When the host of The Late Show asked Joe Biden just before Christmas how the second Catholic president of the United States would take his orders from the pope on how to govern, Biden didn’t get the joke. “He personally called me to congratulate me,” he told Stephen Colbert in all earnestness, adding that he had just been on the phone with the archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory, who told him that Francis had signed a book he wanted the president to have.
That book, which I helped put together, is called Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. It is Francis’s reflection on the pandemic and the possibilities of change the crisis offers to humanity. It ends with a vision for a new kind of politics that seemed timely enough in the lead-up to the November 2020 election, against the background of Trump’s campaign rallies and the Black Lives Matter protests. Now, after the “Jericho March” and the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, Francis’s powerful critique of both Christian-nationalist populism and what he calls “technocratic managerialism” could not be more relevant.
Like the encyclical Fratelli tutti, Let Us Dream opens up a space beyond the current polarization in Western politics. Francis is doing for our own era what Pius XI sought to do with his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno—in another age of democratic crisis and authoritarian populism. Both urge us not to settle for the status quo, but to look to a different kind of politics, one that recognizes the human dignity of all people and builds society and the economy on that basis.
Although both of these encyclicals turn to the people, there is a great gulf separating their “inclusive populism,” as Angus Ritchie calls it in a recent book of that name, and the exclusivist populism of hate and division fomented by Trump and other demagogues. Understanding that difference, and the contrasting spiritual movements involved, is vital if we are to find a way out of the current political crisis.
For Francis, the root of the crisis in liberal democracy is a neo-Darwinist market ideology that treats people as commodities. In Let Us Dream, he points out that homeless people freezing to death behind empty hotels barely raises an eyebrow in comparison to the shock that greets a sharp fall in the stock market. Returning again to a medieval rabbi’s interpretation of the Tower of Babel, in which bricks were considered more valuable than slaves, Francis points out that an economy obsessed with growth and consumption is essentially one of human sacrifice. “People or bricks,” he says. “It’s time to choose.”
Francis understands the pain and political disillusionment behind the rise of populism, “the disjuncture between the awareness of social rights on the one hand and the distribution of actual opportunities on the other,” as well as the anger of those “thrust aside by the ruthless juggernaut of globalized technocracy.” Anger at the loss of opportunity and agency, a sense of displacement that leads people to cling to their identities—these provide fertile soil for authoritarian leaders willing to stoke fears and a sense of victimhood.
In Let Us Dream, Francis laments “the often cruel rhetoric of populist leaders denigrating the ‘other’ in order to defend a national or group identity.” In remarks broadcast on Italian television on January 9, Francis said the attack on the U.S. Capitol showed that when people acted “against the community, against democracy, against the common good,” it was a sign of the spiritual forces at stake. “Thank God this has erupted and we had a chance to see it well,” he added, “because now you can try and heal it.”