By Alexander Görlach

These days, in speaking of the world’s populists, most forget about one very prominent figure amongst them: Pope Francis. Surely, the Pope acts in a way that most liberal coevals may embrace, the same way they cheered for Bernie Sanders? Yet, in the very sense of the word, the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church also appeals to a certain spectrum of his flock, neglects some others, and leads the nave of Saint Peter during an age of confrontation.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio got elected, the first thing he did was break with tradition: he refused to wear the papal dresses designed for addressing the masses in Peter’s Square in Rome. He would later also defy the Papal house by moving into the guest quarters of the Vatican State. Ever since then, he seems to be running an alternative government, an exiled leadership that governs about 1.2 billion baptized Christians. In the Vatican foreign ministry and the diplomatic corps of the smallest state on earth, the officials have not much good to say about their head of state. Not publicly, of course, but in confident conversations, they would point out that Francis does not understand (nor does he try to understand) the necessities of diplomacy. They become especially flustered when it comes to the pontiff’s interactions with the media: he seems to have altered the Catholic teaching regarding homosexuality and divorce. They fear that the faithful may become unsettled and confused about the true Catholic teaching.

Francis is a man of the people. When he calls for mercy, he has in mind the simple, poor woman who has gotten pregnant in a favela in Brazil and now leads the life of an outcast. When the Pope returns to Rome after a journey, he first visits the basilica of the Virgin Mary, dedicating flowers in front of the altar, knowing full well that this is a common practice among common people in Latin America. Among the ranks of the Vatican, the supreme pontiff is just a regular priest of any tiny village in the Catholic world. They say, in other words, that he is not fit to run the office of the Pope. And as proof, they refer to the fact that the Pope doesn’t speak English, and his Italian is poor.

One could argue that without radical actions, change would never be possible — and that is correct. As in the case of Bernie Sanders, urging the party leadership to rethink certain issues such as college education especially resonated with the young and those who long for a more egalitarian society in the US. Yet he did not fit into the official party setting. Hillary Clinton, by working the system, gained the votes of of more than 1500 super delegates. Counting popular support alone, Bernie Sanders would perhaps have won. Now, the Catholic Church is not a democratic institution, but the cardinals elect the head of the church in a democratic process. In the election before, the mandate went to the safe bet: Joseph Ratzinger, an insider within the walls of Vatican City, who ascended to the Holy See in 2005, a throne that he abdicated from eight years later in 2013.

Whatever reasons may have been in detail, Bergoglio, who already was among the papabile in 2005, made it and was installed as the 265th successor of the Apostle Peter, the so-called first Pope. So the left liberal succeeded the conservative and strict Benedict XVI.

Within the branches of the Church a quarrel started, questioning the rightfulness of the Papal election. Now there were two old bishops in white robes. This would, so the argument goes, alienate the flock. Looking into the ascent of Francis, there is more than one parallel to the success of other populists. But this is not the decisive, crucial difference:

Francis, however, does not give in: he greets people on the street using a simple language; he goes to confession at any given confessional in Saint Peter’s. Pope Francis takes advantage of the modern, digital, social media age: every step of his is recorded and transmitted to lands far away. To his critics, he degrades the papacy, the most divine and sublime duty that the bishop of Rome has to exercise.

So what does this Catholic drama mean for the non-Catholics and non-Christians? Francis’ first visit was to Lampedusa, the refugee island in the Mediterranean Sea. He washed the feet of prison inmates, amongst them a woman and a Muslim. He invited Syrian refugees to live in the Vatican and he urged all Catholic parishes and monasteries in Europe to take in one Syrian family. He anathematized globalization and financial capitalism. And delivered an environmental speech to the United Nations that made the preservation of nature a duty to all Catholics who feel bound by the Pope’s word. And “all people of good will,” as it is referred to in his speeches, may feel compelled to consider his ideas even though they may have never set foot in a church on Sunday. This can only be seen as a good thing.

Sometimes systems need updates. What is widely discussed about democracy in the digital age holds true for other institutions like the Catholic Church. The members of any given community may not be reached as you could reach them back in the days. You may need new arguments and new ideas to convince them to do this or that.

For figures such as Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, it is crucial to understand that their agendas need to be rooted in the traditions of their party or religious community. The equation is simple: if you only apply a rhetoric of change, you will achieve nothing. When the Pope called for a Holy Year which he opened in Africa, some Vatican officials shook their head: good intention, but not planned out and well executed. Ultimately, what they fear with the activism of their leader is that all these spontaneous ideas may not bear fruit.

Header image: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons)