Europe's populist parties pose a challenge for the church

Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, right, greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, as they arrive March 24 for the European Union summit with Pope Francis at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

Oxford, England — When French citizens vote for a new president on April 23, it will be the latest test for a generation of politicians who've offered radical solutions to Europe's problems. 

At another high-profile election in the Netherlands on March 15, far-right leader Geert Wilders did less well than predicted, prompting many to wonder if this "populist movement" could now be weakening. However, Wilders' French counterpart, Marine Le Pen, will be a front-runner in France's poll. The outcome will be watched closely in the Catholic Church, which is still pondering its response to the populist phenomenon.

"Populism is a serious problem here — and it often reveals deep anxieties and raises important issues," Bishop Jean Kockerols, Belgian vice president of the Brussels-based Commission of Bishops' Conferences of the European Union, told NCR. "But if populism asks valid questions, it doesn't offer the right answers. It encourages people to think there are obvious solutions, and offers simplifications which are tantamount to lies."

Critics say this could apply to Le Pen, whose National Front party has tapped into a vein of nationalist discontent at a time when economic conditions are poor and the country remains under a state of emergency after a spate of Islamist terror attacks. 

In a lengthy pastoral message last autumn, "Recovering the sense of politics," France's bishops highlighted the current "weariness, frustration, fear and anger" that had fueled "profound hopes and expectations of change." But they also warned against a search for facile, emotive options. 

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"The disenchantment of the French with today's style of politics doesn't signify disinterest toward society, but rather an aspiration for new forms of civic engagement and common life," the Paris-based bishops' conference said. "But these won't fall from the sky or come with the advent to power of some providential personality. They'll need work and responsibility from everyone — a change of attitudes and ways of thinking."

The highly-praised message avoided the word "populism." 

But one church leader who did use it was Pope Francis himself, who cautioned against populism in a March 24 address to European Union heads of government, commemorating the bloc's formation under the 1957 Treaty of Rome.

The pontiff recalled the founding vision of solidarity and peace that had guided the EU's founding fathers after "dark years" of World War II. And he lamented the "lapse of memory" that had impelled many Europeans to demand new "walls and divisions" to keep current dangers at bay. 

The solution to today's multiple crises wouldn't be found in "yielding to fear" or "false forms of security," Francis added, but in rediscovering "the centrality of man, effective solidarity, openness to the world, the pursuit of peace and development." These offered "the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism."

"Forms of populism are instead the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and 'looking beyond' their own narrow vision," the pope told EU leaders. "There is a need to start thinking once again as Europeans, so as to avert the opposite dangers of a dreary uniformity or the triumph of particularisms. Politics needs this kind of leadership, which avoids appealing to emotions to gain consent. … Europe has a patrimony of ideals and spiritual values unique in the world that deserves to be proposed with passion and renewed vigor. This is the best antidote against the current vacuum of values which provides fertile terrain for every form of extremism."

As European politics fragment, however, amid popular anxieties over the mass influx of refugees, the existence of militant Islam, the decline of the euro single currency and Britain's planned departure from the EU, not everyone is convinced populism can be deflected by condemnations.

CNS-France refugee c.jpg 
Men remove the roofing of a makeshift shelter Oct. 25 as part of the dismantlement of the camp called the "Jungle" in Calais, France. (CNS photo/Neil Hall, Reuters)

In most countries, long dominant mainstream centrist parties are now under pressure from more radical groups using harsher rhetoric and advocating tougher policies. 

"People have got used to a certain type of government — they've tended to assume everything will be OK if nothing is done differently," explained Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a senior Catholic radio presenter in Poland. "Against such a background, every new kind of action generates unease. But the real question is whether it could bring something good — and this requires patience, not rushed judgments."

Populism has long been seen as a tool used by politicians of both the right and the left, who've pursued power by appealing to popular emotions over hard facts and realistic arguments, often claiming to represent ordinary people against a corrupt, privileged establishment. Opponents say that has broadly described the current nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland, which have been bitterly criticized across Europe for an allegedly high-handed exercise of power. 

But populist claims and counter-claims were used by both sides in Britain's Brexit referendum last June. They've also been a feature of Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, which swept into government in 2015 after barely a decade's existence, and of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has won a quarter of parliamentary seats on a platform of "direct democracy."

The populist label has also been applied to Spain's left-wing Podemos, which was founded in 2014 after mass protests and won 21 percent of the national vote in last year's elections, and to Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany party, which holds seats in 10 of the country's 16 state parliaments. 

In November, prosecutors opened investigations against the Alternative for Germany party, after it published death threats against Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who heads the German church's international affairs commission, for defending refugees and Muslims.

