Reintroducing Virtue; War Against Religion

Archbishop Ravasi Examines Faith, Hope, Love

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MARCH 25, 2010 (Zenit.org).-Faith, hope and charity are virtues that can exist in every human being, but each comes directly from God and all of them involve elements of risk.

That is the predominant message of "Return to the Virtues," a book by Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the current president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which has just been republished in Italian by Oscar Mondadori. 

Divided into three chapters, Archbishop Ravasi, a renowned biblical scholar in Italy, effectively examines these three theological virtues with the aim of helping each person better understand the meaning of their life. 

The moment grace enters the heart of man, he writes, "is the moment in which God appears in the night of the soul." God, he explains, is not a distant and impassable sovereign; he searches us and it is he who knocks on our door, "ripping open our loneliness." 

But God's light, once it illuminates a soul, must be met with a response and with compliance, Archbishop Ravasi continues, and this compliance is faith. Moreover, this faith and this abandonment in faith is something that happens in darkness and involves great risk. He goes on to explain that we don't know, of course, what this trusting abandonment will bring and we don't know what kind of help we will receive. But like Abraham who left his country without knowing where he was going, we simply need to be ready to heed the command and to begin to walk. 

Discussing the heroic virtue of hope, Archbishop Ravasi refers to the words of Georges Bernanos, the 20th-century French author, who wrote: "The highest form of hope is to triumph over despair; to hope is to run the risk. It is, in fact, the risk of risks." Ravasi writes that to act contrary to hope, to run against it, "militates not only systematic pessimism but also illusion." 

Giorgio Montefoschi, reviewing the book in Corriere della Sera on March 8, agreed. Hope, he wrote, doesn't just sustain and stimulate men in this life to create a better world, but it is also a decisive force, urging mankind to look beyond his earthly state and the boundaries of death. The Resurrection of Christ, Archbishop Ravasi continues in the book, is the "seal of that hope." 

As with faith and hope, God precedes the third theological virtue of love. Quoting St. John the Evangelist, Archbishop Ravasi stresses that it is not we who have loved God, but God who has loved us by sending his Son into the world. Often we don't recognize him, he adds, but we can sense this transcendent mystery that culminates in Jesus as man. Man is able, he says, to take the risk and "respond to the love of an unknown God." Only then, he writes, can he "overcome fear and anxiety." 

Speaking with Archbishop Ravasi about his book last week, he said he wrote it not so much because of an immorality in today's society, but because of what he sees as a more serious development: "an amorality, an indifference in confronting good and evil." Returning to these virtues, he hoped, would help bring morality back into society. In common with Pope Benedict XVI, he also sees a crisis in recognizing the "concept of transcendence"; today, morality is seen to be dependent on any particular situation, he said, even though the principle of transcendence coincides with the higher law of nature. 

An avid reader, like Benedict XVI he is able to cite academics and authors from a wide variety of fields. As president of the dicastery, Archbishop Ravasi is also keen to find a new language in which to engage nonbelievers and secular society. This book, first published in 2005 but now reprinted, appears to have been written very much with that goal in mind. 

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Secularism vs. Christianity

In recent weeks, Europe's secular media has launched what one Vatican official described as an "onslaught" on the Church, and clergy in particular, following continued revelations of clerical sexual abuse in various European countries over the past 50 years. 

In the firing line have not only been clergy and bishops, but also Benedict XVI -- particularly in parts of the Italian, British and German press. The strength and unreasonableness of the criticism prompted Marcello Pera, an atheist philosopher, to write an open letter to the editor of Corriere della Sera last week.

"There is a war going on," wrote Pera, who co-authored the 2004 book "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam" with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "It's not just against the person of the Pope, because, on these grounds, it would be impossible. Benedict XVI remains impregnable because of his image, his serenity, his clarity, firmness and doctrine. It's enough for him to smile to defeat an army of opponents."

Pera, who is also a senator in the Italian parliament, noted that "the war is between secularism and Christianity." He said secularists know well that "if a fleck of mud lands on a white robe, the Church would be dirtied, and by soiling the Church, so too would be the Christian religion." That is why, he added, secularists question, without any evidence, whether the Church as a whole is capable of looking after children, educating them, or treating them in a Catholic hospital. 

He warned that this is a "pitched battle of secularism against Christianity," adding that one would have to recall Nazism and communism to find a similar conflict. The means have changed, he wrote, but the end is the same: the destruction of religion. And he said it was "incredible" that secular Germany of all countries, while continuing to "beat its chest" over memories of wartime Europe, "forgets and does not understand that democracy itself would be lost if Christianity is again wiped out." 

"The destruction of religion then entailed the destruction of reason," Pera wrote. "Today, it won't be secular reason that triumphs, but another kind of barbarism." He then listed what he saw as the various ethical and barbaric violations of today: "It is those who kill a fetus because his life would be detrimental to the 'mental health' of the mother. Those who say that an embryo is a 'clump of cells' good for experiments. It is killing an old man because he doesn't have a family to care for him anymore. It is about those who hasten the end of a child's life because he is no longer conscious and is incurable. It is those who think that Parent A and Parent B are the same as father and mother."

Political, secularist barbarism, he said, will lead to the destruction of Europe because what will be left will be multiculturalism, relativism and pacifism -- a Europe which says that it "mustn't have its own specific identity, but be a container of all identities."

"This war on Christianity would not be so dangerous if Christians understood it," continued Pera. "Instead, many of them participate in incomprehension." He cited weaknesses in the Church such as theologians "frustrated by the intellectual supremacy" of Benedict XVI; uncertain bishops "who believe any compromise with modernity" is the best way to promote the Christian message; and "cardinals who, in a crisis of faith, begin to suggest that priestly celibacy is not a dogma, and that perhaps it would be better to reconsider." 

"The war of the secularists will continue," Pera wrote, "if not because of a Pope like Benedict XVI, who smiles but does not shrink one iota." He ended by calling on all those who understand why the Holy Father remains steadfast to "take the situation in hand" and not to wait "to take your next shot." Those who hide and limit themselves to being merely in empathy with him, he said, "don't understand why it's necessary."

Pera is one of a number of prominent European atheist intellectuals who are sympathetic to the Church's battles with radical secularism, post-modernism and cultural relativism. Perhaps the most famous is Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist and philosopher, whose debates with Cardinal Ratzinger were published under the title "The Dialectics of Secularization" in 2007.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org