Exclusive Interview: “My Battle for Man”
Sept 10, 2004
Politics and faith, Catholics and secularists, Europe and Islam: The pope’s vicar covers all the fields. He also speaks of good and bad culture models. And of the No. 1 danger: the naturalistic tendency of modern man.
(“L’Espresso”, 12-19 December 2002) He’s a bishop and a cardinal, but politics is his second vocation. As the pope’s vicar, he’s in perfect symbiosis with Pope John Paul II, more than Cardinal Richelieu with the Sun King. He’s the premier of that most unique shadow government within Italy that is the Catholic Church. His name is Camillo Ruini.
Seen close up in the imposing rooms of the Lateran Palace, he appears fragile and timid. Even enigmatic. He loves to dictate his strategy in calibrated discourses with bishops, incomprehensible to the uninitiated. But he’s different one on one. Picking his words carefully, he speaks on everything: politics and faith, Catholics and secularists, Europe and Islam. Nor does he avoid recent polemics: He names no names but the substance is there. Everything leads back to his unitary vision, to his “cultural project”, which involves a pitched battle over the conception of man: naturalistic vs. Christian.
And to think that this cardinal-philosopher is little loved. He’s greatly misunderstood. But this time he’s agreed to explain himself, and with unusual frankness.
Cardinal Ruini, there is a lot of grumbling even in the Catholic camp. You are accused of favoring the right and keeping silent on certain laws judged to be immoral.
«First of all, I concern myself with content rather than partisanship. Second, regarding being silent, if anything I am excessively outspoken in speeches to the CEI [Conferenza Episcopale Italiana -- Italian bishops' conference], which are my only comments that touch on political themes. Fifty years’ experience has taught me to be wary of one temptation: moralism that employs ethical themes as instruments of political struggle. I say fifty years because Alcide De Gasperi formerly was held hostage in this way. And I would appeal humbly for greater prudence. For if we burden individual choices of political dialectics with an ethical value, political struggle itself will worsen and turn into contempt and hatred towards people.»
Once upon a time there was Christian Democracy. Are you nostalgic for it?
«No. I maintain a strongly positive judgement of the DC [Democrazia Cristiana – Christian Democratic Party]. But today everything is changed, and it is in this new situation that the Church has to operate. Affirmatively. Not by playing politics, but by insisting on the anthropological and ethical content that underlies political activity. Because the very scientific and social developments of today have produced apparently paradoxical consequences: They’ve made it obvious that the privatization of ethics is unsustainable. In fact, in every advanced country there are public ethics committees. The Church cannot be disinterested in this.»
But Catholics in Italy are in the minority. And the more they diminish, the more they are demanding and combative. Will we find even you on the barricades?
«On the barricades? I hardly think so. But neither do I think that this idea of Christians as a minority is very helpful. It depends on one’s definition of a Christian. Those that go to Mass on Sunday are surely a minority. But if we consider that 83 percent of Italians give the 0.8 percent [voluntary income tax] to the Catholic Church and that nearly 90 percent of high school students choose religious instruction, these facts alone ought to make us think. In any case, de-Christianization without a doubt is advancing. It’s a long-term process that is very significant. And it imposes on the Church a need to change.»
Change in what way? To reconquer Italy for the faith as if it were a mission country?
«Rather than mission, Pope John Paul II has spoken of new evangelization. Mission brings to mind a “tabula rasa,” in which the Gospel has to be planted from scratch. But new evangelization takes place in terrain already nourished by Christianity, in which the great Christian heritage is threatened and disputed but persists. The Gospel that is proclaimed is the same here and in pagan lands, but the context is different. Man is different.»
What new picture of man do you see on the rise?
«I would call him the naturalistic man.»
A lover of nature?
«Not a lover of; part of. According to this increasingly prevalent conception, man feels himself simply part of nature. He understands himself this way. It’s not the first time this has happened in human history. And, as before, this naturalistic vision is accompanied by a hedonistic and utilitarian ethic.»
