Starting from life

Debate: "The Church: what do we do?"

Starting from life

inventing a language

By Luigino Bruni

Published on Il Regno-att. n.2/2011

I read with joy about the important article of Prof. Severino Dianich in this magazine (Regno, art.20, 2010, 714). He's a scholar whom I consider among the best and more original European theologians. It was a reading that grabbed my attention and drew me in, both for the topics dealt with as well as the open and innovative way in which they were addressed. They are crucial aspects for the present and the future of the Church, and therefore, they are also for the society and culture. A few ideas came to my mind from this reading, and two of them are directly linked to the theses of his article and other more general related questions addressed in the text. I'll try to proceed in order.

The first point that I want to underline is that which I'll call the "Italianess" of Dianich's analysis. His discourse was very linked to the Church in Italy. In almost all the other countries of the world in which the Catholic Church is present, Christians have always or almost always been the minority, and already for some time, they have been offering explicit and implicit answers to the questions raised by Dianich. That is the first reason why a more appropriate title of the article could be "The Church in Italy: what do we do?"

Secondly, the lucid analysis in the article is all centered around the Church as institution, or, in the language of Von Balthasar, on the "Petrine Profile". There is almost no reference to the charismatic dimension or profile of the Church, either to what we might call "old" or ancient charisms (orders, institutions, congregations...) and to the new charisms (movements and new communities). The insertion of an analysis of the Church also from this co-essential profile would have made the discussion more complex, certainly different both in its lights and in its shadows. If we can come out of the institutional confines, and enter in the territories of the Church's charisms, the signs of esteem, prophecy and civil relevance may not be so feeble. The great world of "old" charisms, for example, even if it shares many of the worries raised by Dianich regarding the institutional Church, at the same time, it is generally viewed (by Catholics and non) as a relevant and precious presence in society - from the nursery schools to works of assistance and healthcare, from spiritual life to lectures. Therefore, a further modification of the article's title could be the following: "The Institutional Church in Italy: what can we do?"

Petrine and Marian Profiles

That said, with humility, sympathy and respect for who seeks to seriously analyze the Church in a time of enormous changes, I will try to focus this second part of my article on the second goal of the article's title: "what can we do?"

My perspective is not that of a theologian, but of a scholar of social sciences, economics and history, as well as an observer of civil and cultural dynamics of my time. Regarding "what can we do?", I believe that there is an absolutely central aspect to this discussion, even if it is easier to highlight questions than to offer answers to it. 

It's my strong impression that the Church today (especially as institution, but not only) appears always more distant from peoples’ ordinarily, urgent and vital questions. The great topics which our battles are being concentrated on today are not felt as urgent, close and capable of passionately moving people's lives. I don't want to deny that homosexual marriage, the end of life and assisted fertilization are serious cases, or that they are far from the Gospel, or irrelevant to peoples' lives and to the quality of our present and future. I just want to say that they are not the questions that place us at the center of people's regular lives, that give enthusiasm, that answer the great questions of everyday living. 

Until a few decades ago (a world that I have never regretted, please understand me correctly), with its lights and its shadows, the Church was present in the ordinariness of life. It entered into the heart of ordinary passions and desires. Just remember the great feasts, which until a little while ago were marked and filled with meaning by the Church, as were the rights of passage in life and to eternity, the accompaniment of mourning, topics that were linked to the great pre-modern questions.

Today, many of these questions (not all) have radically changed, but if we won't be capable of deciphering them, intercepting them and trying to enter into them in order to "dwell in them", the growing margins will only be an effect of something much deeper and more radical. These ordinary questions and feasts today certainly deal with economic and political life, with the city, with multi-culturialism and much more. 

The new evangelization requires a preliminary operation of new inculturization in a post-modern time that is a completely new cultural fact. The instruments for such a new inculturation cannot mainly be encyclicals and documents, books or homilies: instruments must be invented with creativity and prophetic courage.  This new inculturation refers to another great question of language and symbolic code that the Church uses. I remember a personal episode. During a summer school for youth, Sunday mass was scheduled at the conclusion of the meeting. Not seeing many of the students in church, I looked to the churchyard and saw a numerous group of them outside. I go to where they are without being noticed, and I hear them passionately and momentously speaking about gratuitousness, gift and reciprocity - the topics they had learned during the course's lessons. However, they didn't understand that beyond the churchyard an event that "said" these realities (and much more), with a force enormously superior to language, was being celebrated.

Our language and our symbols are no longer capable of speaking words that carry God's presence: a lot of evangelical semantics and wisdom is being lost, precisely because we are not sufficiently capable of re-semanticizing those truths with signs and words that can be understood.

For example, when a cultured person today (Christian or non) reads an issue of a theological magazine, he no longer feels (or rarely so) that those pages are also speaking of his life, his ordinary problems and the people of his time, of the great questions of his living and the living of others. And it's not because those pages of theology don't address those questions, but because the syntax and semantics of those discussions belong to a symbolic and cultural universe that is too distant today, and felt as too distant, from everyday life

Instead, theology has gone through seasons (not all, but some) in which the disputed questions in scholarly circles and studies were urgently perceived and relevant, even to markets, banks and politicians of the time.

The signs of the times

Finally, I believe that this urgent operation of new inculturation and new linguistic and symbolic mediation  can be brought about successfully if, as Christians, we take modernity and post-modernity (or after) more seriously.

As is well-noted, many (almost all) the principles and conquests of the last centuries in the West (equality, freedom, fraternity between equal and free people, individual rights, etc.) are also, if not entirely, children of the maturation of the seeds of Christianity in the European land, even those expressions that the Church often fights because it does not recognize its own. We're talking about gathering the seeds of truth that are maturing or that have matured outside of the Church (women's rights, environmental ethics, animal rights, etc.). These are also an authentic gift for the Church, so that it can more deeply understand its own function and mission and find its new language today. 

There exists a lay magisterium that has many important things to say, especially in our time, even to us Christians. I'm thinking, to say in my own field, of those who today (like economist A. Sen) are revealing new and hidden dimensions of poverty, of rights and of other questions that are essential to the Church today. 

In the Church's more luminous phases (not less difficult than today), as in the first apostolic centuries of the Fathers, or during the great Scholastic period, it included in its syntheses elements of truth from the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Germans. It was truly Church because it was greater than the church. I believe that today a similar challenge faces us - one that is not less challenging but which cannot be  delayed much longer.

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