ROME – New lay movements arguably represent the most distinctive and consequential contribution to Catholic life of the 20th century, from Schoenstatt and Sant’Egidio to the Neocatechumenal Way and the Focolare. When one of them changes course, therefore, inevitably it has consequences across the board.

Such would appear to be the case today with Communion and Liberation, once among the biggest and boldest of all the movements, and now struggling to shake off a decade-long period of crisis and retrenchment.

The fact that a new CL is taking shape was recently announced in a 17-page manifesto for the future issued May 18 by David Prosperi, the Milan-based biochemist and nanomedicine expert who’s led the group by Vatican edict since November 2021. It came in an address to cultural centers in Italy associated with the movement.

The heart of Prosperi’s new vision – which, in some ways, amounts to an attempted return to the old vision associated with the movement’s founder, the late Father Luigi Giussani – came in the arresting image of an “armed beauty.”

The phrase is a reference to the title of a 2015 book published by the group’s former leader, Spanish Father Julián Carrón, who took over from Giussani after his death in 2005. The book was titled La bellezza disarmata, or “disarmed beauty,” and was widely seen as emblematic of Carrón’s effort to disentangle CL from politics.

By that point, Carrón was faced with the seemingly impossible task of rescuing CL from the shipwreck formed by scandals surrounding Roberto Formigoni, a high-profile member of CL and the former governor of Lombardy, who by that point faced multiple indictments for corruption and who would eventually serve a prison term of five years and ten months, most of it under house arrest.

Among other things, Formigoni was accused of using public funds to subsidize cronies from the CL world. He was also seen as a key ally of Italy’s flamboyant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose personal morality was, to say the very least, perceived by many Italians to be at odds with traditional Catholic teaching.

Memorably, Carrón delivered a public apology for CL’s perceived attachment to power in 2012 in the pages of La Repubblica, Italy’s foremost left-leaning daily and a longtime critic of the conservative Formigoni.

“I’ve been invaded by unspeakable pain in seeing what we’ve done with the grace we received,” Carrón wrote.

“If the Communion and Liberation movement is continually identified with the seduction of power, or money, of styles of life that have nothing do with the One we’ve encountered, we must have given some reason, even if CL itself is extraneous to any kind of embezzlement and has never endorsed a ‘system of power,’” he wrote.

As a consequence, the perception was that Carrón wanted CL to abstain almost completely from politics, to the point of refusing to join a “Family Day” rally in Rome in 2007 called to protest a plan for civil recognition of same-sex unions, which many other Catholic movements and associations endorsed.

In effect, what Prosperi seems to be saying now – though without any damnatio memoriae, meaning a damnation of memory – is that on Carrón’s watch, CL basically tossed out the baby with the bathwater, becoming so allergic to anything that smacked of politics that it lost its punch as a relevant force in public life.

Hence the reference to “armed beauty.”

“We must not forget that beauty is also, in a certain sense, also armed,” Prosperi wrote in his manifesto. “It seems to me that this is an aspect we’re trying to recover, which perhaps was missing in our conversations about culture in recent years.”

“The beauty of which we speak, as history sufficiently documents, has aroused and still arouses attraction and adhesion, but also resistance and refusal,” Prosperi said.

“The beauty of Christ is also a sword. It attracts and also challenges, wounds, and in this sense it is also ‘armed’: Not because it needs the support of external ‘weapons’ (the support of the power of the state, for example), but because, by its very nature … it also opposes our way of evaluating things, the ‘world,’” he said.

To some extent, Prosperi said, CL has lost this sense of challenging the prevailing currents of a post-Christian culture.

“This has led progressively to a fragility of personal judgment with regard to many concrete aspects of life,” Prosperi said. “I’m thinking … of morality, including ethical themes widely discussed today, such as the defense of life from its beginning to its end.”

In that context, Prosperi took a swipe at what he called an “ideology” of dialogue that’s taken hold in some circles, including inside the Catholic church.

“To dialogue simply to dialogue eliminates the possibility of arriving at a truth, towards which, it should be clear, one must always humbly be on the way. The ideology of dialogue thereby becomes the ideology of equilibrium. It’s what Pope Benedict XVI foresaw: The dictatorship of relativism.”

In that context, Prosperi said, CL has to abandon the idea that the point of its public discourse is simply to make people like the movement.

“It’s as if the proof of the faith is in the consensus it’s able to generate,” he said. “Certainly, if that happens, so much the better, obviously, but it’s not a given. In fact, it could be exactly the opposite.”

Prosperi said that CL has to work hard to understand, with sympathy, the questions that the world is asking today of the faith, but that can’t become a pretext for never arriving at a judgment. Instead, it’s a caution to be sure that those judgments reflect a deep understanding of the realities involved, not simply positions driven by ideology or personal attachments.

To boil it all down, it seems that what Prosperi is asking of CL is to embark on a great experiment, one with potentially mammoth consequences for the church writ large. The question is this: Is it possible for lay Catholics to offer an incisive contribution to public debates, without being partisan or beholden to power?

It’s not guaranteed, of course, that CL will come up with a compelling answer. The mere fact of asking the question, however, is enough to warrant genuine interest.