One only has to take a look at the media and its coverage of current events to see that in this 21st century the virus of populism has spread far and wide, settling in virtually all corners of the globe. It stirs conflicts, waves flags, undermines institutions. It destabilizes governments and breathes life into ridiculous conspiracies. It lurks in right-wing and left-wing groups alike, is endorsed by progressives, nationalists and conservatives in the service of seemingly noble and just causes, and in other cases works to foment rancor, a thirst for revenge and discontent. It exists in governments, parliaments, and, of course, in social networks. TV talk shows are inundated with it. It sits at the dinner table in our homes and finds an ideal incubation place in the information overdose and the emotional sphere.
Unfortunately, this contagious phenomenon that polarizes and divides is not confined to the political arena, but also contaminates other dimensions of our existence, including Church membership. It peddles easy solutions to difficult problems. It does not originate in the ecosystem that nurtures it, and by its very nature is rooted in poverty of thought, which prevents individuals and communities from understanding the full complexity of reality. To represent it with a simple image, it is as if everyone were moving through a dark night, using only dipped headlights, and thus exposing themselves to sudden, emotional reactions, when we should first and foremost maintain as deep, sharp and broad a view of reality as possible.
Since the problem has now become generalized, it is appropriate to focus on the Church and ask whether this evil is in fact present among Christians as well, that is, to ask how this phenomenon, which affects our relationship with the truth, affects life, behavior and people in the Church. In other words, in the Christian environment, or at least in some parts of it, are there indications of populism? Is there populism in the Church, as it is found in the political arena? Are we exempt from this phenomenon? At the same time, we cannot forget that it affects our relationship with the community in which we live, with information, with symbols – in their various aspects – and, of course, with the various institutions in which we move and with which we interact.
Undoubtedly there is a clear association between nihilism and populism, but also populism’s connection with terrorism and totalitarianism. It is established at the very moment when truth, the dignity of every human being is manipulated and subordinated to the interests of a particular group. On the other hand, those who benefit are always part of ideologies and assume identities that are based on emotions, engaging and simplistic discourses and a plethora of symbols. If we apply this to the Church, populism does not translate into taking God out of the equation, but freezing God into an idea, doing away with a loving and life-giving vision reducing one’s understanding of God to a remote deism or a deformed, malleable and erroneous image.
Regarding populism, Pope Francis’ warning in Fratelli Tutti (FT) about the need to make good use of the concept of “people” (cf. FT 158) applies. Bergoglio’s proposal, which draws vitality from the theology of the people, seeks to protect a spiritual concept of the people (cf. FT 156), so it is not used inappropriately. On the other hand, society cannot fall into the trap of branding anyone who thinks differently as a “populist,” as unfortunately often happens today.
That being said, let us not forget that the answer to the question we have posed should not lead us to succumb to the temptation of being the ones to decide who is or is not a populist in the Church. Nor should we point out which groups have the dishonor – which for some is an honor – of deserving this discreditable label.
No, the question must be bolder and more realistic and explore the core of our attitudes and ways of doing things, where the quality or poverty of our thinking really crystallizes. Therefore, it is not a question of setting out to classify the various members, groups and charisms of the Church, but to identify a number of elements that can relate to populism in its political version and that, as in any human group, also emerge in our way of being part of the Church.
In any case, the Church is holy and composed of sinners by the very fact that it is we human beings who compose it. Consequently, it does not shy away from the negative dynamics that run through the world. No one is immune or free from sin, and, unfortunately, we all experience it firsthand. What, then are the symptoms of this strange disease?
Some poor people yes, others no
It may perhaps come as a surprise that all populisms are concerned with the poverty and suffering that a community faces. The problem arises because the focus of attention is a single community – sometimes to the detriment of others – when some banner is raised to support a cause. This pattern of behavior helps us understand one of the keys to populism: its partial perception of the truth, which is something that can happen to all of us. However, the difference here lies in the fact that that partial view is imposed as the truth tout court, ignoring everything that is not part of it. It is a pattern conducive to dynamics that certain communities exploit to reassert their identities.
In the case of the Church, this dynamic may concern the way morality is perceived. Sometimes one runs the risk of emphasizing only social morality or only personal morality. In other words, it may be the case that one engages in a necessary defense of life, but forgets, on the other hand, the dictates of the Church’s social doctrine regarding, for example, the welcoming of refugees or social inequality. On the other hand emphasis may be placed on social justice, the ecological crisis or a multiplicity of other laudable causes as vitally important, while neglecting the morality of the person and how urgent it is to defend life in all its stages.
