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from issue no. 08 - 2004

FAITH AND CULTURE. An interview with the Patriarch of Venice

The anthropological challenge

"It is a matter of facing up to the dramatic nature of the person, because each of us is one, but we are “one of soul and body”, “one of man and woman”, “one of individual and community”". An interview by the Vatican expert of La Repubblica with Cardinal Angelo Scola

by Marco Politi

The yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1889, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

The yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1889, Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Church and postmodern society. It is the great challenge of today. In a tough interview the Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Scola, does not back away from the confrontation and, indeed, in the long interview I had with him, the cardinal starts with a confession of a self-critical flavour. «The weakness of the current Christian proposal», he stated, «lies in the incapability of showing the anthropological, social and cosmological implication of the mysteries of our faith».

Does dogma serve?
ANGELO SCOLA: Let me answer by borrowing the fine subtitle of Catholicism, a great work by De Lubac, which went: The social aspects of dogma.
What does showing its social implications mean?
SCOLA: It is a matter of facing up to the dramatic nature of the person, because each of us is one, but we are “one of soul and body”, “one of man and woman”, “one of individual and community”.
Why do you speak of dramatic nature?
SCOLA: Language nowadays confuses drama with tragedy. The word drama, instead, simply indicates that we are always strung between these two poles, in constitutive fashion: soul and body, man and woman, individual and community. If my stomach is upset, I think worse. If I’m sad because my wife has left me, my stomach hurts. If I’m situated in the male sexual difference, I won’t be able to understand myself except by referring to the other mode, inaccessible to me, of being in the sexual difference, the female one. Analogously I can never separate my individual self from the social relations in which it’s immersed. And that is also reflected in the exercise of my freedom. Because the structure of freedom is such that I am always strung in polar fashion between my self-affirmation and necessary outgoing toward the other.
Hence the present divorce between faith and culture…
SCOLA: In the final analysis it has an anthropological root. In other terms: we insist on the identity of the “self” as if it weren’t already immersed in action. We separate the person from his task. One sees it sometimes in us priests. Having a sincere desire for authenticity, we rightly intensify ascesis, spiritual retreats, meditation, the lectio divina and so on. And woe if we didn’t always start out from those fundamentals! The problem is not to lose them when one passes to action. We need to make explicit the anthropological and social implications of the dogma in which we believe. Otherwise the reasons of action shift from the dominant mentality and one splits in two. One is Christian in intention, but in action one becomes other.
A concrete example?
SCOLA: One has to help the neediest, one has to give backing to peace… sacrosanct issues. The problem is why and how the faith opens wide to the neediest, why and how to call people to spend themselves for peace.
Patriarch Angelo Scola

Patriarch Angelo Scola

Your Eminence, the Pope fears the breaking up of Christian values in society. Where do Church and contemporary culture clash? Where lies the major point of friction?
SCOLA: Paradoxically the modern emphasis on the subject – which is sacrosanct - has produced the postmodern thesis of the death of the subject. The challenge for the Church is, on the one hand, to take up the just claim, having the courage to say that it had not been seen in these terms before modernity, and on the other to affirm with courage that a new anthropology is possible. Not naive, but “critical”.
To get where?
SCOLA: To an existence worthy of the name, in which the intangible and sacred value of the person - in itself and in its relations - be recognized, and in which the possibility is revealed for mankind to build a society of the good life, in which the personal dimension and the social dimension are simultaneously pursued and the data constitutive of the elementary experience of mankind are not neglected: the affections, work, rest.
The way?
SCOLA: Jesus Christ is nothing other than the way toward this.
Can’t an atheist also build this good society?
SCOLA: Certainly. And we are well glad of it. Jesus, in fact, says he is the way to the truth. Christianity is the fullness of the human, it is not in anything alternative to the human. Obviously this fullness must take account of sin. That is why there is an element of break-up, of discontinuity, of gratuitousness: the event Christ breaks into my life.
Yet don’t all the surveys, even those done on behalf of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, betray the fact that in reality Christ is as cited as God or the Pope?
SCOLA: The reason as singular as it is, is if you like, simple. Because, as even recent films demonstrate, it’s easy to follow Jesus Christ in words up to Good Friday… the problem is believing that he rose again! To believe that he rose again I must, in fact, go through the experience that liberation from the fear of death - that is my personal resurrection - is possible and, in some way, already anticipated in my transfigured affections and in my regenerated work. That is the point. It’s not so difficult today to speak about God! Paradoxically it’s not difficult even to speak about the Church, it’s enough to speak ill of it… But to speak about Jesus Christ without yielding to the self-deception that it’s a matter of a past, demands that one has staked one’s freedom on the event that happened on Golgotha but that lives in the present. In other words: it means taking up Lessing’s challenge, showing in one’s own human experience that is not true that it is impossible to overstride the “cursed moat” of space and time that separates us from Jesus.
One of the points of friction with society concerns sexuality. Is the traditional religious message relevant?
SCOLA: Here we are faced with one of the greatest provocations for Christianity, and it’s a shame that the epochal novelty of the magisterium of John Paul II has still not been well assimilated, first of all by us pastors.
In what does the novelty consist?
SCOLA: It consists in tracing the anthropological foundations of the Christian vision of the body and of sexuality in such a way that the ethical criteria are illuminated by it, and therefore made comprehensible. The bewilderment lies precisely in not understanding that. Often people behave like the father or the mother who, really wishing their son well, when he says «I’m going out this evening», merely answer: «No, you’re not going out». And if the boy insists: «But why?», only know how to repeat: «Because that’s how it is». We don’t give cogent reasons at the anthropological level.
And what are these reasons?
SCOLA: The reasons derive from the dual unity of man and woman. From the inseparable unity between sexual difference, the gift of oneself and fertility. Sexual difference is not a simple diversity… The misunderstanding hides itself here. The difference, in fact, can be surmountable and oftentimes, when it isn’t overcome, can herald cheating and abuse, whereas the difference is within the self. That of the body and eros is a matter of self-evidence. It’s not a quality added in some way, external to the self. If I am set in the male sexual difference, I am structurally oriented to the other way of being human, that is different from mine. What does that mean? It means inclination toward the other, it means the origin of love.
Whence do we come? Who are we? Whither do we go?, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Whence do we come? Who are we? Whither do we go?, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1897, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

