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The Theologian, the Philosopher, and the Bishop: Three Lessons for the Church and the West

Sandro Magister

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"They are Ratzinger, Pera, and Caffarra. But the team includes Biffi, Ruini, Scola. Here's how the "neoconservatives" are re-writing the major political views of the Church."

They are Ratzinger, Pera, and Caffarra. But the team includes Biffi, Ruini, Scola. Here's how the "neoconservatives" are re-writing the major political views of the ChurchROMA -- The Catholic Church has its "neoconservatives," too. And for them, this is a moment of high visibility. In recent days three of them have lectured in Rome and other parts of Italy, delivering speeches of equally great importance and containing converging positions. The three are a bishop, a philosopher, and a theologian. They have declared that Europe is sick, stricken with a deadly illness of the spirit, and has lost contact with truth and reality. And, together with the diagnosis, they prescribe their therapy.

The bishop is that of Bologna, Carlo Caffarra, successor to a cardinal, Giacomo Biffi, who belongs to the same line of thought.

The philosopher is Marcello Pera, not a Catholic, but a decisive supporter of the encounter between faith and reason, his second vocation being that of politics. He has been president of the Italian senate since 2001.

The theologian is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (see photo), prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The last one of the three to speak was Ratzinger. He did so in Rome, on May 13, at the library of the Italian senate, the former chapter room of the cloister of Minerva, at the invitation of the president of the senate, Pera. He gave his speech before an audience of politicians. The title was "Europe: Its Spiritual Foundations Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow."

Here are its concluding passages:

"There is a self-hatred in the West that can be considered only as something pathological. The West attempts in a praiseworthy manner to open itself completely to the comprehension of external values, but it no longer loves itself; it now sees only what is despicable and destructive in its own history, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure there. If it really wants to survive, Europe needs a new -- critical and humble, of course -- acceptance of itself.

"Multiculturalism, which is continually and passionately encouraged and favored, is sometimes mostly the abandonment and denial of what is one's own, a flight from what is one's own. But multiculturalism cannot subsist without shared constants, points of orientation that begin from one's own values. It can certainly not subsist without respect for what is sacred. Part of multiculturalism means coming together with respect for the sacred elements of the other, but we can do this only if the sacred, God, is not extraneous to us.

"Of course, we can and we must learn from what is sacred to others, but to others our duty is precisely that of nurturing within ourselves respect for what is sacred, and showing the face of God, who has appeared to us -- of the God who has compassion for the poor and the weak, for the widows and orphans, and the stranger; of the God who is so human that he himself became a man, a man of suffering, who, suffering together with us, gives to pain dignity and hope.

"If we do not do this, we not only deny the identity of Europe, we fall short of a service to others to which they have a right. For the cultures of the world, the absolute profaneness that has been forming in the West is something extremely foreign. They are convinced that a world without God has no future. So among other reasons, multiculturalism itself calls us to reenter again within ourselves.

"We do not know what will happen in Europe in the future. The Charter of fundamental rights may be a first step, a sign that Europe is deliberately seeking again its soul. In this, we must agree with Toynbee that the destiny of a society always depends upon creative minorities. Christian believers should conceive of themselves as such a creative minority, and help Europe to recover the best of its heritage, and thus be at the service of all of humanity."

In an earlier passage of the speech Ratzinger had indicated, as a fundamental medicine for healing Europe of its illness, the return to natural law, which comes before every law written by man:

"A first element [foundational for the future of Europe] is the 'unconditionedness' with which human dignity and human rights must be presented as values that come before any state jurisdiction. These fundamental rights are not created by legislators, nor are they conferred upon citizens, but they exist in their own right; these must always be respected by legislators, they are given to him before the fact as the values of a higher order. This validity of human dignity before any political action and any political decision is ultimately derived from the Creator: only He can establish values that are founded on the essence of man and are untouchable. That there are values that cannot be manipulated by anyone is the real and true guarantee of our freedom, and of the greatness of man."

For Ratzinger, Christianity is a minority in today's Europe, and plausibly in that of tomorrow as well. But he wants it to be a "creative" minority, capable of restoring religious vitality to the continent. Between the pessimism of Oswald Spengler and the voluntarism of Arnold Toybee, the cardinal says he prefers the latter.

Here is a link to Ratzinger's complete speech, in Italian, on the senate's website: Europa. I suoi fondamenti spirituali ieri, oggi e domani (link closed).

The speech that the archbishop of Bologna, Carlo Caffarra, gave on April 29 situates itself within the same outline as that of Cardinal Ratzinger.

Caffarra spoke to a convention of the Italian Sports Center. He thundered against bad teachers, the theoreticians of "light-hearted nihilism, who have nothing to say to the practical man." He called them by name, including semiologist and novelist of worldwide fame Umberto Eco, thereby provoking heated reactions from the press. He relaunched the thesis of the great liturgist Josef A. Jungmann, according to whom educating means "introducing a person to reality." And he argued that it is precisely here that every educator encounters difficulty in teaching young people to think: in that "deadly illness of the spirit" that is the abandonment of reality in exchange for the merry-go-round of interpretation.

In Caffarra's judgment, reality and truth are either gained or lost together. The contemporary "banality of evil" takes the form of "do whatever you want" without direction, rules, or truth. It is not an accident that "Veritatis Splendor," the splendor of truth, is the name of the encyclical by John Paul II dedicated to moral theology, and also that of the institute for theological studies created in Bologna by Giacomo Cardinal Biffi. On the very day of Caffarra's speech, a new theological faculty was inaugurated in his diocese, the sixth in Italy outside of Rome. Bologna has been for decades the Mecca of conciliar Catholic progressivism. Now it is becoming a point of reference for the reawakening of theology inspired by the great tradition.

Read the entire article on the www.chiesa website.

Posted: 5/30/04



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