There may be a populist movement in the Church, but it isn’t being driven by Francis.
What with the rise of Trumpism and the related hoopla about the rise of populism in America, I’ve been noticing a few headlines that refer to Pope Francis as ‘the populist pope.’ This got me thinking…
If we understand ‘populism’ as an approach to political action that involves appealing to ‘the common people’ and, through their support, bending policy in one’s favor, then we could probably say with some accuracy that this phenomenon does occur within the Catholic world.
We might even agree that something resembling ‘Catholic populism’ is developing in the Church right now. Much like political populism, this Catholic populism expresses itself through certain (very vocal) circles, and within these circles appeals are made, not to the higher authorities of Church government, but to the lower orders, which in Catholic terminology means the laity.
In other words, Catholic populism would manifest itself in an attempt to bend ‘Church policy’ according to one’s will by appealing to (and ‘representing the interests of’) your average, tradition-loving, ‘faithful Catholics.’
So far so good. But here’s the thing: I’m not talking about Pope Francis. I’m talking about his critics.
The infamous dubia were originally directed at Pope Francis, but when he chose not to offer a direct and prompt response, they were made public.
Making this sort of thing public is not, in itself, a bad thing, and there are precedents. But considering the nature of the issue, and the rhetorical atmosphere surrounding Amoris Laetitia in general, such a move could only exacerbate dissent by bringing into the discussion a great number of individuals ill-equipped to deal with it properly.
That is to say, making contentious issues like this public is okay if it facilitates fruitful discussion. Given the nature of this controversy, however, that was a very unlikely outcome. In other words, it was bound to foster dissent, and that is not helpful. In fact, one could probably make the case that it is against Canon 1373, which says:
“A person who publicly incites among subjects animosities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary because of some act of power or ecclesiastical ministry or provokes subjects to disobey them is to be punished by an interdict or other just penalties.”
Obviously we need to be careful with this sort of thing, and perhaps I should state that this is less an accusation of ill-will aimed at the Dubia Brothers, and more an observation that I think allows us to draw an important distinction between Francis and his critics in terms of contemporary politics.
The analogy is weak, but there is, nonetheless, something to it.
In short: If there is a harmful populist current gaining momentum in the Catholic Church, it is not the work of the Pope.