[Editor's Note: On the eve of 2004 election, the international Catholic lay movement —known as "CL"—issued a statement on the relationship between faith and politics entitled: A Call to Freedom.
The group made headlines recently when a prominent member, Italian philosopher , a close friend and advisor to Pope John Paul II, was knocked off a European Union commission for expressing his Catholic beliefs about sexuality, marriage and the sanctity if life.
CL, which thrives in Europe and has been growing throughout the U.S. and the world, has been described as "like Opus Dei, but for sinners." Founded fifty years ago this year in Milan, Italy, by , CL's distinct mission has been to re-connect faith and culture, primarily through friendships, or, as they would say, making the "event" of Jesus Christ's incarnation present in daily life today. As you might imagine, this approach doesn't lead to the sort of sound bite pronouncements typical of American politics. You could say it's a more mystical approach, one that goes to the core of what Christian discipleship—and belonging to the Catholic Church—implies for political action.
To explore the implications of this statement, —national chaplain of CL, and also a friend and advisor to the Pope—last week addressed an audience in Brooklyn, New York. An authority on faith and culture, Albacete is a frequent guest on PBS, a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and other publications, as well as the author of . Here are some excerpts from his talk:]
What the Heck is Faith?
In dealing with the problem of faith and politics, you must first define what exactly faith is. We have endless discussions about faith and politics, but they are useless because we are using the word faith in different ways. Some are contradictory. It's not a word that applies in the same way all the time. Politics is easier to understand because we know it from experience; we know that politics is simply exercising the right to determine how government will direct the distribution of power in a society to bring about the common good. It's not a mysterious thing. The problem is faith.
Solving the problem of religion and politics is useless. It can’t be solved—with one exception.
To understand the view of faith and politics that I believe is proposed by the Catholic Church—and it's the one that is reflected in Communion & Liberation's statement—I think it's important to distinguish between faith and the religious sense. The discussion of religion and politics is not the same as the discussion about faith and politics.
The religious sense is our conviction—our experience—of whatever it is that ties this moment in our lives with the whole show, with existence, with our final destiny. It's the mystery of how and why we are here. It's what to do with the world that surrounds us. It's how to obtain satisfaction of the needs that we all experience, and for which there seems to be a world out there to satisfy those needs. How to deal with all of that is the religious sense.
The religious sense is what leads to politics. Politics, in that sense, is a manifestation of the religious sense. It's an attempt to make sense of life and to satisfy our needs. You cannot separate politics from the religious sense. And, in that way, there'll be many religious senses around. The religions of the world are all different ways of carrying out this search, of expressing this need, and politics is the art of making sure that all of them make a contribution, and don't wipe each other out.
What would you expect from a politics that is a response to the religious perspective? You would expect a politics that doesn't crush, a politics that will not provoke, or bring about, the silencing of the religious search. In that sense, all that religious people would need from the world of politics is, at the very least, religious liberty. That's so there can be this openness to the search, and then the ability to make a contribution to the society based on this opening to infinity.
In that sense, the most important requirement to be made of politics or any government is religious freedom. Without this, we cannot proceed. At the level of religion that is all one needs to ask. Already that presents a problem in many areas of the world. It might even present a problem in our own society, one that is dedicated to religious freedom. At an elementary level, you want to see how that is being lived in our society today. And you would obviously favor those political proposals that respect and promote this religious freedom. Those that do not already show an inhumanity.
Secularism vs. Theocracy
There are various ways of violating the religious quest, of violating religious freedom. If we understand religion as the relation between time and the eternal, between now and destiny, then one way to violate this religious freedom is to choose either side to the exclusion of the other.
Choosing the "now" is secularism—an ideology that doesn't allow the human openness to infinity to play an important part in life, both individual and social, and therefore in political life. Secularism is an ideology that is present in the degree to which it excludes religious concerns from the public square, in its program of discussion, and education, etc. That's one way of violating religious freedom.
To recognize that this man, Christ, is the embodiment and the presence of the mystery—that is faith!
