Look On High. Stefano Fontana’s contribution to the Day of the Nuova Bussola Quotidiana.

Look On High

Stefano Fontana’s contribution to the Day of the Nuova Bussola Quotidiana

Interview with Riccardo Cascioli

3 October 2020


I have always found the definition of the Social Doctrine of the Church as the announcement of Christ in temporal realities to be quite striking. In other words, as we read in Centesimus Annus, the SDC is an instrument of evangelization. Could you explain this point in detail?

This is exactly the point linking the SDC to our theme today: “look on high”. I too believe this definition given to us by John Paul II is the most beautiful of all. I’d also venture to add another to it: “Without the Gospel there is no solution to the social issue”. This was coined by Leo XIII, and reiterated by John Paul II in Centesimus annus as well.  It’s like saying: if you want to solve penultimate problems, you have to look at ultimate things, which is the essence of all Benedict XVI’s teaching on the centrality of God. If we stop looking upwards, we end up no longer looking even sideways. In fact, we end up no longer ‘seeing’, seeing nothing, or seeing nothingness. At Aparecida in 2007, Benedict XVI said that whoever excludes God does not see reality.

Gomez D’Avila has a very beautiful aphorism in this regard: “When things seem to be only what they look like, they will soon seem even less”. If I look at nature without the Creator, I will end up seeing not even nature, by just a heap of stones.

As St. Thomas taught us, without the ultimate sense, there are not even any intermediary senses, which therefore deteriorate. Without religious matrimony, natural matrimony gradually wanes as well, and at the end what disappears is matrimony as such. This is the situation of the Baron of Munchausen, evoked by Benedict XVI in his book published in 1969, “Introduction to Christianity”. The baron had fallen into swamp, but he wasn’t worried. All anyone had to do, said he, is grab me by my hair and pull me to solid ground.  But the ultimate end – solid ground – is not something we give to ourselves because we are ‘penultimates’, and what is more cannot come from what is less. Whoever is penultimate cannot transport himself towards what is ultimate. This is the first aspect of this image. The second is that the baron doesn’t just float, he sinks. Without the ultimate things, the penultimate ones do not even remain such, they deteriorate. There is no neutrality: a world without God is not a neutral world – said Benedict XVI – but is a world without God, and a world without God can only be against God. Moderate laicity does not exist: if we do not go up, we sink, we don’t remain afloat.

The SDC announces Christ in temporal realities, as we were saying. Now, you have made it clear that temporal realities are unable to pursue their own natural ends without Christ. Nowadays, however, such a position is accused of fundamentalism. Therefore, is the SDC fundamentalist?

It might seem so. Many people think it is. But it’s not like that at all. In his speech to German parliament in 201, Benedict XVI said legitimate political authority is founded on natural law and not on  the Christian religion. Nonetheless, King Solomon – about whom he was speaking – asked God for the gift of wisdom in order to govern well. If authority is rendered legitimate by natural law which is accessible through the use of reason alone, what need is there to then ask God for this wisdom? If the natural level of political reason is legitimate on its own penultimate level, why seek help from the ultimate level. Isn’t that fundamentalism? Benedict XVI evidently didn’t think so. The natural level has its own legitimate autonomy, but man is unable to either see it in full or remain faithful to it without the supernatural level. So much so that God deemed it opportune to reveal not only truths of the supernatural order, but also those of the natural order.

In fact, we could take it even farther than that. Were the natural level to consider itself capable of itself in a complete way, it would become absolute and become a new religion. The baron in the swamp who thinks he can determine the ultimate end all by himself is rather emblematic in this sense. This is the presumption of absoluteness – “being disciples of themselves”, said Benedict XVI – whereby the refusal of God means falling victim to gods, to new human absolutes. It is therefore exactly the contrary of what people say: the essential bond of the political order with the True God guarantees the former’s legitimate autonomy and true laicity, because otherwise it falls victim to itself, believing itself like unto God. There is no alternative. As the religio vera gradually disappears, another religion comes to the forefront. . .that being even the religion of no religiousness. We just cannot harbor illusions about the possibility of moderate positions.

15 years ago, together with Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, you founded the Observatory of the Social Doctrine of the Church bearing the name of Cardinal van Thuân.  What does that activity have to do with what you have said so far.

Looking on high has a religious significance, a spiritual meaning of faith. But it also has an intellective and intellectual significance: always see in things more than what they seem to be. This is what is called the metaphysical gaze. This is not something only for tenured professors of philosophy. On the contrary, it is an everyday endeavor. If we lose this gaze we fall into reductionism: matrimony is reduced to living together, sexuality is reduced to chemistry, the soul is reduced to the brain, created reality is reduced to nature, person is reduced to body,  generating is reduced to producing, wife is reduced to partner, a gaze is reduced to the eye at work, education to instruction, the economy to speculation, quality to quantity, as our democracy knows so well, unfortunately. The religio vera calls for this metaphysical gaze. As Antonio Levi never tired of repeating, dogma itself expresses demands of truth and rationality. Del Noce said that implicit in Christian revelation is a metaphysics, and in order to deepen it, reason must not stray away from faith.

Our Observatory saw the light of day 15 years ago to tackle social issues in this perspective. Bear with me if I commit a venial sin of pride, but I think the Observatory is the only one doing it. Nowadays the SDC is no longer understood like that, and now being lost are traces of this metaphysical gaze
There is a tendency to invert the perspective and begin from the bottom instead of from on high. Man must be said and not God, argued Karl Rahner. Our Observatory thinks it necessary to say God and not Man, also in the realm of social issues. Our Observatory is named after Cardinal van Thuân, and that is what he thought. He demonstrated this when in prison, as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in his writings, and in his resolute commitment so we could have the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

I would like to end with the words of Romano Guardini: “Each being is more than himself; each event means more than its actual taking place. Everything refers to something both above and beyond, from whence there alone does it receive its fullness. If it disappears, things and situations are emptied of sense”.