Populist movements are making striking gains throughout the Western world. Causes are not hard to find. Recent decades have seen widening social, economic, and cultural differences between ordinary people, who prefer what they are used to, and elites, who favor the global order now emerging, which is run in accordance with their outlook and interests.
That order favors economic and regulatory globalization as well as replacement of family and community functions by commerce and bureaucracy. It reduces local control over the circumstances of life through replacement of informal and traditional arrangements by more uniform institutional ones that ignore national boundaries. The result is that more and more social functions—including respectable religion, which becomes a collection of secular causes, and discussion that is taken seriously, which is carried on within universities, think tanks, and media corporations—become aspects of a single universal economic and regulatory system.
Many of the changes are promoted by changes in technology, for example the developments that have replaced local amusements by YouTube, face-to-face socializing by Facebook, and brick-and-mortar businesses by online commerce. But the tendency also receives strong support from government. International trade agreements are a matter of public policy, and public education is designed to train students for the globalized world their rulers intend.
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Beyond that, government insistence on feminism, multiculturalism, and mass immigration destroys the public legitimacy of traditional familial, cultural, and religious institutions that once tied people together locally. That has political consequences. If “Merry Christmas,” “husband and wife,” and the national flag are provocations, there’s not much common culture left, and without that local self-government becomes unworkable.
These changes also deprive ordinary people of a functional culture—of a system of habits, understandings, loyalties, and stories that suits their situation, reflects their outlook and experiences, and enables them to engage effectively with each other and with the joys and difficulties of living.
Elites today live by their careers, get where they are by keeping their personal affairs in order, and can rely on public discussion to address their needs and concerns. Most other people don’t have careers—not everyone can aspire to become second assistant vice president of sales—and mostly do what they’re expected to do in view of their situation rather than anything more calculating.
When traditional religion and culture are debunked as stupid and suppressed as exclusionary, and commercial pop culture becomes the source of lifestyle cues, expectations regarding conduct lose their connection to the workings of daily life and no longer form a functional system. Music videos and reality TV don’t teach people how to deal sensibly with friendship, family life, or romantic connections, and when they define popular culture the people’s way of life becomes nonfunctional.
The replacement of popular thought and culture by commercial productions also means that fundamental objections to what is happening don’t get articulated. Politicians, pop stars, and commentators see the world through the eyes of their class rather than their followers. They’re outstandingly successful, so the way things are going looks OK to them.
Also, the objections of ordinary people often have to do with their desire to live among people they can rely on and feel connected to, a desire that calls for boundaries, stable social networks, and coherent informal standards. The influential and respectable feel above all that, so they define the objections as expressions of exclusion and intolerance that demonstrate the irredeemably deplorable nature of those making them. The result is that fundamental resistance to what is going on finds expression mostly among real or supposed cranks, and—in a crazier and more destructive form—among terrorists and rogue regimes
In spite of all that, today’s governing elites claim to act in the interests of the people, and it radically weakens their position if the people don’t agree. But why should they agree when their rulers’ thoughts and interests are so different from their own, the claim they act on their behalf is obviously bogus, and their policies destroy the structures of everyday life ordinary people live by? Why shouldn’t the people try to take back the sovereignty the system supposedly gives them and exercise it for their own benefit?
Hence populism, with its virtues and vices. Its rejection of institutions and experts means it can identify basic problems that have been excluded from public discussion. It also means that it rarely understands them accurately or knows what to do about them, and tends to get sidetracked and dissipate without accomplishing much.
Catholic clerical and lay elites mostly side with their secular counterparts on issues of concern to populists. They like to get along with the UN and international NGOs, and have steadily supported the EU and mass immigration. That situation is not surprising. There is a natural solidarity among elites: prince-bishops were at ease with princely rule, and it’s not surprising that managers, bureaucrats, and certified experts within the Church should sympathize with academic and managerial careerists outside.
There are also more specific reasons. For most of her history the Western Church hasn’t had to deal with centralized empires or large-scale movements of peoples. So her history has not alerted her to dangers inherent in destruction of cultural boundaries or rule by a universal structure claiming special expertise. She praises subsidiarity in theory, but tends to take local particularities for granted as situations that may be legitimate but tend to cause problems. Beyond that, many of her leaders, especially since the Second Vatican Council, feel impelled to join dominant secular tendencies for fear of becoming irrelevant.
Among everyday Catholics there is a contrary tendency toward populism. They have the same reasons others do, and are somewhat put off that the Church too has become professionalized and globalized. In spite of the talk of inculturation and supposed attention to the views of the laity, local devotions and particularities have lost ground in the last half-century, liturgical celebrations have come to reflect an international pop culture sensibility, and the gap between the faith of devoted lay Catholics and that of Catholic functionaries has widened. The particularity of Catholicism and religion generally over against secular life has also declined because of a tendency to merge religion with politics that makes it useless for organizing everyday life.
What should Catholics make of all this? It’s clear we can’t align unreservedly with either secular elites or secular rebellions, so the discernment the Holy Father has been emphasizing recently is indeed necessary.
First, we need to recognize the deficiencies of present-day political life that have provoked populism. We know from the principle of subsidiarity that human welfare requires local and informal arrangements to function well. Also, ordinary good sense tells us that government is more likely to be oriented toward a community’s common good if the community is coherent enough to have a common understanding of that good. So Catholics should stand with populists in rejecting secular universalism, and be skeptical of one-sided slogans like inclusion, tolerance, pluralism, multiculturalism, and universal solidarity.
We also need to recognize what populism lacks. It’s a protest, so it has a clearer idea of what it rejects than what it wants. And it’s anti-institutional, so it has a hard time developing steady policy based on coherent and comprehensive thought.
We are in a position to help on those points. On the first, we simply need to present our best Catholic understanding of the world. Catholicism is the religion of Sacrament, Incarnation, and natural law, so it knows how to attend to the universal and particular, the natural, human, and transcendent, without slighting any of them. The loss of that comprehensiveness is responsible for the modern political insanities that insist on extremes of universality on the Left and particularity on the Right.
Also, the actions of the Church should reflect an intelligent strategy for dealing with current tendencies. That means, among other things, disengaging herself from secular and fundamentally anti-Catholic institutions—which include most governments and NGOs—and their projects. The Catechism notes that “regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law … cannot achieve the common good.” With that in mind, it seems clear that in a world dominated by political institutions that explicitly reject natural law the Church needs to maintain her independence and offer an alternative people can rally to, rather than attempt to maintain an illusory influence by signing on to secular causes.
Editor’s note: The column above first appeared February 2, 2017 on the Catholic World Report website and is reprinted with permission.