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Religion and Society

The Impetus Provided by the Second Vatican Council

Emile Benveniste, in his study on the lexicons of Indo-European institutions, when analysing the word ‘witness’, reports, among other things, the saying of ancient essay which holds that if two men have a discussion and one says ‘I saw it’ and the other says ‘I heard it’, the first man is the one who must be believed. A witness is such because he has heard but above all because he has seen. From this linguistic analysis an important element emerges as regards witnesses and witness – visibility, tangibility. The subject of witness and the strictly connected one of martyrdom have generated during the history of Western culture a very detailed debate to which in this article, for obvious reasons, I will refer only with general headings.



A renewed interest in witness is without doubt present in the documents of the Second Vatican Council in which terms that refer directly to witness, such as ‘witness’ ‘witnesses’ and ‘witness’ (including the verbs that are associated with them) appear a hundred and twenty six times. In the theology of incarnation promoted by the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council, and in particular in Dei Verbum [n. 4], witness is rediscovered as a category inherent in Revelation. In Dignitatis humanae [n. 11] one reads that Christ ‘bore witness to the truth, but He refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it. Not by force of blows does His rule assert its claims. It is established by witnessing to the truth and by hearing the truth’. In Ad gentes there emerge the evangelising character of witness and the missionary meaning of the category of dialogue. The Second Vatican Council, therefore, reopened a debate on the subject of witness which was then broadly pursued over subsequent decades. In the climate of the Second Vatican Council is to be located the study La témoignage spirituel [Edition de l'Epi, Paris, 1964] in which Émile Barbotin addressed numerous philosophical and theological questions and issues beginning with Biblical texts. This study analyses acts of faith not so much from the point of view of an inner adherence to the word of God as in terms of its exterior and visible manifestation. Embodied in concrete signs, gestures, actions and words, spiritual witness finds its specificity in the relationship between the immanence of the signifying (the incarnate sign) and the transcendence of the meaning in which is to be found its value: in spiritual witness, the sign symbolically attests to the metaphysical dimension of existence. Witness is inseparable from the dimension of personal experience. Indeed, in Barbotin’s view, witness is provided in the full sense, and is not a mere transmission of the past or knowledge, only when the wholeness of meaning that person gives to the experience is called into play. To employ the terminology of J.H. Newman, one could say that witness evokes a ‘real assent’ and not only a ‘notional assent’.



During the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council rather different orientations as regards the forms in which one can express Christian witness emerged. As is well known, there were those who, effecting an undue reduction of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, led witness back to the political dimension (one need only think here of scholars such as Metz or Moltman) or to the dimension of social liberation (Gutiérrez and liberation theology). In 1972 an important international conference was held at the University of Rome on this subject [cf. E. Castelli, La Testimonianza, Cedam, Padua 1972]. At this conference, in opposition to every fideistic interpretation of witness, Marco M. Olivetti argued that entrusting to knowledge is the pre-condition for the meaningfulness of witness, ‘if witness is not translated into knowledge, it is non-meaning’ [p. 425]. Amongst the most important papers given at this international conference should be listed the one by Paul Ricoeur on the hermeneutics of witness [this is to be found in P. Ricœur, Testimonianza, parola, rivelazione, Dehoniane, Rome, 1997, which is quoted in this article]. A witness is ‘he who, after seeing and hearing, offers a revelation of the event’ [p. 77]. If a witness, therefore, is he who has seen, he who has taken part in an event, he who receives the testimony does not see but hears a narration of an event. These observations should not lead us to believe that a witness is a mere narrator, albeit a careful and scrupulous one – a witness is something more, he is such because he ‘is able to suffer and die for what he believes in’ [p. 83]. In a full sense ‘witness means more than a mere narration of things that have been seen; witness is also the commitment of a pure heart and commitment unto death. It belongs to the tragic destiny of truth’ [p. 84].



