On Papal Populism

Francis reflects on our political moment.
Pope Francis leads the midday recitation of the Angelus, January 17, 2021, from the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

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.”

Francis describes this spirit of opposition to the common good and to unity as the “isolated conscience.”

The spirit behind Trumpian populism is captured in Part II of Let Us Dream, which contains superb teaching on spiritual discernment: how we can detect what is of and what is opposed to God, unmasking the bad spirit when it appears sub angelo lucis—disguised as an angel of light. Christian nationalism is full of appeals to the good and to God, to Jesus and to righteousness, but its real spirit is easy to detect. It exploits fears and suspicions, blames others, and rubs salt in the wounds of grievance. It polarizes and divides the world into us (good) and them (bad), “closing us in on our own interests and viewpoints by means of suspicion and supposition.”

Francis describes this spirit of opposition to the common good and to unity as the “isolated conscience,” a temptation that leads to a sense of alienated superiority from the body (in this case, from democratic society) and turns people into “beleaguered, complaining selves who disdain others, believing that we alone know the truth.” There can be few better descriptions of the mob Trump sent to the Capitol than this—people full of angry self-righteousness and a sense of betrayal, spouting bizarre claims of stolen elections and claiming divine sanction for their actions. (“When God gives you a vision, you don’t need to know anything else,” said the emcee of the Jericho March, Eric Metaxas.)

At the root of the isolated conscience, says Francis, there is always what St. Ignatius of Loyola called an “acquired fortune” (cosa adquisita), or some sense of entitlement or privilege. The fear of losing this acquired fortune leads people to cling more tightly to it, while “the spirit of suspicion and supposition supplies reasons to hold back, concealing my attachments while justifying them through the faults of others,” writes Francis. Those in the grip of this spirit can come to believe almost anything they are told by people who share their grievance, and distrust evidence or argument advanced by those they see as enemies. Hence “Stop the Steal.”

In the nakedly racist, grievance-filled discourse of Trump and his mob, in the guns and Confederate flags they carried, the “acquired fortune” is in plain view: it is the mythology of the Lost Cause, the Christian nationalist myth of the South as the preserver of American exceptionalism and moral superiority. All this is tied up with a sense of victimhood and betrayal to which Trump’s MAGA rhetoric appeals. Building a wall to keep out “Mexicans,” storming the Capitol to overturn a “stolen” election he lost—Trump stokes the grievances and superiority of isolated conscience like no other, oblivious to any notion of the common good or fraternity.

 

If Jonah is the Biblical icon of the isolated conscience, says Francis, then Zacchaeus—the diminutive tax collector changed by God’s mercy—is the great Scriptural example of one who renounces his isolation to serve the people. The catalyst of his transformation is his response to Christ: rather than accuse others, he accuses himself. Humility, as Francis says, is the antidote to the isolated conscience. In lowering ourselves—in relation not to others, but out of awe for God—we make room for the good spirit to act in us. Then, “rather than find fault in my brother or sister, I see in him or her one who is also struggling, and in need of help, and I offer myself in service to them.”

Humility is the basis of the fraternity envisioned in Fratelli tutti. We see it in the parable of the Good Samaritan, whose identity is not threatened by a fellow human in need. The kind of political conscience the pope is calling for reflects that attention to the needs of others, whatever their allegiances, and a willingness to organize our economy in a way that will meet those needs.

It is a way of doing politics that stays above the fray of polarization, aware of the contagious power of accusation. Rather than feeding this beast, it allows it to reveal itself and wither—much as Biden has done in response to Trump. “Like coronavirus, if the virus of polarization cannot transfer from host to host, it gradually disappears,” Francis observes.

But the pope does not want us to run away from conflict. Part II of Let Us Dream describes a dynamic, God-created reality filled with forces that pull against each other and tensions that demand resolution, which the pope calls “living polarities” or “contrapositions.”

