When drawing the curtain on its work on 7 December 1965, Vatican Council II promulgated its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium e Spes. Defined by some as the “Magna Charta” of the Council held in Rome, and by others as a new pastoral compass for the mission of the Catholica from then on, this conciliar document has nonetheless marked an important point in the relationship between the Church and the world of modern times. In order to commemorate this event, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace organized a two day symposium in Rome with numerous scholars and delegates from Social Doctrine of the Church study centers on all five continents, as well as special involvement on the part of the upcoming generations of young people, who are called today to once again bear witness in public to the most precious legacy received from the Council Fathers. This symposium was inaugurated in the Vatican at the New Synod Hall, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist in St. Peter’s Basilica, and ended at the Church Palace Hotel of Domus Mariae. In the course of its proceedings it retraced the salient moments of what had taken place 50 years earlier and underscored the value of the Traditio in the life of the Church beginning from the text of Gaudium et Spes, which Cardinal Turkson – president of the organizing Dicasterium – defined as “a living message that (still) speaks to us today”, as can be seen – for example – in the repeated references evoking the primacy of human dignity as the binding criterion of personal action in public life and respect for the social order.
The speakers therefore addressed the major themes of modernity one by one in comparative analysis with the Council’s text. This began with the new understanding of individual or personal freedom, which had already asserted itself in the western world back during the French Revolution (1789), tackled in the paper delivered by Prof. Henri-Paul Hude, director of the Ethics Department at the Research Center of the Écoles de Coëtquidan in Paris. Prof. Hude began from the fact that the idea of freedom in the west is ordinarily understood as an unlimited desire for self-determination without any type of bond or connection with other persons or the ‘structures’ of external reality. In addition, there is the ideology of libertarianism on the political level, likewise nourished by financial interests and potentates of far from minor magnitude, which represents the outcome or fruit of this ever more widespread conviction among people at large. Completely different was and remains the Christian vision, not only at the school of its philosophical and theological reference tradition (which cannot but envisage the action of Grace as the absolutely necessary means helping people to forge ahead resolutely along the straight pathway of freedom), but also in terms of the soundest possible realism, as depicted in brief in a specific paragraph of the text (No. 17) and then developed in depth later in the text. Moreover, liberty is a fundamental attribute of God to which He, the Creator, gratuitously extends participation to man, who thereby not only biblically becomes His image and likeness (cf. Genesis) as person loved ever since eternity, but infinitely much more than that: in the final analysis, human liberty represents the distinctive sign of the absolute value of the creature ab origine over all the rest of creation. Professor Hude then dwelt at length on the relation between this and natural law, underscoring how the selfsame foundations of the latter – nowadays denied by the majority of people in today’s climate of ethical relativism, or challenged much like a conventional cultural artifice – historically include not a few non confessional “apologists”, beginning with Aristotle as far back as the pagan and pre-Christian age. Certainly, it does not suffice to enounce principles or describe their usefulness or advantages for individuals or the collective whole of humanity in order for them to suddenly begin being resolutely lived anew by our contemporaries. Nonetheless, and this is Prof. Hude’s conclusion, renewed reflection by the Church on the issue of liberty – as augured by Paul VI – bears witness to a willingness to adopt a patiently listening stance regarding the dramas lived by today’s post-modern and wounded humanity. This evokes that tireless patience characteristic but to genuine missionaries insofar as skilled scholars fascinated by the mystery of the human soul, because they know that the profound conversion of both heart and behavior is never a matter of a single day.
While modernity has triggered substantial changes in the main ambits of life, there is no doubt that over the last few decades the economic and financial sphere has been in the throes of the most advanced processes. This was dealt with by Prof. Stefano Zamagni, a professor of economy at the University of Bologna. In his talk he revisited social history over the last forty years and singled out two major axes marking the divide with old paradigms: the third industrial revolution (marked by the advent of digital technology), and, quite naturally, the dizzying and increasingly rapid global movement of persons, goods and networks known as “globalization”. Far from demonizing or dogmatically exalting one or the other, Prof. Zamagni stressed that the two phenomena are morally neutral in their own right insofar as not involving particular counter indications, and that they fundamentally depend on the way man uses them. Statistically speaking, however, evident over the last few years has been the down turn in inequality indices within countries (lower average rate of poverty, whereby absolute poverty is ‘less absolute’), while those same indices are on the rise at the international level, where the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ in the world has widened. In the mind of the speaker, the main issue calling for urgent attention concerns the increasing “financialization of the enconomy” whereby only a single ambit of the market, and not even the most representative one, prevails over all the others according to an entirely auto-referential and hegemonic rationale (finance for finance as an end unto itself) that tends to deprive the social dimension of human work of significance, and hence power. Linked to this fundamental crux of the matter is a second and equally relevant aspect of no little importance. This refers to the real danger that over the long term this exclusivist and sectarian conception of the market may prevail over the free democratic life of individual countries and even dictate the targets they are to reach (as suggested by a few recent cases). If this process does not come to an end in one way or another, it is foreseen that there will be increasingly less room for the expression of representative politics, not for the benefit of the creative energies of civil society and the free expression of the bodies that make it up, but in the exclusive interest of lobbies of technicians (the new ‘dominating class’ in all truth), or professional technocrats elected by no one, which is just the same thing. The way out of this impasse will entail, according to Prof. Zamagni, a substantial reform of the philosophy underlying the fiscal system now in force (“higher taxes on the income of salaried employees”), the affirmation of a greater pluralism of entrepreneurial subjects on the market, taking into consideration the social dimension of the common good according to the principle of subsidiarity, whereby more and multifold become the forms and modalities for expressing enterprise on the market, and lastly political governance that is stronger in the national level and more transparent at the global level.
