Pope Francis on Avoiding Unhealthy Populism and Dogmatic Neoliberalism

Highlights from Pope Francis in chapter 5 of Fratelli Tutti:

  • The development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship on the part of peoples and nations calls for a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good. (154)
  • 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. (159)
  • 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….Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people. (162)
  • Everything, then, depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles. Otherwise, political propaganda, the media and the shapers of public opinion will continue to promote an individualistic and uncritical culture subservient to unregulated economic interests and societal institutions at the service of those who already enjoy too much power. (166)
  • The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle” – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged “spillover” does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society. (168)
  • When we talk about the possibility of some form of world authority regulated by law….such an authority ought at least to promote more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defence of fundamental human rights. (172)
  • Charity finds expression not only in close and intimate relationships but also in “macro-relationships: social, economic and political”. (181)
  • This political charity is born of a social awareness that transcends every individualistic mindset….Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person.… Good politics will seek ways of building communities at every level of social life, in order to recalibrate and reorient globalization and thus avoid its disruptive effects. (182)
  • “Social love” makes it possible to advance towards a civilization of love, to which all of us can feel called. Charity, with its impulse to universality, is capable of building a new world. No mere sentiment, it is the best means of discovering effective paths of development for everyone. (183)
  • It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering. (186)
  • Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society….What are needed are new pathways of self-expression and participation in society. (187)
  • These considerations help us recognize the urgent need to combat all that threatens or violates fundamental human rights. (188)
  • We are still far from a globalization of the most basic of human rights. That is why world politics needs to make the effective elimination of hunger one of its foremost and imperative goals….Alongside these basic needs that remain unmet, trafficking in persons represents another source of shame for humanity, one that international politics, moving beyond fine speeches and good intentions, must no longer tolerate. These things are essential; they can no longer be deferred. (189)
  • Viewed in this way, politics is something more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and a bleak cynicism incapable of mobilizing people to pursue a common goal. (197)

US Bishops Congratulate Joe Biden on Winning the 2020 Presidential Election

via USCCB:

We thank God for the blessings of liberty. The American people have spoken in this election. Now is the time for our leaders to come together in a spirit of national unity and to commit themselves to dialogue and compromise for the common good….

Democracy requires that all of us conduct ourselves as people of virtue and self-discipline. It requires that we respect the free expression of opinions and that we treat one another with charity and civility, even as we might disagree deeply in our debates on matters of law and public policy.

As we do this, we recognize that Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has received enough votes to be elected the 46th President of the United States. We congratulate Mr. Biden and acknowledge that he joins the late President John F. Kennedy as the second United States president to profess the Catholic faith. We also congratulate Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who becomes the first woman ever elected as vice president….

What is Our Task After the Election?

Steve Knutson on Unsplash

The votes are still being tallied in the 2020 elections, but Fr. James Martin has already offered a simple reminder about the task ahead:

What is our task? In many ways, it is same as before the election: to work for the dignity of all human life: the unborn, the migrant and refugee, the Black man and woman, the LGBTQ person, the Covid patient, the person without healthcare, the homeless, the unemployed, the abused woman, the inmate. It will change depending on who is elected, but it is essentially the same: proclaiming the Gospel and standing up for those on the margins, for those whom Jesus called “the least of our brothers and sisters.”

Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

The New Integralists by Timothy Troutner: “The book should alert a complacent Catholic theological establishment that ideas once thought dead and buried are resurgent. Integralism clearly breaks with Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty and expresses a commitment to the political disenfranchisement (or worse) of women, sexual minorities, and non-Catholics. That might tempt some to dismiss the book as hopelessly “illiberal” or “outdated,” confident that others will react with the same justified horror—a response that Bouyer anticipated. “Such a reaction is no threat to us,” he imagined these skeptics saying about integralism. “It has become impossible.” But he insisted that this attitude only plays into the hands of reactionaries. It leaves their claims to represent Catholic tradition unchallenged, and it ignores the appeal integralism has to younger Catholics searching for meaning amid the shallowness of modern life. Instead, integralism can only be defeated on theological grounds—by offering a deeper, more expansive narrative of Catholic political thought to counter integralism’s bold but unjustified claims to authenticity.”

