MILAN – One of the most vexing questions facing Christians in the West in the early 21st century is whether, and how, the Church ought to keep fighting the culture wars.
On the Christian left, there’s a powerful current of thought that the Church ought to withdraw from the field of battle because on many issues, such as contraception and women, it was on the wrong side. On the right, some, such as Rod Dreher and his advocacy of a “Benedict option,” say the Church ought to pull back because it’s already lost and the most it can hope for in this culture is to keep alive small islands of the faith.
In effect, Father Julián Carrón, leader of the influential Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, represents another form of the argument for de-emphasizing the wars of culture. In his view, it’s not that the Church’s traditional positions are wrong, and it’s also not because the battle is already over.
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Instead, it’s because starting with ethics was always the wrong way to present Christianity to the world, which at its heart is an “event” – a word that might seem banal in street usage, but in the lexicon of Communion and Liberation that derives from its founder, Italian Father Luigi Giussani, is rich with meaning.
“The faith as an event means that someone’s life changes when they encounter a fact, like what happened to John and Andrew when they met Jesus,” he told Crux on Monday. “You can’t avoid the reality of what’s happened, you can’t undo it. It’s like St. Paul, who was a persecutor of Christians, trying to destroy them, met the living Christ and it revolutionized his thinking.
“The choice can’t come down to either the culture wars or a Christianity emptied of content, because neither of those options has anything to do with Abraham and salvation history,” Carrón said. “Abraham was chosen by God to begin introducing into history a new way of living life, that could slowly begin to generate an external reality with the capacity to make life dignified, to make it full.”
Carrón spoke to Crux at his residence in Milan, among other things about the recent English release of his book Disarming Beauty, about how to present the Christian “event” in the post-modern and secular culture of the West.
Part one of Crux’s conversation with Carrón appeared yesterday. The following is the second installment.
Rod Dreher recently argued that Christians should abandon the culture wars in the West because we’ve already lost, and the most we can hope for is a ‘Benedict option,’ meaning creatively preserving small islands of the faith amid a decaying and hostile culture. You too seem to be saying that we should get past the culture wars, without abandoning those positions, but for a different reason.
Certainly, absolutely. It’s always struck me, the contraposition between trying to make Christianity into a civil religion, on the one hand, and on the other, trying to make it entirely private. To me, it’s like trying to amend the design of God. I ask myself, who would ever have bet that God would begin to reach out to the world by calling Abraham? It was the most unlikely, most confusing, way of going about it anyone could have imagined.
The choice can’t come down to either the culture wars or a Christianity emptied of content, because neither of those options has anything to do with Abraham and salvation history. Abraham was chosen by God to begin introducing into history a new way of living life, that could slowly begin to generate an external reality with the capacity to make like dignified, to make it full.
I imagine that if Abraham were around today, in our minority situation, and he went to God and said, ‘Nobody’s paying any attention to me,’ what would God have said? We know very well what he’d say: ‘That’s why I chose you, to begin posing to reality a presence significant enough, even if no one believes it, that I will make of you a people so numerous that your descendants will be like the stars in the sky.’
When he sent his son into the world, stripped of his divine power to become man, he did the same thing. It’s like St. Paul said, he came to give us the capacity to live life in a new way. That’s what generates a culture. The question for us is whether the situation we’re in today gives us the chance to recover the origins of the design of God.
You seem fairly optimistic that’s still possible.
Yes, absolutely. I’m completely optimistic, because of the nature of the faith itself. I’m an optimist based on the nature of the Christian experience. It doesn’t depend on my reading of things, my diagnosis of the sociological situation. The problem is that to be able to start over again from this absolutely original point of departure, we have to go back to the roots of the faith itself, in what Jesus said and did.
If there’s a case for pessimism, it’s that too many times we’ve reduced Christianity either to a series of values, an ethics, or simply a philosophical discourse. That’s not attractive, it doesn’t have the power to seduce anyone. People don’t feel the attractive force of Christianity. But precisely because the situation we’re living in today is so dramatic, from every point of view, paradoxically it’s easier to get across the novelty of Christianity.
If we look at Europe today, there’s a new generation coming of age that really isn’t invested in the old battles over religion v. secularity, because they’ve been raised in a largely post-religious culture and thus often look on it not with animosity but curiosity. Does that create a new moment for evangelization?
