Over its two millennia, the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations have provided a moral framework and powerful force for the development of Western civilization. As institutions, they created room in a dangerous world for art, science, political development, and national alliances. These influences took root imperfectly and slowly, to be sure, but Christianity provided the framework around which the modern West rose and our understandings of morality and freedoms blossomed.
But what can the Catholic Church now teach us about a global populist movement that may rewrite the direction of political thought in the West? "Populism is an ancient malady," Father Rocco D'Ambrosio told Crux's Claire Ciangravé ahead of his "Power and Populisms" conference in Rome last week.
"Even Christians have been faced with its force," D'Ambrosio explained, echoing Pope Francis' 2017 observation of the "evil" of populism. "If populism is a perversion," D'Ambrosio declared, "then we must recover humanity." The conference last week emphasized a return to a broader, inclusive view of humanity and multiculturalism with the force of Christianity to rebuke modern populism.
That message is certainly consonant with Catholic teachings — but D'Ambrosio's focus is too narrow, too ideological, and misses the core illness that promotes populism. The problem is not, as D'Ambrosio suggests in his interview, a fascination with right-wing politics, nor is it limited to American conservatives. The true issue with populism is a failure of institutions, and the Catholic Church is not immune. In fact, the church itself has its own history of institutional failure that should make this point painfully obvious.
The flavor of populism sweeping through Europe at the moment is undoubtedly insular and nationalistic. Ciangravé suggests that the catalyst for this conference is the work of prominent American nationalist Steve Bannon, who is opening a school for populist political leaders in an Italian monastery. D'Ambrosio sees this as evidence that Bannon, having succeeded in fomenting a populist revolt in the GOP and in the U.S. election, is now threatening commonality in Europe.
That ignores the failure of European institutions, long before either Bannon or Trump, to respond to widespread discontent over its refugee problems over the last several years. That crisis began with U.S. and European leaders and their military decapitation of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya. The failure to predict the consequences of a failed state on the Mediterranean and the cultural dislocation of the ensuing refugee flood battered confidence in European Union institutions. It split the relationship between the governing class and the governed, creating a gulf that has convinced the latter that they have little say in the former. In the United Kingdom, the direct result of those immigration and refugee issues was Brexit, a rejection of multilateral authority and a retreat to self-determination that necessarily took the form of nationalism.
The focus of D'Ambrosio's concern in America is also too narrow. Plenty has been written about the rise of the populist right and its focus on borders and immigration, which both preceded and mirror those same concerns in Europe. Donald Trump captured that impulse long before Bannon joined his presidential campaign, appealing to those who have felt ignored over those issues by the conglomerated governing classes in Washington. He also appealed to those who have lost out in globalization and whose needs and concerns were dismissed by institutions and both parties who celebrated the victories of that globalization without doing much to mitigate the pain it caused or to protect against abusive trade practices.
However, left-wing populists have also emerged and might even be ascendant at the moment. Bernie Sanders went from a back-bench crank to nearly grab the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. D'Ambrosio's oversight shortchanges the real concerns that drive populism on the other side of the ideological aisle — some of which overlap with those on the right, including deep suspicion of global markets and the people who benefit by them. Decades of consolidation by mergers and acquisitions in every industry have pushed more wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. Rather than have existing institutions and those governing them check that trend, the people increasingly believe that all the consolidated money and power has warped the institutions into legal and political cover for a small group of beneficiaries.
The 2016 election cycle showed the result of those institutional failures. Americans elected someone who would act against those institutions to deliver populist justice, and nearly had both major-party candidates for options. The corrosion of the legislative process both fuels and highlights this problem. Congress isn't interested in compromise because voters aren't interested in it. And that's because compromise has become a catch-word for the status quo of disconnection and inauthenticity.
The Catholic Church could play a role in revitalizing the ethics and practices of institutional behavior, but it has instead been part of the same problem. Decades of child abuse and cover-ups, some at the highest levels of the church, have demolished its credibility on public ethics and morals, with real-world consequences. It's no mistake that abortion rights movements have sprung up in historically Catholic countries such as Ireland, Chile, and Argentina — countries with high-profile scandals involving the church. D'Ambrosio compounds the issue by casting populism as a political rather than social and cultural phenomenon, dividing the faithful unnecessarily (at least in this interview) into a simplistic and contradictory conservatives-bad, everyone-else-good paradigm. If solidarity is to be the message, throwing in an unnecessary line of division is hardly the way to proclaim it.
Before the Catholic Church can "cure" populism, it has to first properly diagnose it — and then cure itself rather than apply poultices on the symptoms.