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Opinion: Is Pope Francis a “populist”?

Given populism’s mixed record, it’s fair to ask where the Pope himself stands.

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he leads the "Regina Coeli" from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican May 2, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Is Pope Francis a populist? The simple answer is no. A better answer is necessarily more complicated.

But, someone might ask, does it really matter? As a matter of fact, it matters a lot–at least if you’re trying to understand where this sometimes controversial pontiff wishes to lead the Church.

One reason why the question isn’t open to a simplistic response arises from the fact that “populist” and “populism” cover a bewildering range of individuals and political systems. In the U.S., for instance, Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders have all been called populists.

In general, populism is a way of doing politics that exalts “the people” ln opposition to an “elite” said to be oppressing them–Wall Street, the denizens of the Washington “Swamp”, segregationist populist George Wallace’s “pointy-headed liberals” or whoever it might be.

The question of the Pope’s relationship to populism arises naturally in light of a conference in London last month (cosponsored by the U.S. Catholic Campaign for Human Development) inspired by his recent book Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster). In a video message to the gathering, Francis called for “a politics with the people, rooted in the people.”

That has obvious populist resonances. Given populism’s mixed record, it’s fair to ask where the Pope himself stands.

In Fratelli Tutti. the encyclical “on fraternity and social friendship” that he published last year, he presents a mixed picture: on the one hand, “popular” leaders who truly reflect “the feelings and cultural dynamics of a people” and, on the other hand, demagogues who exploit people for their own advantage or appeal to “the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population.”

The Pope’s concern for these matters goes back years–in fact, all the way back to the late 1960s when he was a youngish Jesuit provincial in Argentina and Catholic thinkers there were developing what came to be called la teologia del pueblo, the theology of the people.

In a study called The Roots of Pope Francis’s Social and Political Thought (Rowman & Littlefield) political scientist Thomas R. Rourke speaks of the “reverential attitude toward” the people shaping this theological movement: “In Latin America, despite the negative dimensions of colonization, the simple faithful had in many ways throughout their history incarnated the gospel in their culture.”

Although, as Rourke points out, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., the future pope, was not an academic theologian, he shared this way of thinking. His attitude is suggested–though not in a political context–in a remark the author quotes: “When you want to know what to believe, go to the Magisterium. When you want to know how to believe, go to the faithful people. The Magisterium will teach you who Mary is, but the faithful people will teach you how to love Mary.”

A half-century later, Francis is still thinking that way. “The true response to the rise of populism is precisely not more individualism but quite the opposite: a politics of fraternity, rooted in the life of the people,” he told the London conference.

Populism, politics of fraternity–the danger is sentimentalizing “the people” while ignoring the fact that, in a demagogue’s hands, the people can be as self-absorbed and wreak as much havoc as any elite. Which may be why Francis felt is necessary to add this caution: “I like to use the term popularism.

So, no populist he, but a popularist. In his mind, there’s a big difference. Just how big may be the real question.


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About Russell Shaw 229 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, and, most recently, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity.

15 Comments

  1. “This sometimes controversial pontiff” is popular with the Left and never controversial, and is clearly controversial with the Right who struggle, many torn between allegiance to the Chair and Apostolic Tradition the two allegiances drifting apart to the point of contradictory beliefs. Why might we say this if not the facts. Two are outstanding, the refusal to respond to the Dubia on vital questions of practice, and the current ambivalence by this Pontiff on the German apostasy. The latter now come to a head with the refusal of German bishops to comply with Catholic doctrine now focused on blessing of immoral same sex relationships. If Pope Francis does not unequivocally defend the faith and if necessary provide a declaration of excommunication for Bishops Felix Genn of Münster and Georg Bätzing German Bishops Conference president that reluctance substantiates the questions posed by the Dubia cardinals. What is come to fore unless we witness a remarkable change is the machinations of a master manipulator. We can’t hedge any longer on what we’re confronted with, it’s no longer a question of where a pontiff stands when the Church has become increasingly an image of the author’s convictions explicated in Amoris Laetitia rather than Christ.

  2. The difference between “populist” and “popularist”?

    Giving full attention to our common Human Nature, rather than not; and thinking of the deep infiltration of self-inflicted original sin versus the other and gratuitous origin of supernatural grace; and thinking cross-culturally…

    Is it just possible that, at least sometimes, people are more unalike than alike? What then is the danger of implicit bias, either way and probably both (unalike/alike), in setting public policy?

    Small wonder that the Catholic Social Teaching, correctly understood, is not rooted in any implicit bias, but rather in the moral virtues and particularly in prudential judgment.

  3. He longs for parishes to always be open, but demands they be closed by the state. He’s all for the marginalized against the Church- the cardinals and canon lawyers and moral theologians. But he’s all for the experts telling us what’s right about how to live in society.

  4. The darling of the World Economic Forum, celebrity trash, faculty lounges and the kind of Catholic who reads National Catholic Reporter certainly should not be described as a populist or “popularist”. Demagogue, on the other hand, fits him to a T. And he is particularly crude one at that.

