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Distance From God Rooted in Heart (Part 1)

Interview With Cardinal Paul Poupard

BUDAPEST, Hungary, JAN. 16, 2007 ( The causes of secularization can be found in the depth of the human heart, says the president of the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue.

Cardinal Paul Poupard affirmed this in an interview with ZENIT, while attending an international congress in Budapest from Dec. 14-16, on the theme “Europe in a World of Transformation.”

(Part 2 of this interview will appear on Wednesday)

Q: The fall of the great civil religions of the 20th century and the great progress of technology have demolished many of the values on which the West’s spiritual solidity was built. Do you think that the secularization now present throughout Europe will end by weakening the fabric of the society?

Cardinal Poupard: When you speak of the fall of the great religions of the 20th century, I suppose you are referring to the concept of the totalitarian regime. First of all, I would like to make a small observation. The great risk exists of using a specific terminology inadequately and of confusing essential concepts, for example, by equating ideologies and religions.

By religion is understood a relationship between God and man. It is a real and existential, personal and inter-subjective, conscious and free, dynamic, necessary and perfecting relationship of the human being.

Ideologies, instead, especially those of the 20th century, are the negation of this relationship with God and, as we have seen, do not perfect man, but tend to oppress him in a total manner, so much so that they are called, in fact, totalitarian.

I do not think that the values of the West’s spiritual solidity have been demolished by the fall of the totalitarian systems or by the progress of technology. Rather, I would say that the changes produced objectively favor a flourishing of values. In many countries, bans on worship and freedom of expressions have been abolished; at the same time new possibilities have opened of personal and communal growth.

However, we must not forget that, after World War II, many European countries went through, for more than 50 years, a Marxist-Leninist indoctrination that marked their history profoundly, creating a crisis of values whose consequences are very visible. I speak of those processes that modified even the attitudes of human behavior, so much as to give origin to the category of “homo sovieticus.”

The latter was not a Communist but a man of the masses, annihilated in his individual dimension, passive and mistrustful, fearful and often an informer, conditioned by the group to which he had to belong, as he could no longer be alone, though he was, in other things stripped of every interior impulse and profoundly humiliated. It is difficult to think that, after a long period of depression, one can easily regain and interiorize a new vision of one’s life.

I’ll give an example closer to the Hungarian people. Among several publications, in memory of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, tragically crushed by the Soviet regime, a book was published in Italy entitled: “1956 … So That It Will Remain a Sign.” It contains the photographs of Zsolt Bayer, a courageous man, who between October and November of 1956, went about the streets of Budapest taking photographs so that a sign would remain.

During long decades, more than 100 rolls of film were hidden, out of fear, in an attic, almost condemned to die just as the photographer did. The first pages of this book mention briefly that after the fall of the Soviet empire, the photographer’s widow decided finally to hand the negatives over for publication, with only one condition, however: “that her name and that of her husband should not be mentioned, in case ‘they were to return’ …”

This example not only reveals a person’s momentary state of mind but the reality of life of many peoples marked by fear, the suffering experienced and a psychological impediment developed over more than 50 years of oppression and persecution. And this is one of the conditions that favors the spread of secularization and the fall of Europe’s spiritual solidity.

Of course we mustn’t forget that the material wealth owed to technological progress can disorient and even “blind” man’s sensitivity, but scientific and technological development and “the death” of regimes do not constitute in themselves a threat to the solidity of society. Paraphrasing Cardinal Newman’s thought, I would say that the causes of man’s estrangement from God and, consequently, of secularization must be sought in the depth of the human heart, and not in humanity’s achievements.

Q: Continuing with the topic of secularization, many commentators tend to see in the relationship between Western civilization and Islam a clash between a secularized civilization and a world still permeated by the sacred. Would you give credit to this reconstruction?

Cardinal Poupard: This tendency of which you speak, that is, the conception of Western civilization and Islam in an antagonistic relationship, reveals at once a simplistic and distorted vision. I have always been convinced that such comments are often a simple fruit of prejudices and of a profound cultural incomprehension, which still endures and spreads very rapidly.

On one hand, there is a tendency to accentuate the aspects of Western civilization that are associated with secularization, and on the other, Islam is seen by limiting its perception to extremist groups and some forms of fundamentalism. Both tendencies are erroneous and damage both Christians — because when I think of Western civilization I think of its Christian roots and soul — as well as Muslims.

