Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


After this methodological premise I pass to the fundamental question of what is the cultural identity of Catholicism. On this issue two recent works have been published that are close and yet very far from one another, the Catholic Imagination by the American sociologist Andrew Greeley , and my own On Catholic Feeling. The Cultural Form of an Universal Religion (Del sentire cattolico. La forma culturale di una religione universale).
What brings together both books is, first of all, the strong emphasis on the aesthetic character of Catholicism and the putting aside of dogmatic and didactic aspects. For Greeley ”Catholics live in an enchanted world”. The rituals, the arts, music, architecture, prayers, the stories, create an aesthetic climate that is an essential part of Catholic imagination and confer a metaphoric character to it. ”The Catholic imagination loves metaphors; Catholicism is a verdant rainforest of metaphors”. This aesthetic character is unfortunately misunderstood by scholastic, moralistic and dogmatic Catholicism. But as the great philosopher Whitehead put it: ”Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in dogma”. The aesthetic dimension is what differentiates Catholicism from Protestantism which has always been very suspicious with respect to the metaphorical imagination. The protestant imagination distrusts metaphors; it tends to be a desert of metaphors. Catholicism stresses the `like` of any comparison (human passion is like divine passion), while Protestantism, when it is willing to use metaphors (and it must if it is to talk about God at all) stresses the unlike”. Greeley`s book is full of examples of this enthusiastic and vehement passion for the arts, not only taken from Catholic writers of the past (Bernini, Mozart, Joyce and Eliot) but also from today`s film directors as Martin Scorsese. In this sense the Catholic imagination is something more broad than a profession of faith. It has a cultural meaning that concerns very general forms of feeling and thought that have to do with people that are not even aware of them. Greeley defines them as ”cultural Catholics”.
My book too is characterized by putting aside moralistic and dogmatic aspects as these are not the essential characteristics of Catholicism. What I proposes is precisely ”a Catholicism without orthodoxy” and ”a faith without dogma” that has its fulcrum not in a subjective profession of faith, but in a mentality that persists in its fundamentally equal lines even when it does not present itself in a confessional aspect. To account for a religion in its cultural aspect rather than in its fideistic aspect is something obvious for Protestantism. In fact, in its history it has had many cultural developments. Modern philosophy is in large part influenced by Protestantism (Kant, Hegel, Kiekegaard, hermeneutics, dialectical theology, the problematic of difference). The same cannot be said of Catholicism that with the centuries has become hardened into an always more rigid dogmatic orthodoxy. The aesthetic aspect has been hidden by an intrusive and authoritarian clericalism. If Catholic feeling has been able to survive the ideological deluge that has drowned the Church ever since the Restoration we owe it especially to writers, to theater and movie people, to musicians, in short to artists, those who have been able to manifest and pass on freely an experience focused on suspension and ritual without remaining trapped in orthodoxy and orthopraxis. Hence the paradox that Catholic feeling has developed in an extraneous and independent manner from the Catholic Church which, in order to react to the climate of cultural hostility created by Enlightenment and Positivism, has been forced to close itself in a dogmatic and ideological asphyxiating shell. Because of this ecclesiastical closure, writers and artists of Catholic feeling have almost never been aware of their relation with essence, least of all with the cultural heritage of Catholicism which, as a result, was removed and completely hidden as much by clerical arrogance as by artistic rebelliousness. Writers and artists of Catholic feeling have been in large part nonconfessional and nonorganic. After all, in an era characterized by the triumph of vitalism and subjectivism, an institutional feeling as the Catholic one, could have only been preserved by a total independence and autonomy with respect to the spiritualistic and communitarian ideologies embraced by the Church.
That is why, in my book, I give great importance to the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Bathasar, author of a monumental work, Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Aesthetik, in which the center of Catholic feeling is placed within a vast and comprehensive aesthetic experience that integrates within itself all aspects of living, thinking and action. The work of Balthasar constitutes a vigorous affirmation of the aesthetic character of Catholicism. The subtitle of his work is very important: A theological Aesthetics and not An aesthetic Theology since it makes explicit the idea that God reveals himself not simply as truth or goodness, but as beauty. Consequently, Christianity is not simply a collection of true dogmas or a way of life, but the response to a vision that inspires and deeply influences one`s way of life.
The second aspect that Greeley`s book and mine have in common is in considering the experience of the world as an essential aspect of Catholicism. Catholicism, for Greeley, tends ”to emphasize the presence of God in the world, while the classic works of Protestant theologians tend to emphasize the absence of God from the world. The Catholic writers stress the nearness of God to his creation, the Protestant writers the distance between God and his creation; the Protestants tend to emphasize the risk of superstition and idolatry, the Catholics the dangers of a creation in which God is only marginally present. Or, to put the matter in different terms, Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God”. Greeley maintains very effectively that in Catholic sensibility ”God lurks in aroused human love and reveals Himself to us through it”. He confers great importance to the verb ”to lurk” in the sense of ”to linger furtively”. ”God leaves all kinds of hints of His presence”.
