“The People, Mystical Category.” The Political Vision of the South American Pope
An essay by Professor Zanatta has come out in Argentina and Italy, on the “populism” of Francis. The thread that ties together his visit to Lesbos and his affinity for the anti-capitalist and anti-globalization “popular movements”
by Sandro Magister
ROME, April 20, 2016 – When he crosses the territories of politics, Pope Francis blazes new trails. He seeks direct contact, solidarity, with those he sees as victims of the world powers and at the same time the protagonists of the redemption to come. He does not enunciate programs, he performs gestures that he is the first to acknowledge are not definitive. The important thing is that they carry a strong symbolic charge.
In Lesbos, on Saturday, April 16, this is what he did. He let the tears of the migrants wash over him and he brought twelve of them back to Rome with him: three Muslim families carefully chosen – he made sure to clarify – from among those who “had their papers in order,” in agreement with the Italian and Greek states.
A gesture, therefore, that is not applicable to the uncontrollable inundation of hundreds of thousands of migrants “sans papiers,” but that by its very nature highlighted for the world the need for a rational management of migration, welcoming but also selective, at the initiative of the host countries, in this case of tiny Vatican City.
Here is where Francis stops. He leaves it to the governments to develop the necessary policies – in his words – “of welcome and integration, of growth, of economic reform.” Also in his previous engagements with the migratory phenomenon, in Lampedusa, on the border between Mexico and the United States, in the refugee center where he celebrated the washing of the feet last Holy Thursday, he has always stopped at symbolic acts.
But that does not change the fact that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has his own political vision of the whole, which in other moments of his pontificate he has made manifest to all.
In this, Francis distinguishes himself from his two immediate predecessors. One must in fact go back to Paul VI to find another pope intimately familiar with a precise and organic political plan, in his case that of the European Catholic popular parties of the twentieth century, in Italy the Christian Democracy of Alcide De Gasperi and in Germany the Christian Democratic Union of Konrad Adenauer.
When it comes to this European political tradition, which moreover is now obsolete, Bergoglio is a foreigner. As an Argentine, his native soil is entirely different. And it has a name that has a negative connotation in Europe, but not in the country of the current pope: populism.
That the “pueblo,” the people, is effectively at the center not only of the political but also of the religious vision of Pope Francis is something that he himself has implied a number of times.
During the press conference on the return flight from Mexico to Rome last February 17, one of the moments in which he expresses himself with the greatest spontaneity, he even affirmed: “The word ‘people’ is not a logical category, it is a mystical category.”
But the discourses in which he has made manifest in its most complete form his political vision founded on the people are those that he addressed to the anticapitalist and antiglobalization “popular movements” that he convened from all over the world, first in Rome and then in Bolivia:
To these key texts can be added the speech of November 27, 2015 on the outskirts of Nairobi, with the exaltation of the native “wisdom found in poor neighbourhoods”:
The two meetings in Rome and Santa Cruz were attended, in his capacity as “cocalero” activist, by president of Bolivia Evo Morales.
Who was again invited to Rome, a few days ago, as a speaker at the conference organized by the pontifical academy of sciences for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the social encyclical of John Paul II “Centesimus Annus,” together with fellow populist leader Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, neo-Malthusian economist Jeffrey Sachs, and the far-left Democratic candidate for the American presidency, Bernie Sanders:
And on this occasion the pope received Morales in audience and was also keen to meet briefly with Sanders, on the very morning of the departure for Lesbos, afterward seeing himself repaid with extensive public praise:
On Bergoglio’s populist streak, www.chiesa took stock last summer in these three articles in close succession:
On the Peronist sympathies of the young Bergoglio, there is interesting news in a book published in Argentina in 2014 by two journalists in close contact with the pope, Javier Cámara and Sebastián Pfaffen, now on sale in an Italian edition supplemented with new information:
But on the populism of Pope Francis an essay has been published in recent days, in Argentina and Italy, by a specialist on the subject, Professor Loris Zanatta, who teaches the history of Latin America at the University of Bologna and whose last book, from 2015, the fruit of twenty years of study, published in Italy by Laterza and in Argentina by Editorial Sudamericana, is entitled: “La nazione cattolica. Chiesa e dittatura nell’Argentina di Bergoglio”:
In Italy Zanatta’s essay is in the latest issue of the prestigious secular magazine of culture and politics “il Mulino” and can be acquired as a pdf:
While in Argentina it is in the latest issue of the Catholic magazine “Criterio” and can be read here in its entirety:
The essay was translated into Spanish by none other than the director of “Criterio,” José Maria Poirier, a leading figure of Argentine Catholicism and a longstanding acquaintance of Bergoglio, who when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires participated regularly in the weekly editorial meetings of the magazine.
In an interview with Alejandro Bermúdez in a book published in the United States shortly after the conclave of 2013, Poirier said:
“Bergoglio is essentially a political man, in the classical sense of the word. Meaning, one has the impression that he has studied all the scenarios. Bergoglio knew what to do if he ad to withdraw and retire; Bergoglio knew what to do if he had to continue as archbishop of Buenos Aires; and – why not? – he had also thought about what to do if they elected him pope.”
What follows is a brief extract from the essay by Professor Zanatta, which is five times as long and absolutely worth reading in its entirety.
The chosen people
by Loris Zanatta
Bergoglio is Peronist? Absolutely he is. But not because he took to it in his youth. He is so in the sense that Peronism is the movement that sanctioned the triumph of Catholic Argentina over its liberal counterpart, that saved the Christian values of the people from the cosmopolitanism of the élite. Peronism therefore embodies for Bergoglio the healthy conjunction between people and nation in defense of a temporal order based on Christian values and immune from that [. . .] Protestant liberalism whose ethos projects itself as a colonial shadow over the Catholic identity of Latin America.