Another way of violating religious freedom is by choosing "eternity," and having it prevail, in its interests, such as they may be—though one wonders how one ever arrives at the interests of eternity. Eternity, in this case, rules what happens at the present time—it's a form of theocracy sometimes. Perhaps it's not our biggest danger, but it is present in this age.
We have seen, and we're always aware, that we can have either one of these two scenarios. We must reject that. We must reject a separation of the two in order to make one dominate the other. But if that's the case, then how do I relate the two? How do I relate those interests within me that deal with my search for happiness, for justice, for truth, for the fulfillment of the desires of my heart, my openness to infinity? How do I relate all that to the concrete needs of the moment, to what I need to do, to how I judge what's going on today, and to see how that relates to our final destiny? I know that I can't exclude either end, but how do I ever bring them together? That's the way most people face the problem of religion and politics.
Now, perhaps we don't want to use the word compromise. But sometimes there will be a relation between the two that will be the best that can be expected. It will be something that will be redefined every time, every election time, every time that the question arises. At those times we have to sit around and figure it out, and that's that.
The Unsatisfactory Compromise
The problem with compromise is that it's impossible. The religious sense always wants to move towards infinity, and the desire to do that makes it dangerous to the political world. And the political world also wants to move in the same direction, to want to embrace everything, and so you have this conflict, and the question is: Are we resigned to this conflict? Must we say that religion and politics will always be in conflict? How do we design a situation that is not in conflict?
My answer to that is that it's not possible. Two sides, with one exception, are in conflict. And at the end, a compromise is the best that we can do. I am prepared to say that between the religious sense, and earthly politics, there is a conflict, and the experience of that conflict will not go away, except for one case. The efforts to solve the problem of religion and politics—not to mention that the problem is worsened when you move from religion to faith, which I will get to in a moment—are useless. We can't solve them.
The Answer to the Problem
The only solution to the problem of time and eternity, limited and unlimited, finite and infinite, the only "solution" to that problem is Jesus Christ. That is the statement that we must be prepared to make. Only the knowledge, the experience, the encounter with Christ, can resolve the problem between time and eternity, and therefore between religion and politics, which is a manifestation of this original problem.
Are we prepared to make that statement? This is the first problem. This is where all our claims begin to fall to the ground. We hesitate to say that only Christ is the solution of this conflict. In our own hearts we hesitate to say this. What are we afraid of? We are afraid—of what? Why would I hesitate to say that this is only solution to the human problem?
Because we are both in time and made for eternity, the only solution is Christ. From the very beginning, in the way we are created, already we are created to discover in Christ the fulfillment of all the aspects of our creation. I adhere to the teaching, in the Bible, in the teaching of the Church, in current times it has been the prime teaching of the , in , #22, which this Pope has made his motto, the teaching of , the centrality of Christ, that only in Christ is the mystery of what it is to be human revealed. Only in Christ is the relation between religion and politics understood. Are we prepared to say that, and to explore its implications?
Only the encounter with Christ can resolve the problem between time and eternity, and therefore between religion and politics.
Jesus Christ is one reality, and a very particular one. He is the one reality, the particular, the single that gives meaning to the totality. What a scandal to say this. There it is—it's called the Incarnation. Some people are not willing to say that. That's why they are not Christians. And I can understand that. What's difficult to understand is to call oneself a Christian and be afraid to say it.
Religion vs. Faith
Let me make this point: We do not have the problem, or the mission, to construct a bridge between faith and politics. We do not have this problem. To have this problem and to attempt to solve it, already violates our humanity. Every single attempt to build this bridge has been a weakening of faith, or a betrayal of the Incarnation. And historically, there have been many attempts.
Now, faith strengthens the problem because faith—unlike the religious sense, which is the search for the infinite mystery without which we cannot live—faith identifies this mystery with the reality of this world, with a very concrete, particular reality. Now you have a serious problem.