Though less advanced electorally, however, Alternative for Germany has much in common with Wilders' Party for Freedom, which was beaten into second place in the March elections by Premier Mark Rutte's center-right People's Party. The Party for Freedom's defeat was welcomed by European politicians, including Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called it "a good day for democracy."

But some commentators are more cautious. The party increased its vote on a pledge to ban the Quran, close Muslim mosques and take the Netherlands out of the EU. 

Anton De Wit, who edits the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad, says the "general sense of relief" in the church at the freedom party's defeat was tempered by knowledge that many Catholics had supported Wilders. 

"Most people expected a populist rising here, so there's satisfaction our politics didn't radicalize further," De Wit told NCR. "But there's still anxiety about the political divisions here, which run through the church as well. Many Catholics share Wilders' concerns and believe they should be taken seriously." 

The head of Austria's Catholic Church, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, cautioned in a late March interview that populist parties could "bring an early end to the EU," by playing on fears and prejudices, while Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions, also warned they could "shake Europe's foundations." 

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany is poised to do well in September elections to the Bundestag national parliament, bishops' conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx had pledged his church's undying support for the EU and spoken out repeatedly against populist politicians.

Yet some Catholics think a prudent discernment is needed, too, so the disaffection on which populism feeds can be properly gauged and understood. That was the message of the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, in a late March interview with Italy's La Stampa. 

If Europe's recent history showed the "devastating consequences of populism," Parolin told the daily, populist tendencies were also an expression of "profound disagreement" with current developments. The challenge for mainstream parties was to find their own "concrete answers and options for action, without abandoning their ideals." 

De Wit, the Katholiek Nieuwsblad editor, agrees. Many Dutch church members objected when an outspoken bishop, Gerard de Korte of Den Bosch, told Catholics not to vote for Wilders and his party, but said nothing against a rival Democrats 66 party, which won a similar vote on pledges to liberalize laws on abortion and euthanasia. 

"The whole populist movement still has a strong popular following, both vocal and silent, and each European country has its own dynamic," the Utrecht-based editor told NCR. "The sentiments they appeal to won't magically disappear — it'll be unwise and premature to talk of any coming turning-point against populism in Europe." 

Poland's Glabisz-Pniewska thinks the church should tread carefully and should be careful not to identify itself too closely with establishment interests by speaking out hastily and peremptorily against the new radicals. All parties use populist slogans on occasion to garner support, she points out. If some are labeled "populist" for challenging the status quo, then perhaps those who defend the status quo should be branded "elitist" in turn.

"It does seem that 'populist' is often a label applied against parties you don't like, without giving them a chance to have their ideas democratically tested," the Catholic radio presenter told NCR. "If populists are those who defend the rights of those who feel marginalized and unrepresented, then why should this be an accusation? The church should help ensure people are properly informed; but it should also let them make their own political choices." 

Come what may, Europe's new populist parties look set to go on posing a challenge for Europe's Catholic Church.

In their pastoral last autumn, France's bishops said only those who were "indifferent and insensitive" would fail to be moved "by the precarious conditions of exclusion" that many French citizens faced, at a time when rapid international changes were stripping away any "shared vision of the future" and the very notion of living together seemed "fragile, fractured and under attack."

Le Pen's far-right National Front party has vowed to curb immigration and ensure French nationals are given priority over foreigners in jobs, welfare, housing and education. Though unlikely to win the upcoming presidential election, she's expected to come in a close second. 

As citizens, Catholics have to be active in society, caring for "the dignity and future of humanity," the French bishops said, and working for solidarity, justice and peace. But they also have to be upbeat. 

"The endlessly repeated claim that France is in decline will end by eroding any personal and collective dynamism — far from assisting an accounting of conscience, it risks fueling the gloomy atmosphere," the pastoral message said. "The new questions of today compel us to reflect and act, and tell ourselves what kind of society we want. On all these issues, we need to take the time to talk and listen — to ensure the last word isn't given over to violence." 

Kockerols, the Belgian bishop, feels the French bishops got things about right. 

In February, bishops from Belgium and the Netherlands discussed "the growing sense of discomfort in many people" at a joint consultation, and agreed Christian communities had a "clear role" to play in "countering polarization." 

Kockerols thinks the church must be present in the current European debates, especially when so many key issues have an obvious moral dimension.

"We can make a real difference by challenging the decision-makers — and helping people ask the right questions," he told NCR. "But we should also stay above the fray and avoid singling out parties and politicians by name. The church has a responsibility to uphold democracy — and it's possible to talk about politics without being political."

[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering church news from Oxford, England, and Warsaw, Poland, and serving as a staff commentator for Polish Radio. He is the author of several books, including a two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag (Gracewing, 2016).]

A version of this story appeared in the April 21-May 4, 2017 print issue under the headline: Europe's populist parties pose a test for church .

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