The digital revolution, which is the other epochal event of our times, was addressed by Fr. Irudayasamy Plavendran, an Indian PhD graduate student at the Pontifical Salesian University, and Professor Cezary Koscielniak from Poland and faculty member at the Adam Mickiewicz University of Poznan, both of whom were introduced by Most Rev. Mario Celli, president of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications. Expanding on what Most Rev. Celli had said about our societies, where “communications have by now generated an environment of life itself”, the first of these two speakers offered straightforward and rational commentary on the change of paradigm determined by the digital culture, and invited all Christians, laypersons and religious, to assume a missionary mentality in coming to terms with these new and vast virtual spaces. Obvious is the fact that this is a very complex challenge which projects both risks and opportunities. On one hand, the advantages are more readily intuitable (cancellation of distances between persons on different continents with an exponential increase in the possibilities for information exchange, cultural growth, and personal contacts practically free of charge, networks of friends and remote collaboration, etc.). On the other hand, however, the problems reside not only in factors related with the liquid virtuality of human relations, but also and above all in the realm of education due to the fact that the imagery culture tends more and more to replace the hardcopy culture (printed texts). In this particular context, this responds to a discontinuous and linear rationale (the links that refer to yet other links in a potentially infinite process of ongoing linking). Nonetheless, it is precisely in this ambit (among youth, where there is a greater diffusion of this trend) that Christians are called to bear witness to faith and hope with heightened resolve and enthusiasm.
Different in tenor was the presentation made by Prof. Koscielniak. Beginning from the definition of ‘culture’ in paragraph 58 of Gaudium et Spes, he evoked the Magisterium of John Paul II, dwelling on the fact that true culture must serve – or even better, in principle should serve – the purposes of the sanctification of the human person, and that Christ, yesterday, today and forever, remains the parameter for ultimate judgment regarding the quality of culture. Conversely, what may be noted especially in western Europe is “Chri-exit”, as the speaker called it by using an Anglo-Latin neologism meaning “the deliberate exclusion of Christ from society’s reference culture”. This is evidently not so much or only aversion towards the sacred image of the Son of God or symbols referring directly to Him, but rather and above all hostility towards the public dimension of Christianity as such, whereby publically saying one is a believer is increasingly frowned upon in the normal ambits of secular life. This is why it becomes so imperative for Christians to network (on the social networks as well), surmounting the opposing temptations of narcissist egoism and spiritualist isolation. On the other hand, concluded Prof. Koscielniak by citing John Paul II in one of perhaps the most meaningful passages of this symposium: “faith which does not become culture is faith not fully embraced, not fully thought, and not faithfully lived”, thereby inevitably destined to insignificance in the highly confused and at times disorienting agorà which European society has now become.
Lastly, outstanding in terms of contents and depth was the presentation on the Christian anthropology of love and the gender ideologies delivered by Ms Laura Consoli, a PhD graduate student in Rome at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for studies on matrimony and the family. In fact, she offered a detailed overview of John Paul II’s theological anthropology on human love, beginning from some of his works chronologically prior to his pontificate and abounding with meaning: e.g., Love and Responsibility, and Person and Act. What emerged was a picture of extraordinary richness – as had already been pointed out by this Pontiff’s most prolific biographer, Mr. George Weigel, an American writer and essayist – that still remains to be explored in depth within the Church itself, and which, once so done, will most likely lead to a literal explosion of inexhaustible grace. Like very few before him, Pope Wojtyla had dedicated hundreds and hundreds of pages of his theological and philosophical reflection to matrimony and human love, with an all-encompassing analysis of the soul, the psyche and the identity of man and woman mutually called “by incipient vocation” to be generators of beauty through personal participation in the wondrous plan of divine creation in that unique place for learning the grammar and the language of love, which is matrimony. And all this on the basis of a sound theological anthropology both realistic and deeply rooted in the perennial primacy of the Gospel and Sacred Scripture, because while it is true that Grace is needed to love in full, it is no less true that without the aid of the sacrament it will be difficult for the conjugal union to assume the countenance of that mutual communion of oblative giving-of-self that makes the family a unique alliance for life. From this viewpoint, therefore, Pope Wojtyla’s message is nothing less than “prophetic”, and it is in the wake of reflections such as these that it is possible to comprehend in full the disorientation between sexes that characterizes our present day and age if we but think, for example, about the beauty of the human body as a reflection of the “imago divina” to be preserved and discovered anew, and compare that with the dialectic and utilitarian materialism of both new and old gender ideologies. Moreover, not to be overlooked are the pages John Paul II dedicates to “female genius” perhaps encapsulated the best in The Letter to Women (1995) and Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), where the female identity appears in all its dazzling beauty: the source and custodian of nascent life, mother and teacher in the education of those who will come to be, indispensible complement (not only physically, morally and mentally indispensible, but ‘ontologically’ so) in the full realization of the redeemed humanity willed by God. An authentic treasure accessible to those willing to listen to it and welcome it, especially when passing from Pope Wojtyla’s philosophy to the real level of concrete policies enacted for the support of the family as a social subject more so than as an abstract nucleus of individuals, as has been the case in western countries over the last few years: a grave gap still waiting to be filled in Italy and not alone.