ROME – In a forward for a new book dedicated to the so-called “popular movements” prominent in South America, Pope Francis said the groups are an alternative to the wave of populism spreading through much of global society.
A vocal critic of populist politics, Francis said the “antidote to populism and show-politics is the leading role of organized citizens, especially those who create – as is the case of so many experiences present in the movements – in their daily lives, fragments of other possible worlds which fight for surviving the darkness of exclusion.”
Rather than a political ploy, popular movements are aimed at building the principles of solidarity and the common good, he said, adding that they demonstrate the “strength of us,” and serve as a remedy to the “culture of the self” which seeks only to satisfy one’s own interests.
Francis’s words came in a forward he wrote for a new book put out by the Vatican’s publishing house.
Titled The Eruption of Popular Movements: the ‘Rerum Novarum’ of Our Time, the book was published in July 2019 and edited by Italian Gianna La Bella and Uruguayan Guzmán Carriquiry, who serves as secretary for the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, making him one of the highest-ranking laypeople in the Roman Curia.
The mention of Rerum Novarum, or “Of the New Things,” in the title is a reference to Pope Leo XIII’s May 1891 encyclical on the “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” outlining the at times unjust condition of the working class and reflecting on the relationships between labor and capital, the government and its citizens.
Available in Spanish, the new book focuses on two central themes: The words of Francis, and popular movements in different countries and continents. It features articles from scholars, experts, journalists and ecclesiastics, including Cardinal Peter Turkson who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, and Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, one of two undersecretaries for the dicastery’s Migrants and Refugees section.
Other articles were penned by Juan Grabois, founder of the World Meeting of Popular Movements; Gustavo Carrara, auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires; and Silvina Perez, head of the weekly Spanish edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Popular movements themselves are essentially a collection of non-governmental organizations, especially prominent in Latin America, representing those with “humble” trades such as street vendors, fishermen, farmers and “cartoneros,” meaning people who sift through garbage looking for recyclable goods.
As an Argentine, Francis has a personal familiarity with many of these movements, and the relationship he has forged with them as Bishop of Rome has in some ways set the tone for his papacy.
In the “old days,” or at least in the pre-Francis era, the pope’s annual meeting in January with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See was widely considered the Roman Pontiff’s most important annual policy speech, during which he would outline his agenda items for the year to come.
Yet according to some observers, this has changed with Francis, as the speech to diplomats is typically prepared by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and the pontiff instead often highlights his top priorities at other venues.
Often, this has involved the popular movements, with whom he’s met several times in his six years in office, both during international trips and at the Vatican.
It is during these meetings that some of his most candid language has been used, and it is in these speeches that he has most clearly outlined his thoughts and goals. It is also these speeches which have provoked the most controversy in the United States, since he has often condemned capitalism, which he at one point called “a new tyranny.”
In his forward for the book, Francis called popular movements a source of “moral energy” capable of revitalizing global democracies, which he said are “increasingly limp, threatened and under scrutiny over countless factors.”
He said the emergence of this “archipelago” of groups and associations contained in popular movements, which include homeless and peasants among their ranks, is an “unprecedented event” in the recent history of the Church and offers a renewal that will lead to “a great social transformation.”
“The future of humanity is not only in the hands of the great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of the people,” he said, and underlined several points he hoped would offer “a renewed sense of humanity and justice” to those who govern, helping to mitigate the “hostile conditions” in which many of the world’s poor currently live.
Through their lives, work, testimony and suffering, the pope said, popular movements and those in them constitute a “great social alternative” to the “tyranny of money” which he said governs much of the world’s economic mentality.
Francis said global society is currently undergoing a phenomenon he described “more as a time of change than a change of times.” One of the most obvious illustrations of this “mutation,” he said, “is the transnational crisis of liberal democracy, which is the result of human and anthropological transformation.”
This is the product of the so-called “globalization of indifference,” which he said has made an idol of fear and security. One of the most tangible signs of this, he said, “is the familiarity that so many have with weapons and the culture of contempt that is characteristic of our time and which has been defined by some as ‘the age of rage.’”
Francis said fear is being used as a means of manipulation. Calling it “the creative agent of xenophobia and racism,” he said fear has become “a terror sown in the peripheries of the world, with looting, oppression and injustice, which explodes as we have seen in our recent past also in the centers of the Western world.”
Pointing to growing economic, social, relational and intergenerational inequalities, Francis said this trend is among the most serious challenges that humanity will have to measure itself against in coming decades.
He criticized the global system of economics, which he said is increasingly void of ethics and “privileges profit and stimulates competition,” leading to a concentration of power and wealth that excludes the weak and creates millions of poor, who often find themselves in prison or disillusioned, lacking a meaningful future.
“We must put an end to this hell,” he said, insisting that popular movements resist systems that degrade others and spark envy and oppression. By their life and actions, movements, he said, show that gratuity and equality “can also make the gross domestic product grow.”
Popular movements, the pope said, contradict the modern “throwaway culture” by defending people of all ages and states of life and working to create “an artisanal and popular economy” based on solidarity. He argued that their political advocacy can help “defeat the politics of false prophets,” who exploit fear and despair.
Francis closed insisting that everything he’s said to popular movements “is in full harmony with the Social Doctrine of the Church and with the Magisterium of my predecessors,” and he voiced hope that the book would continue to reinforce the work of popular movements.
Both the dreams and struggles of those in the movements, he said, point to “the urgency of a new humanism” and the need “to end the illiteracy and the progressive eclipse of culture and the notion of the common good.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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