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CRUX author says Pope Francis not easily labeled. But then labels him. Accurately.

Attempts to distinguish the populist approach of the Pope from those employed by Donald Trump and others is understandable, but end up demonstrating how much those approaches have in common.

Pope Francis greets people as he visits the "White Houses," a housing development for the poor, on the outskirts of Milan March 25. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

A recent article titled, “Does the ‘Populist Pope’ have a beef with populism?” (Mar 31st), written by CRUX’s editorial assistant Claire Giangravè, is a good demonstration of how trying to explain, define, and understand Pope Francis—whether by critics, supporters, or “other”—can be an exercise in frustration, often leading to even less clarity when when one began. While Giangravè does not address recent pieces about Francis as a populist, I suspect her piece intends to push back against them. It’s not an easy task, as she tacitly admits. Even though Francis has strongly denounced “populism” as “evil” (as, of course, exemplified by Hitler) and “the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and ‘looking beyond’ their own narrow vision,” the problem is that populism is, as Giangravè rightly notes, extremely hard to define:

The definition of populist itself is fluid, equally applicable to Bernie Sanders, Adolf Hitler, and Wikipedia. There are some ways to decipher whether or not a public figure is populist, and Pope Francis himself certainly exemplifies some of the main aspects while still applying his own unique brand.

This is followed by a couple of comments that are quite interesting, because they indicate, at least to my reading, the struggle engaged in by Francis’ most ardent defenders. First:

Pope Francis is not the kind of guy who can easily be labeled. The media struggles to keep up with the pontiff’s whirlwind of statements, conferences, videos, tweets, and trips. From this vast array of speeches and off-the-cuff remarks emerges a compendium of confusing and sometimes contradictory material.

Wait! Hold on. He’s not easily labeled—but he has created a “vast array” of speeches, homilies, interviews, etc. that create a sort of “compendium of confusing and sometimes contradictory material”? So, isn’t it fair to say, as some of us having saying for a while now, that Francis is in fact both confusing and contradictory? While no one should be or can be adequately explained by labels, these are very apt and fair descriptions.


When it comes to understanding Pope Francis’s approach to the masses, populism doesn’t quite fit the bill. Yes, there is a ‘populist influence’ to Bergoglio but it can only be understood if associated with the pope’s emphasis on proximity and the peripheries.

Here Giangravè seeks to distance Francis from other forms of populism that have gotten quite a bit of attention recently. Thus: “Pope Francis’s ‘populist influence’ does not originate from the fermenting discontent that has taken over Europe post-migrant and financial crisis. Nor does it share the principles and spirit of the populism currently in fashion in the U.S.”

But, of course, no one is saying that, are they? After all, it’s fairly obvious that Francis has a less than robust and nuanced understanding of, say, the United States, admitting as he did before his 2015 visit to this country that he really knew nothing about the middle class—a segment of the population that has, traditionally, been key to the social, cultural, and political life. So it’s not a surprise to read that “the pope has proven to be more sympathetic of the South American brand of populism than that of Europe.” That’s obvious, but also important, as Dr. Samuel Gregg has pointed out often. More importantly, Giangravè states:

Of course there are other aspects that the pope borrows from the populist tool kit: a strong anti-establishment agenda, a general dismissal of hierarchal structures and a firm stance regarding critics. Pope Francis’s stubborn defense of the peripheries has been a hallmark of his pontificate to date and he has often warned against the “globalization of indifference” and its “throw-away culture.”

In a March 4 op-ed in the New York Times, Crux contributor Austen Ivereigh zoomed in on another fundamental aspect of Francis’s pontificate.“The pope’s populism is not intended for popularity – a fickle thing, and anyhow, his soars far above any politician’s – but proximity,” Ivereigh wrote. “This is a pope who likes to come in close.”

