As his words and public gestures confirm, Francis is a people's pope, not a populist, and as genuine as he is popular with ordinary folk.
BUENOS AIRES — The Argentine Church has made a point in the past few decades to distance its thinking from both Marxism and capitalism, and this explains in part its sympathies for "Peronism", that overarching national movement that combines ideological elements of both Left and Right.
It would otherwise be difficult to explain why so many priests in our country have felt (and still feel) sympathy for this "third position" represented by General Juan Domingo Perón and his political successors. Many Argentinian Catholics feel in their hearts that Justicialism — the mother doctrine of Peronists — helps maintain certain Christian values dear to patriots who are otherwise lukewarm to some of the movement's other values, like cultural pluralism, democratic politics or the separation of powers.
Also, Peronism understands relations between the Church and politics in an integral manner close to the views of some Catholics.
But it would be misleading to cite this relationship in order to explain the discourse of our Argentine Pope. Previously when he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio took his distance from liberation theology for the Marxist outlook it often revealed in analyzing the social realities of its time. The matter is further complicated by his tendency to equate liberalism with capitalism, which he in turns views as essentially unfettered and lawless capitalism.
If Pope Francis seems ambivalent in his references to populism, one must first consider how he understands the "people," a recurrent term in his thought and the theological thrust he has espoused. Words may not necessarily coincide in different minds, and one can misinterpret those uttered by the Pope by slotting them into predetermined categories alien to his own particular conceptions.
One may usefully refer here to the two theologians closest to Francis's thinking. One, Carlos Galli, the former dean of the theology department at the Argentine Catholic University (UCA), and member of the International Theological Commission, was recently interviewed in Madrid. Asked about the populism often attributed to the pontiff, he responded that the Pope is "popular because he loves God's people. He is not populist. He is popular for the warmth of his treatment. It is where the Latin American culture of showing affection and making gestures appears. He is popular because he speaks in simple terms. But you have to see the spiritual and doctrinal depth of his writings."
A populist instead, Galli says, is a "rhetorical demagogue who throws slogans at people and simplifies things to create simple formulae with which to manipulate people." The people's theology that Francis preaches, and which is widely given Latin American origins, is not "just a theology to express the reality of the Latin American Church ... but one that comes out of the pages of the Old Testament to land in (the reformist doctrines of) Vatican II and express the Church's social and historical dimensions."
Separately, Víctor Manuel Fernández, an archbishop and dean of the UCA, insists the word "people" is one the Pope uses with "gleaming eyes." He values the people as a collective entity that should be the central concern of the Church and any other power. That is not said lightly, when certain sectors in Church and society view the people as a flat mass of defects to be rectified through the educational efforts of "wiser," more prudent individuals.
We must recall that as archbishop, Bergoglio always insisted on priests not just being merciful but adapting to people who followed neither a strict morality nor any regular church routine. He told them not to complicate people's lives with norms imposed from above. "We are here to give the people what they need, we are instruments of God for the good of their lives," he always insisted.
This, I am convinced, is not opportunist populism (though they can call it what they like), but a conviction that the Holy Spirit works through the people and often in frameworks and patterns that enlightened or comfortable sectors of the population cannot perceive. Bergoglio believed these sectors tend to show the same irrational authoritarianism they like to criticize.
Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni shows us a little of this thinking in The Betrothed ("I promessi sposi"), which Bergoglio has read and reread. The people are the book's central character, seen from a truly religious and social perspective. Is it possible then to open new dialogues and debates on Francis, with different perspectives and new languages that could help us understand his complex personality?
Arriving in Rome, one is particularly surprised to see how much sympathy and admiration this Pope arouses in the most varied people, almost in contrast with certain Church personalities and officials. People tend to see him as close and affectionate, human and able to understand existential situations — and a friend of the poor and suffering. The time he devotes in each audience to the sick, to children and young people outlasts that granted diplomats, politicians and prelates.
His voice is heard, and his gestures are made to reach the faithful wherever they are.