A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Church and State: To Separate, or Set Against

Interview With Archbishop Crepaldi of Trieste, Italy

By Stefano Fontana

TRIESTE, Italy, 2 FEB. 2011 (ZENIT)
Christ delineated a distinction between Church and state with his famous injunction: Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. 

Naturally, however, his directive is not understood as an invitation to be anti-religious. Nevertheless, certain advocates of a clear Church-state division fall precisely into an anti-religious perspective.

What, then, does it mean to advocate a true secular perspective? 

ZENIT spoke about secularity with Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi of Trieste, president of the Caritas in Veritate Commission of the Council of European Bishops' Conferences, and president of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory for the Social Doctrine of the Church. He is also a past secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

ZENIT presents this translation of the original Italian interview while maintaining in brackets certain Italian terms to aid clarity. The English terms "lay" and "secular" (with their various conjugations) both provide a rendering for the Italian "laico" with its various conjugations. The nuances of the various conjugations of "secular" in English have caused a fair amount of debate. We have translated references to the noun-form of secular [laicità] as "secularity" when the term refers to a positive meaning, and "secularism" when it refers to a negative one.

ZENIT: Excellency, first of all, in your opinion, what does "secular" [laico] mean?

Archbishop Crepaldi: It seems to me that today the word has four meanings. First of all, secular [laico, this would generally be translated "lay" in English] means "not a priest" and "not a religious." Whoever is not a priest and does not belong to a religious congregation of monks or brothers or sisters is called a layperson [laico]. My mother and father were laypeople. 

Secondarily, one can call himself secular [laico] who holds that the political dimension is autonomous from religion, but while at the same time can make use of the spiritual and moral resources of religion, more than that, that he has need of them, otherwise politics itself would transform itself into a religious absolute.

A third meaning of secular [laico] signifies today the person who lives and reasons without taking religion into account; in other words it means indifference to religion. Finally, secular [laico] today also means anti-religious, namely one who combats religion, does not allow it to express itself, does not allow it to speak in the public domain.

ZENIT: Can you establish a hierarchy between these meanings? In your view, which is true secularity?

Archbishop Crepaldi: The first definition does not cause a problem to anyone. Among the rest I would like to say that the second is the most correct, while the third and the fourth are incorrect, first of all from the point of view of secularity itself [laicità], namely, they are forms of secularity [laicità, sometimes translated "secularism" in English] that are not very secular.

ZENIT: I understand that you hold that whoever combats religion is not very secular, however, would not the one who does not take it into account, who is indifferent to it, be a genuine secularist?

Archbishop Crepaldi: This is already an excluding of God from the public domain. Even if I don't combat him openly, if I affirm that the organization of society must not take the least account of the religious dimension but must be indifferent to it and, for example, that it is necessary to remove religious symbols, to impose school instruction that totally leaves religion out of consideration, that the bishop cannot make his voice heard publicly and Catholics cannot have a form of explicit presence in the society or things of this nature ... I say I am indifferent whereas, in fact, I've made a choice of exclusion.

ZENIT: Hence it isn't possible not to take a position on the problem of God?

Archbishop Crepaldi: It is not possible. And the secularism that holds it as possible would be deceitful. Secularity is exercise of reason and not the use of deceit. A world can be built based on God or without God. A third way is not possible. To build a world on God, however, does not mean to be fundamentalists. It means attributing to human things their autonomy, but to see them also in their limitations and, therefore, in their structural need of a supplement of resources to be able to be themselves. For the same reason to build a world without God does not mean to build a neutral world.

ZENIT: And yet today it is said that the question of God comes afterward, to those who pose it to themselves. You instead say it comes first, inasmuch as no one can avoid it.

Archbishop Crepaldi: The question of God comes first before all others and there is no one who doesn't pose it to himself. This happens because when we know reality we know it immediately as needful of a foundation, namely, incapable of explaining itself to the end on its own. Within this perception there is already the idea — although very general — of God, which then accompanies us for ever. The idea of God therefore is not added after we have elaborated all the others. The secularist is one who uses reason to organize his own life, but in order not to absolutize reason and become its prisoner, he leaves the question open, remains open to a supplement of meaning that reason alone cannot give him, but to which reason itself refers, seeing its need for a completeness that it cannot give itself.

