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Pope Francis and populism: How Christian leaders should respond to populism

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In a recent article for the Federalist, Samuel Gregg discusses Pope Francis’s recent comments on populism. Pope Francis explicitly denounces populism saying: “Populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century shows.” However, Gregg points out that many populist sentiments could be attributed to this Pope:

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.

Here, Gregg highlights the influence of Latin American populist terminology on the Argentine Bishop of Rome. While Pope Francis may reject certain forms of populism, he, nonetheless, has concerns for “the people.” This vision of Pope Francis as a populist comes to greater fruition when you examine current trends in Vatican invitations. Gregg says:

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.

Is Pope Francis a believer in some type of Latin American populism? Gregg says that readers should examine two crucial points about populism before developing opinions on the Pope or 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.

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.

In his conclusion, Gregg criticizes the fleeting temporal focus of populism and calls Christian leaders to a greater understanding of their Christly duties. They are called to be more than champions of social and political outcries; they are called to be “salt and light” to the people. He says:

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.

 

Click here to read the full article.

Image: By Edgar Jiménez from Porto, Portugal (Papa rock star) [CC BY-SA 2.0] <https://www.flickr.com/photos/chilangoco/8940319786/>

Devin Ryan

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