The day may come when U.S. citizens actually have to resist the nation’s radically-changing forces, set to limit religious freedom – just one of the views shared with ZENIT by an ambassador of the World Congress of Families, Fr. Marcel Guarnizo.
An expert on Eastern Europe and Russia having ministered there extensively, Fr. Guarnizo warns that hope disappears when populations don’t see a need to have families. He believes Russia now has a new vitality, needed to help Western Europe resist its “death culture”, and considers a free market economy to be the best way to bring people out of poverty.
Fr. Guarnizo, a native of Northern Virginia, was attending a Rome conference June 26-29 on the theme: “Poverty and Common Good: Putting the ‘Preferential Option for the Poor’ at the Service of the Poor.” The event was organized by the international think tank Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) which aims to uphold human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is created in the image and likeness of God. Conference speakers included senior Vatican officials, politicians, media and business leaders, in the Casina Pio IV of the Vatican gardens.
ZENIT: Could you explain the importance of having an event like this, centered on the theme of poverty?
Fr. Guarnizo: I think it is important for the Church to consider the theoretical and the practical ways in which society at large and the Church must deal with this problem of poverty. And I think in this congress, we’ve dealt with very theoretical problems of economics and how economics presents itself as a science that can help solve some of these problems.
ZENIT: Could you please describe yourself and why your background has helped form your views on Central and Eastern, as well as Western Europe?
Fr. Guarnizo: Yes, I am a Roman Catholic priest. I was ordained in Moscow. I went to Russia shortly after the Wall came down. I have been working in Eastern Europe, particularly in academia, and teaching, and trying to train new intelligentsias in countries of the former Soviet Union.
My belief is that when a regime such as the Soviet Union, which was a terrible dictatorial regime, falls, it creates an intellectual and cultural vacuum. Then, we have the opportunity, or the moral obligation, to try to help train and prepare people to fill that vacuum. I believe that is the hope of these nations, that the tradition of the West — which has largely been forgotten in the West – can be shared with many who are under communism and could not receive it.
Furthermore, I think Central and Eastern Europe have young intelligentsias that perhaps may be the hope of Western Europe, as they may come back to Western Europe and remind us of what we forgot.
ZENIT: Could you speak a bit of your role within the World Congress of Families and the congress itself?
Fr. Guarnizo: Yes, I am what they call their ambassador representative to Central and Eastern Europe. It is my job to promote and help organize world congresses when they occur in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to keep them aware of the situation of the family and life issues in this part of the world.
We established a network of people who are concerned with the current state of affairs of the family. My particular area is Central and Eastern Europe. I think these areas have been a great witness to the rest of the world because they are really making a lot of progress.
ZENIT: What leads you to say that Central and Eastern Europe can provide such witness worldwide?
Fr. Guarnizo: They are reforming seven constitutions that they have in order to protect marriage. This gives great hope. I think the cultural foundations of Central and Eastern Europe are still there—strongly—and it would be a pity that after 70 years, at least of communism , that they would fall victims to the “death culture” that seems to be assailing Western Europe.
I think they are resisting and I think the cultural foundations will hold. It’s a joy to spend time in these countries really. Western Europe, at times, seems to me completely exhausted intellectually and spiritually, but Central and Eastern Europe is not like that.
ZENIT: Could you explain the “death culture” you referred to?
Fr. Guarnizo: This term was coined by John Paul II and it explains the notion of a civilization that has become, first of all, in many ways, nihilistic, theoretically. And, in practice, starts applying some of that theory, causing you to end up with symptoms, such as lack of respect for human life, the unborn, abortion, which is basically a worldwide problem at this time, euthanasia and all the other things that come associated with these things. It’s a real promotion in the culture of Western Europe and other countries, obviously, the United States, of things that kill.
ZENIT: Pope Francis has chosen the family as the theme of the upcoming synod in October. Considering your role within the World Congress of Families and that you have been called a “defender of life,” what is your view on this?
Fr. Guarnizo: I think it’s very important the Holy Father is calling a synod on the family. Clearly, there’s not only a crisis on the family in Western Europe, but there is also—I would say by some powerful ideological forces in Europe and around the world – an attack on the family. If we cannot defend that, if we cannot stand up for the family, it seems to me we won’t be able to stand up for anything.
