What does Pope Francis really have in mind? The best response is probably found in a paper, published in the latest issue of the Italian magazine Il Mulino. The paper is titled “A Populist Pope”, and it is authored by Loris Zanatta, professor of the history of Latin America at the University of Bologna and an expert in populism. To Professor Zanatta, populism is the key through which to interpret Pope Francis’ thought. However, populism must not be understood from a generic point of view. Zanatta explains in depth the particularity of Argentinian populism, and sheds light on its contradictions. The key notion to understand is the notion of pueblo, which is people.
Pueblo – Zanatta says – is a very common word in Pope Francis speeches. Pope Francis uses pueblo 356 times, while he uses the term “democracy” only 10 times, the term “individual” only 14 times, while the term “liberty” is used 73 times (only 2 times in his speeches in Cuba). This wide occurrence of the term shows the importance of the notion of pueblo to Pope Francis. And the notion is likewise important to understand how populism developed in Argentinian culture.
Zanatta asks: “What is Pope Francis’ notion of pueblo?” He responds that “people according to Pope Francis are good and virtuous. Poverty bestows on them an inner moral superiority.” Zanatta adds that “Pope Francis says that wisdom, solidarity, values of the Gospel are preserved in inner-city neighborhoods. It is there that Christian society is found, the deposit of faith.”
To Pope Francis – Zanatta then argues – “that pueblo is not a sum of individualism. It is rather a community that transcends individuals, a living body animated by an ancient and natural faith, in which individuals are completely diluted. Being this, pueblo is the Chosen People that is keeping an identity in danger.”
Zanatta goes on by explaining that “it is not for nothing that identity” is the other pillar of Bergoglio’s populism,” and “every institution or human constitution must bow to this identity, in order not to lose the legitimacy which pueblo bestows.”
In Pope Francis’ thought there is space for a contraposition between “the pueblo that is good and supportive, and the oligarchy that is a selfish plunderer.” The worst damage provoked by oligarchy is the “corruption of the pueblo,” thus undermining “its spontaneous religiosity as a tempter, the devil.”
Outcomes of the notions of pueblo are other pieces of Pope Francis’ populism, such as “the notion that democracy is merely a social notion.”
Evangelii Gaudium presents four criteria through which the common good develops: time is greater than space; unity prevails over conflict; realities are more important than ideas; the whole is greater than the part.
When Pope Francis claims that he has fully expressed his thought in Evangelii Gaudium, he is right. A glance at some of his decisions is enough to be aware of this.
Francis does not plan big strategies. His model is that of the Church as “field hospital”. That means, a Church that quickly puts on a Band-Aid, waiting for wounds to be healed. Time – the Pope is convinced – will tell how good his method is, and this method must be the most spontaneous possible. For example, Pope Francis is not concerned with the consequences when he makes a decision to meet someone. He goes toward people, toward the outer bounds, without too many calculations, and sometimes even moved by his personal sympathies.
Pope Francis has put into effect a new kind of ecumenism. This new kind of ecumenism is characterized by the push to evangelize evangelicals that became evident when he wanted to go and meet the Protestant Pastor Traettino in Caserta. Because of his personal friendship with him, the Pope wanted the visit to Traettino to be detached from the visit to the Catholic community.
Pope Francis’ new ecumenism bases itself on a popular sensitivity that is traditionally closer to charismatic movements. And charismatic movements are the closest to the notion of a “pure” people like that intended by Argentinian populism.
The Pope’s new ecumenism is also characterized by the notion that unity prevails over conflict. Hence, Pope Francis’ choice to meet the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, at any cost. The Pope did not want the meeting to be organized by a diplomatic body; he preferred a body with theological competences like the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians.
The same Pontifical Council took part to the Pope’s trip to Lesbos during the one-day visit on April 16. Lesbos is a Greek island that now houses many refugees coming from Syria and other places in the Middle East where Christians are persecuted. The meeting in Lesbos was not an ecumenical meeting, but a humanitarian meeting. However, the presence of the Archbishop of Athens and of all Greece, Ieronymos II, and of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, gave an ecumenical character to the meeting.
The idea of the “ecumenism of the blood” (that Pope Francis always reiterates) is thus colored with the notion of a social ecumenism able to generate a sort of “pragmatic unity”. From this pragmatic unity, the Pope hopes to get one day to full, visible unity. No need for theological discussions. This is one of the many developments of the notion that realities are greater than ideas.
The meeting with crowds – like the meeting with the big communities of refugees or with popular movements that have been held – are a big part of the pontificate’s agenda – fitting with the notion that the whole is greater than the parts. The crowd, filled with the notion of young people committed to hacer lìo (make noise), is the expression of a pure popular identity, based upon Zanatta’s analysis.
This is Pope Francis’ popular Church that often risks turning into a “pop-Church”, loved by the mass media for the simplification of conflicts and notions, but at the same time at risk to become culturally inconsistent.
Zanatta explains this well in his paper: “Populism is always anti-intellectual.” It is true. So much so that the Council of Cardinals, during its last meeting on April 11-13, returned to discussing the criteria for new bishops, including among the characteristics the “pastoral vision” of any candidate to the episcopate.
According to Fr. Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See Press Office, there is nothing to worry about. It was just a discussion about how to improve the form sent out to local bishops in the consultation prior to the appointment of a new bishop. However, apparently the discussion shows that Pope Francis’ preference for “pastoral bishops” is going to be made institutional. That means that the candidate’s pastoral approach is to be judged more important than anything else.
If this criteria will be followed, there could not be appointments like that of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini whom St. John Paul II chose as Archbishop of Milan from his post at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (it is noteworthy that Cardinal Martini is particularly loved by those who promote a more pastoral Church).
