Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, recently wrote a piece for The Stream about Pope Francis and his visit throughout Latin America. This part of the world is dominated by “leftist-populist governments.” Latin governments often combines left-wing politics with populist themes. Leaders’ rhetoric generally consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the system, and speaking for the common people. Gregg argues that this sort of talk generally puts one group against another: the rich against the poor, foreigners against nationals…etc. This is especially true in Chávez’ Venezuela where it has caused countless problems:
Contrary to the protestations of Hollywood celebrities, Venezuela is simply the most advanced down the path of out-of-control inflation, price-controls, shortages of basic necessities (such as toilet paper), the systematic use of violence against regime critics, and complete contempt for rule of law.
Leaders of the various Latin American populist governments have mixed attitudes towards the Catholic Church:
On the one hand, [Latin American populist leaders are] regularly at odds with many Catholic bishops. In January 2015, a pastoral letter issued by Venezuela’s Catholic bishops courageously described their government’s policies as “totalitarian and centralist.” The regime, the bishops added, seeks control “over all aspects of the lives of the citizens and public and private institutions. It also threatens freedom and the rights of persons and associations and has led to oppression and ruin in every country where it has been tried.”
The government’s reaction to this critique was the usual demagoguery. Nonetheless the same populist leaders regularly invoke Christian symbols to legitimize their ideologies. Bolivian President Evo Morales’ presentation of what’s now called “the communist crucifix” to Pope Francis is one such example. Whatever the motives of the deceased priest who designed the cross, the fact that the hammer-and-sickle symbolizes philosophical materialism, police-states, and the mass imprisonment, torture and murder of millions of people counts for nothing in the rather provincial world of Latin American leftist-populism.
Pope Francis, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is very familiar with these governments and their antics. During his visit to Bolivia he made some troubling economic comments, echoing sentiments of the populists:
To be sure, anyone who’s spent time in Latin America knows that most of these nations suffer deep economic problems. But while the pope’s address noted that state welfare isn’t a solution to these challenges, its analysis of the region’s difficulties left much to be desired.
In the first place, Francis discussed the injustice inflicted by “a system,” by which he seems to mean economic globalization. This “system,” he argued, has resulted in “an economy of exclusion” that denies millions the blessings of prosperity. Francis then specifically attacked “corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties” as part of an “anonymous influence of mammon” and “new colonialism.”
Some of this rhetoric is hard to distinguish from that used by Latin American populists, ranging from Argentina’s long-deceased Juan Perón to Bolivia’s Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. Leaving that aside, one wonders whether Pope Francis and his advisors have ever studied the respective merits of free trade versus protectionism. My suspicion is they haven’t, since tariffs and subsidies are precisely what allow already-wealthy countries to limit developing countries’ access to global markets. By definition, it’s protectionism that is an economy of exclusion — not free trade.
Francis, unfortunately, also declined to discuss the problems caused by populist polices and actions:
Here his remarks reflected a common Latin American blind-spot: a reluctance to concede that many of Latin America’s difficulties are self-inflicted, and often by governments elected by a majority of voters.
When asked about the pope’s address, the Holy See’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi SJ, described it as part of a “dialogue.” Meaningful dialogue, however, involves an exchange of views in the pursuit of truth. Alas, there’s no evidence that Francis is listening, for example, to Christians who respect his authority as Peter’s Successor, who don’t think he’s a socialist, who share his commitment to reducing economic exclusion, but who respectfully suggest that some of his economic commentary is incoherent and inattentive to evidence. The pope’s avoidance of other views on these issues is odd, since he acknowledges that faithful Catholics disagree about how to address contemporary economic challenges.