit. Dressing this up as “prophetic witness” doesn’t make it any less hyperbolic than a short four-hour lecture from the late Fidel Castro.

Yes, Christians do have concrete and non-negotiable responsibilities to care for the poor. But as leaders of a faith that, at least in its orthodox versions, takes reason very seriously, Christians should insist we cannot emote our way through questions of poverty, wealth, and power. That, I’m increasingly convinced, is part of what it means for Christians to be salt and light in an age of temporal and alas, it seems, ecclesiastical populism.