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from issue no. 11 - 2007

The Pope who brought the hope of the Resurrection

An interview with the President of the Chamber of Deputies Fausto Bertinotti on John Paul II and the new frontier of secularity

Interview with Fausto Bertinotti by Marco Politi

If you were to ask Fausto Bertinotti point-blank for a memory flash of Wojtyla he would tell you of the cheers at the gathering of Youth Day in 2000. «The non-ritual gesture», he explains, «showed that spontaneity can enter even the highest forms of power and revealed his extraordinary ability to accept the contamination of languages».
On Thursday 29 November the President of the Chamber went to the parish of Santa Dorotea, in Trastevere, to introduce the book Pellegrino [Pilgrim], devoted to John Paul II by Father Gianfranco Grieco, for decades the special envoy of the L’Osservatore Romano on the papal travels.
Fausto Bertinotti considers Pope Wojtyla a «great wayfarer over the earth in our time, who freed deep roots» and in front of the public of the parish let himself go in a personal confession: «As a Communist I very much feel his teaching on penitence. I feel, in other words, I carry the blame for that history for which one must ask forgiveness so as to be able to open to the future».
In his office in Parliament the President of the Chamber tells us much more.

Fausto Bertinotti

Fausto Bertinotti

President Bertinotti, your balance-sheet on Pope Wojtyla?
FAUSTO BERTINOTTI: John Paul II was the Pope before fear. He dwelt in the modern, opposing the aspects that he felt adverse to his religion, but transmitting the conviction of a victory in the field. His great legacy is: «Have no fear!» and that enables everybody to make the indispensable comparison for religion to be leaven and not lead to shutting oneself up in new bunkers.
The particular feature of his pontificate?
BERTINOTTI: Being herald of peace. Even when it seemed that his message was powerless, one saw how capable he was of affecting consciences. In the movement for peace, that grew to such considerable strength as to be described as the «second world power», there was his mark.
So was he in the end right on Iraq? Do you remember in 2003 how many were saying that at bottom the appeals of John Paul II were in vain?
BERTINOTTI: Undoubtedly the Pontiff was right and the peace movement was right. Each and everyone of the arguments of the warmongers has turned out false. Both the reasons and the forecasts. I believe that few other examples can be brought in modern history like this, without counter-indications, to demonstrate that the war was wrong and peace was right.
Apart from the peace issue, what other elements in the pontificate did you find striking?
BERTINOTTI: I insist again on a political matter: the relationship with the crisis and then the collapse of the Eastern European regimes. The idea of the concrete possibility of working for a change in those regimes, from Poland to Czechoslovakia, investing in their ending. Up to the point of becoming one of the chief threats precisely because he came from the East. I was struck by that mobilizing of religion and politics to contribute to the fall of those regimes. A fall that he contributed to achieving. Even if I think that those regimes fell mostly for internal reasons.
John Paul II also thought that. In the ’nineties he said to Carlo De Benedetti: «The tree was rotten, I shook it».
BERTINOTTI: And at the same time, with the passage from the world divided in two opposing blocs to the world unified by the process of modernization and globalization, he returned to describing capitalism as the causal element of the dramas of our time.
Traveling the world, Wojtyla foresaw globalization. What role do the faiths play on a unified planet?
BERTINOTTI: On the one hand they represent a standing aside from the single language that globalization would like to arise from the free market and commodification. Hence, a strong affirmation of the irreducibility of the human person to the economic order. On the other hand, the risk of fundamentalism as answer to the problems of our time has arisen.
A phenomenon that some decades ago was not on the horizon.
BERTINOTTI: Perhaps it could not have been foreseen in the long season of the Council, that was extraordinary in the message of John XXIII with his appeal to men and women of good will: the separation between believers and non-believers broke down, believers entered as leaven into a more universal humanity, of which they came to share the human project.
The roots of fundamentalism?
BERTINOTTI: The fear of feeling oneself besieged and perhaps defeated by modernity, without the separation of one’s own believers from the contaminations of this world. A phenomenon that, in extreme cases, can go as far as taking up weapons against the world or the powers that seem to lead it and in wide measure do lead it. In short, I see a twofold tension in the world of faith today. On the one hand a largely enriching tension, because it re-offers mankind a resource that can have a universal value. And also because it proposes to the non-believer the human, humanity as a dimension transcending the economic sphere. And it speaks the language of liberation, of expectation of liberation, wherever that expectation arises: both in the sphere of the world and in the transcendent.
And on the other?
BERTINOTTI: I see in the faiths a possible risk, that of fundamentalism going as far as the terrible version of the clash of civilizations, in large measure centering on the clash of religions.
Where does Fausto Bertinotti stand personally with regard to faith? We were together, a couple of years ago, on the Otto e mezzo television program, when without warning Giuliano Ferrara asked you to reveal yourself. And you described yourself more or less as a man in quest. Is that the way of it?
BERTINOTTI: He ambushed me and did something I don’t like. Setting the question, in the relation between the person asking and the person answering publicly, in such a way that not answering could seem a way of escaping. So I answered. I tend however to keep issues that are specifically to do with faith out of the political sphere. Which is why I prefer not to speak about my own situation. And if I really must speak, it is always the same as when I was a lad: a non-believer who has a great interest, a great concern, a great curiosity in the phenomenon of the faith.
John Paul II receiving Michail Gorbacev in audience  1 December 1989

