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Pope Francis confronts the Covid storm

by
04 December 2020

His new book draws attention to a ‘fake populism’ that has taken hold, says Angus Ritchie

PA

Pope Francis during his weekly audience in the Vatican, this month

Pope Francis during his weekly audience in the Vatican, this month

THE Vatican was in uproar when Galileo declared that the earth moved around the sun. But a new book by Pope Francis shows that the Church can lead rather than oppose a Copernican revolution.

In his new book, Let Us Dream (News, 27 November), the Pope invites us to build a politics in which the poorest citizens are no longer seen as a hard-to-reach periphery, but as the centre around which the rest of the firmament must revolve.

In March, he likened the pandemic to a storm that was exposing our vulnerability and uncovering “those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities”. Published eight months later, Let Us Dream is both a meditation on the realities that this “storm” has uncovered and a call to act on what has been revealed.

The Pope denounces the “exclusionary rhetoric” of a populism that “focuses on perceived enemies, internal and external”. Far from developing popular agency, it “reduces the people to a faceless mass it claims to represent”. Coronavirus has unmasked this as a fake populism — run by and for members of the very elites that it claims to condemn, with little concern for the welfare of the people whose anger they seek to harness.

Yet Francis also warns against a reversion to the status quo ante. This divisive and destructive populism germinated because mainstream politics had lost its moorings in the lives and institutions of ordinary citizens.

 

AS I have argued in my book Inclusive Populism (Comment, 28 June 2019), the Left has its own form of “fake populism”, which claims to act in the interests of the poorest, but, in reality, looks down on their institutions and attitudes as backward and outdated.

In lockdown, this has been particularly evident on social media. Pope Francis offers a critique of “cancel” culture as a “game of power” which reflects “a fragility of selfhood, a loss of roots, in which security is found in discrediting others through narratives that let us feel righteous and give us reasons for silencing others”.

The Pope challenges his readers to move from rhetoric to encounter. As he observes, “we cannot go to the periphery in the abstract.” This Copernican revolution has implications for the Church, calling it back to the New Testament reality of a body with the poorest at its heart, not just a heart for the poor.

Let Us Dream is, above all, a call to engagement: for churches to open their doors to movements of “self-organised citizens” who are acting for justice on issues such as “labour, land, and lodgings”.

The inclusive populism of community-organising is a concrete example of such engagement. Although it is best known for its campaigns, the most valuable long-term impact of such organising is the development of grass-roots leaders, and the building of relationships of solidarity and trust among the people of a neighbourhood.

The Living Wage Campaign is a case in point, having begun in 2001 with a gathering of churches, mosques, schools, and unions involved in east London’s community-organising alliance. It was the testimony and action of ordinary families, and the collective power of their institutions, which won the crucial early victories.

The Pope sees “the people” not in terms of a homogeneous religious or ethnic group, but something woven together by the struggle to build a common life. Here, in east London, where housing allocation has been a source of communal tension, community-organising has deepened the bonds of trust and solidarity, as residents organise together to secure affordable and locally led developments.

He calls on churches both to engage in this work and to offer “spiritual accompaniment” to the organising process. Indeed, Let Us Dream is itself an exercise in spiritual accompaniment. It helps readers to recognise and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their individual and corporate experience.

 

IT IS fitting that this book has been released at the start of this very different Advent. In the midst of Covid, all of us are learning afresh what it means to watch and wait. Today, Christians wait for a God who became flesh, not in a hub of worldly power, but on its periphery.

The Pope’s vision of politics is shaped by this reality. The Copernican revolution into which he is inviting us is one that began 20 centuries ago. It is needed now more than ever.

 

Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community and the author of Inclusive Populism: Creating citizens for a global age (University of Notre Dame Press, 2019).

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