Yes, there’s a new moment. The question is whether Christians can take advantage of this opportunity to understand ourselves what the faith really is, what it means to be Christian, because it ought to interest us and it will interest others. We have to go about that independently of worrying about the numbers, and project ourselves solely to the fullness of the experience that Christ poses in our lives.
I think of an expression Giussani often used, speaking of the faith, he said, “The faith is a present experience, where I have in my own personal experience confirmation of the human fittingness of the faith.” Without that, the faith won’t be able to hold out in a world in which everything says the opposite to us.
So, your strategy for evangelization in the early 21st century is to live the faith in such a way that this ‘experience of confirmation’ comes across, and then gradually to introduce others to this way of life?
When a Christian lives the faith with this kind of joy, with this fulness, it’s evident that when he or she goes to work, or hangs out with their friends, or is in the airport, others will see this novelty in them. If you show up at the factory at 8:00 am and you go onto the work floor and find a colleague who’s singing, embracing you and sharing your weakness and difficulties, you’re going to ask, ‘What is it about you, that you can show up for work singing at 8 in the morning?’
That gets Christianity across much more than lots of other things, than all these ethical arguments, because when you see someone like that, you naturally want to ask, ‘Where does this joy come from? Where does this fullness of life come from?’ People may not immediately think that the ultimate origin of this happiness is called Jesus Christ, that it’s called the faith. But when you start to understand that this stupefying way of living in the real world, so happy, so joyful, is rooted in the faith, they’ll start to get interested.
Christianity, in a phrase, is communicated by living it. Eliot once asked, ‘Where is the life we have lost in living?’ For us, it’s the opposite … we gain life by living in the faith. If that’s not the case, we won’t interest anyone, including ourselves. To put it differently, has the Church failed mankind, or has mankind failed the Church?
We’re not pitching a series of doctrines, but a way of life?
It’s an experience of life.
Pope Francis talks a lot about creating a ‘culture of encounter,’ and of course ‘encounter’ was also a fundamental concept for Giussani. As you look around the church today, what are the examples of a ‘culture of encounter’ that impress you the most?
I’m always impressed with those examples of creating a space for encounter among people who are completely different. For example, we [Communion and Liberation] have here in Milan an after-school program, a center, in which a group of teachers … some of whom belong to the movement, some don’t … offer their free time to help kids with problems in school.
Italians go there, immigrants, members of different religions, mostly Catholics and Muslims, and there you see a space of encounter. They come from very different situations, and they can find there a place where their humanity is reborn.
One time, a kid showed up with a steel blade in his backpack, and under different circumstances he might have ended up as a terrorist. But by spending time with these people, he got rid of all his aggression, and eventually became an official of that operation. That’s the power of encounter.
What about examples outside your own movement?
Well, I don’t know the whole world, of course, but I can give examples. For instance, I move in and out of different parishes in Rome and Milan sometimes, and you can see this spirit of encounter alive in them. I know a priest here in Milan who has a relationship with some prisoners. He’s got an amazing capacity and involved himself in the lives of others, in a way that helps them rebuild their lives.
There’s this experience of APAC in Brazil, this network of jails with no guards and no weapons, and where the rate of recidivism, which is about eighty percent in normal prisons, drops all the way to 15 percent. You might think that’s just an illusion, that what’s really happening is that they’re encouraging criminality. Instead, it’s an example what happens when there’s a real encounter. Everything that gets in the way of true humanity, sooner or later falls away.
For instance, there was a prisoner who escaped from a series of different jails who eventually showed up at one of these, and he didn’t try to escape anymore. There was a judge who was so struck by that story he went to the prison to ask, ‘Why haven’t you tried to escape?’ The prisoner replied, ‘You can’t run away from love.’
Our problem sometimes is that we just don’t believe in certain things anymore. We think virtually any other solution, however violent, is more effective than the power of love.
You’re saying that in the end, our ‘realism’ isn’t actually all that realistic.
That’s clear. We’ve just taken for granted that certain things are illusions, and we’ve cast aside the lone chance of truly penetrating to someone’s heart. Again, this is what makes me an optimist – the faith works!
Like Pope Benedict said years ago, is there still a chance for Christianity today, in this world? He said ‘yes,’ because the heart of the human person needs something that only Christ can give. That capacity to correspond to what people are truly seeking is what will always make it attractive.
You also seem to be saying we have to be audacious about it, to not be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom in this world.
