On Catholics in Politics

Is Christ Useful or Indispensable?

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ROME, MAY 7, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is an introduction by Stefano Fontana to a book by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, «Catholics in Politics.»

Archbishop Crepaldi is the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Fontana is the director of the Cardinal van Thuân International Observatory for the Social Doctrine of the Church.

* * *

The fundamental issue tackled by Most. Rev. Crepaldi’s book (Catholics in Politics, A Handbook for the Recovery, Cantagalli, Siena 2010) is the status of politics, what politics is, and in doing so it assumes a metaphysical vision of politics, which serves as the epistemological basis for a theological foundation of politics. To paraphrase what Horrkheimer had to say in “Nostalgia of the totally other-than-self”, and Joseph De Maistre even before him, politics is first of all and above all a theological issue. This is the book’s main premise and on that basis it challenges Catholics in politics. Opening up before us on the basis of this approach to things is a complete series of fundamental questions. Let us take a close look at a few of them.

Augusto Del Noce asserted that the Christian faith presupposes a metaphysics and that Christian philosophy – or philosophizing in the faith – is none other than the becoming explicit of this metaphysics. In order to remain “in metaphysics” philosophy needs to remain “in the faith”, since if it detaches itself there from – and here the affinity with Ratzinger is evident – it necessarily becomes “positivism” (and thereby fideism, because what is not empirically evident “is believed in”). In cultural and therefore political terms as well the main hurdle to communication nowadays between Catholics and “the others” is precisely the metaphysical issue. When Catholics talk about person, family, relations, community, common good, nature, soul and life, etc., they understand them in a metaphysical sense, while “the others” no longer understand all these things in a metaphysical sense. If in order to dialogue with others Catholics cease to understand them in a metaphysical sense they will necessarily end up by understanding them in a functional and subjectivist way, and at that point will have already lost game, set and match.

Politics as well should be understand in this same sense by Catholics, even if there is noting farther removed from current conventional wisdom. This is an important point for being able to understand Bishop Crepaldi’s book, which strikes me as being based on the premise that at stake in politics are matters with absolute meaning, as we read in several parts of the book.

When Catholics speak about “faith” they also understand it in a metaphysical sense. Not only does the faith presuppose metaphysics, but metaphysics as well presupposes the faith. In fact, given to us in metaphysics is the ‘uninfluenceable’ (i.e. what is impervious to any effort on our part to exercise any influence at all on it), and the same holds true for the faith: in it we are not the ones to reach the ‘uninfluenceable’, but it is this reality that erupts into our life. The metaphysical attitude entails not a “doing”, but, as Ratzinger writes in the Introduction to Christianity, a “being”, an openness to the Word that reveals itself just as the faith does.

This book therefore presents politics in a manner quite different from what current opinions espouse, thereby indicating that no renewal of the political presence of Catholics will be possible if they do not first regain conscious ownership of this their “traditional” – in the strongest possible sense of the term – vision of politics. This is not an endeavor that constitutes the community, but presupposes that the community is constituted by something else. Here we come face to face with the main collision flagged by the book: the collision between Catholic politics that fully accepts laicity – or the maturity of democracy as Dossetti was wont to say – unto the point of thinking it can constitute itself in an autonomous manner, and Catholic politics, according to which, as Benedict XVI says, a Godless world is not a neutral world, it is a world without God.

This is the bottom line of the outstanding issue of laicity, democracy and the autonomy of earthly realities to which Bishop Crepaldi refers in the beautiful and profound Introduction to his book. Gradually becoming stronger and stronger over the last few decades has been an indepth and complex orientation tending to lead Catholics to acquire this maturity of democracy understood as the complete metaphysical wholeness of the finite with respect to the infinite. Not by chance does Bishop Crepaldi mention in his Introduction three works dating back to the 1970’s, which, even though beginning from differing points of departure, refuted this claim. In his opinion, the Magisterium of Benedict XVI, well within the mainstream of that of his direct predecessors, has definitively clarified these misunderstandings, sustaining that a Godless world is not a neutral world, but a world without God. I venture to insist on this point because I consider it fundamental: reason without faith is not neutral, it is just reason-without-faith: it elevates itself to a state of new absoluteness insofar as it sees and constructs a world “without God”. There is an absoluteness of a world constructed on God, but there is also an absoluteness of a world constructed without God. This naturally applies as well for reason in politics.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the chapter on the expansion of political reason and the new ideologies, evident within which are the consequences of a political language by now bereft of metaphysical density. When the Holy Father speaks about ‘sustainability’ he is not using the word as it is used by Latouche or in reports of specialized United Nations agencies; when he talks about ‘moderation’ he does not mean it in the sense used by pro-ecology and animal protection movements; when referring to “safeguarding creation” he is not echoing Green Peace; when he evokes peace he does not use the slogans heard during the Perugia – Assisi march. It is evident, however, that Catholics often settle into meanings such as these, which, by reducing or excluding the metaphysical density of concepts, end up cancelling the true meaning and leaving no space at all for a religious meaning. From a conceptual point of view religion without metaphysical space is deprived of the possibility to breathe. The horizontal thrust of political language is by no means bereft of negative consequences for politics in action.

