A "Catholic wager" from sociology

Chiara Giaccardi and Mauro Magatti see in the ideas of Benedict XVI and Francis a continuity that can bring Catholicism back into contact with a changing reality. This is what they expose in the book "The Catholic Bet", published in 2019 with considerable resonance.

Andrés Cárdenas Matute-December 9, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
To the Church

Inscription meaning: "To the Church" (Photo: Unsplash / Jon Tyson)

Italian sociologists Chiara Giaccardi and Mauro Magatti, married since 1985, with seven natural and adopted children, and both university professors in Milan, have written a book in which they set out their ideas on the characteristics that a "Catholic bet" should have for the future (The catholic commisionIl mulino, 2019). They are authors of about a dozen essays, always around the relationships between faith, society and future, as well as active lecturers. Their latest work, Supersocietàhas been published this year, in which they analyze whether it still makes sense to bet on freedom after the pandemic and in the midst of a world at war.

At The catholic commision distance themselves both from nostalgia for an earlier, supposedly better situation in the Church, and from the uncritical affirmation of all that modernity has brought; they are convinced that we are living in a moment in which there is no room for "it has always been done this way", nor for a simple "ordinary maintenance", but rather to boldly recall that Christianity has something new to say in every historical situation. There is a need," they maintain, "for words on the way, words that seek to give voice and form to the diffuse sensation of precariousness; words capable of transmitting the experience of faith where, as Michel de Certeau says, stability itself means pushing beyond, towards the search for new ways of presence and narration.

Abstraction", a disease of reason

The theses of Giaccardi and Magatti - this "search for new ways" - are difficult to organize systematically, but their trunk could be summarized as follows: we suffer, as a culture, from a disease of reason, atrophied in a purely instrumental use, acutely described on numerous occasions by Benedict XVI; and from this situation we can only be cured if we follow some intuitions of Pope Francis, which are aimed at trying to awaken from this kind of paralysis, putting into action the hands and the spirit.

The path begins by recognizing the crisis suffered by the West, brought about by the double-edged sword of the alliance between Christianity and reason. Certainly, it is an alliance that is at the heart of the Church, but that at a certain moment took a drift that finally distanced us from concrete reality to throw us into what they call "the world of abstraction". Following Romano Guardini closely, they clarify that "it is not a criticism of science, which is an inalienable conquest of humanity, but of the absolutization of scientific language: a language that constructs its own objects and that, when it loses the tension with what is not manufacturable, measurable, available, takes a deadly drift". When this abstraction becomes the only way we use to see reality - as, in fact, has happened - we become accustomed to separate what is united, to oppose what in reality is reciprocal; it happens, for example, with the dichotomies life-death, body-spirit, reason-feeling, form-matter, man-woman, subject-object, good-evil, individual-society, being-becoming, etc. The positive yearning to give a reason for one's faith can end up enclosing everything in theories that are far removed from the concrete.

Perhaps the most painful abstraction happens when we try to understand ourselves, when we study the "I" as something isolated from what surrounds us: family, community, culture, history, God. The inevitable consequence of this "abstract self" is an unprecedented loneliness. According to the studies to which they turn, the percentage of one-person families is growing at an alarming rate of 90% in places like downtown Manhattan, but in large European capitals it is around 50%. We think of ourselves as beings with a great capacity for autonomy, as if happiness depended only on ourselves, but we end up colliding with a reality that, even if we keep it hidden from the networks of public exposure, is always different. It is paradoxical that in the age of transparency, individual suffering is carried in secret.

To get out of this situation, Giaccardi and Magatti conclude that reason alone is not enough, "it is not enough to talk about the good and want to transform it into discourse; especially if the good is so intellectualized that it no longer manages to ignite spiritual energies, not even the most basic ones so that any religious form can generate an authentic life and set reality in motion".

A two-pronged strategy: discarding and mystery

It is then that sociologists see in the Francis-Benedict XVI continuity the key to a "catholic bet" that can get back in touch with reality. Benedict XVI made an accurate diagnosis of our times when he recognized the loss of the ability of reason to illuminate faith. Despite the prophetic announcements of many - including previous popes - about the absolute drift towards a purely technical reason, it was a movement that was difficult to reverse. The question has always been: how to open up our reason beyond its technical functionality? 

And this is where Francis' response comes into play: reason does not open up through intellectual paths. "Reason," write Giaccardi and Magatti, "will open up only if it is ready to allow itself to be questioned by reality. Because it is from reality, listened to and loved, that the indispensable arguments will come in order to flee from the dominion of instrumental reason, associated with the radical cultural nihilism that sustains it and makes it intolerable. It is precisely in this openness that Christianity can and must play its own game. Assuming a dynamic posture that allows itself to be provoked by human experience, above all by that which is abandoned on the margins and which, contrary to what is thought, constitutes the true lymph of regeneration". It is only in contact with the peripheral that new blood can emerge.