Such tensions—between what is and what should be, between different views and interests—are the stuff of politics. To flee from them, seeking peace at any price, means refusing to accept reality. But what is diabolic is the attempt to exploit these tensions by turning them into contradictions, reducing complicated realities to simple binaries (e.g. the people versus enemies of the people), and demanding that we choose one side to defeat the other.

Francis has much to say about the need for government to set new goals for the economy beyond the relentless pursuit of growth.

Francis calls instead for us to “endure” the tension of difference, facing it head on and opening those involved to a new way of seeing that preserves what is good in each side while transcending both. Such breakthroughs come about “as a gift in dialogue, when people trust each other and humbly seek the good together,” he says.

This is just one dimension of a politics of service, one that isn’t just about managing the apparatus of the state and campaigning for reelection, but which cultivates virtue and forges bonds. This “Politics with a capital P,” as he calls it, is “a vocation above all for those disturbed by the state of society,” for those who “burn with the mission” to secure for their people access to land, labor, and lodging. Such politicians—or community leaders—“carry with them the smell of the neighborhoods they serve.” They are men and women of compassion who respect the culture and dignity of those they represent.

 

Here lies the crucial element in the regeneration of politics the pope is calling for. As in Laudato si’, in Let Us Dream Francis has much to say about the need for government to set new goals for the economy beyond the relentless pursuit of growth, policies that expand access to work and protect the planet. There is much for government to do. Yet the radicalism of this papal politics lies in the faith it puts in popular movements to challenge and shape what government does. “In the post-Covid world,” he says, “neither technocratic managerialism nor populism will suffice. Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organization, will be able to change the future.”

In 1931, faced with the polarization of liberalism and collectivism in an age of democratic collapse, Pius XI also called for the regeneration of civil society from below, for “the institutions themselves of peoples and, particularly those of all social life” to underpin “a juridical and social order which will, as it were, give form and shape to all economic life” (Quadragesimo anno). But no pope before Francis has put so much emphasis on what he calls the “people’s movements” made up of those on the margins.

In Part III of Let Us Dream, he writes of social movements with roots in schools and parishes in poor neighborhoods that help people organize for living wages, safe streets, and dignified housing. In the United States, this is called broad-based or faith-based community organizing, of the sort promoted and funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). The pope himself has hosted and encouraged meetings of these “popular movements” in Rome and elsewhere, and calls for the Church to “open its doors” to them—not to lead or control them, but to accompany and encourage them. This, he says, is the opposite of the way elites think, which he mocks as “all for the people but never with the people.”

Recalling his own involvement with such movements in Buenos Aires—especially the cartoneros, or cardboard collectors—Francis describes celebrating a huge outdoor Mass each year in one of the city’s big squares, which over time became a gathering place for thousands of excluded people. The people came “to ask God for the things they needed,” putting him in mind of the crowd that followed Jesus, “not a mass of individuals hypnotized by some deft orator, but a people with a history, with a hope, who safeguarded a promise.”

The crowd in the Gospel followed Jesus, says Francis, because his preaching evoked in them the awareness they carried in their guts of God’s closeness and their own dignity. Francis saw in the crowds in Plaza Constitución, and in the popular movements, the same spirit. “In mobilizing for change, in their search for dignity, I see a source of moral energy, a reserve of civic passion, capable of revitalizing our democracy and reorienting the economy,” he writes. This is a politics that turns to the people, not to rub salt in their wounds but to help them recover the dignity that is theirs; that sees the outcast not as a weapon but as a resource; that comes not to impose, but to serve; that does not divide from above, but builds unity from below. It is the politics we sorely need. 

Published in the February 2021 issue: 

Austen Ivereigh is a regular contributor to Commonweal and a Fellow in Contemporary Church History at the Jesuit-run Campion Hall at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Pope Francis’s Let Us Dream: A Path to a Better World. Conversations with Austen Ivereigh (Simon & Schuster).

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