Paola Binetti is a remarkably accomplished Italian woman who has a profile that defies stereotyping: she is a member of Opus Dei; she is a psychoanalyst, a Professor of Medicine and the author of over 200 scholarly articles; she is a member of the Italian government’s Committee on Bioethics and a pro-life leader who, as the then President of Commission of Life and Science, helped lead the successful opposition to the referendum held in Italy last year on stem cell research and certain IVF practices; and, now, at age 63, she has become an Italian Senator, elected as part of the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi. Her political party, La Margherita (“The Daisy”), was formed in 2001. It includes Christian Democrats, who dominated Italian politics from the end of World War II until the party splintered in the early 1990s, as well as Socialists, Greens and even some ex-Communists. We engaged in an exchange with her about The Da Vinci Code, Opus Dei, the politics of abortion, Italy’s birthrate, and the Italians’ love of beauty and God.
GODSPY: On the surface your life seems to encompass contradictions that some might think irreconcilable: psychotherapist and devout Catholic, pro-life advocate and left of center politician. How do you unify these seeming contradictions?
PAOLA BINETTI: Complexity is not synonymous with contradiction: I believe that Catholics can be Catholic in any context so long as they act in keeping with the values that define their Catholic identity. In my case I try to express by every means possible my convictions even though I know that there are many in the center-left that on some issues have different ideas. Democratic debate is nurtured by this dialectic, and it is up to me to be convincing both on the issues, adequately arguing my positions, and in interpersonal relations, trying to understand the positions of others and advocating mine without contravening the character that I consider proper to a Christian identity: that of charity....
One does not join Opus Dei: one enters Opus Dei by reason of a vocation.
Tell us about your involvement with last year’s referendum in Italy on in vitro fertilization and stem cell research. How do you interpret the results of the referendum? Are they a sign that efforts to promote a “culture of life” are bearing fruit in Italy or perhaps even in Europe as a whole?
I believe that today even the best ideas and the most profound convictions require a significant involovement of all the means of communication, from the major newspapers, TV and the Internet to text messaging, without excluding more traditonal print media, such as books. It is not enough to have good ideas; it is necessary to study how to ensure that they are delivered to all. My commitment to the referendum campaign was of three types:
1. Studying in depth the problems and reasoning of the other side.
2. Preparing an intense and realistic media campaign, that took into account our limits (we had all the major newspapers against us) and our resources to exploit them as well as possible. Tactics and strategy in communications are as important as ethical convictions and scientific facts.
3. Maintaining a drumbeat of communication with the people, from one on one meetings to meetings with groups of varying size. We never shied from either confrontations or from encounters.
Achieving a culture of life in Europe requires that good reasons for it be given, and there are an infinite number of them; a modern and incisive communication strategy; and human courage to avoid any possible form of isolation (as well as elitism) or self absortion.
Tell us why you joined Opus Dei.
One does not join Opus Dei: one enters Opus Dei by reason of a vocation. Even if it (“vocation”) is a word that is probably a little out of fashion, it is a real and unequivocal fact. And so it was for me. I became familiar with Opus Dei toward the end of Vatican II and was inspired by its vision of the world and the innovative outlook it had on the laity and on our responsibility to live our faith in everyday circumstances, from small things to bigger things, at all times....
Opus Dei says its mission is to help people turn their work and daily activities into occasions for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society. Will this mission play a part in how you perform your duties as a member of the Italian Senate? If so, how?
It is precisiely this outlook that I am trying to assume in my commitments for the Parliament. As I see it, the betterment of society comes by way of political activity, but it is above all a personal commitment, in which each of us makes an effort to do our own work in the best way possible, with competence and with openness toward others. It is a matter of having an outlook that can be shared with the great majority of others, with everyone I would say. It requires effort but it is without a doubt rewarding. Christians, and Opus Dei members in particular, add to this way of thinking the profound conviction that by doing this they are giving glory to God, that they are making the world in which they live holy and that they are making themselves holy ... Day by day, at times succeeding, at times failing and starting over, but never giving up ...with the grace of God and with good humor, as the founder of Opus Dei used to say.
The Da Vinci Code brought to light the need to re-think catechesis.
Have you paid any attention to The Da Vinci Code or the controversy surrounding it? Do you take personal offense as to how the book portrays Opus Dei?
