Is the Pope the Anti-Trump?

Pope Francis, October, 2016. Credit Pool photo by Andrew Medichini
Pope Francis, October, 2016. Credit Pool photo by Andrew Medichini

One emerged from a crisis conclave, the other was elected after the strangest campaign in recent American history. Both have upended traditions and reached outside the usual channels to speak to the concerns of ordinary people. Donald J. Trump and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the president and the pope, are the world’s most famous populists. But they are in conflict.

To grasp why Pope Francis has become the flag-bearer of the global anti-Trump resistance, consider his Feb. 17 appearance at a university campus in Rome, where one of the students who asked him a question was a Syrian woman, Nour Essa. The pope knew her well. Hers was one of three families, all Muslim, he had brought back with him on the return flight from his visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. He has helped dozens of refugees make new lives in Italy. Two families live in the Vatican itself, whose high walls and fortress features are these days at odds with the border-dissolving pope within.

In the courtyard of the university, Roma Tre, where Ms. Essa has won a scholarship to study biology, she asked Francis to respond to Europeans who believe migrants threaten the continent’s Christian culture. Migration, he told her, is not a danger but a challenge, a spur to growth that has expanded Europe’s culture, not weakened it.

“When there is this welcoming, accompaniment, integration, there’s no danger with immigration,” he said. “A culture is received and another offered. This is my response to fear.”

The pope’s populism is not intended for popularity — a fickle thing, and anyhow, his soars far above any politician’s — but proximity. This is a pope who likes to come in close.

As Europe’s borders stiffen and nativist movements gain footholds in elections, such bold assertions of universal humanity, backed by action, have made Francis a bridge maker in an age of wall building. In part because he anticipated the current political crisis long before it happened, his Greek-chorus commentary on the upheavals matters.

“In moments of crisis, discernment doesn’t work,” he told the Spanish newspaper El País in January, around the time of Mr. Trump’s inauguration. “Discernment” is an important word for the pope; it is key to his Jesuit spirituality. He meant in this case the capacity to detect the “spiritual motions” — the presence of good and evil — in events. In times of crisis, that capacity disappears, and projection, scapegoating and hysteria take over. Francis gave the example of Hitler, pointing out that he was elected by his people and then destroyed them.

Populist politicians, the pope said, promise to “give us back our identity and defend us with walls, with wires.” In a letter to Modesto, Calif., community organizers in February, he deplored political leaders who rely on “fear, insecurity, quarrels and even people’s justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a ‘non-neighbor.’ ”

Pope Francis and President Trump provide rich material for contrast. One is, notwithstanding his weaknesses, a spiritual leader of extraordinary maturity; the other, his strengths aside, is a thin-skinned, petulant narcissist. One is a celibate who lives in simplicity and austerity, embracing the disabled and the diseased; the other is a thrice-married germophobe who lived in a gaudy gold tower and mocks the feeble.

And yet: The world’s two most compelling populists have more in common than some might admit. Take, for example, their extraordinary capacity for connection, bypassing traditional methods; their defiance of convention, even their iconoclasm; or their delight in challenging existing elites on behalf of the people. Both seem energized by opposition, even if they respond to it differently — Mr. Trump by ranting and belittling his critics; Francis never directly, but gently, in pointed asides.

Politically, too, they share a beef with globalism. Both, in the broadest sense, are nationalists. When Stephen K. Bannon, the White House chief strategist, says the United States is “not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders” but rather “a nation with a culture and a reason for being,” he says nothing Francis has not expressed often.

Pope Francis, during a visit at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Andrea Bonetti/Associated Press
Pope Francis, during a visit at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Andrea Bonetti/Associated Press

The pope is no mere liberal. Born in Argentina, he was shaped by a movement of Catholic continental nationalism that saw social justice and economic sovereignty as key to a better future for Latin America. He grew up under and was unquestionably influenced by Peronism, a communal movement that in the 1940s and 1950s galvanized working-class and lower-middle-class support against the liberal establishment of the day, rooting its politics in the religious and nationalist values of ordinary Argentines. Although he later descended into autocracy, Juan Domingo Perón at his early best embodied what Francis sees as the purpose of statecraft: He created work, integrated the excluded (Perón gave women the vote), and built consensus around core values.

Throughout his papacy, Francis has criticized the lack of that higher purpose in the technocratic liberal administrations of Europe and the Americas that have dominated since the 1980s. He deplores the way political principles have been replaced by market logic and how governments have failed to defend the interests and values of ordinary people. Speaking to Jesuits in Rome last October, he lamented the loss of “big politics,” the craft of making unity out of diversity and creating what he calls a “culture of encounter,” a society that integrates everyone — rather than a “throwaway culture” in which the poor and the unwanted are cast off.