Deep State, Deep Church: How QAnon and Trumpism Have Infected the Catholic Church: “Donald Trump has pinned his 2020 hopes, in part, on dissident Catholics who view the church as compromised, the pope as an unorthodox interloper, and their theology as not just compatible with, but spiritual backbone for conspiracy theories like QAnon. What happens after Tuesday, in the Church and in this country, in some ways will mirror this battle.”

Even If Trump Loses, Republicans’ Authoritarian Ambitions Will Live On by Jonathan Chait: “The 2020 election is the first presidential contest since perhaps 1864 in which the principal question is democracy itself. The reelection of Donald Trump, unlikely but terrifyingly possible, would hasten America’s evolution into an oligarchy along the lines of Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, whose illiberal leaders Trump admires and who are, in some cases, working to help him secure a second term….In its original form, the GOP was a radical anti-slavery party, but it abandoned its progressive impulses and has evolved into a wildly reactionary and increasingly authoritarian formation.”

What the election is telling us about the church in this country by Michael Sean Winters: “This election is teaching us all a great deal about our neighbors and their political preferences, about the fragility of our democracy when faced with foreign threats and domestic demagoguery, and about where our democracy is downright sick; for example: the Electoral College. The election is also teaching us all a great deal about our church and how corrupted our own theology of political life has become.”

Catholic encounters with Muslims frame ‘Fratelli tutti’ by Jordan Denari Duffner: “Just days into his papacy, Pope Francis announced that dialogue with Muslims would be one of the priorities of his pontificate. Since then, he has visited numerous majority-Muslim countries, met with Muslim families and leaders, spoken prophetically of the need for Catholics to treat Muslims — particularly those who are migrants — with respect, and performed meaningful gestures that speak to the church’s esteem for Muslims declared at the Second Vatican Council. Though his newest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, never once mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslims,” it is part of the broader legacy that Francis will leave the church on Catholic-Muslim relations, as well as interreligious relations more broadly.”

I testified against Colorado’s extreme abortion law. We deserve better. by Anna Keating: “I didn’t want to explain to them that in Colorado, babies of the same gestational age, who in one part of the hospital would be receiving round-the-clock care from a team of highly trained professionals, could in another part of the hospital be killed without pain medication, simply because they are unwanted or have a disability or because their life, like any of our lives, might be shorter than others.”

What the Church Owes Families by Annie Selak: “The joy of the family cannot be the joy of the Church if employees of Catholic organizations are unsupported in family life. Catholic schools, parishes, nonprofits, and even the Church hierarchy have the potential to model what truly pro-family paid leave might look like—one that goes beyond complying with our current inadequate national policy.”

How my obsession with being different prevented me from being myself by Stephanie Murray: “There is, of course, a real danger in the pressure to conform, and it is good that we encourage children to resist it for the sake of self-acceptance. But if Merton is correct, focusing too much energy on proving to the world that they are different from everyone else can distract them from that very goal.”

The American ‘way of life’ is unsustainable for so many. Is it time to build radical forms of community? by Emma Green: “But the pandemic has also revealed the extent to which a good life felt elusive for countless Americans far before any of us had heard of Covid-19. This is not just a matter of money or resources. In my reporting, I constantly find evidence that Americans feel isolated and unmoored from their communities, unsure of their place in the world.”

Teens Did Surprisingly Well in Quarantine by Jean Twenge: “Surprisingly, teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic when the two surveys are compared. The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020 than in 2018, and the percentage who were unhappy or dissatisfied with life was only slightly higher.”

Seeing beyond Roe by Julia Hejduk: “For all the money, time, and energy expended on limiting abortion access, the reality is that women have the ability to procure chemical abortions whether or not they are legal, and that ability will only increase as time goes on. This means we need to be far more intentional about reducing the demand for abortion, even as we continue to work to restrict the supply.”

When Voting, Issues Matter But Protecting American Democracy is Essential

When surveying the various Catholic arguments over which presidential candidate deserves the support of American Catholics, a revealing pattern quickly emerges. Catholics write compellingly about the immorality of abortion, racism, family separation at the border, the use of force on peaceful protestors, and the death penalty. Many Catholics clearly understand ourselves within a moral universe, one in which God calls us to live in accordance with His Love and Truth; and consequently, our arguments for Trump or Biden invariably draw on moral frameworks and terminology.

