How much damage by catholics in politics. Interview with Archbishop Crepaldi published in the february issue of the monthly Review ‘Il Timone’

Church and world, Catholics and politics. It’s difficult to comprehend the situation, and equally difficult to foresee future prospects without a keen sense of farsightedness. Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi is someone endowed with this ability to see beyond the tip of his nose, to be farsighted. Up until 1994 he was the director of the Italian Episcopal Conference’s department for social issues and labor. Those were the times of bishops such as Santo Quadri, Riboldi, Charrier; the times when a political system came to an end. During Most. Rev. Crepaldi’s time as director of this department, the Italian Episcopal Commission issued the Social Apostolate Directory “Evangelize the Social Sphere”, as well as other important documents such as “Economic Democracy and the Common Good”. Above all, however, that was the time when the Italian bishops launched the Academy of Formation to Social and Political Engagement, and planned the resumption of the social weeks in an effort to rebuild the committed presence of Catholics in public life.   At the end of his term of office as department director in the Italian Episcopal Conference, Most Rev. Crepaldi crossed the Tiber into the Holy See, assuming office first as Under Secretary and later as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He worked with Cardinal Etchegaray, Cardinal  Van Thuân, and Cardinal Martino in the mainstream of the pontificates of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Among other achievements, he coordinated work for the drafting of the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, under the thrust of John Paul II and published in 2004, and the Encyclical Letter “Caritas in veritate” of Benedict XVI. In 2004 he founded the Cardinal Van Thuân Observatory of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which he now serves as president. At present he is the bishop of Trieste and chairman of the “Caritas in veritate Commission” of the Council of the European Episcopal Conferences.

In the light of this farsightedness and the wisdom he has accumulated in time, we asked him a few questions about the urgent issue of Catholics and politics.

Your Excellency, there are those who say there no longer are any Catholics in politics. Do you share this view?

No, I do not; nonetheless, it is true that if there are any, their presence is rarely evident and rather blurred. Catholic visibility in politics can assume two forms: personal, when people know a  politician is a Catholic because he himself says so and maintains evident relations with the Church; community-like, when Catholics act in a united way, and, as part of their autonomy insofar as laypersons, both plan and pursue political strategies based on a Catholic vision of things.

Before asking you how these two forms of visibility stand today, I’d like you ask you if this visible presence is important or not. In the final analysis – people say – a Catholic can make his contribution to the common good, which is a lay dimension, also without saying he is a Catholic.

I’m well aware of theological doctrines which sustain that a Catholic must not be engaged in politics as a Catholic, that is to say in a visible manner, because otherwise he would transform his religious faith into an ideology, but I do not share this opinion. Faith is not an ideology, and neither is doctrine. If the Christian faith has a public role – and there’s no doubt it does – I fail to understand why, among the various forms of visible presence, concealed from sight should be the role of the lay faithful in politics.

Therefore, you do not concur with the so-called “religious choice” which returns into the limelight every so often. . .

It’s true; every so often it does return to the center of attention. Pope Francis continues saying that we have to “get our hands dirty”. Periodically, however, there are those who argue that we must dedicate ourselves to formation alone, because entering into the political realm must be the individual conscience without any of the patrimony or expressions of Catholicism backing it up. In this manner, however, we are not even providing formation, which, without any outcome in public presence, becomes academic, rhetorical and politically ecumenical. Proposed in many ecclesial academies of formation to social and political engagement is a generic vision of politics, reducing it to a few humanizing ethical principles in order to avoid disappointing any of the other actors in such an arena. In its most recent versions as well, the “religious choice” is a way to deny a structured relationship between the Church and the world as if the Church did not have a “body” within history and a “doctrine” to shed light on the world.

Let’s return to the initial distinction between individual visibility and community visibility.

Once determined that Catholics engaged in politics must be visible, because otherwise theirs would not be a witness of faith, it is necessary to acknowledge that without community visibility, personal visibility as well would tend to become nothing more than personal moral consistency. We thus have politicians, who, albeit ever consistent with their moral code as persons, make political choices that conflict with the doctrine of the Church and not rarely with natural moral law itself.  The common good is done in common, this meaning in close unison of mind and action regarding the fundamental principles of political engagement that the Church has always taught, especially ever since it began developing an organic social doctrine. 

Many of your fellow bishops say they are against forms of protest enacted in public with Catholic connotations. They look on them as “muscle flexing”, which is not only useless, but also projects an attitude of confrontation between sides and not dialogue.

I believe that manifold can and must be the forms and places of Catholic presence. There can be moments of discussion, confrontation, or protest in public, as well as other forms such as collective conscientious objection, the collection of signatures for petitions or legislative action, etc. These forms also include parliamentary action through political parties and peaceful protests to influence what parties do in parliament. Not everything can always be dialogue. The fact is, I believe, that hidden behind dialogue as an absolute endeavor is a vision of the relations Catholics have with politics whereby championing a truth and fighting for it is considered an expression of violence, or at least arrogance.     

