Secularism in Danger. Two Cardinals Are Running to its Defense
Feb 24, 2009
They are Angelo Scola and Camillo Ruini, both in close agreement with Pope Benedict XVI. Here is how they see the Church's role in the public sphere: if it were silent, for example, about life and death, "it would not contribute to the good of all"
ROMA, February 23, 2009 – Two recent events have rekindled the debate over "secularism," or the activity of Christians in the public sphere.
The two events are linked by a single question, concerning human life "from conception to natural death."
The first of these events is apparently minor. On Wednesday, February 18, at the end of the general audience, Benedict XVI met briefly with Nancy Pelosi (in the photo, a previous meeting in Washington), the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Pelosi is Catholic, as she took care to point out: she showed the pope a photo of her visiting the Vatican with her parents during the 1950's, and praised the Church's work in combatting hunger and poverty.
But the statement released after the meeting by the Vatican press office was of an entirely different tone:
"The pope took the opportunity to explain that the natural moral law and the constant teaching of the Church on the dignity of human life from conception to natural death require all Catholics, especially legislators, judges, and those responsible for the common good of society, to work together with all men and women of good will in order to promote a just legal system, aimed at protecting human life in each of its stages."
Nancy Pelosi, in fact, like other Catholics in the new American administration, is an active supporter of pro-abortion policies. And the pope did not hesitate to issue this public reminder to her, without worrying that it might provide fodder for the recurring accusations of "interference" in the political sphere that many defenders of "secularism" make against the Church.
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The second event is of broader significance. It is the fate imposed in Italy on Eluana Englaro, a young woman in a persistent vegetative state who was deprived of nutrition and hydration by judicial decree, leading to her death last February 9.
As happened four years ago with Terri Schiavo in the United States, for Eluana as well there were intensifying efforts to save her life, on the part of both Catholics and nonbelievers, on the religious terrain and on civil and political grounds as well.
The battle naturally led to an escalation of the controversy over "secularism." From various sides, the Church was accused of encroaching on the freedom of individual choices.
But not only that. The controversy also divided the Catholic camp. For some, speaking and acting in defense of Eluana's life was "unworthy of the Christian approach," an approach that should instead be characterized by silence, restraint, tenderness, noninterference in the most intimate, personal domain of the individual.
The most emblematic expression of this tendency came from the founder and prior of the monastery of Bose, Enzo Bianchi, in an article in the newspaper "La Stampa" on Sunday, February 15:
> Vivere e morire secondo il Vangelo
Bianchi has a large following in Italy and other countries. He is the author of widely read books, preaches retreats to priests and bishops, and writes for secular newspapers but also for "Avvenire," the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, CEI, which took the leading role in the campaign to defend Eluana's life, and is therefore also the main target of the accusation of "unworthiness."
Without mentioning Enzo Bianchi by name, Venice patriarch Cardinal Angelo Scola implicitly replied to him in an editorial published in "Avvenire" on February 20.
Another reply was given around the same time, in the more extensive and articulated form of a conference, by one of the most prominent cardinals of the Italian Church, Camillo Ruini. Ruini is a former president of the CEI, and the pope's vicar for the diocese of Rome from 1991 to 2007.
Here below, in their entirety, are both contributions: Cardinal Scola's editorial in "Avvenire" on February 20, and the conference given by Cardinal Ruini in Genoa on February 18.
With the recent new developments in the issue of "secularism," these two texts are the most authoritative and representative that can be found today on the part of two high-ranking Church figures, both culturally very close to pope Joseph Ratzinger.
1. Catholics, secularists, and civil society
by Angelo Scola
"The West must decide to understand what influence faith has in the public life of its citizens, it cannot dismiss the problem."
These scorching words, spoken by a Middle Eastern bishop in Amman during the international scholarly conference of the magazine "Oasis," are coming back to my mind in these days, during which a lively debate has been ignited in the media about the activity of Christians in civil society, the dialogue between secularists and Catholics – which, according to some, has reached the end of the line – the presumed defeat of Christianity, and the interference by churchmen in public affairs. In a word, about the manner in which Catholics should or should not address delicate issues of public life, like those of bioethics.