We ask questions like, “Does a vote for Biden constitute immediate, mediate, or proximate support of the material evil of abortion?” and “Does a vote for Trump make me complicit in the federal executions carried out on his watch or in systemic racism?”

A prudent Catholic voter not only can but should ask these questions, and American Catholic scholars and intellectuals have provided helpful resources to navigate the nuanced complexities that such questions warrant. Still, intent–the central axis around which Catholic moral reasoning spins–leaves too much room for motivated reasoning to twist and turn us back to our partisan loyalties when it comes to prudential moral judgments.

For instance, we all know the devout Catholic baby boomer who started off energetically supporting Trump, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Trump, and ended up…energetically supporting Trump(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policies and rhetoric on racism, children at the border, Covid-19 disinformation, geopolitical adversaries, the environment, the death penalty, refugees, and more.

On the other hand, we all know the Jesuit-educated millennial progressive who enthusiastically embraced Biden after Buttigieg, Harris, and Bernie lost out in the primaries, halfheartedly weighed serious critiques of Biden, and ended up…energetically supporting Biden(!) while minimizing all his morally objectionable policy positions and rhetoric around abortion, religious liberty and rights of conscience, and other social issues.

Overcoming our motivated reasoning by persistently seeking out high-quality opposing viewpoints—a practice I’ve termed “Agere Contra Political Formation”—would help us better weigh competing policies, but it would still be insufficient for our moral responsibility as citizens. That’s because policy debates exist atop another, more foundational concern, one that Catholic moral theology seems ill-equipped to address: the constitutional order and the institutions that sustain it.

With a moral vocabulary so narrowly focused on individual actions and so contingent upon an individual’s intent, Catholics in the public sphere seem unable to grapple with our moral duty to uphold the constitutional order as a good on which all other policies exist. By arguing over whether to prioritize anti-abortion or anti-racism activism, religious liberty or healthcare, we miss the tectonic fractures that threaten the constitutional order undergirding those debates. We need to return to the basics of democratic civics.

Our constitutional system is not a historical inevitability. It is sustained by people with the will to sustain it. This is accomplished by the legitimacy of our elections, the transparency of our leaders, the reliability of our governmental institutions, and the health of our media ecosystem. These foundational goods of our constitutional order are not issues that inflame hearts or provoke probing Catholic moral reasoning, but they should be. They are necessary for human flourishing in America, and today we find them under assault.

With a sitting president falsely and without evidence claiming this election will be the “most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” incentivizing voter intimidation by calling on supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” and telling violent extremists  to “stand back and stand by,” American Catholic thought leaders should be focusing on foundational civic practices as the moral means by which politicians pursue moral ends. Instead they bicker endlessly over how elastic the term “pro-life” is.

With a sitting president who deployed troops to disperse peaceful protestors so that he could use the Bible as a political prop, American Catholic thought leaders should be illuminating the nature of authoritarianism and its incompatibility with a Catholic approach to politics.

With a sitting president elevating fringe Catholic YouTube pharisees to his Catholic Advisory Panel in order to sustain the GOP’s hold on conservative Catholics, American Catholic thought leaders should be educating us on the scandalous history of Catholics, including those in the hierarchy, who have been complicit in authoritarian power grabs.

All three of these are examples of what scholars call “democratic backsliding,” a corrosive phenomenon that is typically seen in unstable democracies led by authoritarian strongmen.

No presidential election in recent history demanded a similar level of attention to such elemental aspects of America’s constitutional order. Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, and Clinton did not threaten the constitutional order in the way Trump does. For all their faults, they all pledged to accept election results, and the incumbents among them committed to the peaceful transition of power.

In the years to come, American Catholic thought leaders would be wise to reassess the frameworks on which they rely to form Faithful Citizens. If Catholics fail to see healthy democratic civics as the moral means by which we pursue moral ends in politics, it just may be that the American Catholic Church’s attempts to “form consciences for faithful citizenship” are little more than exculpatory exercises for unwitting agents of democratic backsliding.

Michael Jezewak runs “The Catholic Lens,” a nonpartisan weekly newsletter on American politics. You are invited to sign up here