As we can see, a very important facet of the issue is the epistemological one. If faith is not “knowledge” in the true sense of the word it will add itself on from the outside to rational knowledge, which in itself is autonomous. But in itself autonomous rational knowledge is not autonomous at all, since, as we have seen, reasoning outside the faith is to fall into positivism and a Godless world, which is a world without God and not a neutral world. Therefore, the faith is destined to be expelled from the realm of knowledge. Today there is an “epistemological laicity” which necessarily becomes “epistemological laicism”. Well paved is the road along which this transpires: claiming an autonomy on the rational revel with respect to that of the faith, which, however, really means an expulsion of the faith from life. All this has fundamental political repercussions.

This is why Bishop Crepaldi’s book says that the political presence of Catholics begins upstream from politics as such. He does not only say – also, but not only – that seminaries, Catholic universities, institutes of religious sciences, diocesan communities, etc., no longer form people to be present in politics. This is true as well, but he seems to want to go all the way down to the roots and acknowledge that political formation
does not take place because Catholics no longer recognize the faith as having a constituent cognitive significance; because people accept the neutrality of political issues with respect to the perspective of the faith. But if this is added on “afterwards” it means it is never added on, because if you add it on afterwards it means that things could have been fine even ‘beforehand’.

I would like to underscore how Benedict XVI continues to insist on this. Many of his statements dedicated to a myriad of differing topics have this same distinctive thread: his critique of the absolutization of the critical historical method; the insistent way he proclaims that the work of theologians is never conceptual alone insofar as the Christian faith believes in God, Truth and Love; the affirmation that only the wisdom that opens to the mystery is true knowledge; when he says that without God there is no true knowledge of reality; when he explains to us what Tradition truly is: not a manipulation of historical events, but a deeper penetration and contextualization of them, not a deformation of the Scriptures, but an illumination of them.

This helps us to understand in full the presence of the theme of the “non negotiable principles” in the book. Bishop Crepaldi insists on them quite a bit and also gives politicians some very precise behavioral indications. Nonetheless, he never reduces these principles to operational indications; in fact, they refer back to the absolute foundation of politics that only the Christian faith is able to guarantee. They are not the last bulwark behind which to take up a defensive position, but the point of strength for a “recovery” launched to create a place for God in society. We can thereby also understand how the book deals with the issue of religious pluralism, maintaining ever alive the “duty” – as Humanae Vitae states – of societies towards the true religion.

The subject of the book, therefore, is whether the city of man can be suitably constituted without reference to the city of God. It is a matter of the autonomy of the temporal with respect to the spiritual, of nature with respect to race, of politics with respect to religion. A fundamental theme for all times, but especially for ours, which seem to even have lost the selfsame sense of the problem at hand, to say nothing of its solutions. St. Augustine pondered the causes behind the downfall of the Roman empire. He defended the Christians against those who accused them of being the main cause and called the pagans into the picture saying the empire had fallen due to the vices that had replaced the traditional virtues. But this means the virtues existed even before Christianity. Gilson notes in this regard: he specified this so people would not deceive themselves about the specific supernatural aim of the Christian virtues. The Christian virtues make Christians citizens of another city. But in so doing Christianity also releases all the constructive forces of temporal society and it is not necessary for the temporal sphere to refuse looking upon itself as a stage towards eternity. This is why I consider the more important phrase of Bishop Crepaldi’s book to be the one on page 63; a phrase well worth the whole book: “When a Catholic in politics strives to clarify the problem of laicity for himself I think he should ask himself two questions: the first is if Christ is just useful for the building up of social togetherness in harmony with human dignity, or if He is indispensable. The second is if eternal life after material death has any relationship with the community organization of this life in society”.  

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