It is important to be able to look at the present-day reality, without neglecting the truth of events. It is true that there are signs of secularization that cannot be ignored or hidden and that we consider important for a profound theoretical and pastoral reflection, object of research for several years of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

However, we cannot forget that there are many signs of the re-flowering of the faith and of personal and communal spiritual commitment, especially among young people, desirous of discovering the reality of values, Christ as model of life and source of inspiration.

The large-scale meetings of the World Youth Days, the Taizé meetings, young people’s adherence to Movements such as the Focolarini, Sant’Egidio Community, and many others, are the testimonies that refute the fatalist visions of those who are present “prophets of ill omen,” incapable of looking at the present and future with a positive eye charged with hope.

On the other hand, it cannot be affirmed categorically that all the characteristics of the Islamic world are expressions of the sacred. There are Muslim states that tend to distance themselves from this dimension, declaring themselves secular states. And then there are states with the Koranic law in which the sacred dimension is not always a personal need of all the citizens, but rather a legislative implementation of the state, which imposes certain customs and usages, whose omission is to be persecuted and punished including by death.

Having said this, I return to the question on the clash between civilizations. As I said earlier, this vision of the mutual relationship is often an unjust projection that does not correspond to the facts but that creates tensions on both sides.

To illustrate this conviction I lean on my own recently lived experience. As you know, I had the pleasure and privilege to accompany the Holy Father on his journey to Turkey. Those who followed the news published by the media, before the papal pilgrimage, might have had the idea of a journey accompanied by sentiments of fear, preoccupation and suspicions on both sides.

The reality of the events denied the alarmist voices. This journey was full of true cordiality, with a friendly reception coupled with a climate of dialogue and mutual openness to which were added very positive comments transmitted by the Turkish media.

So this event, which some presented with the view of a clash between civilizations even before it occurred, has been, in fact, a prophetic sign of mutual acceptance, so much so that the Holy Father did not hesitate to hope that Turkey might become a bridge of meeting and dialogue between East and West.

I am happy not only because the pessimistic opinion did not succeed in dominating the climate of this journey, but especially because Divine Providence overcomes and corrects the fatalistic predictions of those who today wish to exercise political or media divination.

Q: The world of science has also been presented too often as antithetical to spiritual values. In your opinion, what is the state of the dialogue between Christianity and scientific progress? In what areas can science find support in Christianity’s values?

Cardinal Poupard: Also in this field there are many myths and prejudices. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council and after some famous documents of the Church, such as Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Fides et Ratio,” we have no doubts that the scientific world is not antithetical to the reality of spiritual values. On the contrary, these two realities are mutually complementary.

Properly interpreted, scientific progress helps to improve the comprehension and interiorization of spiritual values, just as spiritual values have the intrinsic force of sensitizing those who promote scientific research. It is not possible to enumerate all the examples that show that spiritual values, or religious intuitions, have influenced scientific progress.

I’ll give you just a small example that shows how a religious intuition has contributed to scientific progress. The problem of the origins of the world, the research of astrophysics and the respective interpretative models, with the predominant big-bang theory, are a result of the intuition which has its roots in biblical faith in the creative act.

The Greeks did not question themselves on the creation of the world, convinced as they were of the eternity of matter. Research, initially belonging to the speculative disciplines, but later also to the natural sciences, has inevitably a stamp of religious intuitions, which does not mean however that there was no tension of some sort between faith and science in the course of the centuries.

Fortunately, today we witness a greater dialogue between Christianity and the world of science, which is ever more profound and obliging, and that demonstrates how much more we can learn from one another by promoting initiatives of dialogue. For almost six years, the Pontifical Council for Culture, along with some Pontifical Universities, has initiated the Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest, a scientific project that, granting scholarships, organizing international conferences and publishing specialized texts, promotes dialogue between the natural sciences and philosophical-theological reflection.

However, lets not forget that there are other important initiatives and structures. Suffice it to remember, in this connection, the contribution offered by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which brings together prestigious scientists from all over the world, of different cultures and religions — many of them recipients of the Nobel prize — who hold an academic debate on scientific questions, but referred to the values and often correlated with questions relating to the faith.

In this connection, Christianity and its values, along with profound religious intuitions, can become an important source of inspiration for many scientific disciplines, as long as the scientists themselves do not adopt a position of contempt and rejection of the treasure of the Christian faith.

(Wednesday: on renewing society)

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