Pope Francis has granted another long interview, this time to two Spanish journalists writing for the daily El Pais of Madrid, Spain. The interview was conducted on Friday, January 20, in the Domus Santa Marta, where the Pope lives, and published today in Spain. There are already complete versions of the text in English and Italian circulating on the internet.
The lengthy conversation ranges over many topics — from how Pope Francis views his own pontificate to Liberation theology to the content of the "secret dossiers" on Vatican Curia officials which Pope Benedict handed over to Francis in a large white box on March 23, 2013, four years ago, when the two first met after Francis was elected on March 13, 2013.
It also touches twice on Donald Trump, the new American president, who was being sworn in as president in Washington on the same day that the Pope was giving the interview in Rome.
The journalists first asked Francis what he thought of Trump and his election to the presidency. The 80-year-old pontiff was very cautious. He stressed that it is too early to judge the new US leader, and said, "let’s see what he does."
Here is the passage:
"I think that we must wait and see. I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he 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."
(Note: One of the first acts of the new administration has been to take down the Spanish translation of the White House web site, which is now only in English, and to remove a page referring to climate change.)
Then, toward the end of the interview, the two Spanish journalists came at the question a second time, in a different way.
They asked Francis if he was worried about the rise of "populists" in Europe and in America, who "capitalize on the fears in face of an uncertain future in order to form a message full of xenophobia and hatred towards the foreigner." They added: "Trump's case is the most noteworthy, but there are others such as Austria or Switzerland. Are you worried about this phenomenon?"
Responding to this question, the Pope reflected on the history of "populism" in Europe. Still, he did not name Trump.
During this reflection, he spoke about the rise of Hitler in the 1930s as a "populist" phenomenon which ended in the tragedy of World War II.
"Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. Germany is broken, looking to get itself going, looking for 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.' And all of Germany votes for Hitler. Hitler didn't steal power, he was elected by the people, and then he destroyed his own people. This is the danger.”
In the minds of some of the commenters on this interview, these two questions were seemingly conflated, as if one immediately followed the other, that is, as if the Pope first said he wished to wait before making any judgment about Trump, then immediately changed his mind and warned that populist movements like the one led by Trump risk turning into movement's like the one led by Hitler. These two questions were at least 40 minutes apart.
And this led to headlines in Europe today like one in The Telegraph of London: "Pope Francis warns against rise of populism in Europe."
And the first sentence of the Telegraph article was:
"Pope Francis has warned against the rise of populism around the world and the danger of seeking a saviour that may result in dictators like Hitler."
Indeed, El Pais itself titled its own interview: "The danger is that in times of crisis we seek a savior."
In this context, it seems interesting that, a few paragraphs later in this same interview -- in a passage that has not been picked up yet by many journalists -- the Pope speaks in a positive way of a "populist" phenomenon in Latin American politics which he praises and says was "heroic" in defending the life of the people and nation of Paraguay from those who were "selling out" the nation.
"So Latin America must rearm itself with political groups that recover the strength of the people. The biggest example for me is Paraguay after the war. The country lost the War of the Triple Alliance and was left almost entirely in the hands of women. And the Paraguayan woman felt that she had to rebuild the nation, defend their faith, defend their culture and defend their language, and she did it. The Paraguayan woman. She wasn't a cipaya [a word the Pope defines as "the one who sells his homeland to the foreign power who pays him the most"], she defended what was hers, at the expense of anything, but she defended it, and she repopulated the country. I think that she is the most glorious woman in the Americas. That is the case of a position that never gave up. Of heroism."