So, this is the beginning—at the origin—at the beginning of God’s plan. I think we have a moral obligation to be fighting, openly, and to defend life and defend the family. And also to defend marriage. I think we don’t think we have this as a moral possibility to choose to not do this, especially priests and pastors. They must speak on this relentlessly and fearlessly since this is what Christ called us to do.
ZENIT: How is the synod’s focus on family relevant to Western and Eastern Europe?
Fr. Guarnizo: Well, I think the family is vital. It’s not only vital because it’s the basic unit of society, but because also vital in the existence of Europe.
If the demographic winter continues in Western Europe in the direction that we are going, we are creating an enormous financial crisis because of this demographic winter and the subsistence of our civilization is at stake.
ZENIT: When a country doesn’t want to have children, according to you, what does this say about the nation?
Fr. Guarnizo: I think countries that don’t want to have children says something about the hope of a nation, that they don’t see, in some senses a bright future… a reason to continue and bring them into life.
They are not just not having children, there is something seriously “killing” Western Europe when this happens. There is a spiritual illness when you don’t want to bring life and continue your way of life, your civilization, your nation, your culture.
This is a far deeper problem than simply that the Europeans are not reproducing or that we need to help them find ways to have children. It’s a deep spiritual crisis Western Europe is suffering from.
ZENIT: Isn’t Russia suffering, in some respects, from the same problem?
Fr. Guarnizo: Oh indeed. Yes. Russia was devastated by communism, under the legacy of communism. It destroyed the family, culture, art, economy. The intelligentsia was either exiled or put to death, as well as hundreds of thousands of priests and religious in Russia. So, this is like the world crumbled. We are rebuilding from zero.
was delighted to see that Russia is showing great vitality, spiritually and culturally. There is great hope. I think Russia has a significant role to play in the development of any of these nations in Europe.
ZENIT: As an American, could you describe your point of view on the situation in the United States?
Fr. Guarnizo: Well, I think the United States is changing radically, especially at the present time. It requires all of our cultural and spiritual forces to work, to try to rescue what’s possible.
I think the American people have a duty to still be that example of freedom and resistance. I talk a lot about the psychology of resistance in the United States. The time may come when we actually have to resist.
I think it is very important to give a civil manifestation of our opposition to so many things that are happening that are curtailing religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and disrespect for family and life. We should do that openly. The lay people should motivate their pastors, their bishops to be visible in the public square. We need to be visible and in the public square to defend our civilization in these days.
On Economic Freedom:
ZENIT: Could you discuss your views on economic thought?
Fr. Guarnizo: Serious economic thought is incredibly important and is necessary as we try to help the poor. This requires a great deal of focus on the science of economics and what economics theoretically can know about this. All of our good intentions won’t matter if we are not competent at the subject.
I think today that there are many, many policies in Western Europe, particularly the welfare state, which is said to help the poor, which I think is incredibly damaging to the poor and to western European societies.
ZENIT: You have been called a “defender of free markets.” Could you elaborate on this?
Fr. Guarnizo: First of all, I happen to think that free markets are completely compatible with human nature. They are actually the way man thinks when man thinks of himself as an economic agent. That’s what man does naturally, they begin to trade. So, in the broadest sense, philosophically, free markets are compatible with human nature.
Second, I think the benefits of free markets are empirically verifiable.
Thirdly, for the cultural and political freedom that is created by gaining greater economic freedom, democracy is very important.
ZENIT: Could you explain your view on democracy?
Fr. Guarnizo: I believe in an integral notion of democracy. So if you gain economic freedom, you will gain cultural and political freedom. But if you lose economic freedom, you will lose cultural and political freedom.
I think this is very important, and I don’t see any reason why we should be inimical to such things which we need to bring people out of poverty, which is what we were talking about today. We need entrepreneurs and need business networks in order to bring them into those networks, give them jobs, and bring them out of their poverty.
On the NET:
World Congress for the Families: www.worldcongress.org
Dignitatis Humanae Institute: www.dignitatishumanae.org