With the religious sense, remember, you have no problem unless you demand that your religious experience rules. But when you have faith, you make a statement like the one I just made, that only Christ brings about the solution of the human problem. And you realize that by Christ I don't mean another synonym for "God," but I mean a particular human being, who lived in a particular place in a particular time. We're not using Christ's name here, as with the Greeks in the Acts of the Apostles, as a name for the infinite, the unknown, the invisible God. We're talking about a particular man in a particular moment in history. To recognize that this man is the embodiment and the presence of the mystery—that is faith!
For us as Christians, faith is the recognition that this one man, Jesus Christ, is the revelation, the disclosure, the unveiling, of the destiny and origin of all exists. That is to say, this is what it means to proclaim that Jesus Christ is God—that this man is that. Once we make that claim, we have no idea of—we can't even begin to imagine—a God without Christ. For us, it no longer makes sense.
The discourse in which we try to separate our convictions about Christ from God is already flawed because we do not know any other God but the one that is revealed in Christ. That is what the faith is! It's conviction that there is no God but the one that is revealed in Jesus Christ. Again, you can see that when we make that statement, as was made a few years ago by the Vatican declaration called , it created a riot. I can understand it creating a riot outside Christianity. But within Christianity? Within the Catholic Church itself? What's going on?
Faith: What Is It Good For?
Now, there are other faiths. There are other proposals that tie the mystery to an earthly reality. Judaism, where our faith comes from, ties it to the election and formation of a people. Such people will relate to the destiny, to eternity, by means of the experience of belonging to a chosen people. This will affect their relation to politics, as you can see throughout the Old Testament. There was no separation between politics and the identity of the people, as chosen by God. The whole dispute was about that—back and forth about fidelity to the covenant, infidelity to the covenant. World history was experienced and understood in terms of that drama, again and again.
When, for example, Israel, under some of its leaders, would want to form an alliance with a particular nation to defend itself, a prophet would arrive, who was not very popular, and say no, this is not going to save you. He would say "You must trust in the covenant. You make that alliance, and you're going to be through." Or, the Lord would raise up their enemies to bring home a point, and allow all kinds of things to happen. Again and again, fidelity to the covenant has formed that people. It is the key to the relation between faith and politics in Israel.
The second such phenomenon is Islam. I can't speak to that—it would be superficial and absurd. As we know, in the Islamic world today, there is a great discussion about faith and politics that ranges from an awareness that this relation has to be worked out, to an extremism of the kind we face. But there's no question that the problem is not religion and politics, but faith, that in this religion God passes through the God that is revealed in the Koran, who in fact has dictated it. And in the Koran are found many political proposals about how to organize society and the world, and how to judge these realities.
If the particularity of the Church offends us, given its universal claims, then why are we not offended by the particularity of Jesus?
The third is Christianity. For us, the mystery, the destiny, the eternal, is embodied in one man, in Jesus of Nazareth. In some ways, the relation between faith and politics is a manifestation of Christology. Traditionally we try to understand how humanity and divinity are related in this one man. That is what Christology is. And this Christological debate has immense political consequences, because this one man, we claim, is the link between our present life and our final destiny.
In fact, in A Call to Freedom, where it talks about the contribution that the Church has made to the culture, and its fundamental contribution concerning personal freedom, the very existence of personhood as a unique and unreplaceable individual—a "who" which is not exhausted by a "what"—that insight is the result of the Christological debate that led to the Council of Chalcedon. It was there that the Church was finally able to find a way of expressing this conviction about who Christ is. Until then it could not be understood because the concept of person that existed was insufficient. The Church had to invent the concept of personhood, perhaps its greatest contribution. But it did not invent it developing a political philosophy. It invented it through trying to understand who Christ is. For us the relation between faith and politics is a branch of Christology. If we have problems with that, okay, but we have to deal with those before we really have anything to say, otherwise we are not speaking as Christians, as Catholics, to this world, if it doesn't come from that conviction.
