In the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica” – the one before the fateful issue number 4000 that comes out on February 11 with great fanfare, complete with a papal dedication and his umpteenth interview – there is an article of undeniable interest that concerns Venezuela.
The author, Arturo Peraza, 52, is the Jesuit who took the place of fellow countryman Arturo Sosa Abascal, elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, as the new provincial of Venezuela. And he sketches an alarming profile of the disaster into which his country has been plunged by the Bolivarian “revolution” carried out by President Hugo Chávez (in the photo) and by his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
So then, Fr. Peraza calls the current regime in Venezuela “populist,” as were also – he adds – the regimes of Juan and Evita Perón in Argentina, of Getulio Vargas in Brazil, and more recently of Alberto Fujimori in Peru.
A definition that for him is certainly not favorable, as can be seen in this passage from his article in “La Civiltà Cattolica”:
“[In Venezuela] the revolution set out to create a new institutional framework referred to as ‘socialist.’ But [. . .] in reality the Chavista project is a model that in politics can be better defined as ‘political populism or personalism,’ and that in Latin America was embodied by, for example, Perón (and Evita) and Vargas. Today one speaks of ‘neo-populism’ to refer to governments like that of Fujimori or that of Chávez. Here the fundamental key of interpretation is the fact that, rather than an institutional framework (made up of parties and structure), a leader is selected who in some way represents the popular masses. This leader takes on a condition of ‘semi-sovereign,’ in the sense that the sovereignty resides in the people, who, through elections, delegate it to the president elect. He, although appearing from the formal point of view as subject to the structure of the liberal state, in reality departs from it radically, making necessary the social transformation that he himself represents, assumes, promotes, and sets in motion. So the other powers of the state become mere bandleaders for the one who holds the executive power.”
But if we go to the interview with Pope Francis released on January 21 in the Spanish newspaper “El País,” we see that the pope indeed formulates a negative judgment of the forms of populism in Europe and North America, even comparing them with Hitler, but speaks very favorably of the forms of populism and “popular movements” in Latin America.
Here are the question and answer on this specific point:
Q. – Both in Europe and in America, the repercussions of the crisis that never ends, the growing inequalities, the absence of a strong leadership are giving way to political groups that reflect on the citizens’ malaise, in order to form a message full of xenophobia and hatred towards foreigners. Trump’s case is the most noteworthy, but there are others such as Austria or Switzerland. Are you worried about this trend?
A. – That is what they call populism here. It is an equivocal term, because in Latin America populism has another meaning. In Latin America, it means that the people – for instance, people’s movements – are the protagonists. They are self-organized. When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn’t know what to make of it, until I realized that it had different meanings. Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933. After Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, it needs a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: “I can, I can”. And Germans vote for Hitler. Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.
And this is a first contradiction: between Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s positive judgment on the Latin American forms of populism and the simultaneous negative judgment of the provincial of the Jesuits in Venezuela, in “La Civiltà Cattolica.”
But there is another contradiction, again in the judgment of the Latin American forms of populism: between the Bergoglio who is pope today and the Bergoglio who in 2007 was the main author of the concluding document of the conference in Aparecida for the bishops of the continent.
In that document, to which Pope Francis still refers frequently, Latin American populism is mentioned only once, in paragraph 74. And with judgments that are wholly and solely negative:
“We note a certain democratic progress which is evident in various electoral processes. However, we view with concern the rapid advance of various kinds of authoritarian regression by democratic means which sometimes lead to regimes of a neo-populist type. This indicates that a purely formal democracy founded on fair election procedures is not enough, but rather that what is required is a participatory democracy based on promoting and respecting human rights. A democracy without values, such as those just mentioned, easily becomes a dictatorship and ultimately betrays the people.”
So which is the real Bergoglio? The one of Aparecida in 2007 or the one of today?
No doubt about it. His authentic thinking on Latin American populism is that which is favorable, even enthusiastic, and that he has lavished above all in those political “manifestos” that are the three copious speeches to the “popular movements” that he convened first in Rome in 2014, then in Santa Crux de la Sierra, Bolivia in 2015, and again in Rome in 2016:
On the practical level, this predilection of Pope Francis for Latin American populism manifests itself in the affection he has repeatedly demonstrated for champions like the Castro brothers in Cuba, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, José Mujica in Uruguay, as also in his coldness toward the opponents of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, and toward the current president of Argentina, the “liberal” Mauricio Macri.
But there is also a theoretical and theological backdrop for this predilection of his.
In a couple of interviews Pope Francis did not hesitate to define the notion of the people as a “mystical” and “legendary” category.
But there was one occasion on which he expressed this thinking of his more completely. And it was the speech that he gave on November 13, 2015 to a conference of the Romano Guardini Foundation.
Guardini is the Italian-German philosopher and theologian on whom Bergoglio based his uncompleted doctoral thesis in theology. And as pope he says he has taken inspiration from him for a “concept of the people” that goes along well with the “teología del pueblo” of his Argentine Jesuit teacher Juan Carlos Scannone.
The people, Francis said in that speech to the Romano Guardini Foundation, “signifies the compendium of what is genuine, profound, essential in man.” In the people, “as in a mirror,” one must recognize the “force field of divine action.” And for this reason, the pope added, “I prefer to say – I am certain of it – that ‘people’ is not a logical category, but a mystical category.”
The concepts are high, towering. But Bergoglio is a practical man. And from people to populism is for him a small step.
POSTSCRIPT – The divergence described above between the thought of Francis and that of “La Civiltà Cattolica” on the subject of populism is the classic exception that proves the rule. And the rule is the very close connection between the pope and the magazine.
It is the connection that Francis himself confirmed and reinforced in the speech that he gave on Thursday, February 9 to the writing staff of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” received at the Vatican on the occasion of the release of issue number 4000 of the magazine:
“In my work I see you, follow you, accompany you with affection. Your magazine is often on my desk. And I know that in your work you never lose sight of me. You have faithfully accompanied all the fundamental phases of my pontificate, the publication of the encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, giving a faithful interpretation of them.”
From which it can be gathered, for example, that the go-ahead on communion for the divorced and remarried, given by “La Civiltà Cattolica” even before the release of the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” was and is “a faithful interpretation” of the pope’s thought:
In the same speech on February 9, Francis also said that “for a long time the secretariat of state has been sending ‘La Civiltà Cattolica’ to all the nunciatures in the world” and expressed his happiness over the upcoming editions of the magazine in Spanish, English, French, and Korean. One more way to spread his thinking everywhere, and with authority.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)