Indeed, each charism and each generation, depending on its sensibilities, highlights different aspects, as absolutely necessary. But this should not prevent a proper ecclesial perspective from aspiring to as complete a view as possible of the problems that afflict the world and humanity as a whole., rather than using the sufferings of a few to make a cause out of them. Ultimately, “everything is connected.” We must remember this and pay attention to the complexity of reality. The defense of human dignity is a good meeting point between social morality and the morality of the person, while special interests never are.
The temptation of literalism
Another rather important aspect of populisms is identified in the simplistic reading of processes and interrelationships. Such conceptual fragility causes erroneous arguments and thus makes one forget the complexity of the dynamics of connected systems, the lives of others, and the world in general. As a result, it induces a preference for solutions that perhaps appear plausible in the world of ideas, but, in reality, turn out to be completely implausible or prove catastrophic. This is a recurring problem in many aspects of life, and to avert it, good information management and the practise of critical thinking capable of recognizing truth at its deepest levels are indispensable.
In the case of the Church, this phenomenon, derived from an inadequate understanding of information, translates into a literal reading of numerous sources, norms and passages of Scripture and the Magisterium, a state of affairs on which Dei Verbum pronounced many decades ago. It also manifests itself in the adoption of flashy slogans in deference to a superficial attitude that is unable to grasp the essence of information and all its richness. As happens in so many other dimensions of life, a phrase taken out of context can mean the exact opposite. Therefore, it is necessary to investigate the spirit behind the letter of every writing and every law in order to find out what the author actually meant.
Along these lines, it is necessary to develop deep thinking and critical study that does not just flit from title to title, but knows how to go far beyond mere words, to get in touch with all the wisdom accumulated in Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. Otherwise, it is relatively easy to use God’s word for one’s own purposes , and thus to take God’s name in vain (cf. Exod 20:7).
The confusion of time
Among the consequences of nihilism is the denial of the idea of God and the thinking that comes with it. Therefore, it is not surprising that the perspective centered on the resurrection is lost and, consequently, so is the way of relating to time, that is, to the present, but also to the past and the future. The temporal short-circuit that occurs induces many to fixate only on the present, and this has more serious consequences than it appears, because, if one denies an eschatology one can end up in unrealizable utopias, in making the principle “it has always been done this way” absolute, in radical voluntarism or in a constant regression to the past. In this context, we often happen to hear populist political speeches based on idealized realities – unrealizable, as utopias are – because there is no going back to the past.
In the case of the Church, this phenomenon may mainly concern identity aspects, where the idea of a living God becomes a merely static concept. It becomes difficult to understand the signs of the times because one focuses on certain parts of history that best respond to one’s image of God. It is not difficult to identify especially with moments in history when things were apparently better and, more or less consciously, attempt to repeat them in one’s current situation .
Such an attitude has a clear consequence: it betrays the Holy Spirit, who is the bearer of newness, and reminds us that the future is good simply because it comes from God. At the same time, it precludes us from a proper look at the past, which is called to a role as a worthwhile reference in which to seek inspiration and some answers, but which never has the function of repeating itself. It certainly precludes us from enjoying a present that, while we may at times not like it and find it destabilizing, continues to be inhabited by God, if we fail to understand life as a process. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between times and separate inspiration from longing, so we find ourselves distorting reality based on a time that no longer belongs to it, because authentic faith always opens a door to hope. Ultimately, nostalgia is the sister of desolation, and any decision that is made in this state can lead to mistakes.
If we look at the vast majority of populisms that have appeared in the political arena in recent decades, we find in many of them charismatic characters, with such distinct personalities that they were able to give their own name to the movements they headed. These are characters whose loss of power usually triggers chaos and fratricidal strife among their closest followers, as well as a feeling of isolation and disorientation in their admirers. This is a messianic-type phenomenon, which makes the essence of those movements coincide with the charismatic personality of their leaders, who are capable not only of dividing the community, but of channeling the passions of an aggressive people, thirsty for solutions and strong responses.
In the case of the Church, too, these populist dynamics can hark back to charismatic leaders who were part of the tradition of a place but suddenly put their aims before community membership. Such a person attracts admirers and may take a leading role, , but at the price of creating constant division, stirring up emotions and slogans, imposing his or her own pervasive role on everything, that is, making everything depend on the leader as though he or she were a savior and a lifesaver in times of crisis. Such people believe that they, with the movements they have shaped, are the ones who will redeem the Church, their Orders, communities or parishes. This appropriation of the will of a people who do not belong to us is at the heart of populism.