John Paul II receiving Michail Gorbacev in audience 1 December 1989

What most interests you?
BERTINOTTI: Not so much the more intimately religious issues, on which moreover I don’t have sufficient knowledge to be able to pronounce. If anything speculation; studying, to give an example, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I say that simply to indicate an order of curiosity on the part, I repeat it, of a non-believer.
Pope Wojtyla and his successor have proclaimed the presence of the faith in the public arena.
BERTINOTTI: The presence of the religious phenomenon in the building of civil society is no new thing in Italy. It’s been known for a long period. However I would find it mistaken and reasonless to prevent religion shaping itself in the public arena. One can’t presume to shut the faith up in the uniquely private sphere. The whole of modernity shows the contextual relation between public and private. Doesn’t feminism also say that the personal is the political?
And yet friction occurs between religion and society.
BERTINOTTI: The problem, set recently by several expressions of religion, is the rebirth of fundamentalist phenomena based on fear. The problem arises when it is claimed that only belonging to a faith enables one to arrive at the truth, even the historically existing truth, and at the same time it is believed that a signpost to the right road for politics to take can come from a religious cathedra.
Does the danger lie there?
BERTINOTTI: We wouldn’t have the necessary acknowledgment of the presence of religion in the public arena, but the new definition of a hierarchy according to which politics is inferior to other seats of learning. It would be dangerous, because the autonomy of politics and democracy would wane.
What does secularity mean in this picture?
BERTINOTTI: To begin with a historical inheritance not to be erased: the systematic reaffirmation of the autonomy of the State, that must have within itself the reasons for lawmaking and acting. The whole history of the separation of the political from the religious sphere, even in the important birth pangs of democratic Catholicism in Italy as well as that of the non-Catholic forces, constitutes an element to be preserved and that is never won once and for all.
BERTINOTTI: Without this basic element of secularity only the worst can be conceived. How can one avoid thinking that in the contemporary world of migrants the ambition of religion to interfere in the State would inevitably cause a religious clash also? Secularity is necessary for reasons of co-existence.
Only this?
BERTINOTTI: A step forward is needed. To pass from autonomy as rejection of the Church’s interference in the State to something positive, that is the quest for the co-existence among diverse interests: the new frontier of secularity lies here. To some measure the secularity we inherited regarded the State, while the secularity of which we are speaking today, according to me, also regards civil society.
Can you explain more fully?
BERTINOTTI: Once it has been accepted that religion belongs to the public arena, then even in civil society – where that presence is plainly manifested in its organized institution and its organized bodies – the problem arises of the secularity of the relations entertained. That, it seems to me, is the terrain of the new frontier.
It seems to me that here we are entering on a dimension different from the past.
BERTINOTTI: Let me take a tiny case, that is nevertheless a sign of the times. The debate about the veil in France. It is a significant element because it has to do with people’s behavior and not, therefore, as we said, simply the sphere of the autonomy between State and Church. It has to do, instead, with the charter of citizens, their system of relations.
John Paul II embracing a young man during the prayer vigil for World Youth Day, Rome, 19 August 2000

John Paul II embracing a young man during the prayer vigil for World Youth Day, Rome, 19 August 2000

What does Bertinotti think of the veil?
BERTINOTTI: Well, in so far as I see it, the idea of banning the wearing of the veil in the name of an equality as norm to be generalized for all men and women – an idea that I recognize to be totally secular in the name of the Enlightenment principle and deriving from the French Revolution – to me seems incongruous with the times. Instead I believe that equality must match itself to diversity. That is why in this case, even though I have a cultural objection to the veil being worn on the basis of transmission of a custom, and also of dominion over women, I think that the prohibition is incoherent with the new frontier of the secularity I am looking to.
In Italy co-existence has a particular aspect: getting on with the Muslims. Building a mosque has become a problem.
BERTINOTTI: We had interesting moments, here in Rome, when the construction of a mosque was watched with almost general interest. Then the climate changed a little in certain areas of the country. We could discuss the problems caused by the phenomena of immigration. But education in civil co-existence is the only possible road. From this point of view I believe that we must draw on the great Mediterranean tradition. It would be enough to go along in Palermo with the «resistance» to the construction of a place of worship for Islam: how much wealth, in terms of architecture, of civilization, culture, religion. We don’t have to invent the future, it’s enough to realize what riches we have inherited. There are few things more stupid than breaking with this millenarian tradition of civilization, that is called Mediterranean.
Is there anything of the person of Wojtyla that remains with you?
BERTINOTTI: His little gestures towards individuals and at the same time his extraordinary ability to converse with great crowds. That physicality of relationship, minute, infinitesimal and hence incomparable. Anybody who has spoken from the platform, even in front of only fifty people, knows the nature of that relationship. I was always much struck by the way in which Pope Wojtyla related to people. The Pontiff who stoops to the naked humanity of a child and the Pontiff in whom the prophetic capacity of relationship with the masses is transformed into communion.
Why did you say that his chief legacy was the appeal not to have fear?
BERTINOTTI: Because John Paul II carried the future, the hope of the future and the Resurrection.

(Conversation recorded for la Repubblica, 28 November 2007)

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