The Council of Cardinals also discussed about the role of nuncios. Even this discussion is noteworthy. Nuncios represent the “Church-institution,” a notion that is very much on the other side of the notion of Church-people that Pope Francis has in mind. The notion of institution would break the notion of unity, as Zanatta puts it. In fact, during these years of Francis’ pontificate, the “destructuration” of Vatican bodies was more discussed than was the notion of reform. Or – much better – reform has always been interpreted as a dismantling of former institutions of the Holy See, given that Pope Francis is not very comfortable with the idea of the Holy See.
In the end, why has Pope Francis not carried forward his idea of reform? It is commonly thought that he has not done so because he has to face resistances within the Curia, and these resistances are too difficult even for a Reformer Pope who wants a poor Church for poor.
However, this narrative lacks proofs, and only serves to legitimate the exploitation of the image Pope as wanting to destroy the Church. Looking at the most important media outlets, the narrative always contrasts too sharply Pope Francis with an ugly Church. This image management is part of a most subtle campaign that only a few people fully understand.
In the end, the truth is that Pope Francis cannot dismantle the institution because – even though it experiences highs and lows – the institution really works for the common good. Despite any reservations the Pope might have about institutionality (this is the reason why he appointed a group of Cardinal advisors who live outside of curial institutional channels), the Pope cannot avoid allowing the so-called “Hidden Vatican” to keep on working.
In the end, Pope Francis kept the Institute for Religious Works, the so-called Vatican Bank; he did not dismantle the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as was thought at the beginning (the Pope apparently wanted to give more doctrinal authority to the local Churches); he carried forward a reform of the Vatican economy that was already on-going, as proven by Council of Europe’s MONEYVAL reports on the Holy See / Vatican City State; he even favored more institutional appointments, after the outsourcing era, one of the consequences of which is the current Vatileaks 2 trial.
Beyond that, there is a huge charitable operation underway, one that is helped along by Pope Benedict XVI’s major reforms of charitable institutions which Pope Francis inherited. The Pontifical Council Cor Unum has just been given the task of carrying out the latest extraordinary initiative to assist Ukraine, and it will begin a mission in the upcoming days that will reach out to a country undergoing a major humanitarian crisis. In the meantime, on April 11-13, Caritas Internationalis organized a conference on the response to AIDS that showed the Church’s commitment in this field, and also the enormity of its achievements.
The sight was set on future issues, and on these issues the future of Pope Francis’ Church is being played out. As far as AIDS goes, the new frontline is education not just medicine. There are drugs and therapies, and with those the impact of the infection has decrease by 90 percent, so much so that it is not sexually transmissible anymore. The issue of condom use, in the end, is purely ideological.
Taking this issue as an example, it is easy to understand that many of the attacks against the Church consist mostly in ideology. Is the Church able to address these attacks, which are in fact the most widely diffuse against Catholicism?
Certainly, Pope Francis knows of the existence of the “Hidden Vatican” that defends the institution because it defends the mission of the institution. Nevertheless, the Pope might be thinking that the work carried forward by the Curia in institutional and cultural terms is somewhat superfluous.
That it is not superfluous is proved by a detail of Zanatta’s paper. On the one hand, Zanatta grabs the core of Pope Francis’ way of thinking. On the other hand, his paper has the germ of “ideological prejudice”.
Zanatta explains that “Bergoglio’s crusades” against the “oligarchies” are “the legacy of the anti-liberal crusade” that “integralist Catholics have been conducting in the last couple centuries.” This is “not strange at all,” as “Catholic anti-liberalism, which on a secular level had sympathies for the illiberal ideologies concerning currency (fascism and communism in primis), naturally joins with ardor the common no-global thinking.”
Zanatta concedes that there is “a liberal Catholic tradition,” but this does not belong to Argentina, as Argentina is “the tomb of liberal Catholics, killed by the national-populist wave.”
In Zanatta’s words Pope Francis is accused of being a closet old-fashioned conservative. But the real issue lies in the fact that Zanatta considers the Church to be “illiberal” and even “sympathetic with illiberal ideologies.”
The history of the Church proves that this is simply not true. Pope Pius XI wrote an entire encyclical against Nazism, and died while he was working on his encyclical against anti-semitism, to which the long-standing Vatican watcher Benny Lai dedicated some of his most beautiful articles. Pope Leo XIII started the social teaching of the Church trying integral human development as a response to socialist ideology and unrestrained capitalism, thus criticizing both.
In the end, what the Church has perhaps lost – and is struggling to regain – is the capacity to express its faith with reasonability. In public discussions the Church now seems to be tossed around by the fashions of the times. This tossing is glimpsed in proposals emanating from several conference organized by clerics. During this past week, the possibility of an encyclical on non-violence was aired, while recently the Pope was supposed to write an encyclical on happiness. There was also a proposal floating for a Synod of European Christians to put into action a pragmatic ecumenism, by tackling social issues together.
But only seldom is a major impact on society discussed. The problems of the Church are reduced to internal struggles for power, both in the media and in the corridors of the Vatican. That means that, while the attacks against the Church are hard-hitting and are carried on by strong powers, men of the Church mostly focus on small internal struggles.
The real Church is that on the frontlines: in tackling AIDS; in helping refugees all over the world; but also in helping disadvantaged peoples to make an impact internationally; in defending the rights of all faiths, including the right to religious freedom.
Perhaps Pope Francis has no strength to dismantle everything because he has come to understand that the curial institutions are needed. Now he is called upon to make a qualitative leap. The risk lies in having a Church present in the media, popular and beloved, but also a Church somewhat deprived of its real mission.