Reflections on the Pope’s Condemnation of Populism

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes his entrance at a rally at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, November 24, 2015.  REUTERS/Randall Hill - RTX1VPGC

As we journeyed through the darkness of Holy Week to the great solemnity of Easter, with the acclamations given to Christ before his humiliating and ignominious death, I was pondering the Holy Father’s recent condemnation of “populism” as “evil.” Certainly, he could not have meant that popularity itself was evil. Christ was popular, for a time, before the crowds turned on him. Pope Saint John Paul II was also popular, and amongst his many and varied accomplishments, also has the distinction of being the most photographed, perhaps the most acclaimed, human being in history. Not that the pontiff reveled in such a fact, and it likely rarely, if ever, crossed his otherwise-preoccupied mind. Not so, one might think, other popular individuals, film stars, sports figures, and those who are famous just for being famous; they do seem to enjoy being photographed, awash in the glow of “love” from their fans.

This means that popularity itself can be both good and bad, and seems to be something that surrounds a person, rather than belonging to the person himself. What has this to do with populism?

Our grammatical and lexicographical custom in English is that an “ism” on the end of an otherwise value-neutral word implies some sort of extreme, as in “extremism.” There is nothing wrong with “extreme” itself, if extremes are fitting. God is “extremely” powerful, good and holy, yet he is not an “extremist.” So too, faith is good, but “fideism” implies an over-emphasis on faith, or seeing it in too simple terms, without the requisite distinctions. The other extreme would be “rationalism,” that the only avenue to truth is through all-too-fallible human reason. We could go on with biologism, naturalism, evolutionism, commercialism, consumerism, ad indefinitum. One exception seems to be Catholicism, which I suppose is already extreme, and admits of no contrary.

Which brings us back to populism, which, if the above analysis is correct, seems to imply that something, or more properly someone, is popular for the wrong reasons, and with consequent ill effects.

Think back to high school, if the exercise is not too painful: who was always elected student council president, or homecoming king and queen? (Yes, I will maintain gender binaries until the day I die.) Always the popular people. And why popular? Generally, because they were good-looking, coming out advantageous in the genotypic lottery. We all know that looks do not necessarily a good leader make, as there are any number of good-looking and not-so-good looking heads of state and high-level functionaries, with the good, the bad and the indifferent amongst them.

It is said that television locked in John F. Kennedy’s win against Richard Nixon, for in the televised debate on the morning of September 29, 1960, JFK, a relatively unknown young senator from Massachusetts, was far and away the more telegenic of the two, and swayed watching viewers accordingly. He had also discovered the need for make-up to subdue the glare from the skin’s natural oils. Alas for the hapless and sweating Nixon, just out of the hospital, underweight and pale, but who, as the story goes, edged out Kennedy intellectually (as those who listened via radio attested), but a Pyrrhic victory it was. Presidential hopefuls avoided televised debates until Gerald Ford agreed to take on Jimmy Carter in 1976, and they have been a staple of election cycles ever since, not, arguably, for the better. See my comment on circuses, below.

Of course, popularity has a lot to do with our perception of people on scales beyond their looks. Are they rich? Successful? Humorous? Perhaps most importantly in today’s fracturing world, the run of people, the hoi polloi, want someone who will provide their basic needs, employment, food, shelter, peace, a sense of purpose, security, especially when things seem so unstable, purposeless and rickety. A popular man in his own way, Nero famously said: give the people their panem et circenses, their “bread and circuses,” and you can rule them with ease. Oh, and pay the soldiers well, just in case.

Christ likely also would have been telegenic, if television had been around back then, but Malcolm Muggeridge, in his 1977 book Christ and the Media, argued that he would not have used it if it were. The “telly” was too fake, too misleading, too illusory, the former BBC media personality and eventual late-in-life convert, claimed. Certainly, the Second Person of the Trinity could provide bread and circuses with ease, and did so on occasion. The bread certainly, in two recorded instances, to thousands, miraculously multiplied. Circuses not so much, but then he did create hundreds of litres of the finest wine out of ordinary water, all to celebrate a wedding, which, as I can attest from wide and varied experience, are often a type of circus.

