When people try to understand the order of the world today, their concepts dwell “more in the imagination than reality,” according to Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, SJ, writing in La Civiltà Cattolica.

The observation rings true for me, especially since the popular mind seems impatient with nuanced political deliberations.

It’s a rare person who would have the patience and attention to be able to read through Hollerich’s commentary on the European elections. Political rhetoric gravitates instead towards Game of Thrones memes on social media, since the crudest forms of zero-sum thinking hold sway over the popular imagination.

“This new order of the imagination is the greatest risk for democracy, for citizens who are committed to peace, justice, and the environment,” writes Hollerich.

But what alternatives are possible? The truths of faith offer an indispensable starting point for overcoming the worst tendencies of the age. But they face a challenge from populism.

Populist movements around the world are seeking scapegoats to blame. Hollerich denounces the idolatrous nature of this way of focusing the collective imagination: “Populisms want to stave off real problems by organizing dances around a golden calf. They build a false identity, denouncing enemies who are accused of all the ills of society: for example, migrants or the European Union.”

He also warns about the fake substitutes for community created by populist thinking. “Populisms bind together individuals, not in communities where the other is a nearby person, a partner in dialogue and action, but rather in groups that repeat the same slogans, which create new uniformities, which are the gateways for new totalitarianisms.”

The observation is apt, since so much of the populist imagination is formed by toxic rhetoric on digital media. Hollerich notes its consequent effect on election campaigns, as Internet anonymity and algorithms end up making real democratic debate almost impossible.

Hollerich also observes how populism appeals to a number of practicing Catholics, which raises the question of how these political movements are able to so effectively poison Christian minds. Instead of loving their neighbors, the baptized are falling for political rhetoric that demonizes migrants.

This tendency among some Catholics towards supporting political movements that are contrary to the Gospel calls to mind the admonition (in Hebrews 5:12-14) about how “you need to have someone teach you again the basic elements of the utterances of God. You need milk, not solid food. Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil.”

The imagination of populist movements is so primitive that it seems a reversion to catechetical baby food is necessary. But any focus on the basics of the Gospel, such as our duty in charity to our neighbor, seems unconvincing to anyone swept up in populism’s pernicious fantasies, since they actually imagine their political views to be mature and prudent. 

So the problem remains: how to re-catechize the Catholics who dwell “more in the imagination than reality,” whose steady diet is populist resentment.

Steven P. Millies argued recently in the U.S. Catholic that these fantasies are so delusional and destructive that they deserve to be identified as forms of gnosticism. Millies is an associate professor of public theology and the author of Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump.

Gnosticism maintains belief in a golden age, as if we need only to return to an ideal past to solve our problems. Millies rightly criticizes this pattern of thought among some Catholics, and Hollerich likewise skewers the traditionalist fantasy of “an imaginary past that often pretends to represent ‘the Christian West.’”

What then does our imagination require that would be more mature as well as more grounded in reality? An answer occurred to me as I read the 2017 translation of Dariusz Karłowicz’s Socrates and Other Saints: Early Christian Understandings of Reason and Philosophy, which was originally published in Polish in 2005.

Karłowicz offers a fascinating exposition of early Church fathers like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. But it is his discussion of Clement’s ideal Christian that captures my imagination: a divinized soul who nobly “does the good through love with regard only for the moral good,” and who “strives to make awareness of God a constant state.”

Perhaps public examples of honor and integrity and justice and charity may be unpopular. But unlike the gnostic formula, only they can offer the imagination solid food for thought.