ROME — The continuity between Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis is seen clearly by many, and examples of this have been discussed on this website many times (See here, here, and here). However, some seek to peg the legacy of John Paul II as somehow opposed to the pontificate of Francis.

At a conference this week in Rome, religious traditionalists and political conservatives came together to discuss the legacy of John Paul II’s anti-communism, stressing him as the “Pope of the nation-state.”

The presence of traditionalists at this conference, and their overt — and misconstrued — politicization of John Paul II’s legacy, points to the movement’s growing interest in the political world, as ecclesial circles are ever more plagued by mishaps and self-jeopardized anti-Francis maneuvers.

“Our loyalty is to doctrine and tradition, not to specific individuals,” said one renowned critic of the Argentine pontiff at the conference hosted by the US-based “National Conservatism” movement yesterday in Rome.

At the conference, several traditionalist figures gathered with notable populist politicos and politicians from around the world to discuss the legacy of Pope John Paul II. The speakers at the conference argued that the “Western world” is ruled by a “pink police state,” and that Pope Francis is a “source of, not an antidote to, cultural decline” and the onset of a new form of “totalitarianism.”

The conference, part of a broader series of meetings, including ones held in Washington, DC and London last year, sought to juxtapose Pope John Paul II’s legacy, one of “resolute anticommunism,” with Pope Francis’ pontificate, in which “contemporary preoccupations are raised to the level of religious duties,” according to Philip Hughes, ex-US ambassador to the Caribbean and one-time deputy advisor to George W. Bush.

Alongside high-ranking populist political figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and French right-winger Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the conference was attended by known religious traditionalists like the Italian historian Roberto De Mattei, American author Rod Dreher, and Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) member José Antonio Ureta.

De Mattei, known for his outspoken criticism of Francis and self-conscious adhesion to the “traditionalist movement,” declared that Francis has “renounced being a spiritual leader.”

Saint Paul VI’s legacy was also criticized, with De Mattei saying that it was during his pontificate that the Berlin Wall went up, and whose “Wilsonian universalist understanding of democracy” did little to challenge communism.

Throughout the conference — which was more intent on fleshing out the political program of “national conservatism” than discussing the role of the Church in world affairs — John Paul II was hailed as the “Reagan of the Church.” The two figures shared an “axiological view of politics,” said De Mattei, which was “not opposed to moral values, but respected them.”

“Communism,” which he clearly believes shares much with the political left of today, “was believed to be a moral evil,” said De Mattei. He contrasted that to the current situation, saying, “Pope Francis has become the political leader of the international left.”

Today, instead of Reagan and John Paul II, we face “Trump and Francis, the two most unlikely allies in pursuit of anything in common,” said Hughes.

The National Conservatism movement, along with the speakers present at the conference, hails US President Donald Trump as the harbinger of a new kind of politics, one that starts from a “biblical perspective,” said the group’s founder and political theorist Yoram Hazony.

For this group, Catholic traditionalism is seen to be a potential European version of the politicized American Evangelicalism that has been helping to prop up Donald Trump’s administration. However, the lackluster penetration of traditionalism in Europe — at least in the intellectualized form often discussed in the media — means that it has not been as electorally significant as the “national conservatives” had hoped.

Nevertheless, European traditionalists are now looking to these overtly political movements for the camaraderie they have slowly been losing within ecclesial circles.

With the recent media flop of Cardinal Sarah’s book on celibacy, of which Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was falsely said to have been a co-author, traditionalists find themselves in an even more weakened position.

One option left open — and one that they seem to be seriously considering — is to get ever closer to these political movements. In many ways they can help bolster “national conservatism,” for which religion — especially the tradition- and symbol-heavy form found in traditionalism — lends a key legitimizing role.

The conference in Rome appeared to be part of a bigger operation of seeking to create a transatlantic alliance among American and European populists, in which the nation and nationalism are considered ordained by God.

At this conference, nationalism was described as “divinely prescribed” and the “only truly peaceful political doctrine.” At one point, when Europe was described as “succumbing” to “Islamicization,” Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán replied, saying that Hungary had “zero Muslims.” His quip was met with thunderous applause.

Also present at the conference was Alexander Tschugguel, who gained prominence in Catholic circles after throwing a wooden statuette into the Tiber during the October 2019 Synod on the Amazon. Tschugguel said that the event was a useful way to meet Catholics from around the world, and a way for him to continue deepening his faith.

Yet the case made by those leading the conference — that there is a substantial rupture between the pontificates of John Paul and Francis – is certainly not held by many in the Church, least of all Pope Francis. In a book-length interview to be published on February 11, the Argentine pontiff reflects on Pope John Paul II. In it, Francis said that he was “consoled by meeting John Paul II in a dark moment of his life.”

Pope Francis has often publicly lauded John Paul II, so much so that his closeness to the Polish pontiff while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires led many at the time to consider him a “conservative.”

It’s clear that image and legacy of John Paul II is being intentionally misconstrued by the leaders of these nationalistic groups. The opposition between John Paul II and Pope Francis, which speakers at the conference were intent on highlighting, is largely artificial, as many, including this site, have sought to show. If anything, it says more about the political inclinations of the traditionalists than anything veritable regarding the actual relationship between the late John Paul II and Pope Francis.


Image: Viktor Orban. European People’s Party. Creative Commons License, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Daniele Palmer is a freelance journalist. He studied history in London and is preparing a PhD on French Political Thought. He currently works from Rome as the Vatican correspondent for Where Peter Is.

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