Rorate Caeli

Papal Populism and Movementism

Intrigued by Caminante Wanderer’s strong recent recommendation, I went back to the following 2013 essay (never before translated into English) to see what it might have to say. Its insightfulness is nothing short of astonishing, particularly as it was published nearly ten years ago (!). Let it never be said that the observant were taken utterly by surprise at the direction of Francis’s pontificate. Here, the fundamental lines are already sketched out. 

Papal Populism and Movementism

Mary Lennox defined the modern Church as “the Church of the warlords.” I found the expression remarkably happy because it denotes certain characteristics of a deformed version of Catholicism-papacy conceived in the framework, first of a “movement,” second “neo-populist.” Allow me to explain.

The characteristic of a “movement,” Perogrullo would say, is that it moves towards something. That is to say, that there is a programmatic agenda, configured by a project with its own dynamis, and a style, that of the Caudillo, i.e., the head of the movement. Briefly: the pope begins to configure himself as a Caudillo, and Catholicism, as the religion of the pope.

There is something very interesting in the Prophecies of St. Malachi, or more specifically in the way of reading the mottoes. Until two hundred years ago, the mottoes were interpreted according to some circumstantial feature of the Pontiff: place of birth, diocese of which he was previously bishop, coat of arms, and so on. But from the 19th century onwards, oh surprise, the prophecies begin to be read in the light of the vicissitudes of the popes: already with Pius VII, “Aquila rapax,” it is understood that there is an allusion—quite rightly, it must be said—to his busy relationship with his victimizer Napoleon. With Pius IX, “Crux de Cruce,” in addition to some heraldic interpretation, his misfortunes and losses are also noted. The same with Leo XIII, whose motto “Lumen in coelo” is doubly interpreted, either because his family had a star on the coat of arms, or because of his new and luminous magisterium. And from St. Pius X (“Ignis ardens”) onwards, the interpretations are charged with historicity, so to speak. I excuse myself to continue quoting, but almost all the following mottos are read in the light of the “program” or the “character/charism” of the pontificate. Among these, how not to forget the paradigmatic “Pastor Angelicus” of Pius XII, which was used and abused, consolidating itself to such an extent as a propagandistic resource that a film of the title was even made.

What interests us here is that the choice of the interpretation of the motto is a symptom of how the popular and not so popular notion of the papacy is evolving, which we understand to be deformed and theologically unfortunate. Of course, the nineteenth-century parva deviation after the Council is accentuated and aggravated.

Something similar happens with the name, especially since Paul VI, who was conceived as a sort of Apostle of the Nations for the world and the UN. The pontificate is understood as a leadership of a “movement” on the basis of a program and a peculiar “charisma” that the name chosen by the pope contributes: the rumbustious pretension of dialogue with the modern world and its poor daughters, inculturation and neo-evangelization that will permeate even John Paulism as the assumption of a “Pauline” charisma.

John Paul I, in assuming his composite name, will make explicit the conciliar programmatic openly, as will his successor in a neoconservative version. The very first encyclicals written by the popes are openly presented as “programs of the pontificate,” embarking the faithful on certain guidelines that emerge from the “charism” of the pontiff. By the way, these programs—as would be the delight of any politician—are calmly attributed to the Holy Spirit, without realizing that if this were the case, the Third Person would be constantly going back and forth, as is now evident, for example, in liturgical matters between the two popes, the titular and the emeritus. Even today, anxious faithful are waiting for the pope to repeal the “hateful discrimination” against the divorced, gay marriage and women priests....

There we have it: a movement, goals to aim for, a style, character or charisma that colors all of Catholicism. A Catholicism defined as papism, but papism of the Caudillo that becomes such by charisma and personal character, not by institution, and that forces the faithful to adopt personal programmatic objectives, whether doctrinal or liturgical.

In turn, the Pope’s basis of legitimacy is mutated by the internal need to adhere to that character; it becomes populism and requires the adoption of desacralizing and deinstitutionalizing attitudes that fill the Caudillo with the smell of the sheep, on pain of running out of the “physical and spiritual strength” required to be pope (as Benedict said of himself). A pope who is not on the move is not a pope, he is a pope emeritus. Worse still if, as his successor says, he “turns back the clock.” A politically incorrect pope begins to be in danger because the populist who defies the media, those masters of public opinion, is in danger of divorce from the people.

Certainly, populism may acquire more conservative or more progressive edges, according to the speed at which this one or that one intends to advance. What is inadmissible is the denial of the “movement.” Whoever denies the “movement” remains outside the “movement,” that is, outside the Church. The program and the charism must also seduce the faithful, be sellable in terms of marketing, generate clientelism: otherwise, it is not popular, i.e., it lacks the populist aspect. Game over, pope emeritus.

Do not be amazed at the similarity that emerges here with the relationship that exists between the neo-movements and their founders—the ideological source is the same, in a reciprocal feeding. Thus, each neo-movement has its little pope, from whom emanates doctrine and orientation according to his “charism”; and the Church has its great leader, seen less and less in his institutional face and progressively more as “charismatic.” The man, with his peculiar characteristics, eclipses the institution ‘pope’ and the institution ‘Church’, which becomes the clay in his hands which he has “the humility and the ambition to reform.” The new name chosen ab nihilo emphasizes the dramatic personalization of the pontificate and the foundational will.

Francis, then, has culminated the process, charismatizing the institutional to maximum and cannibalizing levels. He is also, what aggravates the matter and raises the level of concern, a worshipper of the notion of a “God who manifests himself in time and is present in the processes of history,” faith being “a journeying faith, a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths,” according to the interviews he gives.

How not to remember the Hour of the Peoples and the currents of Perón’s History, which, as the General himself warned, the politician must ride, never counteract.  To try to reverse or resist them would imply assuming the infamous note of a restorationist.