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from issue no. 01 - 2010

THE CONTRIBUTION OF CHRISTIANS. An interview with Cardinal Angelo Sodano

Nova et vetera, the key for harmonizing modernity and tradition

If Europe is to achieve its objectives, it must draw inspiration with “creative fidelity” from the Christian heritage. The Cardinal Dean of the Sacred College takes stock of the twenty years that separate us from the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the problems and prospects of the European Union

Interview with Cardinal Angelo Sodano by Roberto Rotondo

At what point is the construction of a shared European homeland twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? What’s become of so many hopes? And how do we get out of the sterile debate between secularism and religious fundamentalism running through the European institutions? The recent book by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the Sacred College and Secretary of State Emeritus, Per una nuova Europa. Il contributo dei cristiani [For a new Europe. The contribution of Christians], published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, succeeds in a few pages in giving more than one answer, without neglecting any of the open questions, not even the thorniest. All without controversy, but with that capacity for synthesis, clarity and practicality that surely come to Cardinal Sodano from fifty years spent in Vatican diplomacy – including fifteen as Secretary of State of the last two popes – but also, perhaps, from his link to his native soil, the rural world of Piedmont where he grew up and became a priest. His father Giovanni was also a Member of the Italian Parliament from 1948 to 1963.
The Cardinal received us very cordially for the interview at the Ethiopian College, a piece of Africa in the Vatican, where he has his apartment and where today, a sunny morning in late January, he is at work.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano during his speech at the “Millennium of the Name Lithuania” celebration in Vilnius, 6 July 2009 [© AFP/Getty Images]

Cardinal Angelo Sodano during his speech at the “Millennium of the Name Lithuania” celebration in Vilnius, 6 July 2009 [© AFP/Getty Images]

Your book, For a New Europe, opens with a heartfelt remembrance of John Paul II’s visit to the Berlin Wall in 1996.
After the fall of the Wall, Pope John Paul II said that Europe could begin to breathe with two lungs again, re-linking the traditions of East and West. Twenty years after that event, what is your judgment of the ground covered from the fall of the Wall up to today?
ANGELO SODANO: In my opinion the path taken by Europe over the twenty years that separate us from the fall of the Berlin Wall has been positive in several respects. Positive first of all in the move towards freedom made by the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, who had suffered so much under the dictatorship of the Communist regimes. To claim that fundamental human right, many men and women had sacrificed their lives. Since 1989 all the Europeans have thus been able to assert their freedom before the State, well aware that mankind is anterior to political society which must hold back in face of the inalienable rights of man.
Positive also has been the move towards peace, to close the gap existing between the West and East of the continent. War never again, never one nation against another: that has been the common purpose in these years. With this commitment new roads have been taken towards European cooperation. The last tragic world war was to remain a reminder to the new generations. A senseless war had caused more than fifty-five million deaths. That then was followed by the so-called “Cold War” with the division of Europe into two parts, separated by an “Iron Curtain”, in the familiar phrase coined by Winston Churchill back in 1945. In short, the fall of the Berlin Wall saw the birth of a new Europe, a Europe of freedom and peace.
You write that, more than a geographic reality, Europe is a spiritual reality, adding that the momentum gathered twenty years ago for spiritual renewal has instead suffered a severe backlash with various attempts to distort reality, to dissolve the Christian identity of Europe. You talk of a secularizing current running through Europe. What is the Church’s stance in this context?
SODANO: It’s true what you say. After emphasizing the positive aspects of the path taken by the European States towards greater integration, I couldn’t in my book fail to speak of a boulder that has fallen in the way, the boulder of secularism.
In reality, it’s a variegated phenomenon, diverse according to the country. It’s more pronounced in some countries of Western Europe. So it’s not right to generalize about the phenomenon of secularism. In Europe today there are forty-six individual sovereign states, including in that list the two countries that have some territory in Europe, namely Kazakhstan and Turkey. The situation of one country is different from that of another. But it is true that in many of the countries of Western Europe the phenomenon of secularism has infiltrated into various strata of society, into political parties and institutions.
My recent book aims to highlight the work of Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, to remind European public opinion that without the presence of spiritual values in public life, Europe would no longer be itself.
From the opening pages you go into the debate about Europe’s Christian roots, and do it by quoting the words of Benedict XVI who has said that if Europe is to achieve its aims it must draw inspiration with “creative fidelity” from Christian heritage. The term “creative fidelity” applied to the Christian heritage is very fine, because it suggests that tradition does not mean a museum heritage, but something current today. How can this creative fidelity be implemented in practice?
SODANO: There is a parable of the Lord, from the Gospel of St Matthew, which gives us the key to understanding what constitutes such “creative fidelity”. Jesus tells us that the “disciple of the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom new things as well as old” (Mt 13, 52).
Today also, Christians must resort to this method: take the new paths to progress and preserve the treasures of the past. “Nova et Vetera” are the words that can harmonize modernity and tradition.
For example, the principle of the distinction between the political and the religious spheres has become clearer in the minds of believers today. That is now a value acquired and recognized by the Church. It belongs therefore to the heritage of civilization that has been achieved today.
This principle of secularity entails respect for every religion by the State, but it certainly doesn’t absolve the State from heeding the religious needs of its citizens.
Indeed, the modern state – Pope Benedict XVI tells us in his encyclical Caritas in veritate – must bear in mind the contribution that religions can make to the development of peoples. On that the Pope writes: “The exclusion of religion from the public sphere — and, at the other extreme, religious fundamentalism — hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity… Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith. Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for x;float:right;margin:1.5em;'>A gigantic line of dominoes with more than a thousand pieces was toppled along the former route of the Berlin Wall during the official ceremony to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its fall, Berlin, 9 November 2009 [© AFP/Getty Images]