So he’s a man who simply wants to enjoy life?
«Enjoy life and make calculations for what he judges to be most immediately advantageous for himself.»
What signs tell you that this is the new figure of man?
«The most important sign comes from the anthropological sciences. Today, in large part, it isn’t the philosophers any more but the scientists who are the cultural guides of our civilization. And many of these have the vision of which I spoke. It’s a vision that dominates the media and, I imagine, is also widely diffused in schools.»
You’ve now identified the theory. And the practice?
«You only have to look around you to see the reflection of this vision in daily practice and custom.»
Who is the Epicurus of this modern naturalism?
«He is a sort of collective prophet that I see at work particularly in the media. The media influence life and at the same time photograph it. Often in a very partial, tendentious way.»
And against this challenge, you would like to counterattack with the new evangelization?
«We have to be able to propose to the naturalistic man a different image of man, the Chrisitian one. If we were to put ourselves on the defensive we wouldn’t get very far.»
Certainly a pope like Karol Wojtyla is not on the defensive. He willingly climbs the barricades.
«We are and we must be combative, but always in a serene and calm manner, just as in reality the pope is. Because, after all, we want to offer a service to society: to help it keep what are the columns undergirding our civilization standing.»
Do you mean the protection of unborn life, the family, schools, your classic battle themes?
«Certainly. They accuse us of launching a rearguard war, of going against history, against common sentiment. When instead these are the very columns on which our society has rested until recently. If we were to remove them, I am not saying everything would crumble, but certainly everything would change for the worse. The conditions of life in which we would find ourselves would be less human.»
And why would they not instead be freer without the chains that the Church wants to impose upon people’s choices?
«Freedom is not living at the mercy of instinct. It’s a culturally motivated ability to choose. True freedom always has something to do with the principle of reality. One builds a better life for oneself and for others also by a certain overcoming of self.»
Doesn’t the principle of reality take us back to Freud?
«Indeed. But the great Christian ethics is realist, too. Think of St. Thomas Aquinas. Reality has a “logos,” a profound rationality, as opposed to what Hume and many others after him said. According to them, reality is so casual and senseless that no ethical imperative can be drawn from it.»
But how does the Church reconcile its imperatives with the free play of democracy? In his [November 2002] speech to [the Italian] parliament, the pope clearly expressed his view: «A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.»
«It’s true. Without ethical cornerstones we would return to what Giovanni Sartori called “the democracy of the ancients,” which was pure domination by the majority, a long way from its acquired modern conception and from the Christian matrix of the inviolable rights of the human person. Without a realist ethics, rooted in the being of the person, man is truly in danger.»
Cardinal Ruini, do you think Italian Catholics are with you? What one sees in many parishes is a faded, confused Catholicism.
«But also often vibrant. I admit the signals I receive are contrasting, also from secular observers. Certainly the focus is on those who need a conversion, a strong motivation that comes from within.»
There are Catholic groups and movements that wave the flag of their exclusivist inspiration too much: Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Focolare movement, the Neocatechumenal Way...
«It is peculiar to certain movements born in the second half of the last century. They are still young and thus it’s natural that they try to distinguish themselves. But I also think the most lively ones are maturing, and with time they will integrate more and more into the fabric of the church. In fact, they already are giving many positive fruits with their drive for Christian identity and mission.»
But don’t they end up opposing each other?
«In part. But it also happens that people who were far from the church enter it or come back. Today religion is lived in a more personal way, and this makes the picture blurrier. A recent study of ours showed that among youth in Rome an encounter with a believer is sometimes enough to generate a choice of faith. The game is wide open.»
You have given a name to your plan of reconquest: “Christian-oriented cultural project.” Translated, that means...
«To incarnate Christianity into today’s Italian culture and society, without watering it down, in order to direct it toward the God of Jesus Christ. A God who, we believe, is also the salvation of our civilization.»