To achieve the task that Ratzinger has outlined so precisely on the intellectual level," they explain, "there is no other way than to follow Bergoglio's path". And they outline a possible strategy that unfolds, initially, on two flanks: that of discarding and that of mystery; taking seriously the problem of the neighbor and taking seriously the problem of prayer. On these two frontiers, the Church stakes the recovery of the "religious sense" that often seems to have been lost. 

The first frontier - that of recovering what has been discarded from society - is not a question of a "humanism" or a goodism in which, once again, we ourselves are at the center, but rather of allowing ourselves to be pushed towards that place of encounter that can save us; turning our neighbor, above all our neighbor on the peripheries, into windows from which we can look at the world anew. At the second frontier is that great void that contemporary man, full of all his fulfilled desires, does not know where to fill: to go in search of the lost alphabet of prayer. If Christianity has always started from the desire for God that lies deep within the human heart, the main objective of the dominant economic model is precisely to convince us that there is no desire that cannot be satisfied within its mechanisms - and, therefore, no need for salvation. In fact, the market depends on unquenchable desire, depends on entering into a close relationship with that movement. And this has to do not only with satisfying material needs, but also with the sense of mystery that technology also seeks to hijack. 

For this reason, Giaccardi and Magatti advocate "a prayer that is word, liturgy, sacrament, rite, but also, and above all, silence. This is a great responsibility of the Church in the contemporary public sphere: before and more than the display of granite certainties, before and more than a collective participation, we are called to keep alive in the city the fire of prayer as a capacity to inhabit our solitude, to face the ultimate horizons of existence, to bow before the mystery of life. To contemplate. That is to say, to listen: the original and distinctive act of believing, which flees from the false certainties of idolatry to accept to walk along paths that have not been traced out, following the voice that calls".

People, testimony, freedom, faith

So much for what could be a common thread running through the work of Giaccardi and Magatti. Among the various other themes that emerge from these considerations, there are perhaps four that are particularly important for rethinking a "Catholic bet" on the future. On the one hand, the isolation of the "I" mentioned above, in the midst of a hypermediatized culture in which we rarely have direct contact with reality, hinders the generation of a "people", a concern that the authors also share with Francis. They maintain that the Church has a necessarily popular vocation in the sense that it proposes itself to all, not only to small groups; and, in this task, it must always keep in mind the living conditions of its contemporaries, their hopes and fears, since it is there that the Gospel message is inserted, in the midst of a community that shares the same path. On the other hand, the disease to which an individualized people can fall victim is populism, which takes advantage of fragmentation and abstraction, together with the need to belong. 

Giaccardi and Magatti think that religion has more possibilities than politics to heal the illnesses of an individualized people, also on a small scale, in smaller communities, but as long as it focuses on generating an experience. "No discourse will have the strength to make a hole in the screen, let alone a hole in the European consciousness, if it is not born from an experience, from a reality traversed and loved. That is why we must insist on what has been said from very important chairs: today the only language that can speak is the language of testimony, that is, of the experience that speaks (...). On this point it is possible to speak even without words; and not to give rules, but to inspire new life (...). All this supposing that, as Catholics and as Church, we have actually seen something".

Moreover, they recognize in the Church a very important anthropological challenge, that of reconciling faith and freedom; a conflict whose most specific roots can be traced back at least as far as Luther. It is a challenge to which it is sufficient to respond with generalizations, and less so by falling into the impositions from which it is precisely intended to flee. Quoting Maritain, both argue that it is clearer than ever that "either Christianity is capable of qualifying itself as the religion of freedom or it will simply not succeed in speaking to contemporary man".

Finally, when we contemplate the great cultural shift we have experienced since the 1960s in our understanding of authority, the transformation of communication, liberalism and its emphasis on individual choice, etc., it is logical that there have also been changes in our relationship with faith. In some way, it is no longer possible to think of a "faith of adhesion" that supposed "corresponding as precisely as possible to an external rule of life that the subject assumed as his own point of reference; with the burden of duty, effort, discipline that this implied, in the attempt to conform to this ideal. With the added burden that this model could legitimize a power that guards that "must-be", where violent drift is not unthinkable. Besides the fact that nothing indicates that such a model is the evangelical model, adapting to an external model is unsustainable when the environment stops pushing in the same direction. The "search for new ways" also needs to discover alternatives to this "faith as adherence" -some of them are outlined in his book-: ways that discover in modernity a fertile ground where the Gospel can grow.

The authorAndrés Cárdenas Matute

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