And so you are saying?
SCOLA: That we must forcefully emphasize this “nuptial” nature of love (the self, the other and the third: father, mother and child), i.e. this inseparable unity between sexual difference, gift of oneself and fertility. Making clear that if technology today makes it possible to separate these three factors, it behoves us not to separate them. The Pope has made a great contribution on this, and there is still much work to be done.
Will young people accept this model?
SCOLA: It’s a notion that can help them understand that if we speak about indissoluble matrimony, it’s not out of an anachronistic fixation, but because it’s the most human and complete way of living the relation between man and woman. I have in mind my parents, after sixty years of marriage, and the look full of respect, of tenderness and forgiveness with which they looked at each other, is still present to me…
Do you know that the vast majority of Italy rejects eternal marriage?
SCOLA: At the end of a life one notices that the indissoluble marriage has been the great haven where the self has remained safe from all destabilizing break-out and from the risk of self-annihilation unfortunately fairly ingrained in mankind.
Aren’t you not afraid that it might be perceived as a too reassuring vision?
SCOLA: One day on a plane I happened to come across a magazine with an article on Picasso and the erotic nudes he painted at the end of his life, and I thought: this man is undoubtedly a genius who, at more than eighty, by associating with so many models, certainly is able to catch some aspects of the female that my father and my mother – a truck driver my father, a woman who had done the second elementary year my mother – would never even have dreamt... But, humanly speaking, my father and my mother succeeded better in the experience of love than Picasso, because in fidelity to their marriage they had learned the permanent gift of oneself. Picasso, changing many women, will have caught many deep aspects of the psychology of the female, but the intensely human experience of my parents… Well, it had quite another quality.
How take account of the pleasure principle, that is a strong element in the modern?
SCOLA: In Lewis’ Screwtape Letters an elderly devil instructs a young imp on how to lead mankind to perdition.
How does he do it?
SCOLA: He claims that an infallible system is that of insisting – as some Catholics also do – on presenting pleasure as a thing against God.
And instead?
SCOLA: The problem is to locate pleasure within the experience of enjoyment. And one can catch the difference perhaps just by looking at the conjugal act. Desire seeks enjoyment that is for always, definitivity. The locus of the gaudium for the great Scholastics is paradise. Pleasure on its own doesn’t last. It’s always transient. This opens the large question of what desire is, which, in the final analysis, can be described as desire to be loved definitively and to love definitively.
A reachable goal?
SCOLA: One has to object that the fulfilment of desire is not within the reach of my desiring self. That is the point. The fact that the horizon of my desire is the infinite doesn’t mean that I am capable of satisfying it.
And so?
SCOLA: To achieve it I must pass through the other. And if I pass through the other, at that point my desire encounters sacrifice, because the other is always different from me. The secret lies in understanding that sacrifice doesn’t begin where desire ends, and wanting doesn’t end where duty begins. Duty lies within wanting. Sacrifice lies within desire.
Sacrifice as structural component of desire?
SCOLA: It seems to me that Freud also says these things. When he speaks, in somewhat truculent fashion, of the principle of “castration”, he means that until the child in its relation with the mother learns “to yield” (sacrifice) something to the father, it is unable to say I. It experiences the mother as pure extension of itself. On that point depth psychology and the Christian vision of things are in agreement.
Sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1901, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1901, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

What can the Church learn from the modern world?
SCOLA: Two things for me are extremely important: first of all giving all the necessary weight to freedom of the person and then accepting the principle that, since the world is saved by Christ, the Church must conceive of itself as transparent and vital sign of that salvation. Therefore it must receive from the circumstances of everyday life the “flesh” of its proposal. In other words, evangelization is not reducible to the contents that I already have in my pocket and that I must hand on, but is played out in the unforeseeable personal, communal and social circumstances which I come up against.
Could one say that the world is the protagonist and no longer seen as enemy?
SCOLA: «The field is the world», says Matthew (Mt 13, 38). The world is not outside the Church, it is not something else in an absolute way. After the tribulation of the years that prepared and followed Vatican Council II, I think that we today are capable of offering a more serene theology of the Church-world relationship. For example, today all we men of the West are groping in face of the tragedy of the geopolitical moment: it isn’t that we Christians have pre-packaged solutions in our pocket! But we are called to get down to work, with all mankind, each doing his own part.
Is the acceptance of what positive things the Enlightenment brought us also part of this serene relationship?
SCOLA: I think so, once we have well defined it. And for that matter one could debate at length about the extent to which the triad “liberty, equality, fraternity” was already Christianly inspired or not. However the conquest of absolute respect for the dignity of each individual and of the subsequent personal, social, political and economic rights, as sacred and impassable point, ultimately guaranteed by God is beyond debate, it is an unrenouncable principle. On the other hand I am quite convinced that balanced thinking, faithful to healthy Christian doctrine, can make its contribution to the more interesting developments today in phenomenology, hermeneutics or even transcendental philosophy. These are the currents of thought that are trying to respond to the “still unsatisfied Enlightenment”.

(By kind permission of La Repubblica)

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