ROME – Though populism may seem the wave of the future, most recently with Italy’s powerful foreign minister dangling the prospect of a “Rome/Warsaw axis” in Europe premised on an anti-immigrant line, a Rome conference on Thursday offered a reminder that populism also has a long past.
“Populism is an ancient malady. Even Christians have been faced with its force,” said Father Rocco D’ambrosio, a diocesan priest and professor of Political Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University, in an interview with Crux Jan. 10.
“The populist uses the people, he makes a generic reference to ‘the people’ but in the end wants to bring forward his politics, his vision,” he said.
D’ambrosio spoke at a conference titled “Power and populisms” along with Vincenzo Buonomo, dean of the Gregorian, as part of a cycle of lectures commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
In late December, Italian left-wing representatives marched to oppose the creation of a school for future conservative leaders in a small town less than two hours away from Rome. Behind the project is Steve Bannon, the renowned populist puppeteer and architect of the rise to power of President Donald Trump, who hopes to extend his influence to Europe in part by appealing to Catholic conservatives.
The location for the school is the Trisulti monastery under the patrimony of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, an organization with strong ties to conservative Catholics and Pope Francis critics.
“The objective of the academy of the Judeo-Christian West is to promote the religious foundations in our societies,” said conservative writer Benjamin Harnwell, Founder and President of the Board of Trustees of the foundation, during a public appearance Dec. 29 in central Italy.
In an interview with Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, Bannon praised the current Italian political coalition – a one-of-a-kind chimera of left-wing and right-wing populists – and proposed it as a model to be imitated in other parts of Europe.
But the injection of Bannon’s political ideas into the European, and especially Catholic, contexts raised some concerns for the academics speaking at the conference.
Today’s populist leaders, or “new Caesars,” said D’Ambrosio, “are immature, corrupt, with monolithic institutions at their back and are weary of measures of control.”
And while populists generally “don’t tolerate genuine and authentic power relations,” he continued, “they are eager to self-replicate and expand their model in every direction.”
This includes the Catholic side of things, he said, where clergy and lay people disenfranchised with Francis’s policies and leadership style have clung to the populist ideals of reverting to a glorified Medieval view of citizenship and identity.
“I think it’s a Christian cultural deficit,” said D’ambrosio of the Catholic adherence to populist politics, calling out the United States as a ground zero of what he defined as the “great marriage between the political right and right-wing Catholics.”
According to the scholar and author of the book “Will Pope Francis Pull it Off?” the pontiff’s social push for the poor is often misunderstood in the United States, leading to a general refusal of his vision.
“Take a young person, a 20 or 30-year-old in the United States. He grew up with most priests and bishops telling him that being a faithful Christian means fighting for certain principles such as bioethics, sexual morality and family morality – which are important, no doubt – but setting aside all the others such as peace, justice, commitment toward immigrants, solidarity, fighting poverty and corruption etc,” he explained.
While translating his book for a U.S. audience, D’Ambrosio realized that “when the pope talks about certain topics he is perceived as a stranger, because he says things that are not considered Christian by this faction,” he said.
The problem may be particularly evident in the United States, the scholar noted, but conservatives in other countries are not immune to this disconnect toward Francis. Many Catholics, he said, “take a part of the Christian teaching, exclude another and, on a practical level, tie themselves to those who have a populist vision of politics.”
But if populism is the symptom of a disease, D’Amrosio said Catholic teaching and spirituality has a chance to deliver the cure.
While populists call for a return to the beginnings, where things can be made right again, the Catholic Church “can lead to the rediscovery of the anthropological and ethical foundations” of an increasingly ill society, he said.
In a 2017 interview with the German weekly Die Zeitrendeva, Francis said that “Populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century proved,” a message echoed by the speakers at the conference in Rome, who at the same time urged people not to lose hope.
“If populism is a perversion, then we must recover humanity,” D’Ambrosio told Crux, “We must not despair. History teaches that whenever there have been forms of perversion of politics they also generated, quietly, forms of resistance to this perversion.”
The United States is the emblem of welcoming, integration and inclusion, he said, and it’s hard to imagine that the very spirit which made the country great was only a 250-year-long trend.
“I am convinced that the DNA of the U.S. is welcoming, integration and multiculturalism, and that [populism] is a serious disease, of walls and closure,” D’Ambrosio added.
He recalled that in the Italy of 1926, in the wake of a global war and during the rise to power of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini – strengthened by the populist writings of the French writer Charles-Marie Gustave Le Bon – the priest and politician Father Luigi Sturzo urged his countrymen to be the seed that grows under the snow.
“Let’s hope that the DNA has the strength to beat the malady, that the malady is not chronic but transitory,” he said. “Under the snow, the seed.”