from issue no. 11 - 2010


“It is human nature so fallen, stripped of the grace that clothed it, injured in its own natural powers and subjected to the dominion of death, that is transmitted to all men” Paul VI, Creed of the People of God

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

At the time of its original appearance the interview that we republish here followed the publication of the proceedings of a Conference held in Rome in November 1994 entitled Catholics and pluralistic society. The case of “imperfect laws”. In addition to devoting an extensive critical review of that text written by Massimo Borghesi, 30Days arranged an interview, edited by the undersigned, with Father Nello Cipriani, who had participated in the Conference with a paper entitled “The Church’s role in civil society: the patristic tradition”.
The topic of imperfect laws remains, indeed interest in it is gaining, primarily in terms of historico-political realism. It is no accident that Piero Ostellino, in the Corriere della Sera of 20 October last, concluded his article with an implicit reference to the subject: “The task of the State is not to make citizens happy, but to create conditions which enable them to freely pursue their own (subjective) ideal of happiness”.
Father Cipriani showed very clearly in that interview that, according to the sound Augustinian conception – since the State is founded on the communion of goods useful to all and since its legislation must regulate the use of these goods to promote harmony and peace among its citizens – a certain “imperfection” of the laws is to be taken into account (although they cannot altogether move away from justice, of course). In fact, he said, “Few men agree to submit themselves to God’s justice, to eternal law. The majority by contrast search for the private bonum, of what is useful, to personal advantage, in the private interest”. In dialogue with his friend Evodius – to whom it seems “that the law enacted to govern the people should justly allow some things that divine Providence punishes, because the former takes into account only what is necessary to ensure social peace and what is humanly possible to command” – Augustine affirms that he “praises and appproves this distinction of yours, even if initial and imperfect ( minus perfecta), but trustful and aiming at sublime realities. Indeed you are right to claim that this law emitted for the administration of the citizenzry should allow and leave unpunished a lot of things that are nevertheless punished by Divine Providence. In fact, not because this law doesn’t do everything, what it does do is to be disapproved” (De libero arbitrio I, 5, 13).
But the issue of imperfect laws is of great interest also because it obliges one not to disengage from the depositum fidei in what regards original sin. Father Cipriani also said in the interview: “Today there is such confusion that not only is it difficult to understand the distinction between nature and grace, but neither does it help to understand nature: what its truest and most profound needs are and what in nature itself are those trends that are the fruits of sin, of egoism”. In the end it is only through this distinction, fully based on the reality of original sin, that “Augustine was able to have a very realistic vision of relations between Church and State, of the relationship between civil laws and eternal laws”.
Happy reading and good re-reading.

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