It seems to me that people often lose sight of the heart of the matter: every faith must always be subjected to a public cultural interpretation. It is an inevitable fact. On the one hand, this is because, as John Paul II wrote, "a faith that did not become cultural would not be fully welcomed, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived." On the other, since the faith – Jewish and Christian – is the result of God's compromise with history, it inevitably has to do with the concreteness of life and death, of love and pain, of work and rest, and of civic action. For this reason, it is inevitably the object of different cultural interpretations, which can be in conflict with each other.
In this phase of "post-secularism," there are two cultural interpretations of Christianity in particular that are at odds with each other. Both seem reductive to me.
The first is the one that treats Christianity as a civil religion, as mere ethical cement, capable of acting as a social adhesive for our democracy and for the European democracies in grave distress. If such a position is plausible in those who do not believe, its structural insufficiency should be evident to those who do believe.
The other, more subtle interpretation is the one that tends to reduce Christianity to the proclamation of the pure, unadorned Cross, for the salvation of "everyone else."
For example, getting involved with bioethics or biopolitics is seen as detracting from Christ's authentic message of mercy, as if this message were in itself ahistorical, without any anthropological, social, and cosmological implications. Such an attitude produces a dispersion, a diaspora of Christians in society, and ends up concealing the human relevance of the faith as such. To such an extent that in the face of life's crises, including public ones, a silence is demanded that risks making adherence to Christ and to the Church meaningless in the eyes of others.
In my view, neither of these two cultural interpretations succeeds in expressing adequately the true nature of Christianity and its activity in social society: the first because it reduces this to its secular dimension, separating it from its specifically Christian dynamism, the gift of an encounter with the personal coming of Christ in the Church; the second because it deprives the faith of its concrete embodiment.
There is another cultural interpretation that to me seems more respectful of the nature of man and his being in relationship. This runs along the ridge that separates civil religion from diaspora and concealment. It presents the coming of Jesus Christ in its entirety – incapable of being reduced to any human federation – and displays the heart of this, which lives in the Church's faith on behalf of all people.
In what way? Through the Church's proclamation of all the mysteries of faith in their entirety, as skillfully compiled in the catechism.
But this leads to the need to explain all of the aspects and implications that always arise from these mysteries. These are interwoven with human affairs in every age, demonstrating the beauty and fecundity of the faith for everyday life.
Just one example: if I believe that man is created in the image and likeness of God, I will have a certain understanding of birth and death, of the relationship between man and woman, of marriage and the family. This understanding inevitably encounters and seeks an exchange with the experience of all men, including nonbelievers. Regardless of their manner of understanding these basic elements of existence.
While respecting the specific responsibility of the lay faithful in the political domain, it is nonetheless evident that if every member of the faithful, from the pope to the last of the baptized, were not to share openly what he believes are the valid answers to the questions that trouble the human heart every day, and bear witness to the practical implications of his own faith, he would take something away from others. He would withhold a positive contribution, he would not participate in the common effort to build up the good life.
And today, in a society that is pluralistic and therefore has a tendency to be highly conflictual, this exchange must extend 360 degrees, to everyone, no one excluded.
In such an encounter, in which Christians, including the pope and bishops, dialogue humbly but firmly with everyone, it can be seen that the action of the Church is not aimed at hegemony, in using the ideal of faith for the sake of power. Its real aim, in imitation of its Founder, is that of offering everyone the consolation of hope in eternal life. This hope can already be enjoyed in the "hundredfold here below,"and helps us to face the crucial problems that make everyone's daily life fascinating and dramatic.
It is only through this untiring testimony, aimed at mutual recognition and respectful of the procedures ratified under the rule of law, that the great practical value unleashed by the fact of living together can be made to bear fruit.