According to Greeley, this ”worldly” character of Catholicism is manifested under many aspects and is connected with the sacramental character of Catholic theology. As you know, the churches that issue from sixteenth-century Reformation generally limit the term `sacrament` to the two principal Christian rites: baptism and the Lord`s Supper (Eucharist). On the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church has recognized seven rites as sacraments in the full sense of the word. The fact that even marriage is considered a sacrament is very significant. On the basis of his sociological data, Greeley claims that ”Catholics have sex more often, they are more playful in their sexual encounters, and they enjoy sex more”. Many works of art, of which Bernini`s St Theresa is the most explicit, show that sexual desire is viewed by Catholicism as a ”sacred desire”. ”Erotic desire is a part of human life and an important part at that. Like all powerful human energies, it can turn demonic, but it is not evil in itself”.
Another aspect of the worldliness of Catholicism is for Greeley its social sense: ”Catholics tend to communalism in their ethical concerns, Protestants to individualism”. ”Catholics tend to picture society as supportive and not oppressive, while Protestants tend to picture society as oppressive and not supportive`. As a result, they tend to attribute great importance to organization: ”The Church is not a chaotic mass of independent individuals but an ordered community in which diversity pervades both leadership and membership”. In my book too the notion of ”world” plays an important role. Catholicism and, in particular, that of the sixteenth century is, in my view, the secularized religion par excellence because it placed at the center of its concerns a reflection on the world and its dynamics. That is why I attribute to the historian and political man Francesco Guicciardini and to Ignatius of Loyola a very important role in the elaboration of Catholic feeling. Even though they are very different men, they both payed the greatest attention to an examination of the historical process and its human events. Secularization, however, does not imply a declining religion. In Guicciardini`s and Ignatius of Loyola`s mode of feeling it is precisely worldly events to excite wonder and astonishment. One could sum up this sensibility in a single phrase: ”Nothing disappoints me. The world has bewitched me”.
In other words the choice of world does not imply the adoption of a technical programming mentality. ”World” is the place of ”difference” that the Protestant mentality tends to attribute to God. Loyola`s Spiritual Exercises and Guicciardini`s Ricordi point to a method to find one`s own way in the world. The fundamental condition is leaving aside one`s subjective affections and knowing how to combine a realistic vision of life with a hope without superstition. Loyola was called a ”contemplative in action”. The expression points very well to the type of spirituality that he inaugurated. In it the accent is not placed so much on God as on ”God`s will”, on history and on the world.
Greeley`s book and mine have in common these two points: Catholicism as aesthetic religion and as religion of the world. Now I would like to consider some questions that remain open. The first concerns the relation between Christianity and the religions of the world. This issue has become central to theology as a result of missionary activities. The Jesuits were the first to focus on the problem with seventy-three volumes of their Relationes, from 1610 to 1791. There is a discrepancy between Catholicism`s universal pretensions and its roots in the West. The missionaries that refused to be agents of colonialism looked for common aspects between Christianity and the religions of the people they visited. The greatest effort in this direction was undertaken by Jesuits in China. In their attempt to adjust Christianity to the Chinese mentality they went so far as to conceal Christ`s disgraceful death on the Cross. As we known, this process of adaptation to the Chinese mentality led in the eighteenth century to the controversial ”Chinese rituals” that became one of the reasons for the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773. In the last thirty years the problem has become topical again with both Protestants and Catholics. The former speak mostly of contextualization , the latter of inculturation. These different names, however, refer to the same problem which is the necessity of finding points in common between Christianity and local cultures. Now, according to Greeley, Catholicism is more suitable than Protestantism to this dialogue with nonWestern cultures. In fact, ”[Catholicism] has never been afraid (at least not in principle) of `contaminating` the purity of spirit with sensible and often sensual imagery [...] All the other religions and quasi religions (like Platonism) have abhorred the practices and images of nature religions as defilement of spirit. Catholicism, in its better moments, feels instinctively that nature does not defile spirit, but reveals it. Hence Catholicism (again, in its better moments) has not hesitated to make its own the practices, customs, and devotions of nature religions wherever it has encountered them - never more systematically thoroughly , or creatively than in Ireland”. On the contrary Protestantism has always feared the danger of sorcery and paganism. ”In one sense, the Reformation was a protest of a segment of the clerical elite and the newly emerging middle class against the continuation of paganism at the time when the Dark Ages had been definitively left behind”. Published in ”Paragrana”(Berlin), BandVIE 2003, Heft 1 und 2
Copyright©MarioPerniola, 2003
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