Martyrdom, therefore, is an extreme case of witness. During the years following the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI spoke on more than one occasion on the subject of witness, stating for example, on 2 October 1974, with words that would become famous, that our modern man ‘listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, or, if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’, adding that witness ‘is an essential element, and generally the first one, of evangelisation’ [Evangelii Nutiandi, nn. 41, 21].



The subject of witness was an authentic leading theme of the magisterium of John Paul II, beginning with his Redemptor Hominis, passing by way of his missionary encyclical Redemptoris Missio, and arriving at the commemoration of the martyrs and witnesses to the faith promoted by the Jubilee of the year 2000. This pathway inspired the book written by Didier Rance, Un siècle de témoins. Les martyrs du XXe siecle [Le Sarment, Paris, 2000], which offers a broad analysis of the connection between witness and martyrdom. Rance narrates the witness of those who, during the course of the twentieth century, were persecuted because of their faith by totalitarian regimes. In particular, attention is paid to cases under Communist regimes through a historical-philosophical inquiry into their deep existential implications. When reading this book one discovers that a certain dimension of martyrdom is connatural to every Christian life: there are not two Christianities – the heroic Christianity of ‘actors’ (witnesses to the faith and martyrs) and the daily Christianity of ‘spectators’ (simple Christians). To follow Christ is always demanding, it forces one to detach oneself every day from the old man, to allow him to die at the end of an intense and suffered spiritual fight to which all Christians are called.



A Form of Knowledge



A profound and detailed theological reflection on witness is offered by the work by Paolo Martinelli, La testimonianza: verità di Dio e libertà dell'uomo [Paoline, Milan, 2002]. After outlining the importance of the subject in the history of theology and the Christian experience, the principal meanings of witness are then analysed, special reference being paid to the anthropological and communicative relevance of witness. Martinelli shows that in the word ‘witness’ all the factors of every authentic human experience are implied. The heart of his analysis is the relationship between the Trinity and witness; the event of Christ in its singularity bears unconditional witness to the truth of God in an absolutely freely-given and non-deducible way. The witness of Christ who was crucified and rose again is intertwined with the witness of Christians: supreme forms of witness are vocation, virginity and martyrdom. For Martinelli, witness is that form of knowledge and interpersonal communication in which truth and freedom imply each other and require each other. ‘The event of witness does not allow to separate the truth, knowledge about it and its transmission, from freedom, which, indeed, is called to recognise it and welcome it. The fact of witness forces an exit from the arid negative tendency of an abstract truth in order to welcome truth in the living reality of an interpersonal relationship’ [p. 14].



In an essay entitled ‘Le témoignage chrétien’ [which was published in Bulletin de Liaison, 4, 2005], René Latourelle takes up and updates the reflections proposed in his book of the same title which was published in 1971. In a socio-cultural context that had profoundly changed as compared to the context the Fathers of the Council had to deal with at the time of the Second Vatican Council, a context in which not only the Church but also the religious question itself appear to have been called into question, for Latourelle contemporary man is moved only by signs that carry meaning and salvation. This spiritual inertia can only be shaken by the witness offered by individuals and groups who are profoundly involved in a life following Christ. Despite its brevity, one of the most significant contributions in this field over the last few years on the subject of witness has been the essay by A. Dulles, ‘The Rebirth of Apologetics’, which was published in First Things [n. 143, 2004, 18-23]. In this article this theologian argues that the decisive question is to ask how God comes to us and opens to us a world of meaning that goes beyond the limits of human investigation. The answer to this question should be looked for in witness: revelation, as the word of God, is the witness of God. From the outset, Christianity spread through the living witness of believers which in the view of Dulles is the most effective form there is to achieve a renewed apologetics, apologetics that is certainly different (but complementary) compared to traditional apologetics which is based in large measure on arguments of a philosophical and/or scholarly character.



From this picture that I have outlined, however circumscribed it might be, emerges all the social and cultural relevance of witness which allows us to live in a new light the traditional question of the relationship between truth and freedom, specifically in an epoch when this is as urgent as ever, an epoch in which (for relativism) freedom seems to have become indifferent to truth and in which (for forms of fundamentalism) truth sees freedom as a threat.