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Why We Should Call Ourselves Christian Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Thursday, 24 November 2011

The editors and writers of
The Catholic Thing would like to wish all our supporters and friends a very Happy Thanksgiving, and would especially like to recall that this day is not solely about food, friends, and America – but about the One who has given us every good gift.

Europe’s effort to integrate itself around an economic instrument, a common currency, rather than around a belief or an idea, appears to be imploding. Political dysfunction and cultural distraction are the order of the day in the United States.   Both sides of the Atlantic seem adrift, lurching from one short-term reaction to another in the face of baffling events. What’s going on? 

Marcello Pera, a philosopher and former president of the Italian Senate, helps us understand the longer view behind these complexities in his new book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christian: The Religious Roots of Free Societies. Pera describes himself as a non-believer, so his book may surprise some readers. More surprising still may be the book’s extraordinary Foreword by none other than Pope Benedict XVI, who characterizes this work as “of great significance at this moment in the history of Europe and the world.” 

Benedict, who collaborated with Pera on an earlier volume, Without Roots, before becoming pope, writes of his hope that this book “will be helpful in giving the political debate on transitory questions that depth without which we cannot hope to overcome the challenges of our particular historical moment.” Pera does precisely that.

Pera is by trade a philosopher of science, and in addition to his senatorial duties he now teaches at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He begins with a short lesson on vocabulary, distinguishing between “liberalism” as it is understood in the contemporary American context – leftist, large government-oriented – and in Europe where it means almost the opposite – supporting free markets, cherishing individual liberty, viewing a large state as an adversary. Pera is himself liberal in the latter sense, the sense understood by the American founders. 

He also distinguishes between two meanings of the word “secular.” The traditional sense was fully compatible with, indeed dependent on, Christian teaching. That secularism recognizes the rightful “division between Caesar and God, throne and altar, the City of Man and the City of God.” But today’s radical secularism “views religion as an obstacle to coexistence, science, technology, progress, and human well-being.” 

Pera compares the dangers of the current moment to those of the Nazi era in Europe:

From the viewpoint of both Judaism and Christianity man is created in God’s image and likeness. In my opinion, this is the religious source of the concepts of personhood and human dignity, the foundation of the liberal view that man has primacy over society and the state, and the basis for the doctrine of natural, fundamental, individual rights. It is not by chance that when Nazi Europe turned anti-Christian, it also became anti-Semitic. The fact that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, turned anti-Semitic many times over the centuries cannot hide the fact that the two faiths are, or may be considered, twin brothers with respect to the conceptual foundations of liberalism.

The book is structured around three fundamental questions that give titles to its chapters:  Liberalism, the Secular Equation, and the Question of Christianity; Europe, Christianity, and the Question of Identity; and Relativism, Fundamentalism, and the Question of Morals. In all three cases, Pera describes the disastrous consequences of failing to understand the Judeo-Christian basis of the proper, traditionally Western, answers to these questions.

         Marcello Pera (r.) and a friend

Some will object that this consequentialist approach misses the heart of faith. But Pera is alert to the dangers of “an ethics of consequences” (as well as the weaknesses of “civil religion”), and he is clear that it is Judeo-Christian principles, prudentially applied in practical situations, that move him. Moreover, his project is to help a broad audience – not just philosophers and theologians, and not just believers – understand our current condition. It’s no wonder that the pope sees this as such a valuable service. 

If the kind of understanding that this book promotes were to spread, one could imagine a slow walk towards a society where Christian principles are re-embraced and where, as Josef Pieper once wrote, we might “point to a reawakening of the sense of worship” and divinely-inspired public life – festival and celebration – that is at the core of what Western culture once was.

Interestingly, Pera notes the particular problem that “people turn today to the ‘experts’ as they once did to fortune-tellers, our blind trust verging on credulity. They are the consultants, confessors, masters, guides, and apostles of humanity who have come to replace parents, priests, philosophers. Today we are in precisely the situation of having someone decide for us on all important issues.” He echoes here the warning of President Dwight Eisenhower, who in his famous farewell speech warned not just of a powerful military-industrial complex but, in the rarely cited other half of that talk, worried about our turning governance over to a scientific-technical elite that would threaten authentic self-rule.

Pera leaves open the question of how we are to move forward to Western societies that grasp their Judeo-Christian sources. But he knows well that the author of his Foreword has the plan, in the new evangelization that Benedict and John Paul II have called for. That program may not seem to answer the questions that rattle the markets and occupy talk shows. But it is the only plan based on real hope and on the truths of our history. Marcello Pera’s book is essential reading for all – priests, laity, philosophers of the classroom and the kitchen table – who want to understand how we got to where we are, and what is needed to recover our moorings.

Joseph R. Wood is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., November 24, 2011
So Dr. Pera indentifies himself as a non-believer. I take that to mean that he is an athiest, or at best an agnostic. If the the cosmos, along with the pehnonenon of human consciouness, just exists rather than being the result of an act of Creation by God it has no ultimate meaning and the deeds of humans are almost without meaning of ultimate consequence. Unless people believe in God and the eternity, they will contue to make gods of themselves re-create the horrors brought about by the antiChristians idologies of the 20th Century. Per's love sentimental attraction for chrsitian civizlization is touching, but absent real Faith it is not likely to move anyone. We can only hope that His Holiness is using thier collaboration to bring him back to the Faith and that Per's connection witha Catholic institute of higher learning will benefir him rather than contaminate his students. Sadly, the latter consequnece seems to be the more common of the two.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 24, 2011
A fascinating detail of the foundation of the EU was that its main architects were all Catholics from marginal German-speaking areas: Adenauer (Rhineland), Schumann (Alsace), De Gasperi (Trentino Alto Adige). De Gasperi actually sat in the Vienna parliament pre-1914
written by Dave, November 24, 2011
In a time when so many anticipate some kind of apocalyptic disaster, or worse, hope for it, it is very helpful indeed to see a secular philosopher grasp that the solutions to our current malaise lie in a return to the principles that created Western civilization. Thank you, Mr. Wood, for bringing to our attention such important work -- in additions to the many homely blessings for which we give thanks today, your article is a real motive of hope. Best wishes to all.
written by Grump, November 24, 2011
As a fellow non-believer who nonetheless continues to search for meaning in life, I look forward to reading Pera's book. Perhaps Benedict sees him as a prodigal son, like me, longing to return to the faith I once embraced.
written by Br. Timothy, November 25, 2011
Dear Grump,
Do take heart! "Those who seek, find; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened!"
written by Juan Carlos Siegel, December 01, 2011
An unregenerated heart cannot seek God. By itself is enemy to the things of God. In the sixth chapter of the book of Saint John, John quotes our Lord in the following, "43 Jesus answered and said to them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. " This tells us that our fellow Grump cannot seek, or find, or knock unless our Father in heaven draws him to the Son. Only a regenerated heart seeks, finds and knocks at the door.

Saint Matthew tells us in the seventh chapter of the book named after him, 7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!"

Now with its full context, fellow Br. Timothy, one can see that it is indeed the Father who gives to His children. Thus, a child we must first be.

Soli Deo Gloria

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