But then Bergoglio is populist? Absolutely he is, provided that this concept is properly understood. [. . .] On his great journeys of 2015 – Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay; Cuba and United States; Kenya, Uganda, Central Africa – Francis used the word “pueblo” 356 times. The pope’s populism is already present in his words. But Bergoglio is less familiar with another lexicon: he said “democracy” only 10 times, “individual” 14 times, mostly with a negative connotation. [. . .] Are these numbers meaningless? Not so much. They confirm for us what could already be guessed: that the notion of “pueblo” is the keystone of his social consciousness. [. . .]
His people is good, virtuous, and poverty confers an innate moral superiority upon it. It is in the popular neighborhoods, the pope says, that wisdom, solidarity, values of the Gospel are preserved. It is there that Christian society is found, the deposit of faith.
Moreover, that “pueblo” is not for him a sum of individuals, but a community that transcends them, a living organism animated by an ancient, natural faith, where the individual is dissolved in the whole. As such, that “pueblo” is the chosen people that safeguards an identity in peril. It is no coincidence that identity is the other pillar of Bergoglio’s populism; an eternal identity impervious to the unfolding of history, on which the “pueblo” has a monopoly; an identity to which every human institution or constitution must bend in order not to lose the legitimacy conferred on it by the “pueblo.”
It goes without saying that this romantic notion of “pueblo” is debatable, just as the moral superiority of the poor is. It doesn’t take an anthropologist to understand that popular communities have, like every community, vices and virtues. And the pontiff himself acknowledges this, contradicting himself, when he establishes a cause-and-effect relationship between poverty and fundamentalist terrorism; a relationship that moreover is improbable.
But idealizing the “pueblo” helps to simplify the complexity of the world, something in which the forms of populism have no rivals. The border between good and evil will then appear so diaphanous as to unleash the enormous power inherent in every Manichaean cosmology. This is how the pope contrasts the good “people” with a predatory and egotistical oligarchy. A transfigured oligarchy, devoid of face and name, the essence of evil as the pagan devotee of the God money: consumption is consumerism, the individual is selfish, attention to money is soulless worship. [. . .]
What is the greatest harm caused by this oligarchy? The corruption of the “pueblo.” The oligarchy undermines its virtues, homogeneity, religious spontaneity, like a tempter devil. Seen in this way, Bergoglio’s crusades against it, inasmuch as they emulate the language of postcolonial criticism, are heirs of the anti-liberal crusade that hardliner Catholics conducted a couple of centuries ago. Something that is not strange at all: the Catholic anti-liberalism that on the secular level sympathized with the anti-liberal ideology of the moment, fascism and communism first of all, naturally embraces with ardor today the anti-globalization lingo.
Of course, there is in the history of Catholicism a robust Catholic-liberal tradition, devoted to political secularism, to the rights of the individual, to economic and civil liberty. But such is not the family that saw Francis grow up. If the sacred college had elected a Chilean pope, who knows, perhaps he would have fished around in that cultural universe. But the Argentine Church is the tomb of the liberal Catholics, killed by the wave of national populism. [. . .]
In the background, meanwhile, many things are happening and raising enormous questions on the foundation of Francis’s vision of the world and on the notion of “pueblo” that inspires it; and therefore on its efficacy in restoring to the Church its lost stature.
Modern societies, including those of the southern hemisphere, are ever more articulated and pluralistic. Speaking of a “pueblo” that preserves its pure and religiously imbued identity is often a myth that does not correspond to any reality.
Continuing to consider the middle classes, growing by the millions and anxious for more consumption and better opportunities, colonial classes that are enemies of the “pueblo,” makes no sense. So many poor of yesterday are in the middle class today. [. . .]
Also on the political level, the forms of populism with which the pope shares such affinity have suffered severe blows, especially in Latin America, so much so as to prompt the suspicion that they are being orphaned by the “pueblo” that they invoke.
It is no accident that Bergoglio appeared to be disoriented when a journalist asked him for his view on the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina and on the new anti-populist course that some think is beginning in Latin America. “I have heard a few opinions” – the pope stammered – “but on this geopolitics, at this moment I don’t know what to say. There are a number of Latin American countries in this somewhat changing situation, it is true, but I cannot explain it.”
At first glance he is not an enthusiast of this, considering the rather more secular and cosmopolitan profile of the forces that are coming forward to replace the forms of populism in crisis. But it is with these that the Holy Father will have to come to grips. Adored by the faithful, but he too an orphan, at least a bit, of the “pueblo.”
At the end of the audience with president of Bolivia Evo Morales, last April 15, Pope Francis received as a gift from him a letter from unspecified representatives of the “popular movements” and three books on the health benefits of coca, of which Morales himself is a fervent cultivator. And the farewell between the two – the agencies reported – was “very affectionate”:
The president of Bolivia was however fresh from the rejection in his country, through referendum, of the constitutional modification he wanted to ensure his future reelection.
For populist South American leftists, the current one is a very negative phase. In Brazil, in Venezuela, in Argentina, in Peru it is a series of defeats. It comes as no surprise that, in order to resist, Morales would lean on Francis.
He even recommended coca-based drinks to the pope after the Bolivian episcopal conference had accused him of “bringing drug trafficking into the structure of the state.”
And on his return to Bolivia he advised the bishops to “form openly a pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist party.” While on his side he exhibits the pope. Who “is content with what we have done and has told me: You always stand with the people”: