Unlike last week, part of my reflection on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, will invite a dialogue on faith and science! However, to set up that dialogue, we need to explore some foundational principles gleaned from the Pope’s writing. At the heart of Pope Francis’ new encyclical is a commentary that could be summarized as “towards a new politics.” One of the greatest obstacles identified by Pope Francis to this new vision of politics is the slippery term, “populist.” Therefore, we will explore what the Pope is addressing when he speaks of populism and then I will invite you to offer your response on this subject as it pertains to faith and science.
The Non-Populist Pope
What does it mean to be a “populist?” In my home county of the United States, I think the term “populist” is seen as a bit benign. For example, our culture has an entire genre of music called “Pop” that lives and dies on whether or not a song becomes popular. In many ways, this simple reference to music begins to illuminate much of the entertainment culture of our country. One of the valid critiques of artistic expression in the United States is that there is little of it that will endure since most of our artistic expression gravitates toward glorifying the immediate and emotional response. As a student of music before entering seminary, it is often said in artistic circles that a culture’s artistic expression often foreshadows its social future. Therefore, an artistic culture that gravitates to the immediate and our emotions leads to a social and political reality that does the same.
If you do a quick Google search on the term “populist” or “populism,” you find some interesting reflections. Most attempts at a clear definition will speak of movements “for/of the people” in contrast to elitism or perhaps a summary of populist political movements. However, the inability to really pin down what this term means in practical terms is precisely the problem. For example, a student of the history of the United States could argue, “Well, constitutional democracy is ‘of and for the people,’ so populism should be at the heart of American society.” On the surface this sounds well and good, but what happens if the “popular” stance of a people begins to single out groups of people as a cultural scapegoat? What happens when the most “popular” view of a group of people, religion, political group, or institution is misrepresentative of who they really are? It is at this point when we begin to see the danger of populism: When truth is what is popular all is well, but when lies become popular it can lead to ruin.
As I stated in my piece last week, I want to explore Fratelli Tutti by looking to what inspired the Pope to pen this encyclical. To recap, the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and Pope Francis signed an historic statement of condemnation of acts of terrorism. To read the document in total, you can click on the highlighted text. The Grand Imam was appointed as such by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2010 and is the former president of al-Ahzar University, which trains many of the world’s Imams. In Islamic countries, the Grand Imam plays a major role in guiding a country culturally and politically. Therefore, the role of the Imam in a Muslim country is a bit more complex than say Catholic clergy in the United States. There is much that can be said of the pros and cons of the complexity of these relations, but, for the sake of brevity, it will suffice to say in this reflection that the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb wields a great deal of influence not only in Egypt, but the Muslim world as a whole. Therefore, an agreement between Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and Pope Francis would not be taken lightly in the Muslim world. And neither should it be taken lightly in the Christian world.
Writing to you as a Christian, the mere reference of Egypt sparks emotions over the persecution of Coptic Christians by terrorist groups, highlighted by the beheading in Libya of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Amid the emotion of this and other reports of persecution of Coptic Christians in this region, it was encouraging to read Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb’s call to embrace Christians and condemn acts of extremist violence. It is clear signs of hope such as these I look for to have optimism we can come together as a global community, embracing each other as expressions of God’s love in the world, and, despite our differences, develop societies that go beyond superficial civility and plants deep roots to help the common good flourish. I was comforted to see the Grand Imam tweet his support of Fratelli Tutti upon its publication.
“My brother, Pope Francis’s message, Fratelli tutti, is an extension of the Document on Human Fraternity, and reveals a global reality in which the vulnerable and marginalized pay the price for unstable positions and decisions… It is a message that is directed to people of good will, whose consciences are alive and restores to humanity consciousness.” (The Grand Imam)
Why do I start my reflection on Fratelli Tutti with this brief and inadequate reflection on Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb? The reason is that the call for unity he and Pope Francis made in February of 2019 is an historic effort to combat another ‘populist’ movement, which is terrorism. Now, am I saying that the “pop music” I listen to in my car is equivalent with ISIS? Absolutely not. Rather, these two radical extremes display just how meaningless this term has become over time. Here is Pope Francis reflecting upon the very issue at hand that can create a radical sea of interpretations in regard to the term “populist.”
Popular vs. populist
156. In recent years, the words “populism” and “populist” have invaded the communications media and everyday conversation. As a result, they have lost whatever value they might have had, and have become another source of polarization in an already divided society. Efforts are made to classify entire peoples, groups, societies and governments as “populist” or not. Nowadays it has become impossible for someone to express a view on any subject without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.
157. The attempt to see populism as a key for interpreting social reality is problematic in another way: it disregards the legitimate meaning of the word “people”. Any effort to remove this concept from common parlance could lead to the elimination of the very notion of democracy as “government by the people”. If we wish to maintain that society is more than a mere aggregate of individuals, the term “people” proves necessary. There are social phenomena that create majorities, as well as megatrends and communitarian aspirations. Men and women are capable of coming up with shared goals that transcend their differences and can thus engage in a common endeavour. Then too, it is extremely difficult to carry out a long-term project unless it becomes a collective aspiration. All these factors lie behind our use of the words “people” and “popular”. Unless they are taken into account – together with a sound critique of demagoguery – a fundamental aspect of social reality would be overlooked.
158. Here, there can be a misunderstanding. “‘People’ is not a logical category, nor is it a mystical category, if by that we mean that everything the people does is good, or that the people is an ‘angelic’ reality. Rather, it is a mythic category… When you have to explain what you mean by people, you use logical categories for the sake of explanation, and necessarily so. Yet in that way you cannot explain what it means to belong to a people. The word ‘people’ has a deeper meaning that cannot be set forth in purely logical terms. To be part of a people is to be part of a shared identity arising from social and cultural bonds. And that is not something automatic, but rather a slow, difficult process… of advancing towards a common project”.
159. “Popular” leaders, those capable of interpreting the feelings and cultural dynamics of a people, and significant trends in society, do exist. The service they provide by their efforts to unite and lead can become the basis of an enduring vision of transformation and growth that would also include making room for others in the pursuit of the common good. But this can degenerate into an unhealthy “populism” when individuals are able to exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws.
160. Closed populist groups distort the word “people”, since they are not talking about a true people. The concept of “people” is in fact open-ended. A living and dynamic people, a people with a future, is one constantly open to a new synthesis through its ability to welcome differences. In this way, it does not deny its proper identity, but is open to being mobilized, challenged, broadened and enriched by others, and thus to further growth and development.
161. Another sign of the decline of popular leadership is concern for short-term advantage. One meets popular demands for the sake of gaining votes or support, but without advancing in an arduous and constant effort to generate the resources people need to develop and earn a living by their own efforts and creativity. In this regard, I have made it clear that “I have no intention of proposing an irresponsible populism”. Eliminating inequality requires an economic growth that can help to tap each region’s potential and thus guarantee a sustainable equality. At the same time, it follows that “welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”.
162. The biggest issue is employment. The truly “popular” thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our innate resources. This is the finest help we can give to the poor, the best path to a life of dignity. Hence my insistence that, “helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work”. Since production systems may change, political systems must keep working to structure society in such a way that everyone has a chance to contribute his or her own talents and efforts. For “there is no poverty worse than that which takes away work and the dignity of work”. In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people.(Fratelli Tutti, 156-162)
When reading this section of Fratelli Tutti, does it speak to our current political reality in the United States as we approach a major election? Yes, it does. Does it speak to regions of the world where women still lack basic rights to participate in their culture beyond the domestic sphere? Yes, it does. Does it speak to global leaders to distance themselves from scapegoating groups of people as the cancer of their society so they can gain political advantage and power? Yes, it does. And does it challenge me as a priest not to see the parishioners in the pews before me as “this group of Catholics” and “that group of Catholics,” but to see the entirety of my parish as a family of faith? Yes, it does.
Unlike my post last week, there is a morsel of this week’s reflection we can chew upon in regard to faith and science. The starting point for our reflection is this: Are there “populist” approaches to faith and science, both healthy and unhealthy? This question takes on many different dimensions.
Are there “populist” approaches to faith that are both healthy and unhealthy?
Are there “populist” approaches to science that are both healthy and unhealthy?
And are there “populist” approaches to the relationship between faith and science that are both health and unhealthy?
I would love to see your honest, charitable, and noninflammatory comments below (hint, hint, hint.). Together let us explore this theme laid out in Fratelli Tutti. Let us give thanks that Pope Francis and the Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb are trying to lay the groundwork for a peaceful society. And let us move away from a culture of combative emotionalism that, at its worst, leads to violence and division. Instead, let us move toward a culture of encounter, embracing the equal dignity we all have as children of God.