The Populist Wave Hits the Catholic Church

How Pope Francis Triggered a Rebellion

Pope Francis speaks during the Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican, October 2018.  Stefano Rellandini / REUTERS

The Catholic Church faces a crisis of leadership. The latest series of abuse revelations, most notably the exposure of former U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as a sexual predator, revealed a hierarchy that will not (and perhaps cannot) address corruption in its own ranks. Only intense public pressure and the threat of ruinous lawsuits have led it to take action.

Massimo Faggioli (“The Catholic Church’s Biggest Crisis Since the Reformation,” October 11) argues that the sexual abuse crisis has worsened a preexisting divide within Catholicism, one that flows from institutional failures to reform and update the church. By this way of thinking, the far-seeing Pope John XXIII and his progressive allies recognized that the Catholic Church was too conservative, too outdated. The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) presented an opportunity for deep reform. Sadly, Pope Paul VI, who succeeded John XIII, was weak-kneed, while John Paul II and Benedict XVI were conservative revanchists. Now, after 50 years of misrule, comes a good pope with bold plans. But a rump of conservative Catholic traditionalists with money and political power are fomenting division.

If only the church’s problems could be so conveniently captured in a neat ideological narrative. Faggioli is correct that the Catholic Church is being drawn down into the swamps of today’s secular politics. But he’s wrong to depict the divide in terms of left versus right, progressive versus conservative. Rather, the turmoil in the church today reveals yet another front in the populist rebellion against establishment leaders that has roiled the politics of the West.


Understanding the roots of today’s populist movement within the church requires looking back to the defining feature of modern Catholicism that took root in the nineteenth century. The term “modern Catholicism” can be confusing. In the Catholic Church, “modernism” refers to theologies based on a progressive view of history. This approach to Catholicism, which arose with modern historical study of the Bible, was condemned by the Vatican in the early twentieth century because its

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