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A JOURNEY THROUGH...
from issue no. 01/02 - 2009

Interview with Rémi Brague

Baptized. Not militants


“I see a strong process of clericalization taking place. When I think back to the ’fifties and ’sixties, there was Gilson, Maritain. There was still Claudel, there was Mauriac… Free men like Gilson, Maritain... they no longer exist in cultural life. When the media have to speak about the Church, they put questions to some churchman”


Interview with Rémi Brague by Gianni Valente


If there is one thing for which he gives thanks to God, it is for not being a court intellectual. Especially of an ecclesiastical court. Not least for that reason Rémi Brague, professor of Medieval Philosophy at the Sorbonne and the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, manages to dismantle with nonchalance well-established cliché. Saying simple and clear things that are heeded in France, but also in many other places.

Rémi Brague [© Romano Siciliani]

Rémi Brague [© Romano Siciliani]

Professor, how is the Church in France? Some people say it’s dead, and some say all goes well.
RÉMI BRAGUE: The problem is that for decades even in France Christians have been confused and identified with the militants, the baptized with the pressure groups. What pressure groups say is presented as the voice of the Church and of the Christian people. The speeches and the slogans of these lobbies continue to rage in the media, in a sort of mirror game: the media only heed the representatives of these pressure groups, which in turn respond according to the script already prepared for them in the media version of reality.
But beyond the groupings and their recitals, how do things stand?
BRAGUE: The reality of things is probably more serious than what some pressure groups say – which always tend to celebrate themselves as “Potëmkin villages”, places of cardboard where they say everything is going to perfection – but at the same time it’s less serious than the media sometimes describe. That even out of laziness they continue to repeat that Christianity in France is finished. They don’t worry me that much. The philosophers and intellectuals of the 18th century were already saying as much in their conversations. We heard the same refrain throughout the 19th century.
Cardinal Danneels, speaking of the Pope’s visit in France, took up the description ‘chrétiens ordinaires’, saying that “Christianity will be ‘generic’ or won’t exist”.
BRAGUE: I frequent mainly academic and intellectual circles, and therefore live as if inside a bubble. I think the decline of the most simple practices of the Christian life is undeniable, despite the great efforts and good qualities of so many good priests. It is precisely the class of intellectuals to which I belong that should beat its breast for the snobbery with which in many situations it has mocked the apostolic faith confessed in simplicity by so many “ordinary” Christians.
It seems sometimes that Christian witness is a matter of ecclesial “up-staging”.
BRAGUE: I see a strong process of clericalization taking place.When I think back to the ’fifties and ’sixties, there was Gilson, Maritain. There was still Claudel, there was Mauriac… Free men like that no longer exist in French cultural life. When the media have to speak about the Church, they put questions to some churchman. The Church gets identified with the clergy. So it seems that the bishops and cardinals are company spokesmen. As far as they can, they do a good job, but the problem is that it’s not their job. The Bishops’ Conferences have a tendency of dealing with matters that don’t concern them, to which they have no title and no jurisdiction. One positive thing is that the young priests seem freer from complexes. It seems to me that they don’t lose too much time in asking abstruse and futile questions, about how to “take a stance” towards everything. They live without complexes, perhaps even too peaceably, but I’m still happy to see them so, not all strung up, going ahead with serenity with the little they have, in times of shortage.
The remission of the excommunication of the Lefebvrians has caused controversy in France also. You happen to be the second signatory to the petition to the Pope launched by the Catholic weekly La Vie on 27 January, which asked that every possible distance be taken from Williamson’s holocaust denial theories.
BRAGUE: I consider the Pope’s decision to lift the excommunication altogether positive. He told the Lefebvrians: the doors are open, if you want come in. The history of France has shown that it is better to treat wounds while there is time, because otherwise there is the danger of them becoming chronic. Here there are many small schisms. Think, in Lyon and in the Charolais there are still followers of the Petite Église, the small schismatic Church founded by the bishops who refused the Concordat of 1801. And there are the Old Catholics, born out of the schism that rejected papal infallibility as it was defined by Vatican I. I signed the appeal because I feared from the start – it was easy to predict – that there would be a terrible short-circuit. That the media would present things as if the Pope were cosying up to Holocaust deniers.
Paul VI and Jacques Maritain

Paul VI and Jacques Maritain

How do you judge the most critical reactions to the Pope’s decision?
BRAGUE: Many now regard the Church as a party, and demand that the line of the Party-Church remain steady. But the Church is people, not a party or a company offering services. Perhaps this tolerance towards people attached to the mindset of the liturgy before the Council would be better understood in the intentions of the Pope if it were relativized, so to speak, showing that the same openness and willingness applies to other situations and other contexts, such as that of the Chinese bishops who for decades have had to live with a hostile regime, and deserve respect for that and not suspicion.
In short, the possible return to communion with Rome of the Lefebvrians would not lead to a revival in a postmodern fashion of nostalgia for the Ancien Régime?
BRAGUE: I think one should always keep in mind with gratitude the traditional distinctions between politics and religion, the Church and civil power. Mythizing the status of the Church at the time of the Ancien Régime is totally misplaced. The Ancien Régime was a history of constant conflict between papacy and empire, and between the Gallican and Ultramontane tendency, that only made the Church more cumbersome and opaque. It performs its task best when it is most transparent with Christ.
The debate on how to conceive the relationship between the Church and the world comes up continuously even today.
BRAGUE: At this point we must bear in mind one thing: you cannot ask Christians to do things that are good only for Christians. Christians are subject to the moral law just as everyone else. There are no dietary prohibitions specific to Christians, or clothes made especially for Christians. And Christianity does not want the good of Christianity. It wants the good of every person. Even though they are not Christian. Before they are Christian. And hoping that they will become so.


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