What we can’t have is a reduced Christianity that’s a little ambiguous, thinking that’s the way to be able to encounter anybody. No, we have to live it audaciously, fully, we have to be convinced, with the same audacity of Jesus entering the house of Zacchaeus, without in any way overlooking the things he’d done, but disarmed, responding to what was in his heart. Historically, that’s an absolutely new method. Jesus astonished St. Paul, in the same way he astonishes us.
There’s nothing that challenges the heart of a person more than a gesture like this, a gesture that’s absolutely astonishing.
A key concept for Giussani, which you repeat throughout the book, is that the faith is an ‘event.’ Can you explain what that means and why it’s important?
The faith as an event means that someone’s life changes when they encounter a fact, like what happened to John and Andrew when they met Jesus. You can’t avoid the reality of what’s happened, you can’t undo it. It’s like St. Paul, who was a persecutor of Christians, trying to destroy them, met the living Christ and it revolutionized his thinking.
It’s like that scene in the novel by Manzoni, I promessi sposi … the experience of meeting someone so ready to forgive was so astonishing that it was impossible not to yield to its attractive power. When the cardinal greets the bandit, the latter asks, ‘When will I come back? Even if you refuse to see me, I’ll show up here at your door, obstinately, like a poor beggar needing to see you again.’
That’s the sort of shocking experience that changes a life, and that’s the faith. [Note: The cardinal character in I promessi sposi is believed to have been inspired by Cardinal Federigo Borromeo of Milan, 1564-1631.]
Pope Benedict always said that at the origins of Christianity, it’s not a doctrine, it’s not a teaching, it’s an encounter with Christ. The form of the Christian ‘event’ is this encounter, not in a virtual way or just as a proposal someone makes. No, it’s an encounter so powerful that you don’t want to lose it for the rest of your life.
Is the aim of your book to reawaken a consciousness of this event?
Certainly. The problem is how to get this event across to people. It’s like the experience of love, of falling in love … it doesn’t happen by talking about it, but by actually falling in love.
You write at one point that the purpose of the community, presumably meaning Communion and Liberation but also more generally the Church, is to generate ‘adults in the faith.’ What do you mean by that?
I mean people who are regenerated by participating in the Christian community, in the sense that they have a new capacity to grasp reality, a new capacity to be free in a way differently than before, and a new capacity to transmit a sense of awe to others. If Christianity isn’t able to generate a new kind of person, then it’ll stay detached from their lives.
There’s nothing more decisive in the present moment than the ability to generate adults in the faith, adults who live freely among others and who can testify to the faith not just when they go to church or when they take part in some activity that’s apart from daily life, but in the middle of their work and their lives.
We need people who can get across the newness of the faith in the middle of the world, which invites the question, ‘But where are you getting this newness, this freshness? What’s behind it?’ To be able to respond to that, it will naturally lead people to something bigger and greater.
That’s a real witness to the faith … even if people can’t even identify the name of Christ, just looking at that person makes it impossible not to want to understand what makes them tick. They’ll want to know who the ‘third party’ is, and that’s a witness.
Only a real witness can make visible and tangible the event of the faith … the ability to make the faith seem reasonable to people can only come from a real experience of it, an ‘event.’ That’s what enables one not to be afraid of being misunderstood, and to resist the temptation to reduce Christianity to something else.
Let me ask you something: Why do we think sometimes that for a gratuitous gesture to be understood, it has to be reduced to something else, it has to be less gratuitous? The more gratuitous it is, the more astonishing and captivating, no? We don’t have to reduce things to be understood.
Sometimes we think that for someone who doesn’t have faith, we have to reduce things to be understood. But it’s the other way around – the more a gesture is gratuitous, like forgiving someone for an offense, rather than responding in kind, it will absolutely astonish that person. It’s not that we have to reduce it, take the edge off, to avoid scandal … nobody’s ever scandalized by being forgiven.
In the last line of the book, you write that joy is like a cactus flower. What do you mean?
The faith introduces an attraction into life, which at the same time attracts us to it but also doesn’t leave us alone. Nothing challenges a person more than something that responds to all their expectations in complete fullness. There’s nothing that turns life on its head quite like having all its promises fulfilled! That’s why the faith is like a cactus … it’s beautiful, it draws us in, but it also stings. You can accept it or reject it, but nothing transforms and upsets your life with the same power.
Would it be fair to say that this book is an attempt to express the vision of evangelization that comes from Giussani, and which has been amplified by the last three popes?
To me, the answer is yes.