“The Italian Church in the cultural passage over the last few decades” A strange letter of the Italian Church after the Council.

Publisher: Ancora Editrice
Pages: 144
Price: €13,00

I read the essay by Saverio Xeres entitled “The Italian Church in the cultural passage over the last few decades” published in S. Xeres e G. Campanini, Manca il respiro. Un prete e un laico riflettono sulla Chiesa italiana (Out of Breath: a priest and a layman reflect on the Italian Church) Ancora, Milan 2011, pgs. 11-84. Rev. Saverio Xeres is a professor of the History of the Church at the Faculty of Theology in the Northern Italy Seminary and in the Diocesan Seminary of Como, and also teaches courses on the introduction to theology at the Catholic University in Milan. I must admit that I fail to understand some of the fundamental parts of what he says. Since these are lines of reasoning that constantly recur in reflections and commentary on the Council and the post Council, I would like to illustrate my own perplexities and thereby, in my own little way, help to achieve clarification on a few points. In fact, a cause of concern in this area is the fact that systematically used nowadays are two different languages when discussing these issues.

Let me point out immediately that Rev. Xeres divides the history of the Church after Vatican Council II into a ‘first post Council (up to the Ecclesial Symposium held in 1976 in Rome on “Evangelisation and Human Promotion”), a “second post Council” (from that date until half way through the 1990’s), and a “third post Council” (from then onwards). In his opinion, the first phase was followed by a “clear involution of the pastoral approach at large”, a sort of “reversing of the Italian post Council”. It is when explaining the reasons for this that Rev. Xeres asserts the things I have not understood.

The first concept illustrated by Rev. Xeres that I did not understand is what he refers to as “bi-directionalness”. In other words, the Council would have inaugurated this thing – bi-directionalness – in dialogue between the Church and the world. As he sees it, the Church gives and also receives in dialogue, and this in such a manner that no longer existent is its superiority with respect to the world. Now, the first thing I fail to understand is exactly where the Council says this. In Gaudium et Spes? But this Constitution says that the truth of man finds full light only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word. Nor does Vatican Council II ever replace announcement with dialogue, which is something “bi-directionalness” would do.

In addition to not having understood “where” this is written in the Council texts, I didn’t even understand what this word or neologism means. If it means the Church recognizes the workings of the Spirit and the “seeds of the Word” outside itself, there is no problem. This is something Justin said back in the second century after Christ. In my opinion, however, the author wanted to say that the Church should not be ‘magister’ any more than it should be ‘disciple’. This strikes me a theologically incorrect because it would eliminate the duty to announce the salvation Christ earned for us and announce it as both true and unique.

There is also a third thing I did not understand about this “bi-directionalness”. Rev. Xeres asserts that the Italian Church put it into practice during the “first post Council”, that being up to the Symposium in 1976 (the then president of the Italian Episcopal Conference was Cardinal Poma, and the symposium itself had been organized by a steering committee made up of Most Rev. Maverna for the bishops, Fr. Bartolomeo Sorge for the religious, and Mr. Giuseppe Lazzati for the laity). What Rev. Xeres argues, however, is that John Paul II intervened at this ecclesial symposium held in Loreto and would have restored “uni-directionalness” (a concept Rev. Xeres considers anti-Conciliar since, in his opinion, the Council had opted for “bi-directionalness”). On that occasion the pope said: “The faith is able to produce culture in its own right. . .stemming there from is a clear proposal of the Christian faith. . .and a consistent commitment in fundamental moral values”. While at the 1976 Symposium Fr. Sorge is said to have “translated Vatican Council II into Italian”, John Paul II – let me point out in passing that he was the pope – is said to have introduced a “clear change of perspective” with respect to the Council and triggered “the normalization of the Italian post Council”.

Included among the many negative consequences of this “normalization” would also be the “growing conditioning effect of papal directives or statements, thereby giving the clear impression that far from implemented in full is that assumption of responsibility by bishops which the launching of the Episcopal conferences was supposed to have meant”. This is something else I fail to understand. Why would papal statements or endeavours constitute a “conditioning factor”? And what would be this “assumption of responsibility” on the part of bishops to be lived and exercised in a manner removed from or outside what the Holy Father does or says?

According to Rev. Xeres an evident type of “conditioning factor” would have been what Benedict XVI said to the ecclesial symposium held in Verona in 2006. The author takes Cardinal Ruini to task for having said that the pope’s words constituted the “fundamental platform” for the post symposium period, and asserts that this would have thwarted the selfsame holding of the symposium: “That normalization referred to by Fr. Sorge seems to have moved ahead: from the lack of co-responsibility of the laity there is a movement towards a diminished co-responsibility even of bishops. Remaining all on its own is the voice of the pope taken top down by bishops, clergy and laypersons”.

According to Rev. Xeres, the “cultural project” so characteristic of the “third post Council (from 1995 onwards) also fails to respect “bi-directionalness”. In fact, it is a “process intended to bring to the surface the cultural substance of evangelisation, also as qualified input on the part of Catholics to the life of the country”, in order “to incarnate and project in history and in events in Italy today the interpretation of the man revealed in Jesus Christ”.  This leads me to believe that “bi-directionalness” would mean giving up all this, but this strikes me as impossible for Catholicism. Also coming to mind is something written by Pope Ratzinger in one of his books: “The faith itself is culture. It does not exist in a nude form as mere religion. The faith is culture in itself. This also means it is a subject in its own right, a community of life and culture we call people of God”.

There is also another key concept argued by Rev. Xeres I didn’t understand: the world’s “otherness” with respect to the Church. With this word the author intends saying the world is not the “contrary” of the Church, but quite simply other than it, something with an autonomy all its own. The world’s “otherness” is what would render legitimate the “bi-directionalness” referred to above.  In my mind, however, the word “world” means, one on hand, the ambit of human existence which the Church must love and serve by proclaiming the Gospel, and, on the other hand, the principle of injustice, which contrasts with and is opposed to the announcement of the Gospel. The world’s rationale is not only “other” than that of the Church, but is often in open contrast with that of the Church. In fact, Jesus sends His disciples as “lambs among the wolves”.

This “optimistic” and non realistic vision of the world can also be seen in Rev. Xeres’ concept of modernity, and here is another point I do not understand. He says Vatican Council II accepted modernity, while the later “involution” didn’t. I wondered to myself where it is written that Vatican II accepted modernity, and coming to mind was not a single excerpt in Council documents asserting such a fact. According to me, modernity as such is undoubtedly anti-Christian, while in modernity there are many good things. Modernity means rationalism, immanentism, nihilism. It means agnosticism, positivism and materialism. It means the absolutization of liberty and many other things that hollow out the Christian message. Modernity is the arrogance of despair. On the contrary, in modernity we can find sundry positive things that originate in Christian heritage, ordinary common sense, or what remains of natural moral law.

Readings of the post Council – and hence the Council as such – like this one by Rev. Xeres do not convince me, and I also see them as contrary to what Benedict XVI indicated with his invitation to engage in a hermeneutics of reform in continuity. Not only does Rev. Xeres say Vatican Council II was a radical change compared with the past, but also argues that this change lasted in Italy until Fr. Sorge and 1976, followed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with the ensuing ‘involution’.  The hermeneutics of reform in continuity did not see the light of day in December 2005 when Benedict XVI announced it. This hermeneutics has been underway ever since Vatican Council II came to an end in 1965, and it is a hermeneutics guided by the Holy Fathers, Therefore, issuing forth from it may not be any involution, but rather “reform in continuity”.   


S.E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi