gaudium

Now it’s certain. This will be a populist papacy. Denunciations of unfettered free market economics in Evangelii Gaudium —“an economy of exclusion and inequality”—attracted a great deal of attention in the secular press. But for the most part commentators ignore the fact that Francis’ populism has a very strong ecclesial dimension as well.

R.R. Reno He calls for a renewed commitment to evangelization. It’s something we all can do. This does not require a capacity for acute theological analysis or familiarity with subtle apologetic arguments. Instead, what’s needed is a lively faith.

He exhibits a similar ecclesiastical populism when it comes to clergy. In a long section, perhaps the longest in the document, he details the many things that go into the preparation and delivery of good homilies. None require specialized expertise. All grow out of basic Christian virtues. The everyday priest can make an outsized difference—if he gives himself to Christ and his people.

In these and other ways, Pope Francis expresses a fundamental trust in the ability of ordinary Christians to be effective missionaries. He speaks of “the people’s mysticism.” The Church’s most powerful witness often comes from below—if we will but allow them to be heard.

When Pope Francis takes up social issues he largely employs on a similar populism. We are by now familiar with his views of free market capitalism: idolatry of money, rejections of “the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation,” and so forth.

I find most of these generalizations overheated. But his intuitions are sound. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union global realities were framed by the conflict between the two super-powers. Today, world politics is being shaped by global capitalism. It’s China’s rapidly rising GDP that is the game changer, not its ideology.

The powerful forces of capitalism are transforming societies, including our own. (It is always destroying as it creates.) Some of these transformations bring great benefits. Life expectancies rise in the developing world. But it’s foolish to imagine they don’t bring all sorts of evils.

Because global capitalism often destroys traditional forms of social organization, it tends to make people more vulnerable, especially the poor, even when they’re less poor than they used to be. It’s foolish to imagine that ready availability of TVs in the slums of Buenos Aires makes up for the loss of the finely woven social safety net of a traditional village, however impoverished. Yes, people move there because they rightly see the modern market economy as the source for greater material well-being. But they also rightly want to be an integral part of a larger society in which their voices are heard and needs addressed.

By my reckoning, it’s this vulnerability—the danger of becoming an anonymous, throw-away person in a global economic machine—that Pope Francis wants us to see. He urges that we “eliminate the structural causes of poverty.” That’s been tried, without success. More germane to the social problem is his call for “small daily acts of solidarity.” We may not be able to win a war on poverty. But we can share our lives—and our society—with the poor.

Evangelii Gaudium suffers from the usual dangers of populism. Pope Francis tends to overestimate the latent power of the people. Yes, we’re all called to be missionaries for Christ. But for the most part we’re ineffective without the inspiration and leadership of faithful nuns, priests, and brothers.

The same goes for social problems. The framers of the Constitution recognized the need for virtue. Only a self-governing people can govern themselves. But they accounted for human weakness and designed a system of checks and balances to neutralize as much as possible vice’s bad consequences. We need the Church to exhort us to overcome our bondage to self-interest, but it’s unwise to build a political philosophy on the assumption that we will.

Moreover, populism often encourages harsh and unbalanced denunciations of the status quo. After all, somebody must be suppressing the latent wisdom and virtue of the people! Wicked Wall Street. The Cross of Gold. Jewish Bankers. Capitalist Roaders.

In his own way Pope Francis succumbs to this tendency of populism. He consistently talks about the Church in semi-Manichean terms: the hide-bound, self-protective institutional church on one side and the innovative church-of-the-people on the other. He also participates in the populist view that poverty is caused by “financial speculation.” He’s even said elsewhere that financial powerbrokers decide who lives and dies. But capitalism is a complex system that blends into politics and culture, which is why today the problems of global capitalism can’t be localized. They increasingly have to do with who we are, not just as individual nations, but as a global community, as the Pope suggests in other passages.

Missteps and rhetorical exaggerations aside, Evangelii Gaudium reflects Francis’s discernment of the signs of the times. He intuits the ways in which globalization is dissolving old certainties, old social forms, old modes of being. This is plain to see in economics and politics. It’s even happening in the Church, which is very much in this world even if she is not of it.

I’m generally ambivalent about populism. But for a long time we have subscribed to the cult of the expert. Today we have a global elite—not just financial, but also scientific, cultural, and political—that presents itself as the solution to problems created by globalization. Think Davos. Under such circumstances I’m more than happy to endure some of the dangers of populism.

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here . Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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