Christ is a Fact, Not a Concept
The encounter with Christ—it all began when a bunch of people encountered this man. No one sat down to design a Christology. It doesn't emerge from any particular system of thought. It was a fact, an encounter. That's how it begins. You meet this man—something happens. If we cannot grasp that, then what follows is just concepts. If Christology is reduced to a conceptual or philosophical battle in politics—forget it. Our claim that the relation between faith and politics is a branch of Christology, and Christology starts with an encounter with Christ, means that we will not grasp nor make a Catholic proposal about the relation between faith and politics unless we share its point of origin, which is the experience of the encounter with Christ. This started it all, and this is what sustains it all. A proposal that doesn't come from that experience has no power. It's just words if it doesn't start with that fact.
Now, there is a further problem, and that is "How do I today experience this encounter with Christ, that is going to lead me to a new, unexpected, unimaginable vision of life, of what is possible, the vision of destiny for which we are created? How is that possible today? It is here where the Christian world separates in answering that question. That is why you have Catholic politics, Protestant politics, Fundamentalist politics, etc. They're different in the way one lives the encounter with Christ. In his , Msgr. Luigi Giussani mentions essentially three possible ways of having an encounter with Christ.
The first is the way of rationalism, which is the study and scientific reflection on historical documents and tradition. Many people, many Christians today, follow that way. Of course, it leads to academic debates that are never resolved, and to uncertainty, because the figure of Jesus disappears, or becomes almost overwhelmingly irrelevant, and you appear stupid for wanting to hang on to it, or trying to explain what Jesus would say about nuclear weapons. Come on. The rationalist way is not an event. It has no power. But it's there, and maybe your politics as a Christian might be dictated by the fact that your way of contact with Christ is by rationalism.
The second is individual inspiration, associated more or less with the Protestant way. A direct link with Christ. Again, if that's the case, that will determine your politics. Unfortunately, it will make it very difficult for you to speak to people who don't have that link to Christ, who haven't experienced it.
The Third, Catholic way, is the claim that the experience of encounter with Christ is today the experience of belonging to a people who's life is the expression of Christ's victory. The experience of the fact of who he is, and what that implies in terms of our life. And you can judge political proposals, economic proposals, just as you're supposed to judge your own individual life of work, of vocation, of faith, etc., on the guidance that this experience gives you.
The Mystery of the Church
A Call to Freedom makes its point by going to the event of Christ, the fact, to the way it is encountered today, to the community called the Church, to the presence in this world of this way of living together and judging reality together, and how this is sustained—the , the Sacraments, the whole works—what defines the Church as a visible reality, a society. We even use the word society, a people. Peoplehood is at the origin, for it is a peoplehood expressed as a society, and structured as an institution. It is a recognizable reality, just as Jesus was recognizable as a particular human being. If the particularity of the Church offends us, given its universal claims, then why aren't we offended by the particularity of Jesus? It was even worse. He was just one guy. The Church at least can put on an impressive show. Jesus was one man who was killed.
We oppose–no matter what–anything that threatens the unity of the Church
We want to look at the moment we are living through, and its political dimensions, in terms of what has happened to us by encountering Christ, living the reality of the mystery of the Church. This is what we want to do. This is what we tried to do in putting together this statement. It comes from that process of together, and we cannot be separated from it because the presence of Christ today, of his victory, is a form of coming together. This is what the Church is. An assembly is a bringing together.
Liberty and Unity of the Church
In that sense, I want to say this: Two fundamental values immediately become absolutely clear. We will favor that which promotes the liberty of the Church to carry on its work. And we oppose, no matter what—no matter what—anything that threatens the unity of the Church. Anything from any politician, any party, in domestic politics, or foreign policy, or whatever it is, anything that tries to create division within the Church, we must oppose, because unity and its compatibility with our freedom, this is the victory of Christ! Because if that is gone then Christ is not victorious, and we have no solution to the problem of faith and politics, and the only solution to religion and politics is just an unsatisfactory compromise. Those two are fundamental values.
The statement talks about the reality that will help the Church live out its freedom. Freedom is the experience of the fact that I am, in that moment, and in that location, walking towards the satisfaction—the real satisfaction—of all the desires of my life. It is what makes me free. This is the freedom we propose.