Seven years have past since you began this project. What have the results been like?
«Within the Church, at least at certain levels, the idea has gone forward. The plenary assembly of the Italian bishops in mid-November is the proof: with its anthropological focus, it was a perfect example of an assembly geared toward a cultural project. It would be another thing to say that the idea has been diffused throughout the fabric of the Church. We are still far away from that point.»
And what have been the effects of the project within Italian society?
«Some say that the Christian presence is growing in vitality. I would be more cautious, and speak rather of a moderate renewal - although some think even that is excessive and are worried about it.»
Do you mean the secularists who say that "a strange kind of Christian is emerging?"
«This is the most recent controversy. But it's a complaint that has been brought forward occasionally for many years, in part because of a certain crisis of identity present in this rather diverse world, which has been determined by secular thought.»
But there are also some secularists who are on your wavelength. What makes them more agreeable?
«Many secularists appreciate their Christian cultural heritage. And so, they too contribute in their own way to this cultural project, even though they are not believers.»
What do you say about the middle management of the Church in Italy, the priests? Are they up to the challenge?
«Not a few of them are attentive and engaged on the cultural level. But change takes place over long periods of time, and the decisive passage to be made is with the formation in the seminaries. There the theology must be seriously reoriented.»
In what direction?
«When I was a theology student, the dominant approach was apologetics, the polemical defense of Christianity. That stricture was rightly abandoned. But we must not imagine that the sociocultural challenge of today can be met with theological thought that specializes in the content of doctrine or concentrates on religious experience. It is necessary to collect the questions posed by contemporary human knowledge, especially scientific, and respond to them, showing the reasons for the faith and the plausibility of believing and living as a Christian. This “fundamental theology,” which insofar as it is reasonable may be publicly proposed to all, must become the base for the cultural formation of the new generation of priests.»
Is this just a dream, or is it already in motion?
«Among theologians I detect a growing attention to these fundamental themes. I think, for example, of Pierangelo Sequeri, of the theological faculty of Milan, and his essay entitled “The Trustworthy God”.»
But apart from the seminaries, there's the Università Cattolica, the newspaper "Avvenire," and the satellite television broadcaster "Sat 2000." Are they also fostering this cultural project?
«Definitely. These are important instruments of explicitly Christian inspiration. But that's not all. There is also a decisive presence of Christian witness diffused throughout the world of culture, of the media, and of the professions.»
For decades, the major Catholic influences on the intellectual and political world in Italy, extending even to the “Ulivo” political coalition, have been Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, and Giuseppe Dossetti. But you never make reference to them. Why not?
«Maritain has been a point of reference for me also, after St. Thomas Aquinas, and together with theologians like Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Bernard Lonergan. I have learned a lot from also non-believing scientists, sociologists, and political thinkers. But now we need to look forward. We're at a point at which even the great theologians and thinkers of the 20th century are not enough. The present time reminds me of the 13th century, the century of Aristotelian philosophy and St. Thomas, of the merchants and of popular freedoms, of St. Francis and the new evangelism. The highest summits of theology have been reached at times of the greatest sociocultural change.»
Are you calling for a new Thomas Aquinas?
«That's impossible. The present culture is too differentiated and diverse. I would call rather for a great synergy of creative thought in various fields.»
Returning to the masters of Catholic thought, which would you advise to be reread today?
«Certainly Alexis de Tocqueville, he's always current. And Maurice Blondel. And Romano Guardini. But also Lonergan - I remember, from my studies, his openness to scientific reasoning.»
At the last plenary assembly of bishops you cited with admiration Karl Löwith, the Jewish philosopher and historian.
«He's another I would recommend to be read. He helped me understand the historical and cultural situation of Christianity in Germany in the 19th century, between Hegel and Nietzsche.»
Why does the Church insist so much on reclaiming the Christian identity, not only of Italy, but of all Europe?