  5. He knows nothing of what it means to be a people with a culture and identity which they have a right to preserve, and he thinks he is competent to distinguish between populism and popularism?

  6. The wording used for article will not get the author in hot water with his colleagues at Opus Dei.
    Well played, I guess.

  7. Pope Francis perfectly fits the model of a populist who appeals to the Left and is confrontational [poking sincere Catholic priests in the eye as in the recent CWR article] to the Right. Since he is obviously more a populist than Trump ever was, because Trump had appeal among Dems that won him the election, Francis who exacerbates the polarity between the Left and Traditional Catholics invents a word popularist to extract himself from the truth. As is his wont.

  8. From the start of the announcement of Francis as Pope, something supernatural happened around the world. People like myself and millions of others had a strange sense of severe disappointment about the new Pope. We couldn’t even stomach to look at him. I have compassion for Francis and pray for him daily but I don’t even want to hear what he has to say. I’m one of those accused of Papolotry. When I listened to St. John Paul the Great and to Pope Benedict XVl I always knew as a fact it was God’s voice on earth. But with Francis, it’s not. I pray he steps down. This is how popular Francis is with me. Nil, Nada, Niet!

  9. Thank you – had missed the context related to the article and the use of the word
    ‘ Popularist ‘ by the Holy Father – that sounds as an echo of the mission of The Lord , in the Will of The Father , for all to repent and be saved ; our intent and desire for same is precious to The Lord even if same may not take effect in the manner we imagine .
    The efforts of others such as Bp.Barron also exhorting the faithful to ask for mercy and salvation for all ,also echoed in the Divine Mercy prayers – ‘have mercy on us and the whole world .

    Glad to have come across the article that elaborates on the context , the words of the Holy Father that are very much in line with the mission of the Lord and as intended , to counter dangerous ‘ populists ‘ who focus on an earthly kingdom using the fallen wisdom of the world –
    https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2021/04/pope-francis-proposes-popularism-to-counter-populism/

    Tomorrow also Feast day of Apparition of St.Michael , with the interesting narrative of how the arrow that was shot into his cave was sent back –

    https://luisapiccarreta.me/archives/2338

    The Holy Father as a son of Italy , thus blessed with double Feasts tomorrow along with the Octave of the Feast of St.Joseph the Worker . 🙂

    May the blessings from all such abound for his life and ministry , for all to be united in the intent , to popularize with The Church , the love and the desire to live in the Divine Will that reigns in the Two Hearts .

  10. One factor that is driving populism is the chasm that exists between the common person and the ruling establishment elites. There is one set of rules for the commoners, and apparently next to no rules for the ruling establishment elites. They are regularly caught in the position of do as I say, not as I do. Last summer’s looting and rioting was described as a “summer of love.” But when Washington D.C. got a milder one day dose of the “summer of love” last January up goes the fencing and in come the guards. This from the same people who decry fences(walls) and guards at the US Southern border. It’s easy for people who can afford to live in gated communities with personal guards to call for defunding the police. How many of the Second Amendment critics have armed guards packing heat?
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    The Catholic Social Teaching people have a real love affair with governmental solutions. The government treated as if it is all seeing, all knowing, and all powerful. It has gotten to the point of being idolatrous. The government as god. Concentrations of power that invite the corruption of those wielding this power. The Founding Fathers took great efforts to decentralize power as much as they could and established a system of checks and balances. To me this is probably why they are under attack by modern leftist demagogues who are obsessed with power. Due process and the rule of law puts a crimp in their utopian schemes.

  11. Populism is a word so abused, it probably has no accurate definition. What I believe about Francis is that he often demonstrates an hysterically, narcissistic, neophilia and elitism and a personal understanding of Christianity that is so tarnished by personal conceit, he can not see how often he embodies those vices he projects onto those who fail to so much as join the throngs who adore him. I say often, because he is indisputably moody, and his personal beliefs change one day to the next depending on the audience, a kind of quantum mechanics world view. One day he can be avuncular towards flag carrying visiting guests from a national tour group, and another day berate another group for their “nationalism.”
    He is a Pelagian who calls orthodox anti-Pelagian Catholics Pelagian with a complete absence of irony. He is a process theologian who believes even an uncertain God can change His mind. His idea of mercy excludes mercy for the victims of the sins committed by those whose desire for guilt avoidance is his supreme concern for the exercise of mercy, especially regarding sexual sins. He remains oblivious to the self-evident connection between sexual sin and the abortion he claims to decry, although even this is suspect given his affinity for population controllers within his globalist visions.
    Elitists are what they are because they insist on the eventual perfectibility of humanity once the right people (themselves) are allowed to dictate the terms of utopia functioning within a super tyranny. Francis has told a conference of economists, while maintaining a straight face, to “design an economy” without money or any system of markets whatsoever. All the world’s elitists, including Francis, disdained Trump principally because, whatever his flaws, he had the good sense to be a passionate anti-elitist, in addition to pointing out, well, how intelligence challenged elitists are.
    Anyone who believes that God might not be giving His Church its most extreme test in history with a loose cannon pontificate is taking refuge in populist manipulation that pretends everything is more or less normal.

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