Being popular for all these aforementioned reasons is not in itself a bad thing, but it is not what Christ came to offer us. Rather, the Son of God became Man so that we might become like God, to bring us eternal life, by and large leaving the mundane things of this temporary existence to our own enterprise, initiative and intelligence. Pope John Paul II declared in Centesimus Annus that the primary purpose of the state, or “Caesar” in Christ’s time, was to provide such security, including a “strong juridical framework,” within which a private economy, providing us with so many sorts of “bread and circuses,” could flourish with confidence and ease.

Yet there is a danger lurking here, when this is all the people want, and especially when they want it at any cost. At the risk of historical simplification (simplism?), such was the case with Hitler, to whom we may presume Pope Francis was alluding in his comment on populism. Hitler promised to provide the German people with a sense of nationhood, economic prosperity and pride in their race, which he did, but they would pay for it, and pay for it dearly. As God warned the people of Israel, seek not a king, who will dominate you in ways you do not expect; follow rather the Lord, who will shepherd you in mercy and goodness.

Regardless of what extremist allusions are made by the secular left, Trump is no Hitler, nor, from what little I can see, is Assad in Syria. Are they populists? One might posit that every earthly leader has at least a tinge of populism, some more than others, often chosen because of characteristics that do not necessarily make him a good leader, even with qualities that likely make him an incompetent or even bad leader. Recep Edrogan in Turkey just had himself “voted” unprecedented executive and legislative powers of governance, a troubling sign. Some warn that he is building up a personal, and very powerful, caliphate in the formerly secularist Turkish state. Time will tell, as it does with all things.

Trump’s fame and fortune helped him win the presidency, but he also had a message that resonated with the hoi polloi, of in some way seeing through the very populism that helped get him, and so many others, elected. One might argue that he has populist tendencies, yet also, curiously, he is an anti-populist, or at least perceived as such. What he is not, and what we should not see him as, is a savior, but we can hope he will do some good with what authority he has been given.

After the panoply of leaders through history, popular all in some way, the ultimate, and final, “populist” will be the Antichrist, that mysterious figure who, as the Catechism declares (#675-677), will offer a “secular messianism,” a “salvation” limited to the horizons of this life and this world alone, with all of its rather transitory pleasures and delights. The price this “man of iniquity” will demand for what he gives, as tradition goes, is apostasy from the truth, and rejecting the true Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, without Christ, what is left? Regardless of how much and varied the pleasures we could imagine (and, to paraphrase Han Solo to Princess Leah in the first (or is that the fourth?) Star Wars, we could all “imagine quite a bit,” without God, as Pope Benedict teaches in Spe Salvi, such unending earthly pleasures would eventually become a kind of “hell” (cf., #12-13). Revelation tells us that many will be deceived by such pomps and wiles of the Evil One, and his ministers on earth will be rather popular for a time, and half a time. We can only hope that we don’t find ourselves amongst those led astray, and that those who are, wake up before it is too late.

When they tried to make Christ a king, which would have meant becoming just such a kind of “anti-Christ,” he escaped out of their grasp, for his mission was to found a “more lasting kingdom,” one that shall not pass away, nourished by the only bread that really counts in the end, the epiousios, the “supersubstantial” bread of eternal life (CCC, # 2837). Any sort of “populism” which leads us away from this truth must be resisted, and we must stand firm, even alone if need be, like Thomas More, locked away lingering in the Tower of London, waiting to give his very head for the truth and the integrity of his own conscience. Not everything popular should be, and all that glitters verily is not gold, with the true, the good, and the beautiful often hidden and hard to find, but well worth the effort. By discerning our thoughts and motives in the light of the Holy Spirit, we can see through the popular, or more properly populist, illusions, to the Truth that stands forever.

(Photo credit: REUTERS/Randall Hill)

John Paul Meenan

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John Paul Meenan is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Barry's Bay, Ontario, Canada. He edits and writes at Catholic Insight.

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