Nevertheless, we cannot understand the history of the Church without reference to charismatic leaders, in many cases persecuted and mistreated by their own institutions. Jesus was also a great leader, and for this he was persecuted and condemned, but he cannot be understood without his plan for the kingdom of God. Therein lies the great difference. It is rooted in what is put first: the aims or the charisma of the person? What is being emphasized? Among the saints and in history we find figures who in their time were significant and who were able to reform the Church from within, without putting their ego before the institution. They moved on the boundary, but did not cross it.
The devil incarnate
As it gives rise to its own particular messiahs, so populism seeks its scapegoats, that is, groups or communities that attract its most visceral hatred. They become the heart of the problem, to the point that the only solution is to eliminate them, as at certain junctures in history painfully occurred with the Jews and others. The nihilism characteristic of populism induces people to forget that the origin of evil lies in the heart of human beings, at the cost of discounting the facts. Because its proponents need an answer, they identify evil embodied in certain groups (which is impossible). They select scapegoats as the cause of almost all problems and often channel hatred toward particular communities to which they attribute disproportionate and unreal power, because nothing unites more than having a common enemy.
Inexplicably, this simplistic way of understanding the origin of evil manages to creep into the Church and communities within it. One can unwittingly lapse into conspiratorial conduct, exaggerating claims against groups or communities, inside and outside the Church, and in so doing, turn what is a healthy difference not only into an insurmountable obstacle, but also into a reason for hatred and unjustified distrust. It is something that, little by little, tends to result in inflexible attitudes and uniformity in various groups. It even gives rise to theories that, while abandoning reality and any reasonable judgment, lead many to prefer to put their trust in baseless reasoning, rather than take on the complexity of ecclesial reality as a whole.
In a world that understands emotions more than reasons, it is easy for visceral hatred to be stronger than calm and moderate reasoning. Therefore, there is an urgent need to learn how to sift information properly and to go beyond simplistic slogans that are more in keeping with advertising than with the humanism that should inspire us. At the same time we must recognize that in the Church, as in any human group, the diversity of charisms is a necessity, and that renouncing it can only bring distrust, rupture and division.
Who is more genuine?
Each populist group tends to think that its faction reflects the essence of a people within a broader collective, which is why nationalisms thrive. Somehow these groups believe they embody the values of a people, and therefore feel entitled to advocate sociocultural constructs such as ethnicity, social class or language. This classifying obsession gradually splits society into good and bad, into “us” and “them.” Behind the scenes lies the division of society according to a Manichaeism that only knows how to divide and can lead to harmful consequences if not confronted in time.
In the case of the Church, this attitude has always been there, ever since divisions appeared among the early Christians because some were for Paul and some were for Apollos (cf. 1 Cor 1:12). In Jesus’ time, in that role were the Pharisees, who considered themselves better Jews because they paid faithful respect to the letter of the law, neglecting the substantive meaning of the tradition. This also happens in our day, in those groups that consider themselves the only authentic ones and strive for the preservation of a charisma and spirit in a constant clash with others.
This attitude corresponds to a peculiar way of accepting the truth. Populisms – and anyone can be affected by them – tend to resort to partial truth and put it to their service, which is why many politicians aim to seize the media, social networks and even history. They manipulate the truth and appropriate it, and in the current era of post-truth they find the ideal scenario, since emotions are more influential than reason. However, the correct relationship with truth involves its defense and not its appropriation, which instead involves only lies, polarization and irreducible sectarian Manichaeism. After all, we cannot forget that it is characteristic of the evil spirit to divide, separate and antagonize, to make us focus on matters of lesser importance in order to distract us from the awareness that we must transmit the Good News of Jesus to the whole world.
The crisis of institutions
Populism targets institutions (cf. FT 159), because among its main goals is to undermine the establishment in order to impose a different system that suits its power aspirations. The aim of populism is not to unite people, but rather to aggregate individuals in order to reinforce a brute force that is subservient to the interests of the few. Sometimes populists attack institutions from outside, even emulating the violent model of terrorism, and other times they do so from within, and this is usually the more effective method. They claim to change laws by referendum or impose by decree norms that revolutionize the system, thus avoiding those natural processes and mechanisms that, among other things, pacify tempers and bring facile enthusiasms back to reason. They are capable of breaking international treaties and alliances set up to maintain unity or to separate and balance different powers, and thus destabilize the system. Ultimately, their modus operandi is concerned first and foremost with tearing authority apart, weakening everything that over time has enabled them to preserve unity .
In the case of the Church, this has happened and continues to happen quite frequently. The ruthless criticism of ecclesial structures, the hierarchy, the Second Vatican Council, or even the pontiff of the moment, manifests this vision of reality that does not seek union of souls and affective and effective communion. Moreover, in some cases this way of undermining institutions makes use of harsh direct and indirect criticism and verbal violence that today finds sustained support in social networks.