ZENIT: In this connection, then, only he who remains open to God is secular.

Archbishop Crepaldi: I believe this is so, and I will give you two examples. French President Sarkozy, in a famous intervention in St. John Lateran a few years ago, coined the expression "positive secularity [laicità]." With this he wished to indicate a secularity that expresses an attitude of positive openness in facing religion. Pope Benedict XVI has shown he appreciates the expression and he used it on his trip to France two years ago. 

The second example is the following: In a famous address when he was Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger invited secularists to "live as if God existed." This is again the subject of positive religion. It would not be very secularist to suspend the doubt: And if God exists? The believer, whose faith is never completely exempt from measuring itself with incredulity, asks of the secularist this same intellectual honesty: that he should also live without ever ceasing to measure himself with the secularist doubt — are we really certain that God doesn't exist?

ZENIT: And if a secularist doesn't do this?

Archbishop Crepaldi: I believe that he is no longer a secularist. He would become a dogmatic and would be guided by an intolerable annoyance for religion that would render him incapable of seeing its meaning with objectivity; he would mistake it for knavish superstition. In fact he would combat it, naturally in the name of secularism, which however would be a new religion of anti-religion. There are many intolerant secularists today.

ZENIT: In a Letter to Children of your diocese for the feast of St. Nicholas, you affirmed among other things that children who live in a family of married parents are fortunate. You were criticized for this as discriminating against both children and families. Do you consider this an example of intolerant secularism [laicità]?

Archbishop Crepaldi: Tolerant secularity [laicità] is one that allows the Church to express herself according to her own logic and not to say things that correspond to other logics. Christian faith says that marriage is not only an explicit or implicit contract, but the sacramental construction of a new reality, which will endure to the degree that it accepts being vivified by the Lord. This is not contradicted by the fact that, unfortunately, also so many marriages celebrated in the Church fail humanly; nor does it oblige equating all forms of "family." 

I don't think it is tolerant to criticize the bishop because he says that the true model of family is the Christian model, proposed by God himself in the Holy Family of Nazareth, lived and taught by the Lord Jesus. Nor can one be impeded from affirming that to be born in such a family, in which the love of the spouses is marked by the love of God for us and us for God, is a great fortune. 

I add something more here: This should be considered the right of every child. Whoever has experienced it knows that it is a great fortune. To say then that in this way the bishop is discriminating is all but ridiculous: The love of the Church is open to all, but it doesn't exempt from saying how things are.

ZENIT: Trieste is proud of its secular tradition. Is this a good thing?

Archbishop Crepaldi: It is because secularity means openness to coexistence, reciprocal acceptance, friendly dialogue and no preconceptions, the absence of forms of fundamentalism. But it is mistaken when someone gives this secularity another meaning: that Truth doesn't exist, that the Church should not proclaim Jesus Christ holding him as Truth and Life, that the Church should not evangelize and pray so that conversions increase — when it criticizes proclamation calling it proselytism. 

And it is mistaken when someone would like to silence the bishop, or — what is worse — make the bishop say what the world would like to hear, that is, that everything it does is all right. Everything is not all right: There are ways today of building the family that do not represent the true good of the children and that make them suffer, beating them to the right and to the left and unloading on their shoulders the irresponsibility of the adults. It isn't true secularity when it impedes the bishops from saying these things.

The Church asks her faithful for obedience, not everyone. From others the Church asks for respect, holding that it should carry out a service to man and to express spiritual and moral resources for the good of society. To ask for respect is not to ask for privilege. Because nothing and no one can take away from the Church her "claim."

ZENIT: What claim?

Archbishop Crepaldi: The claim of bearing in herself the Answer to the true needs of man. Above all, secularity must respect this: that the Church be given the possibility of expressing fully her message of salvation, which concerns the whole of human life, knowing that, doing so, she carries out a service to the human person. 

Whoever criticizes me because I hold that to live in a Christian family, vivified by Christ himself and by his Spirit, is a great fortune, in fact doesn't accept that the Church with her message can claim to render life more human. But the Church will never be able to accept this intolerance in her confrontations.

[Translation by ZENIT]

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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