Seven years ago, the Italian politician Rocco Buttiglione was forced to withdraw his nomination as the European Union’s new commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security because of his Catholic views on homosexuality and women.
Today he is vice president of Italy’s lower house and patron of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a Rome-based think tank that aims to support Catholic politicians to speak out in defense of Christian values. The institute’s guiding principle is the truth that man is created in the image and likeness of God.
Buttiglione, a philosophy lecturer and friend of the late Blessed Pope John Paul II, gave this interview from his Rome offices in September.
You are patron of a new lay organization called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity). Could you tell us more about how this will work?
This Institute for Human Dignity should help us understand what man is, and his dignity, and it can do this through Catholic social teaching, a kind of critical thinking of society that puts together knowledge coming from different sciences: sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, and creates a synthesis directed to the concrete human being. “Concrete” means there are universal truths, but [they] must find a way of making them accessible, easy to perceive, easy to understand in the distinctive situation of men of today.
The institute has drawn up a “Universal Declaration of Human Dignity,” principles that man is made in the image and likeness of God; that this image and likeness proceeds in every single human being without exception from conception until natural death; and that the most effective means of safeguarding this recognition is through the active participation of the Christian faith in the public square. What is your view on this declaration?
This declaration is a kind of mature fruit of Vatican II, re-read and re-actualized through the great pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We should see this declaration, and the institute, as a tool in the resurrection of Christianity in our time, part of the New Evangelization. We all have an idea of modern history imposed on us, and we hold on to it, even if this is the idea of secular society, of the modern world. This theory is that secularization is bound to grow, while Christianity must decrease and eventually disappear, at least from the public sphere. But we should take another view. We have had periods of secularization, periods of religious revival, then periods of secularization. Perhaps we’re in a period in which the era of secularization is at an end and a new era of the New Evangelization has just begun, and we must be ready to take this opportunity. The great danger is that the opportunity is there, and we’re not able to take it.
Do you see hope in young people, that they will help foster this new era of evangelization?
Young people are struggling with needs that must be met with a clear proposal, not a Christianity that concerns only a small part of life. “After all,” some say, “why not be a Christian? It doesn’t demand very much; one can do almost all the things others do and still be Christian.” But that doesn’t work. Young people are looking for something more demanding, but, most of all, they’re looking for meaning, for that which makes life worth living. We have too few people willing to be with young people, to waste time with them. We need to go to them, not wait for them to come to us. If we only wait for them to come to us, then they won’t come.
How great is the urgency of defending Christian values in the public square?
We must support each other in times of persecution. My case is well known, but how many are there in the European institutions who face hostility because they don’t comply with the rules of political correctness? No one talks about them, and yet they must carry on alone. Also, how many pressures are brought to bear on legislative processes in Europe through the dismantling of culture, piece by piece: attacks on marriage, life, promotion of abortion, euthanasia. And not only that. We should also change — and the institute will help us in this — the perspective we have. We must defend non-negotiable values in politics.
Politics is a process of limitation and compromise. But to negotiate well you must know what you want. And to make a good compromise, you must love without compromising the truth, and you must know truth. Now we are going through a period of crisis in social systems, in democracies. We know from history that Greek democracy didn’t last for long. Why did it go down? Because of corruption. Why was it corrupt? Because of a dominance of moral relativism. Read Plato’s Republic, and you see it. He explains why democracy, dominated by relativism, is corrupt, and then people look to a man who promises to return some sort of order. We are not very far from that.
So, we must realize that a new engagement of Christians in politics is needed, not only to defend our values, but to defend democracy, to stop this process that leads us towards tyranny. What kind? I don’t know. Not a communist one; that’s already over. It’s not a fascist one, but there are many kinds of totalitarianisms that are brewing in our society.
What are your views on the economic crisis? Is it related to moral relativism?
I think this is apparent. There is a kind of economic relativism, and it is based on moral relativism. Too many banks have played with money thinking that money is like rabbits, that they multiply all by themselves. But money doesn’t multiply by itself. Money will only grow if you invest it to buy raw materials, to create jobs, then sell something for a good price leaving a profit.
Too many people have thought they could make money without putting capital in the service of work. It didn’t work. The current crisis shows it didn’t work. We’ve grown used to prosperity. The Chinese have a very cheap workforce and are very competitive, and everyone buys what they produce because it costs less. So what can we do? We can learn the things that they cannot do. In our schools, we must teach diligence, how to be reliable, to study, not just socialize, and to learn self-sacrifice.
We’ve tried to build a society in which liberation of the impulses is the rule, and we don’t want to be taught to be self-controlled. But we’ve seen that not all is relative. One thing that is not relative is work and unemployment. When faced with the hard facts of the economy, you see that your world of dreams doesn’t belong to reality. We’ve spent a lot of time in an artificial world, and now we’re being brought back to hard reality: the importance of work, solidarity, family. But what is the “great support” of the poor in this crisis? It’s the state, not the family.
We must instead make friends, as the Gospel teaches us: to be married, to have a family, to belong to a community instead of being just an individual worried only about himself.
Do you think part of the problem is that society has grown too dependent on the state?
We used to think there were just a few realities: the individual, God and the family — what Catholic social doctrine called the “intermediate society.” Can the state provide for all the human demands and needs? Yes, if and only if, you give to the state complete control over society and the individual. But then man dies. This is totalitarianism. The state cannot take care of all. Whether you can do this in an efficient way is another issue.
The most significant fact [about a totalitarian state] is not that you will not be treated well. The most significant fact is that you will not be free; you lose the possibility of creating community through the exercise of freedom. We need an institute to teach these kinds of things and to help them enter into politics, to help politicians understand why this is so important to politics and social life. They must be given a different perspective on reality and see things that are not fantasy or just words in the Gospel, but they’re in the Gospel because, before being there, they are in the nature of man.
This is a fascinating task for a politician, and alone he can never do this. He must be supported by people who are masters of different sciences, putting together wisdom from these different fields to better understand the truth of man. These must be tested in life to continuously better understand reality.
You’ve said in the past that many people fail to live real lives, living vicarious lives in front of the television. Could you share more of your thoughts on this?
We must reflect on the power of TV. Television can enter reality but can keep you in a fictional world that is also far away from reality. People then have ideas that don’t correspond to reality, and political decisions are made on present positions.
We need an acceptable culture, an academy, that helps politicians to see reality and also to help people to see and to love reality. Education, and here we see the problems of our educational system, should help people to enter real life and to love reality. We see enormous amounts of people who don’t love reality, who don’t love their real lives. They read about famous people in the papers and identify themselves with them and put so much passion in these things, but they don’t put any passion in their own lives. Their lives become frittered, because our real passion is put somewhere else.
And that’s because of a lack of understanding about life, a lack of meaning in life?
Yes, what life is. Faith is not something separate to life; it is life. It is light to see life, to see the reality around oneself, the reality of others, to learn to love yourself and to love others, to have passion for your life.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.