ROME — Projected gains by populist-nationalist parties in Sunday’s European elections jeopardize European unity and may create a new “ideological iron curtain,” the largest online U.S. Catholic news outlet reported Sunday.
Writing for Crux, faith and culture correspondent Claire Giangravè said that recent pronouncements by Pope Francis and a number of bishops suggest that the Catholic hierarchy realizes that the “soul of Europe” is in the balance.
“As new fractures emerge at the seams of the European Union, the pope and his bishops seem keenly aware of the current battle for the soul of Europe, which, in light of populist gains, risks creating a new ideological iron curtain,” Giangravè wrote.
The pope has grown more and more critical of rising populist and sovereigntist sentiment in Europe, and his rhetoric has become sharper as a result.
In January of 2017, the pope distinguished between what he saw as good populism and bad populism. A good, grassroots populism happens when it is the people who are “the protagonists,” he said, whereas a bad populism involves a cult of personality where a charismatic figure like Hitler rises to power and is welcomed as a sort of messiah.
“For me the most typical example of populism in the European sense is the Germany of 1933,” Francis said. After Hindenburg, “Germany tries to get back up, searches for its identity, looks for a leader, someone to give it back its identity and a youngster named Adolf Hitler says, ‘I can do it; I can do it.’”
Whereas the first sort of populism is a good thing, the latter can be very dangerous, he said.
In more recent addresses, however, Francis has tended to leave aside such distinctions and denounce populism outright.
In January of this year, the pope warned a group of diplomats that populism is “weakening the multilateral system.”
Populist tendencies “undermine the vocation of international organizations to be a space for dialogue and meeting for all countries,” he said.
In that address, the pope lamented the “re-emergence of tendencies to pursue and prioritize individual national interests without resorting to those instruments that international law provides to resolve disputes and ensure respect for justice, including through international courts.”
The rise of populism, the pope suggested, is partly due to the inability of the multilateral system to offer effective solutions to unresolved situations, and in part it “is the result of the evolution of national policies, more and more frequently determined by the search for an immediate and sectarian consensus, rather than by the patient pursuit of the common good.”
Last month, the pope employed stronger language still, suggesting that populism is born of fear and comparing the contemporary growth of populism in Europe to Hitler’s Germany.
“I see that many people of good will, not only Catholics, are a bit gripped by fear, which is the usual message of populism,” the pope told reporters.
“They sow fear and then make decisions. Fear is the beginning of dictatorships,” he said. “Let’s go back to the last century, to the fall of the Weimar Republic. I repeat this a lot. Germany needed a way out and, with promises and fears, Hitler came forward.”
“We know the result. Let’s learn from history, this is not new: To sow fear is to make a harvest of cruelty, closures, and even sterility,” he said.
The pope has adapted his message to address challenges currently facing Europe and bears political overtones, Ms. Giangravè proposed in her essay Sunday.
“A quick look at Francis’s agenda in the past few months shows a heightened sensitivity to the European Union in this delicate stage, and it sends a clear message that the Church stands on the side of the poor, immigrants and the marginalized,” she said.
“The pope’s informal EU campaign doesn’t stop at photo-ops with immigrants, but it reflects a two-pronged approach,” she wrote. “The first sees high-profile clerics and bishops’ conferences push the agenda through interviews, publications and voter’s guides, while the second can be read through the lens of countries Francis has visited and will soon visit.”
As part of this strategy, the pope’s upcoming visit to Romania is especially important, she proposed.
Following the “divisive” European elections, the pope’s trip to Romania becomes an opportunity to bring strength, support, and visibility, “to the one country on the Eastern front of the EU that hasn’t joined the populist choir,” she said.
While many of Europe’s most visible prelates are echoing the pope’s insistence on multilateralism, immigration, and climate change, there are also those who seem unconvinced with current emphases.
A notable example is Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, the highest ranking African in the Vatican curia, who has insisted that mass migration is not good for Africans and risks subjecting them to a new form of slavery.
Last month, Cardinal Sarah said that those who use Christianity to encourage migration misrepresent the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is wrong to “use the word of God to promote migration,” the cardinal said, adding that using the Bible to promote migration constitutes a “false interpretation” of Scripture. It is better “to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to Europe,” he said.
Sarah said that the Church was wrong to push for migration into Europe, because most African immigrants wind up “without work or dignity” and assume the condition of slaves.
“Is that what the Church wants?” he asked, adding that the Church should not support “this new form of slavery that is mass migration.”
Several days later, Cardinal Sarah went still further, saying that a Church of migration and ecology is “of interest to no one” and that it risks becoming just another NGO if it focuses on these “horizontal” issues rather than preaching Jesus Christ.
Some Catholic leaders urge the Church “not to speak about God, but to throw itself body and soul into social problems: migration, ecology, dialogue, the culture of encounter, the struggle against poverty, for justice and peace,” he said in an interview with La Nef.
While all of these problems are, of course, important, “a Church such as this is of interest to no one,” he said.