Political theology according to Massimo Borghesi. Select critical clarifications.

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Publisher: Marietti

Massimo Borghesi has presented his understanding of the complex issue of political theology in his book Critica della teologia politica. Da Agostino a Peterson: la fine dell’era costantiniana, Marietti 1820, Genova 2013 [Critique of political theology. From Augustine to Peterson: the end of the Constantinian age]. He had already anticipated some of what he argues in this book, for example, in his contribution Da Peterson a Ratzinger: Agostino e la critica alla teologia politica, [From Peterson to Ratzinger: Augustine and the critique of political theology] to Ritorno alla religione? tra ragione, fede e società, (Guerini & Associates, Milan 2009, pgs.165-186) edited by V. Possenti.  

Borghesi’s core idea may be summarized in the following manner: with the Dignitatis humanae of Vatican II there is no denial of previous tradition, as traditionalists would wish, but a return to the positions of the Fathers, and Augustine in particular, according to whom the State must be not confessional, but the custodian of religious freedom for all. Borghesi deems this to be the position of Joseph Ratzinger and in this sense reads the speech the pope delivered to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2005 regarding the hermeneutics of Vatican Council II and reform in continuity.

The author argues his considerations on broad reaching grounds. He begins with the Fathers, dwells on changes brought about not so much by Constantine, but by Theodosius I with the Edict of 380, and then reaches the modern age and concentrates on the major syntheses of Löwith, Schmitt, Peterson and Metz, concluding with Ratzinger. The position assumed by Borghesi is tendentially Petersonian: “political theology” is an oxymoron. The two terms cannot exist together because of the “eschatological reserve” proper to the Christian religion with respect to any kingdom of this world. Eschatological reserve which Moltmann and Metz recover, but nonetheless betray insofar as they politicize it, albeit in a sense opposed to the one impressed upon it by Carl Shmitt. Naturally analyzed as well is the latter’s concept of “Cathekon”, that being a task of resistance which the political moment should exercise towards the Principle of inequity, in reference to St. Paul, and which is at the origin of a vast amount of literature. Nonetheless, the “strong” Schmittian solution, whereby any theological character is a political category, is rejected for historical reasons – the convergence towards Nazism – and theoretical reasons identified in the eschatological reserve. At the end of the itinerary we have, with Ratzinger, a return to St. Augustine, who, according to Borghesi, while at sometimes called on the Empire to take action against the Donatists, at other times, and especially in De civitate Dei, he would retract these positions of his and opt for a situation of freedom for each religion.

Since it is not possible to delve into the details of Borghesi’s analysis here, we would like to flag just a  aspects of his reconstruction of the issue that do not seem convincing in full.

The main aspect is the following one. In so many of his writings Joseph Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI, affirms his conviction regarding the centrality of God – not a generic God, but God “with a human face”, the God of Jesus Christ. In this regard, for example, see the book I recently edited,  Joseph Ratzinger-Benedetto XVI, Il posto di Dio nel mondo. Potere, politica, legge, (Cantagalli, Siena 2014) [Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, The place of God in the world. Power, politics, law]. This means Ratzinger as well considers as inevitable a “political theology”, that being a relationship between the Catholic religion and political authority entrusted not only to consciences in a regime of religious freedom to which the political power system would be indifferent. Dignitatis humanae does not speak explicitly about a duty of the State towards the true religion, but only about the duty of the individual and society towards the true religion.  Nonetheless, if we do not limit ourselves to Dignitatis humanae it would not be difficult to demonstrate that the Council texts as a whole do speak about it. Moreover, it would not be difficult to demonstrate, with texts testifying to it, that this is precisely what Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI intended. This does not mean that a freedom of religion should not exist, but that it must be combined with the inescapable duties of Politics towards the true religion.

It is least questionable whether the Fathers and Augustine had separated the two things and had opted for a freedom of religion unanchored from the duties of the State towards the true religion. Not having kept this in mind prevents Borghesi from sufficiently understanding the lengthy period stretching from 380 to 1965, from the Edict of Thessalonica to Dignitatis humanae, which he dispels all too swiftly, considering it the period of the confessional state in open contrast with religious freedom. In this way St. Thomas is set in opposition with St. Augustine, which is something to be dealt with at least with prudence, and Vatican II is understood as a liberation for a long period of error, which is something else to be approached with prudence. Moreover, considering this matter from an historical point of view, during the “long middles ages” the duties of the State towards the true religion – except for situations linked to particular spaces and times, and apart from the exercise of the political duty of States to defend humankind from heresies destructive of humanness, like the Catharist heresy, for example – always went step by step with considerable freedom of religion.

In my opinion the author fails to grasp the difference between the principle of the centrality of the true God for political communality – and hence the unavoidability of a “political theology” as somehow sustained by Schmitt – and the historical formulation  of the confessional State. And yet in the speech of 22 December 2005, which Borghesi uses as the main argument sustaining his thesis, the distinction between principles and de facto or apparent discontinuity was very much present. Not having grasped this fact entails unacceptable disregard towards the historical phase of the confessional State with total condemnation and no possible appeal option. Above all, it means thinking that coming to an end with the confessional State was also the centrality of God for politics, that being the end of the age of “political theology”. Accepted completely in this way is secularization, which, without forms of resistance, leads its own logic in the direction of inexorable results.

Stefano Fontana