01-03-2006 - Traces, n.3

New York Freedom Without Roots

The Threat
of Relativism

On the occasion of the publication of the English edition of the 2004 volume collecting dialogues between then-Cardinal Ratzinger and the President of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, the Crossroads Cultural Center organized a presentation of the book, on Monday, February 6th

by Maurizio Maniscalco

When a room fills up for a cultural event, it truly means “something’s cooking.”
It could be the topic, the prestige of the speakers, the vitality of the Center promoting the initiative, or, as in this case, the combination of all three elements. For the presentation of the English edition of Freedom Without Roots (Basic Books), the book composed of dialogues between Cardinal Ratzinger and Marcello Pera, President of the Italian Senate, Columbia University’s Earl Hall was too small. Only the four hundred lucky people who managed to fit into the auditorium of the most prestigious university in New York were able to fully appreciate the contributions of Marcello Pera, co-author of the book, George Wiegel, and David Schindler. His Excellency Archbishop Celestino Migliore, Apostolic Nuncio to the United Nations, brought his greetings, highlighting how the two authors’ discussion was underway at the same time that the full drama of Europe’s cultural fragmentation was being reflected in the writing of its Constitution. After Migliore, the floor passed to the theologians. Wiegel and Schindler are two figures on the forefront of formative dialogue debating this crisis within the Catholic world, deeply united by the desire to express cultural judgments in light of their faith and their belonging to Catholicism.

Dialogue and society
George Wiegel, Senior Fellow of the “Ethics and Public Politics Center,” an institute established in 1976 to “clarify and strengthen the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate on national and international questions,” addressed some of the great questions filling the book. “What are the roots of a civilization?” “What makes history advance? Is it the economy, politics, or perhaps something inherent in the human spirit?” “What is a civilization? How do we judge it?” Underlining how the European crisis is at once “Christian” and “secular,” he concluded by affirming that the risk of the dictatorship of relativism–“if there is only my truth, and there is your truth, then there is no dialogue, and thus no society”–is a threat that the U.S. must also consider.

Belonging to the truth
David Schindler, Academic Dean and Edouard Cardinal Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and U.S. Editor-in-chief of Communio (the theological journal founded by von Balthasar, de Lubac, and Ratzinger), focused his contribution on some key affirmations. “We belong to the truth even before the truth belongs to us,” and, “The truth is a question of love,” astutely linking the provocation of the book to the essence of Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical.
Schindler also contextualized the foundational question posed by the dialogues between Pera and Ratzinger, concluding with an invitation to serious reflection about the meaning of freedom. “The truth of freedom is love,” he stated. We must ask ourselves whether the freedom pursued, affirmed, and defended by contemporary democracy is this love for the truth, or the mere (and for this reason originally empty) juridical principle of freedom of choice.

Symptoms and remedies
Then it was President Pera’s turn, welcomed very warmly by the highly attentive public. Pera, whose fluent English facilitated his communicative and brilliant contribution, reiterated that the topic discussed by the book–the philosophical, political, historical, and religious crisis that Europe and the West are debating–“is not in and of itself original at all.”
However, the gravity of the situation has never been so dramatically stated because, quoting Ratzinger, “the victory of the technological and secular post-European world, and the universalization of its lifestyle and thought, have made it a common idea that Europe’s values system, culture, and faith–in other words, the real foundation of its identity–have reached the end of their journey, and have in fact already disappeared from the scene.” The Senate President’s three main points covered the symptoms of the crisis, the reason the crisis appears much deeper in Europe than in America, and possible remedies. In asking the three questions, Pera struck everyone by affirming that “since the Pope’s judgment is so authoritative, I will answer the questions with his words, adding mine simply in support of his.”
In brief, here are just two of his points: First of all, without a strong identity, there is no possibility of growth. The separation of Church and State, the pilaster of a civil society, must refer to the institutional dimension, not the human one. Secondly, a decisive role is played by those Ratzinger calls “creative minorities,” true generating forces for civilization.
“I understand that this is a difficult program,” concluded the Senate President, “and it demands great effort, but how can the creative minorities, including an Italian senator, hope for an easy life?”