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Religion and Society

Christianity and Plural Society

As president of the French delegation to the second international conference of UNESCO (held in 1947), Jacques Maritain supported a thesis that retains a strong validity and one which, if rigorously formulated, can constitute the basis by which to identify a new way of thinking about secularity in a plural society. Maritain said that the political domain has as its objective a practical good that is recognised by everyone as a value in itself, independently of the fact that there may be a failure to agree on its speculative or doctrinal foundation which necessarily refers to different and often contradictory visions of the world. What could this be? Living together in society and the reciprocal communication to which subjects that live in contemporary plural society and are often in conflict are called, reveal as a social practical good the very fact of living together. If it is recognised in its inevitable decisiveness (at the least as a minor evil) and if it is chosen consciously, this being in a relationship becomes a primary political good. Elaborating in an adequate way this common decision, the practical good of being in society could constitute that political universal which the process of secularisation has lost during modernity.

 

 

The construction of this political universal in a plural society asks of every subject a narration directed towards a recognition that is shared as much as possible. A triple aspect must be contemplated by the subject. Every subject with identity must narrate himself/itself, narrate others, and accept being narrated.

 

 

In a plural society, the unitary ecclesial subject is inevitably seen from an internal perspective and from an external perspective which are often discordant: ‘He who sees people dance does not hear the music, does not understand the movements that he observes. Thus it is also that he who does not share the Christian faith is inclined to explain it with reference to something that is different from the truth of its object’. On the other hand, ‘a Christian who is unable to immerse himself in the external perspective…becomes a sectarian or a fanatic who closes himself before the universality of reason’ (Spaemann). The Christian proposal must therefore take into account, with coherence, both these profiles, without forgoing its truthful core which postulates – and we do well to remember this – the very ‘claim’ to universality that is specific to reason.

 

 

A valuable contribution that Christianity offers to the construction of the political universal can be read by anyone, beginning from its external profile alone as well. It is the practice of elementary moral experience that makes it reasonable for everyone to refer to a common morality. To understand the authentic nature of this common morality one must begin from the elementary experience of good that every man has. If we look at the genesis of the moral experience of the (child) subject, we realise that it is rooted in a wish for self-completion which takes form in original inclinations and affections, beginning with the primary relationships of recognition, in which, in circular fashion, this wish acquires practical self-awareness and becomes capable of communion with others. The original form by which man learns and actuates good consists, therefore, in the relationship with the origin of good. And the decision in favour of the good things that should be done derives from the practice of good relationships. Elementary moral experience, which is common to all men, does not originate from an idea of good that is contained in the cosmos or the bios, nor is it deduced from the rational nature of man: it is formed beginning with the primary benefit of the relationship.

 

 

On this basis, the person perceives a de-ontic tie (ob-ligation) with the possibilities of good itself. He realises their character of not being optional or hypothetical. The belief in the absoluteness of moral Good leads Christians, who are aware of the value of living together as a primary political good, to propose this common morality. It is the basis on which one can, from time to time, look for a noble com-promise on specific goods of an ethical, social, cultural, economic and political character with all the other inhabitants of a plural society. When this com-promise is technically impossible at the level of substantial principles, Christians should resort to conscientious objection.

 

 

Looking now at Christianity from the internal profile in order to clarify fully the contribution of Catholics to the growth of the good life of a country, it is important to observe that its incarnation in history postulates an insuperable circularity between faith and culture. Faith, in offering man an interpretative hypothesis of the real, produces culture/s; and culture(s) interpreting itself/themselves, interpret(s) faith itself. In historical time such a dynamic is insuperable.

 

 

A pathway suitable to the correct interpretation of the circle of faith/culture(s) should be looked for in the proposal of all the Christian Mysteries in their structured unity, as they spring forth from the event of Jesus Christ. Incarnated in the history of the individual and community subjects that live them, they bear upon the way in which men conceive of themselves and as a society, upon the relationship with the creation, and there are exposed in their turn to the inevitable cultural interpretations that the subject practises. The commitment of a Christian to the person, to society, and to the cosmos is not a consequence of the Mysteries that he lives. And yet it is not immediately coincident with the Christian Mysteries as such: it is implied in them. Indeed, the Christian Mysteries are not given once and for ever in the form of a package of dogmas from which suitable consequences should be drawn; they are dimensions of the event of Jesus Christ who continuously proposes himself anew to the always historically situated freedom of man. They do not require mechanical applications, nor extrinsic juxtapositions, but dynamic implications.

 

 

To announce the event of Christ in all its entirety, coming, therefore, to demonstrate all its implications, is what today is required of Christians. And this is the case above all in Italy where the phenomenon of secularisation reveals, when subjected to an attentive analysis, characteristics which are completely special and at times rather different from those to be found in other Euro-Atlantic countries. It is no accident that the Italian Church is spoken of as an ‘exceptional case’.

 

* Excerpts from the intervention held on occasion of the international congress “The Plural Society” (Venice 15-17 Septembre 2009), of which minutes will be published further by Marcianum Press, Venice 2010)

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