Many are those who have reproached the so-called “Ruini era” for its excessive clericalism. In these cases people refer in particular to the Family Day, the 2007 pastoral Note on de facto unions, and the call to abstain from voting on the referendum for or against Law 40. What do you think in this regard?

Clericalism is to be avoided, and Pope Francis has reminded us of this on numerous occasions. When Cardinal Ruini was president of the Italian Episcopal Conference the Italian bishops did what bishops do, that is to say they taught, and the Note of 2007 is a case in point. The Family Day was organized by laypersons, albeit in harmony with the bishops’ pastoral guidelines. If the mobilization of Catholic laypersons, also in an organized form, is prevented or hampered, the final outcome may well be new clericalism, because in this case relations with political power would be entertained directly by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.    This temptation becomes all the stronger when organized laypersons are not in the picture, because the problems exercise mounting pressure and call for solutions.  

Regarding Catholics in parliament, for a long time it was thought they could militate in all political parties, and then join forces on laws of lofty ethical importance, such as laws on the family and life. Do you consider this method or strategy still valid?

Well, if it ever existed as a strategic paradigm rather than a random adjustment to real facts, I don’t believe it to be feasible any longer today. Not because convergence isn’t auspicious, but because hard facts demonstrate that it is never applied, and the recent positions assumed on the Cirinnà bill are a further illustration of this. According to what was said by many of the self-styled Catholic parliamentarians themselves, this bill seemed to be the boundary not to be crossed, and yet it was crossed.

Is this political tactics, or a lack of vision as well?

Numbers in politics are very important. In this parliament few and far between are the overtly Catholic deputies, and many among them say they are Catholics, but retain broad discretionary rights regarding choices without letting themselves be overly conditioned by Catholic morals, by the social doctrine of the Church, or by appeals of the Magisterium. A small group certainly can’t do much. Nonetheless, I believe the problem has to do with more than quantity. There is a good dose of confused thinking. Certain concessions on the Cirinnà bill, including on some points in profound contrast with the dignity of the human person, have revealed a lack of in-depth thought, and, above all, the idea that the Catholic faith cannot – without becoming ideology – produce an organic and consistent vision, a true social and political culture of its own. It would produce only moralizing implorations, but not a system of thought and a consistent vision of our duties towards the common good. It is felt that God only gives advice or proposes nothing more than ideals.

Facing this political weakness, however, are dramatic choices in evident contrast with it: the more considerable the latter are, all the weaker is the response. What is to be done about this?

In our country there are many sectors of the Catholic world that have still not accepted a “bare” vision of the Catholic faith and initiate new processes of public presence consistent with the faith, a presence which is not reduced to little less than an instrument of dialogue or just an occasion to ask questions of self and others.  In 2004, the Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân, of which I am president, called out to this multihued world with a political appeal to Italians entitled “A Bewildered Country and the Hope of a People” that sought to offer a single and programmatic perspective.  The “Let’s defend our children” rally held on 20 June 2015, which had been organized with limited time and resources, made it clear that this world is there. This is the world to which the Academy of Social Doctrine of the Church organized by our Observatory address itself. In brief, there is terrain upon which to work for the recovery.

You seem to be saying it’s necessary to begin anew from deep down. . .

Evident to one and all, I believe, is the fact that the political presence of Catholics has to be revisited and rethought in depth. In general terms, it will be necessary to surmount a certain “pastoralism” so widespread today. A generous pastoralism also from the viewpoint of the subjects who practice it, but short-lived insofar as bereft of any cultural structure. A pastoralism that no longer tackles the problem of laws, institutions, social dynamics, labor, schooling, etc., and often settles for sound bite slogans that may instill a sense of warmth in those who sincerely want to become engaged, but cannot underpin an organized, articulated and truly incisive presence.

Nowadays, what moment is the social doctrine of the Church living through in our Church and our country?

The pastoralism I just referred to, and which would need some in-depth thought along other lines, is creating difficulties for this social doctrine, because, as far as the former is concerned, everything that smacks of doctrine, culture and theory prevents any pastoral encounter with those in need. As if the faith were only action and not thought as well. But I ask myself: how is it possible to discern true needs from false ones without a vision of things born of faith and reason? Driven by both the best of intentions and pastoral anxiety to encounter the needy, Catholics often work for erroneous causes and cause damage, creating new needs. Furthermore, they are diverted from the problems of the structure and good organization of public life in order to concentrate solely on short term forms of solidarity.  Good may be wrought also by committing oneself for just laws or suitable policies, but how can it be done without an overall vision of things offered by the social doctrine of the Church?  

Thank you, Your Excellency, for these thoughts, and, if you so permit, we would like to invite our readers to get in touch with the Observatory which you preside over in order to get an idea of its numerous activities and publications, its “Bulletin of Social Doctrine of the Church” and the Academy (distance learning) of the Social Doctrine of the Church:;