I paid attention to the debate concerning The Da Vinci Code especially when it became broader and presented itself as a sort of referendum on the Church or against the Church, much more than on or against Opus Dei. The worst damage done by the book was actually to falsify history by mixing fragments of truth in a sea of errors of all types. As did many eminent figures in the Church heirarchy, the Prelature of Opus Dei discerned in this operation and its apparent success the need to launch a strong and far-reaching catechesis. People uncritically accepted this information, confusing fiction with reality, because it had been a long time since there had been a genuine faith education campaign, anchored to historical facts and, above all, centered on the person of Christ. ... It is not by chance that we call ourselves “Christians”: of Christ ... In this sense, The Da Vinci Code brought to light the need to re-think catechesis: from that for children to that for adults, from that for simple people to that for the more educated and informed. ... I believe that this will be the activity to which us believers will have to dedicate ourselves in the years to come. Everyone: parents in their families with their children, teachers, giornalists, catechetists. ... Everyone one of us will have to accept this challenge for a new evangelization: new ways and new language, but absolutely anchored in the truths according to faith of our traditional patrimony of values and dogmas.
Have you been politically active all your life? Tell us why you chose La Margherita and what your political affiliations were before La Margherita was formed.
I believe there to be an undeniable political dimension to all our actions, in our professional and social lives and at the individual and family levels, although in some cases we are only dimly aware of it. Politics and political action must not be understood however as party affiliation. My political involvement was always expressed through participation in large healthcare projects and promotion of training, in hospitals and universities. ... In my youth, I always voted for the Christian Democrats, although I was never a party member ... The Christian Democracy was a cross-class party, with many different viewpoints that shared a profound faith in certain values that, so long as they were shared, acted as a glue that held together this great party, which fell apart when people no longer recognized this common matrix among themselves. Among the parties born from the Christian Democracy through an effort to elaborate a different political style and a more specific plan of action in social policy was the Margherita, which combines a Catholic heritage and dialogue with other outlooks, such as those whose nature is more environmentalist, more liberal, etc. In the Margherita, with a spirit of openness and reciprocal respect, there is a broad and dialoging convergence of people who are trying to carry out reform policies in harmony with the social doctrine of the Church.
In Europe secular ideology has gained such ascendancy that it not an overstatement to say that Europe has reached the point where it is considered morally unacceptable to have legislation that is informed by Catholic beliefs—or even legislators who hold such beliefs even if they do not act upon them. The Rocco Buttiglione affair is a case in point. He was considered unacceptable not because he refused to condemn discrimination against homosexuals—he in fact condemned all such discrimination—but because he refused to renounce Church teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. In England Ruth Kelly is being attacked for the same reason. Will you be able to avoid these problems or do you plan to challenge these assumptions as to what is and is not acceptable and if so, how?
Homosexuality is an ancient and complex problem, with respect to which our society until a few years ago maintained a prudish stance, that betrayed embarassment and tolerance, comprehension and prudery. Today the problem of homosexuality seems to no longer exist. ... except for the repeated demand of a group of homosexuals for recognition of gay marriage, and the repeated refusal to concede that recognition, despite an obvious opening toward recognition of their individual rights. At the political level homosexuals have rights like all others and these rights must be safeguarded, their marriage however is not within the scope of Article 29 of the Italian Constituion [which recognizes the family as being founded on marriage].
Achieving a culture of life in Europe requires that good reasons for it be given, and there are an infinite number of them.
On a broader social level, however, the problem of homosexuality requires a different type of reflection, one that in my opinion also extends deeply into the pedagogical level. What is needed is a renewed educational effort aimed at gender identity, that goes beyond stereotypes that are now outdated and instinctively rejected by everyone ... homosexuals and non-homosexuals, alike ... In the personal history of many homosexuals—and in my pyschotherapy work as well as in my pediatric neuropsychiatric work I have gathered many!—there nestles an initial confusion of the self at the sexual level, deriving from the repeated experience of frustration in relations with the opposite sex, and from the experimental solidarity with persons of the same sex who have analogous relational difficulties. To discuss homosexuality only in terms of political battle is very reductive and does not go to the heart of the problem, which remains that of self identity understood in relational complimentarity.
I will also participate in this debate in the Parliament level keeping in mind my professional experience and also the pyschological unease that I have always discerned in these persons. I want to meet their needs in a deeper way, that goes beyond the current political debate. In any event, I am personally opposed to both homosexual marriage and adoption by homosexuals.
In Italy the center-left favors the European Constitution. However there have been a series of recent events that suggest that the EU is hostile to the Catholic faith—the Buttiglione affair, the refusal to recognize in the EU constitution Europe’s Christian heritage, the advisory opinion that would limit the right of doctors to refuse, as a matter of conscience, to perform abortions. Do you have a concern that the unification of Europe could result in undesired limits on religious freedom in Italy?
I believe that the issue of the European Constitution is again receiving proper consideration by all member nations.
It is clear that the complexity of the countries, of the ethnicities, and of the migratory influxes, requires pluralistic choices, in all regards. It is up to us Christians to show by our actions our convictions, making use of all the means that the law permits us, including conscientious objection. With regard to the right of conscientious objection, there is in play an important battle for liberty and laicity, a battle that is defensible also with the same arguments of those who want abortion. It is thus necessary that we all convince ourselves that having strong convictions is a necessary condition but in itself not sufficient if we do not have the courage to defend the convictions by all means, beginning with parlimentary groundwork and political debate.
What do you believe the meaning of the recent Italian elections is? Given the great dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and Silvio Berlusconi, how is it that the center-left coalition did not do better than it did? Do you see any parallels with the 2004 U.S. elections, where dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ positions on moral issues helped the Republicans overcome dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq?
The analysis of the data concerning the recent elections, including the local administrative elections, is still the object of very complex study and reflection. The victory of the center-left by a small margin over the center-right reflects the point of view of the Italian people, who at times are conservative on ethical-anthropological issues and innovative with regard to social and economic reforms ... sometimes the opposite occurs ... [such as] when there is an effort to overturn certain values: as is the case, for example, with regard to efforts concerning civil unions, gay marriage, and stem cell research ...efforts that lack any serious commitment concerning the organization of the economy. We are a composite society and it is by means of serious effort at learning and reflection that each member of society will regain a sense of the meaning the his choices and respective responsibility. For the time being, everyone is a little confused, both on the right and on the left...
To discuss homosexuality only in terms of political battle is very reductive and does not go to the heart of the problem...
In the United States the left aggressively promotes so-called abortion rights and the deconstruction of sexual morality and in doing so has increasingly alienated itself from its Catholic working class base. Do you feel that the left-center coalition of which you are a part runs a similar risk?
It runs a similar risk. But it is within this very center-left that the Margherita is trying to contain this drift and promote an inversion of this tendency. All the initiatives taken in the first part of this legislative session are testimony to this -- initiatives to which the press has given give ample attention.
In the U.S., those who favor abortion have a great deal of power in the Democratic Party and have exercised that power by excluding most pro-life politicians from the party. Do you face similar pressures? Does fighting for the unborn from the left side of the political spectrum put your political career at risk?
I am not seeking a political career. I am here to defend politically certain values. And that is what I will do, with difficulty, but also with a greater consensus then I thought at the start. I’ve had my career in other professional fields: now I am trying only to contribute to the definition of some legal projects consistent with an analysis of the real needs of the population and with an anthropological viewpoint that I am convinced can be to everyone’s advantage, precisely because it is profoundly tied to a personalistic vision.
Are you concerned about Italy’s low birth rate? If so, why? Is the country’s birth rate something the government can effectively address? If so, how?
Raising the birth rate is one of the explicit objectives of the government of this legislature. We are studying how to do it, because it is not easy to set into motion a change of direction of this sort. But in the center left there is the conviction that it is an objective that is a priority.
I believe along with Dostovesky that Beauty will save the world...
Of course it is not just Italy that has a low birth rate; low birth rates are found in all Europe, Japan and the U.S., particularly if immigrants are excluded from the statistics. Why do you think this has happened in the developed world?
We are confronted with a culture that is too oriented toward the search for personal well-being: we never have enough ... not only in material terms, but also in terms of security and guarantees with respect to the future, and to the affirmation of individualistic values. We must regain a taste for large families.
Americans love Italy and Italians for their extraordinary style and capacity to create beauty. Do you find however that at times Italians make an idol of beauty, such that their devotion to beauty leads them away from God?
Absolutely not! For Italians a taste for beauty is as natural as breathing, their eyes are filled with beauty from the time that they begin to look around themselves. Furthermore beauty is one of the attributes of God that one can preach, together with Goodness and Truth. I instead believe along with Dostovesky that Beauty will save the world...