Pope Francis was interviewed by Spain’s El Pais newspaper and issued some non-dogmatic opinions on politics and history. Catholics are bound to heed the Pope when he issues solemn declarations, in union with the bishops, on matters of faith and morals. But with regard to issues in the sphere of the laity, Catholics are called to listen attentively and then make decisions in consonance with Catholic teachings and tradition.
In the interview, Pope Francis said, "When I started to hear about populism in Europe I didn't know what to make of it, I got lost until I realized that it had different meanings." He added, helpfully, "Crises provoke fear, alarm.” While the political elites in Europe are aflame with commentary and speculation about the meaning of Donald Trump’s election in the United States, and the rise of politicians such as Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen, the popular support for them has been likened to the supposed populism that installed dictators who led the world to disastrous war. The pope failed to mention how the admittance of more than one million refugees in Germany and elsewhere in Europe has yielded real concern over public safety, the cost of maintaining unemployed and perhaps unemployable refugees, and a concomitant refusal on the part of Muslim migrants to assimilate into the cultures that have so generously received them.
Pope Francis went on to provide some flawed historical analysis.
Referring to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, he said, "In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After [Paul von] Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character, and there is a young man named Adolf Hitler who says: 'I can, I can.'” In the following sentence, he betrays a naivete about how Hitler came to power:
"And all Germans vote for Hitler. Hitler didn't steal the power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk. In times of crisis, we lack judgment."
In the interview, Pope Francis pulled in his horns when asked to comment on President Donald Trump. The pontiff said that it is perfectly natural for people to want to regain national identity when challenged and thus call for border security. Confirming Christian teachings, he said that it is more important than ever to continue a dialogue with neighbors.
Even so, the pope questioned Trump’s Christian identity last year because of his position on border security and immigration. In the latest interview, the pontiff insisted that he has a “wait and see” approach to Trump. "I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he [Trump] acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise.It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not be either."
The sad history of the rise of National Socialism and the rise of the Final Solution is complex but instructive. According to Dick Geary
of the University of Nottingham, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) had no more than 2.6% of the votes cast in the Reichstag election of 1928 but by 1930 it rose to 18.3% of the popular vote. The success of the Nazi party was crowned in the Reichstag election of 1932 when 13.7 million electors (37.3% of all votes cast) voted for the Nazi Party and made it the largest party in Germany. In 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor.
But even at the peak of the Nazi party’s popularity in 1932, almost 63% of the German electorate did not vote for the Nazi party. In November 1932, the Nazi party lost 2 million votes. Thus, argues Geary, Hitler was not directly voted into power.
Pope Francis might want to look into the fact that in the Catholic Rhineland and Bavarian regions, the Nazi party polled disproportionately badly. Writes Geary, “In fact in July 1932 the Nazi share of the vote was almost twice as high in Protestant as in Catholic areas. The inability, of Nazis to attract the Catholic vote was demonstrated by the stable support for the Catholic Centre Party, which regularly gained between 11.8 and 12.5 per cent between 1928, and November 1932; and by that of its sister confessional party, the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which stayed firm at around 3 per cent in those same elections.”
Pope Francis may need a refresher course in how democracy works, and specifically in how the American democracy works, given that his experience is largely limited to Argentina and its spasmodic bouts of authoritarianism and poor governance. His off-the-cuff pronouncements on politics are no more helpful than his recent document “The Joy of Love,” which was largely written by an associate in Argentina and has stirred up debate and not a little amount resistance from upholders of traditional Catholic teachings on the sanctity of marriage, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke.
Winston Churchill's adage on democracy might prove salutary for the pontiff. Churchill said in parliament in 1947: “
"Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”
Pope Francis need not despair of his people nor democracy. It is their enemies, socialism and Islamism, that are to be feared.