«It's not because it sees barbarians at the gates. The fear is rather from within; that a materialistic culture might endanger the supporting columns of our society. The danger is even greater in the rest of Europe than it is in our own country.»
And what about the entry of Eastern countries into the European Union?
«It is difficult to foresee what the concrete effects will be. These peoples bring with them, on the one hand, the deep marks of anti-Christian devastation, but on the other, a new religious vitality. In general, they have no fear of affirming openly the Christian character of European civilization. The East is freer than we are from the conditioning of the Enlightenment.»
Do you see a serious danger of a clash of civilizations with Islam?
«That is a risk we must avoid at all costs, precisely by rediscovering and appreciating the Christian identity of Europe. This is in part because that identity is less alien to Islam than pure naturalism. But what matters more is that this Christian identity is intrinsically oriented toward love for those who are different, while remaining what it is itself. Christianity is capable of providing the cultural impulses for a future society that is free, peaceful, and pluralistic. This is an enormous new challenge, never seen in the past, but now unavoidable. And Christianity has within itself the strength to face it positively.»
For the immediate future there is talk of a Latin American pope, and of a black one for the more distant future. Is an Italian pope out of the question?
«In the meantime, there is a Slavic pope. I pray that God may preserve him for a long time yet.»
By that you mean the heart of the pontificate of John Paul II…
«A great impulse of evangelization, above all through personal testimony. And then, on the cultural level, the idea that the centrality of man and that of God are not at odds, but exist together. And finally, on the ecclesial level, the understanding of the Second Vatican Council as an opening to the future, in continuity with the past.»
Camillo Ruini was born 71 years ago in Sassuolo, the Emilian capital of mosaic tiles.
He became a priest at the age of 23 and graduated from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He taught philosophy and theology in Reggio Emilia and Bologna.
In 1983, he was made auxiliary bishop of Reggio Emilia. In 1985 he prepared in a meeting in Loreto, on behalf of John Paul II, the action plan for the Church in Italy. He succeeded, while the progressive movement personified by Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini was defeated.
The next year, he was promoted to be the secretary general of the Italian bishops' conference.
Five years later he became, in rapid succession, the papal vicar for the diocese of Rome, the president of the Italian bishops' conference, and cardinal.
In Palermo, in 1995, he reconvened the meeting for the plan of action for the Church in Italy, and launched what he called “the cultural project”: a plan to rebuild Christian Italy.
In 1996 John Paul II reconfirmed him as president of the Italian bishops' conference. In 2001 he confirmed him again for a third five-year term.
Behind the Scenes of a Reply
In the first response of the interview, Cardinal Camillo Ruini replies implicitly to a public criticism that was made against him a few days earlier by Pierluigi Castagnetti, a Catholic, the leader in the Parliament of the center-leftist “Partito popolare.”
The criticism by Castagnetti was referred to by "Corriere della Sera" on December 2, 2002, in an article signed by Gian Giudo Vecchi:
«They pass shameful laws; there is a general degradation of the sense of legality, of the principles at the foundations of democracy, and in all this I feel distressed and alarmed by the silence of part of the country… especially of the Church... Even from nonbelievers, you can feel delusion, the expectation of a word from the bishops, a sense of direction. I remember that ten years ago, the Italian bishops' conference came out with a fundamental document, “Educare alla legalità” (“Educating the Law”). So now we're living at a moment of great moral and cultural disorientation, but the magisterium of the pope is not always echoed by the bishops and priests… Let's consider the transfer of funds to foreign countries, or the law on false bookkeeping: when we continue to pardon these acts, or say that to keep false records or accurate ones are the same thing, why should anyone follow ethical principles?… This lowers the threshold of morality and finishes by legitimizing and approving of actions that are against the law… The Church needs to recover its capacity of ethical discernment. Something is happening, but what strikes me is that it is above all the nonreligious intellectuals who are speaking out. The Catholic world should feel its responsibility to speak.»