This puts the pope at odds with Trumpism in myriad ways. His encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” contains a hard-hitting indictment of a politics consumed by immediate results and of the way governments pander to the electorate to the detriment of its long-term interests. In it, he deplores the capture of politics by economics, and politicians who glibly promise ever more growth even as current models of consumption and production are destroying the planet. It is fierce stuff, the fruit of a mind that has spent decades engaged in these questions.

With the students at Roma Tre, he applied the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s famous concept of “liquid modernity” to the economy of the West. Why do developed countries have such high levels of youth unemployment? he asked, adding that the “liquid economy” leads jobless young people into addiction, suicide or terrorism. Against this metaphor of liquidity, he posits a “social economy” that invests in people and opens access to ownership and opportunity by spreading work.

Equally deplorable to Francis is the liquid society, in which family and community bonds are hollowed out by me-first ideologies. Francis, like many popes before him, wants a vigorous civil society that holds both state and market to account.

Because both pope and president are critics of a neoliberal globalism that weakens local ties and benefits educated elites at the expense of the common man, the diametrical opposition of their visions is all the more striking.

The Trump-Bannon response is to chafe at the wounds of popular resentment, promising to relieve it by building walls, raising tariffs, shutting out migrants and dismantling the state to release the energies of popular capitalism. They underpin this plan with a commitment to nurture and promote a culture that is defined as white and Christian, framing globalist media elites as “enemies of the American people,” and Muslims and other foreigners as potential terrorists who dilute or threaten that culture.

Francis sees the surging tide of jobless and migrants as part of the same global crisis produced by dehumanizing capitalism. When he speaks to workers, he asks them not to see migrants as threats or rivals, but as fellow victims of the liquid economy, and to make common cause.

And he helps them act. Quietly, Francis has over the last four years been supporting and guiding a global association of “excluded workers” like garbage pickers and migrant laborers, acting as their visible leader. At the gatherings of these “popular movements’” — two at the Vatican, one in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and recently in Modesto — he continually stresses that deep and lasting change will come when those on the margins unite, creating strong social institutions that deepen the bonds of trust and solidarity.

“Many people are hoping for a change capable of releasing them from the bondage of individualism and the despondency it spawns,” he told the attendees of the second meeting, in Bolivia in 2015.

“I would even say,” he added, “that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three L’s (labor, lodging, land).”

In Francis’s post-neoliberal future, the poor of the world act with the church and civil-society organizations to create an economy that serves human flourishing, while calling on states to receive migrants in solidarity. In Mr. Trump’s post-neoliberal future, former chief executives, billionaire hedge-fund managers and real estate moguls dismantle the state to make capitalism yet more liquid, but use the state to stiffen borders.

That said, the kernel of the rift between the pope and the president is ultimately religious. Mr. Bannon believes the Catholic Church has to be rescued from Francis, whom he sees as part of the global elite (a description that would certainly surprise the pope). Mr. Trump’s chief ideologue has formed a curious alliance with Pope Francis’s archcritic, Raymond Burke, an American cardinal based in Rome, in their shared conviction that “Christian culture" is engaged in a deadly rivalry with Islam — the Samuel Huntington thesis, shared by the Islamic State, of an enduring “clash of civilizations.”

Francis abhors this notion and rejects it at every turn. Religion, which is universal (because God is), can never be captured by a national culture; nor can true religion ever be the cause of terrorism and violence. For Francis, all fundamentalism — whether Christian or Muslim or nativist — is atheism, and all violence in the name of religion is simply nonsensical. (This is what he meant when he surprised many Catholics by describing the slaying of a French priest, Jacques Hamel, by Islamic State sympathizers in July last year as “absurd violence.”)

For the pope, a Christian nation that defends its faith by turning away people in need is not protecting its faith but poisoning it; being true to Christianity requires seeing all as equal creatures of God, whoever they are and whatever they believe. When journalists discovered that the 12 refugees traveling back with the pope from Lesbos in February were Muslim, they asked him why he picked them.

“I didn’t make a religious choice between Christians and Muslims,” he answered. “These three families had their documents in order. There were, for example, two Christian families who didn’t. This is not a privilege. All 12 of them are children of God. It’s a privilege to be a child of God.”

Austen Ivereigh is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope and a contributing editor for the Catholic news site Crux.

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