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Pope Francis' Urgent Warning on the Dangers of Populism Pope Francis' Urgent Warning on the Dangers of Populism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-01-31 12:05:59
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“Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people… Crisis provokes fear…that is the risk. In times of crisis we lack judgment.”

                                                                                                                                  –Pope Francis

Recently Pope Francis has drawn a startling parallel between the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic, with its leaders promising a restoration of national identity and wholeness (e.g., Le Pen or Trump), and the rise of the Nazis some 80 years ago.

pope01_400_02It’s perhaps worth remembering here that almost a year ago he declared that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” To that statement Trumped replied at the time that only a Trump administration could protect the Vatican from ISIS.

Basically, with the inauguration of a new avowedly populist US presidency, the Pope is now cautioning Europeans against the lure of populism parading as  nationalism and patriotism  which in the past has led to catastrophes such as World War II.

Some pundits have caustically observed that it was only a matter of time before the “Combed-Over Titan of Twitter, the con-artist of the Art of the Deal clashed with the Man in White.” The collision was all but inevitable when one contrasts the two men: the celibate and the libertine, the mystic and the materialist, the humble and the vain, the ascetic and the ostentatious. But others have pointed out that, for all their differences as exhibited and fought over on the world stage, there are also strange similarities and affinities.

In the first place the two men are similar in their status as outsiders determined to shake up the establishment which they deem corrupt and uncaring of the people and the integrity of the institutions they lead. That is to say, they both exhibit a populist stance against elitism and privilege, although the case can be made that one is genuine and the other is hypocritical and fake. But, in fact, most people do not bother with such fine distinctions.

Alternative facts aside, it is undeniable that Trump has repeatedly attacked Republican elites and broken with Republican party orthodoxy on trade, foreign policy, campaign financing, conflict of interests, pretty much the same way that Francis has challenged the Vatican bureaucracy and traditional, settled Catholic doctrine fueled by the desire “to make a mess,” as the Pope puts it, disregard the tired stale institutions, and start afresh.

Moreover, their rhetorical stratagems seem to mirror each other; they both have a fondness for name calling which is quite rare among popes and presidents. Trump resorts to “low energy,” “liar,” “crooked,” “loser,” while the Pope may resort to more theologically loaded epithets such as “Pharisee,” or “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian” while occasionally also referring to “whiners,” and “sourpusses.” In any case, they both exhibit a skillful mastery of the contemporary media environment with its provocative unpredictability; an environment where the prevalent currency seems to be having people wonder in shock and amazement if “did he really just say that?” thus attracting immediate attention. It’s the world of the blog and the twit, rather than that of the reflective essay. In some way, both men excel at salesmanship, albeit the Pope has a much deeper intellectual depth.

Both men seem to believe that a bit of troublemaking is the best way to attract attention with the discontented and the disaffected; which, come to think of it, is the essence of populism. Of course their constituencies differ: Trump speaks to the disaffected working middle class who has been feeling left out, never mind that the profits have all gone to the one per centers of the rich and glamorous to which Trump belongs. One way to cover that fact is with the alternate fact of rabid nationalism parading as patriotism. Pope Francis, on the other hand, as a Latin American and a globalist, speaks for the world’s poor. That explains the stark difference in their immigration and refugee policies.

Neverthless, they share a common enemy, not just those who advocate “business as usual” as Republicans or as Catholics, but the wider Western elitist ruling class. Both men promise deliverance from this opportunistic bureaucracy with its unresponsive and inconvenient institutions (such as regulatory offices) while emphasizing novelty and even whim. It is certainly a respite from the dry positivist approach of modern culture.

And this of course is populism’s dilemma and peril: at times it relays not so much on the spirit of reform or renewal but on that of personal charisma, on a dangerous personality cult, what Nietzsche calles “charismatic man” ready to “trans-valuate values” in the quest of making America or the Catholic Church “great again.” It is precisely what makes these populist men and women interesting that can also make them unpredictable and even dangerous.

N.B. This article has appeared in Modern Diplomacy on January 27, 2017.

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Jon Cooke2017-01-31 18:49:35
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Ironic Pope Francis says that considering the Vatican is surrounded and protected by massive walls! Pope Francis is definitely hypocritical when saying that! I do not take him seriously and prefer to have my own personal direct experience with God from reading scripture and living my life than to listen to demented popes.


Emanuel Paparella2017-02-01 12:04:59
Uh? Anti-Catholic bias at work? One wonders if Jon Cooke is aware that the Vatican, by treaty, is a sovereign state independent of Italy, but nevertheless allows access to millions of people of all faiths or no faith via St. Peter Square, its basilica and its museum which are integral part of the Vatican state?


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