I’m not convinced. As I’ve stated before, Francis often seems more comfortable being a politician than a pope. And, I would argue, he does indeed seek popularity; that is, I think, blatantly obvious. He follows a very simple and consistent course: he seeks to win over certain people or groups of people while lashing out at those he perceives as enemies, almost always resorting to a rather astounding list names and, yes, labels rather than any sort of arguments—that would be the “firm stance regarding critics.”

Giangravè concludes by asserting: “Populism is not so much a phenomenon as a utility belt, one that Pope Francis is well equipped to use. But when it comes to what to use it for, the pope chooses to focus on the root causes of the problem, such as poverty and inequality, rather than its symptoms.”

And how is this different, say, than what Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders did in the recent presidential election? Both of them continually, in their own ways, reached out to those on the margins, claimed to the champion of the poor and those barely making it, and campaigning for the votes and support of the blue collar workers ignored or scorned by the elites. Pope Francis presents himself as a champion of the poor and ignored; Trump and Sanders presented themselves as the champions of the poor, the blue collar, and the disenfranchised. There are some differences, of course, as Francis is not campaigning for votes. Yet he reaches out to the nameless, downtrodden masses—and often does in political, “us vs. them” terms. And, besides, does anyone doubt that Trump and Sanders (among others) don’t use such their populism in calculated, utilitarian ways? And didn’t both men, whatever their respective policy positions, address poverty and inequality in many different ways (answer: yes).

The spate of recent pieces about Francis as the “anti-Trump” fixated, naturally, on differences over immigration and economics, but ignored the striking similarities in both methodologies and personalities. Both men are scolding or even verbally abusive, emotive, crafty but not interested in nuance or careful distinctions, impatient with details, pragmatic in an often superficial fashion, confusing or ambiguous in language and action, temperamental, autocratic, and—I would suggest—rather incompetent. Such characteristics aren’t uncommon in populists, who use their appeals to certain groups to cover up serious deficiencies or contradictions.

Russell Kirk, in the American context, described populism as “a revolt against the Smart Guys”, noting that while this is an understandable desire and impulse, “it would not be an improvement to supplant [the Smart Guys] by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.” Roger Scruton, in a recent article in The New Criterion, states that “Populists are politicians who appeal directly to the people when they should be consulting the political process, and who are prepared to set aside procedures and legal niceties when the tide of public opinion flows in their favor.” That, for me, captures a great deal of the craziness involving the past two Synods, Amoris Laetitia, and related matters. And a recent article in The Atlantic—titled “What is a Populist?” and focused, of course, on Trump—makes this observation:

Populists are dividers, not uniters, Mudde told me. They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.” The United States is what political scientists call a “liberal democracy,” a system “based on pluralism—on the idea that you have different groups with different interests and values, which are all legitimate,” Mudde explained. Populists, in contrast, are not pluralist. They consider just one group—whatever they mean by “the people”—legitimate.

And that, in so many ways, is what we see with Pope Francis: more and more division and a continual appeal to the “el pueblo de Dios”. And, of course, it constantly involves confusion and contradiction.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. This is spot on.

    Francis does not expect serious Catholics who were faithful to the magisterium of JP2 and B16 to do anything but oppose him, which is why he came out swinging by labeling everyone who holds to Familiaris Consortio and Fides et Ratio and everything pre-Francis as “Pharisees.” Although I do appreciate the gift of unintentional humor in having the New Sadducees actually promote the old Pharissee program for divorce and remarriage. It proves that God is the best comedian.

    Populists are always in competition with the other populists taking up head space in the political playground.

  2. I am no historian but the rise and fall of papal regimes is a story I wish was not part of the definition of Church, Inc. My major doubt about supporting the upper structure ecclesiastics is that makes the Church so business-like, instead of pastoral. This Pope just seems to be spinning in the breeze. Two things are needed at the moment – flinging the doors wide open and having forensic accountants audit the Church from top to bottom, and peons like me to earmark their contributions to stay local to their own parishes. I want to see more Holy Spirit movement and less stasis of the upper echelons. Self-preservation is the message from significant voices in these echelons.

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