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Papal Populism & Theological Whiplash

By Matt Boulter

For several years now I have had the real pleasure and privilege of teaching “Introduction to Ethics” to undergraduates in a public university in East Texas. Every semester, I have made a special effort to impress upon these students — whose fundamental assumptions about life and reality, I tell them, need to be identified and examined — that neither Plato nor Aristotle trusted democracy. I require the students to memorize my summary of this point: “Plato and Aristotle did not embrace the political regime of democracy because they believed that an unvirtuous populace cannot govern themselves well, and the human race has never seen a particular populace that can be considered virtuous.”

As for democracy, so also for populism, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as

the policies or principles of any of various political [entities] which seek to represent the interests of ordinary people, spec. of the Populists of the U.S. or Russia. Also: support for or representation of ordinary people or their views; speech, action, writing, etc., intended to have general appeal.






This statement above, which I write on the whiteboard and suggest might appear on a final exam sometime soon, then leads to a lively discussion about such contemporary American realities as social media, addiction to video games, the opioid epidemic, the legalization of marijuana in many states, and the inverse relationship between (web-based) information and true knowledge and wisdom.

In contemporary America, is it transparently obvious that ordinary Americans are capable of political responsibility? I dare say that by the end of the class period, most of the students are questioning their assumption about the inherent superiority of democracy in our time, an assumption their culture subtly and insidiously infuses into them, which they — like all of us — tend to swallow like Kool-Aid.

What is the point? Is it that democracy and populism are simply bad? Far from it. I am simply trying register that, for all their benefit and promise, there is a downside. After all, the Church’s ritual of baptism is in one sense radically democratic — even in premodern epochs it placed magistrates and slaves on equal footing before God — and yet the Church is of course no mere democracy.

In both the political world and in the Church, this complex of issues and circumstances — the promise and danger of direct communication with the masses — becomes front and center in a culture of instant, streamed, and virtual mass media. Not only can President Trump disrupt or jump-start the stock market with a few tweeted characters, but Pope Francis can prompt ecclesial chaos with a few off-the-cuff comments from his frontal lobe, delivered to reporters during an airplane press conference.

Some observers, such as Boston College theologian Richard Gaillardetz, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, approve of the pope’s spontaneous style, fitted as it is for the single-size servings of the Twitterverse.

But, as became evident with the pope’s recent decisions on the death penalty, the line between official papal teaching and a single individual’s opinion is not always easy to decide. What began as an opinion voiced in speeches became a change in the catechism. Here, ironically perhaps, Pope Francis shares a certain affinity with the style of President Trump. Precious little distinction or boundary exists between person and office. Plus, one must admit that the Pope’s tight-lipped reticence to address the 11-page, incendiary document recently released by Archbishop Carlo Viganò — alleging all manner of sexual sins (and cover-ups by the pope) — is all the more distressingly conspicuous, given his usual glibness.

Allow me to contrast this off-the-cuff approach with two other ecclesial leaders of recent memory. The first is former Archbishop Rowan Williams, who insisted on representing the will of the entire Church while acting officially in his capacity of symbolic leader (and focus of unity) of the Anglican Communion. Although prior to his tenure he had made known his theological approval of “full inclusion” of noncelibate homosexuals in the life of the Church, as Archbishop of Canterbury he repeatedly advocated for restraint and submission by more progressive provinces, in favor of the majority views of the Communion and indeed of the tradition as a whole.

A second contrast is seen in the posture and practice of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In the same spirit as his friend Rowan Williams, the ex-pontiff writes in the foreword to Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration:

It goes without saying that is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search “for the face of the Lord (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask readers for their initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding. (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

In this way, Benedict made it clear that he was speaking in his role as a fundamental theologian, not as the ultimate teaching authority of his church. Such boundaries are healthy and appreciated.

As a conscientious Anglican priest looking in on the Roman Catholic world from the outside, I find these times strange and riveting indeed. As a tradition-minded Episcopalian, I sometimes experience anxiety at the cultural drift of my church. So often it feels as if we Episcopalians are untethered and adrift upon the most recent currents of a single rivet of late-capitalist progressive opinion. We have our problems and our struggles to be faithful.

Not quite wanting to invoke the dictum that misery loves company, I nevertheless cannot deny that seeing our sisters and brothers struggle — and at times fail — to be the faithful body of Christ in this moment of cultural upheaval is, in a strange way and in a narrow sense, comforting. “We Episcopalians are not crazy,” a voice seems to be suggesting. “Engaging with 21st-century Western culture really is the most strenuous, dangerous, taxing, and messy of tasks.” And yet we have no other option.

Our problems are similar to those of our Catholic friends. We can all agree that no one ever said that our task would be easy.



  1. Are you writing about the sex abuse crisis of the Roman Catholic Church? Here, perhaps “cultural upheaval” has been the best thing to ever happen to them–people are finally stand up against such a horrible culture that allows this. I am grateful for the Episcopal Church and it’s cultural shifts towards women and LGBT. The rest of my family cannot stay with the RC church anymore and now attend the EC.


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