However imperfect, institutions convey and connect realities, times and people. They are an inherent dimension of the Catholic tradition. This is evidenced by the attempt to discover the Holy Spirit’s action in ecclesial structures, to recognize that they can help many and are a great repository of wisdom . Even if none respond perfectly to our desires and ideals, they remain necessary mediations. In any case, the right way always comes through constructive criticism from within individual structures and not destructive criticism, either from within or from without. After all, it does not take much to imagine how chaotic a world without institutions and structures would be. .
The power of flags
Populisms and totalitarianisms know the power of symbols. They know that these are collective elements that unite different realities and possess strong meaning, so they have the power to awaken the innermost emotions and feelings of peoples and individuals. Populist phenomena, upon making their mark in a society, have good reason to immediately occupy public space with very powerful and in some cases strident symbols. In doing so, they force the rest of society to take a stand and cause silent majorities to turn into loud and indignant crowds. What is more, over time this colonization of public space goes on to link these symbols to other meanings that can awaken multiple passions, both favorable and hostile. Contempt for truth and reason compels people to embrace more tangible realities, and symbols are the perfect response to that need.
We cannot forget that, in the case of the Church, the power of symbol is of great value, since the symbolism of liturgy and mediations serves to refer to mystery, as ineffable as it is invisible. But in such cases, symbols have little or nothing in common with transcendence because they become secondary elements referring to an overly identity-driven group reality. The problem arises when such identities grow out of all proportion and become shells within which little of what is important remains, and in time change into factions or deleterious sectarianism. An excess of symbols is not at all helpful, because form can never take the place of substance.
Jesus himself was very critical of the overabundance of empty rituals, which drew people away from the authentic spirit of the law, which is nothing other than love for God and neighbor. This is by no means to say that rituals are not important, especially in times like ours when identities matter a lot, but their genuine meaning cannot be forgotten. Mediations need to be attended to, not manipulated. The ambiguity of symbols, and consequently of concepts, results in a serious source of error and constant confusion, and leads people to mistake what is secondary for what is fundamental, to mix reason with the emotion of the masses, which leads to constant polarization.
Is this something new?
In its various forms, populism is no stranger to the way we approach truth and the idea of God. Was Jesus’ trial not influenced by a mob manipulated by a few? Were not his charges supported by false witnesses in the service of powerful people who cared little for the truth? Were not the early Christians in Corinth, as we have already mentioned, divided between Paul and Apollos? Did not Jesus himself criticize a way of understanding religion that emptied its rites? Did not the Pharisees and Sadducees consider themselves the only authentic Jews? Did certain Jews not struggle to understand the spirit of the law and stopped at its mere letter? We can therefore say that such realities have been, are, and can occur in any human group . Unfortunately, we must note that populism is present among Christians and in fact can be found, with varying levels of intensity, in the attitudes and behavior of individuals and groups.
We are not referring here to the conflict between the extreme right and the extreme left – although very often an overlap on the political plane occurs – nor to the irreducible clash between “progressives” and “traditionalists,” but to a problem of thought. The struggle against populism, both in the Church and in politics, requires in society and in the people of God an intellectual maturity that implies constant reflection, in which no answer can ever be taken for granted. At the same time, it involves taking on the truth in all its complexity – or, at least, aspiring to do so – without settling for only part of it. On the other hand, we are called to defend the truth, not to appropriate it. This requires continuous effort and a disposition to discern the signs of the times in the light of faith and reason.
At the same time, we can see that faith in God — based on evangelical love, and not manipulated — becomes the focus of thought. If this is not taken into account, or is denied, or distorted, harmful consequences can ensue with regard to how we view people and political and institutional relations, which in turn are indispensable for living in society and for understanding ourselves as human beings. Faith in God is neither an accessory nor a complement, but is a vital component and, therefore, indispensable for the coexistence and development of peoples and different cultures.
Finally, we must humbly admit that we can all recognize ourselves in some of the elements considered. Nor can we point our finger and allow ourselves the indulgence of saying who is and who is not a populist. The possibility of becoming worldly in attitudes and thoughts is a risk that all Christians must deal with. It is rather a matter of asking ourselves what we do to cultivate our thinking and to identify whether there are attitudes and behaviors in our lives that deviate from goodness and truth, reconciliation and defense of human dignity, beauty and, above all, love. Only in this way can we defend ourselves against this virus that threatens the Church.
. Á. Lobo Arranz, Populism and terrorism, the illegitimate heirs of nihilism, in Civ. Catt. En., May, 2021 https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/populism-and-terrorism-the-illegitimate-heirs-of-nihilism/
. Francis, Laudato Si’, No. 91
. Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, No. 12.