A gigantic line of dominoes with more than a thousand pieces was toppled along the former route of the Berlin Wall during the official ceremony to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of its fall, Berlin, 9 November 2009 [© AFP/Getty Images]

You specify that in asserting the influence of Christianity on the formation of Europe no one wants to appropriate the history of our continent. The quest therefore is not for a confessional Europe, but a harmony of different traditions. Why?
SODANO: This was an idea dear to the late Pope John Paul II, to whom the current process of European integration owes much. He insisted on the duty of Europeans to build their new home on the spiritual values that were once at the base, while also heeding the richness and diversity of cultures and traditions of individual countries. For the late Pontiff, the new Europe should have become a great community of the Spirit. Who can forget the historic appeal addressed to Europe already in 1982 with the European Act of Compostela in Spain?
This is a recurrent item in the teaching of the late Servant of God John Paul II. I remember, for example, the famous sermon he gave in Gniezno, the Polish Primate’s See, on 3 June 1997, during which, speaking of Europe, he acknowledged that “the history of Europe is a great river into which many tributaries flow, and the variety of traditions and cultures which shape it is its great treasure”.
Catholics, therefore, are not seeking a confessional Europe, but, as has been said, they also don’t want a secular Europe, forgetful of the spiritual values that are at the base of every civilization. As disciples of Christ, we must certainly give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but we must also ask Caesar to give to God that which is God’s.
You stated several times that, given the various projects for the construction of a common European homeland, the Church has no technical solutions to offer. The Church basically has an attitude of support for European integration, but not uncritical approval of everything. Can you explain?
SODANO: It’s true: we must distinguish. It’s one thing to be pro-European and another to uncritically endorse the various steps towards wished-for European integration.
Supporting European integration does not imply overall endorsement of the workings of the various institutions. Sometimes these have taken agnostic positions and sometimes it has come to the point of attacking the positions of the Catholic Church and the Holy See itself in the European Parliament! But Christians have a duty to be present in these institutions. The policy of the empty chair is pointless. Christians should not feel themselves the object but an active subject of European history, confronting the various proposals now being debated, with the style proper to the disciples of Christ. In particular, with respect to the European Union, the Holy See has never expressed an explicit preference for one or another institutional or constitutional form of the Union out of respect for the legitimate autonomy of the citizens in their temporal choices .
In fact, it’s no mystery that there was and is much debate on the organization of the Union, for the moment consisting of twenty-seven countries of Western and Central Europe.
Now these countries have approved a treaty among them which establishes the rules for the future. It’s the well-known Lisbon Treaty, signed in the Portuguese capital on 13 December 2007 which came into force recently on 1 December 2009. Speaking to the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See on the occasion of the exchange of New Year greetings, Pope Benedict XVI said recently that after the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon the Holy See will continue to follow the new phase in the process of European integration “with respect and with a benevolent attention”, or the original text in French “avec respect et avec une attention bienveillante” (L’Osservatore Romano, 11 January 2010).
Angelo Sodano, <I>Per una nuova Europa. Il contributo dei cristiani</I> [For a new Europe. The contribution of Christians], LEV, Vatican City 2009, 104 pp., euro 11.00

Angelo Sodano, Per una nuova Europa. Il contributo dei cristiani [For a new Europe. The contribution of Christians], LEV, Vatican City 2009, 104 pp., euro 11.00

Extensive analysis in your book, is devoted to the consequences of 1989 in the relations between the Holy See and Eastern Europe. You say that the end of the Soviet bloc led to a different climate. How do you judge the steps taken? Was there a blind leap ahead due to lack of realism? And what is the importance of the recent agreement for full relations with Russia?
SODANO: The end of the Soviet bloc not only led to a different climate: it has led to a quite different situation. It’s the difference between the dictatorship of yesterday and the democracy of today, while acknowledging the difficulties encountered at the start of the new historical orientation and the great differences between the political situations in the various countries of Eastern Europe. You rightly point out Russia’s difficulties in reaching full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
I might also mention that the Government of the Czech Republic had already signed an agreement in 2002 with the Holy See, but then the Parliament did not vote it. Elsewhere commitments were made for the restitution of Church property confiscated from local churches, but so far those commitments have not yet been fully honored.
These difficulties cannot blind us, however, to the new situation that has arisen in Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the fall of the various communist regimes.
An index of the new situation are also the relations that all these countries decided to establish with the Holy See. With ten of them specific agreements have been concluded, sanctioning the mutual commitments in international law.
In his address to the Curia on 21 December Pope Benedict XVI emphasized “reconciliation”, so much so as to define it as key word of the Synod for Africa and his journey to the Holy Land. What does this exhortation of the Pope mean for the Church and for Europe?
SODANO: The appeal made by Pope Benedict XVI for a reconciliation of hearts in Africa and in the Holy Land has universal value. It is, in fact, the Church’s mission to remind believers and all people of goodwill that we are all children of God and members of the same human family. The Church will never tire of proclaiming this Good News to the people of today, often divided by social situation, ethnic groups, political parties.
I remember personally what Pope Paul VI of blessed memory said to me when he appointed me as apostolic nuncio to Chile in 1977 and gave me the following directive: “You must be an architect of reconciliation in that country”.
This was also the banner raised over the whole world by the late Pope John Paul II, who often reminded us that as well as justice there is also the duty of forgiveness. Indeed, in the message for The World Day of Peace in 2002, he went so far as to say: “There is no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness”.
Now that message is being constantly repeated to the world by Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, the appeal has become a leitmotif of his papacy, remembering the duty of forgiveness for true reconciliation between persons and the peoples of the whole world. His last encyclical, Caritas in veritate, is all a reminder of this essential aspect of Christian identity and of human co-existence itself.

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