Starting over with courage and faith

OP Meeting – Bologna – September 18, 2021

S.E. Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi


I would like to begin sharing these personal thoughts by taking my cue from the words of the title proposed for us: “Starting over with courage and faith”. In the situation we have all lived, and are still experiencing, the expression “start over” has been used from practically all sides and in a myriad of senses. Often it has become a sort of magic word, while also abused at the same time, with which to hide at least a part of reality so that any “starting afresh” takes place in a sense useful to those who proclaim it. We have heard many appeals to start anew and have not always recognized them as instrumental in one sense or another. In this conversation, I do not mean “starting over” in the ways so fashionable nowadays, and which are – I repeat – tendentious and self-interested. How, then, should we understand this term?

Coming immediately to my assistance are the two other words in the title: courage and faith. Courage is a virtue. Plato, in the Republic, defines it as follows: “I believe we call each individual courageous when his soul succeeds in safeguarding, in pain and in pleasure, the precepts that reason gives him about what is or is not to be feared” [Resp., IV, 442 b-c]. Here Plato tells us that courage, like every virtue, is connected with reason, more precisely with practical reason, which is, however, an “extension” of theoretical reason. St. Thomas asserts that “virtue is that disposition which makes good the man who possesses it and the act he performs” [S. Th., II-II, q. 123, a 1; cf. S. Th., II-II, q. 47, a 4], and specifies that “good and bad are expressed with regard to reason” [S. Th., I-II, q. 18, a. 5, resp.] Therefore, the first lever to start from is the use of reason, to which the virtue of courage refers. The title of this conversation indicates this to us, and I fully agree with this suggestion.

Reason, however, often does not succeed all on its own. It has a strong inner drive because every man naturally seeks “to know”, as Aristotle said in the very first lines of his Metaphysics, but it also entails effort, as Heraclitus taught in the 5th century B.C. since – as he said – “truth loves to conceal itself”. One of the great teachings of Benedict XVI was that reason needs faith, not in order to become something other than itself, but to be reason in full, to become itself in full.  This principle is shared by all those who admit the possibility of a “Christian philosophy”. This is because the (Christian) faith, in its turn, “is not based on poetry and politics, those two great sources of religion; it is based on knowledge … In Christianity, rationality has become religion” [J. Ratzinger, Fede verità tolleranza, Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo, Cantagalli, Siena 2003, p. 178]. This is why “starting over” must be based on faith, besides being based on reason. During the pandemic, we have seen reason present arguments of faith and faith present arguments of reason, whether true or presumed as they may have been: this is not the way to do it. Each must remain what it is, but in reciprocal collaboration, as Caritas in Veritate says in one of its famous passages echoing other analogous positions expressed by Benedict XVI.

I have taken the words of the title because it is precisely along these lines of virtue, reason and faith that I intend to share my thoughts on “starting over”.

Starting over  from conscience

Any “starting over” must first of all be based on conscience. As Veritatis Splendor says, conscience is “an act of a person’s intelligence, whose task it is to apply universal knowledge of what is good in a given situation and thus to express a judgment about the right conduct to be chosen here and now” (n. 33). We must realistically ask ourselves whether in the current political and health-care situation we have really been concerned about nourishing the judgment of personal conscience. I do not intend to voice any partisan evaluations here, but I feel I must acknowledge that much has been done to prevent consciences from making responsible judgments, from attempts at surreptitious persuasion to the distortion of basic information. Decisions have often been dictated by imitation, indirect obligation or haste, on the word of one or another expert, relying on one or another of the narratives circulating within a sea of confused and contradictory information in which conscience has often been shipwrecked. In this regard, I must add  that even the Catholic Church could perhaps have done more to provide the tools for personal reasoning according to truth and freedom, reasoning capable of engaging in an orderly examination of what is at stake at the different levels. Consciences have been bombarded far too much by so many slogans, and have been literally propelled to evaluate things in haste in order to speed everything up, but actually making things take longer because of this haste.

Implicit in what I am emphasizing is a long-term projection, even after the end of the pandemic, assuming it can end… When the conscience falls asleep, when we get used to solving complicated issues without too much effort, when we clash among ourselves not with arguments but on the basis of positions assumed “by hearsay” or “partisanship”, the damages are destined to cause repercussions for a long time, because similar attitudes will continue to hold true in other realms of social life, weakening any motivations.

In his famous book “Il potere” (Power) of 1951, Romano Guardini highlighted the danger of power being separated from responsibility: “The progressive centralized statehood of social, economic, technical,  and, we might add, health  facts, together with materialistic theories that conceive of history as a necessary process, signify an attempt to abolish the character of accepted responsibility, to separate power from the person” [Il Potere, 1951, Morcelliana, Brescia 1993, p. 121]. Guardini, in that same work, warns against a danger that we are also experiencing today, namely that of “anonymous” power”: “It may even happen that behind it – that is, power – there is no will to which one can turn, no person who answers, but only an anonymous organization” [Ibid, p. 122], and it seems that action passes through people as if they were mere links in a chain.

These notes on consciousness have an enormous impact on another fundamental dimension of “starting over” which I don’t have time to go into here: education and schools have suffered a great vulnus in this period, and it is not to be excluded that any “starting over” effort will also take place with important changes in how education and schooling are provided and practiced: these may go along the pathway of further centralization and planning, or go the way of a greater assumption of educational responsibility by families and civil society.

Starting over from reason

The remarks made about conscience tell us that the starting over will have to foresee conscience regaining possession of its own reasons, claiming its own methods and contents of reason, and rediscovering reason in its fullness.

Now, rediscovering reason in all its fullness means to return to its analogical structure, to know it has different levels, and not to confuse them, to apply them all in a synergistic way but each in its own place. During the pandemic, this has often not been the case. Let’s look, for example,  at the role played by science and experts, doing so – I repeat – without taking sides with one or another position. It will be quite easy to see that scientific reason has not been used for what it is, that is, in its successes and limits. In some cases science has been exalted, going far beyond the wise humility of many scientists well aware of its hypothetical character which implies that its conclusions and indications are relative and never absolute. In other cases it has been debased and accused of complicity with the political power apparatus, which – it must be recognized – has used it just as often for its own purposes, hiding behind the expression “science says so”. But what science really says has remained on the whole rather obscure. Nevertheless, it has greatly influenced personal decisions, and scientific judgment has immediately become ethical judgment for many people.

The empirical level of data collection, the scientific level aimed at providing information about the scientific content of potential options, the ethical level of moral evaluation in view of both personal and interpersonal good, the political level aimed at considering the whole of the political community in order to act in view of the common good without reductionism to partisan logic, be it that of pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneurs, or trade unions, etc. . . . .are all distinct levels, while at the same time  connected with one another. It is always reason that operates within them, but by analogy. Any “starting over” endeavor will have to refocus attention on these distinctions of spheres, and, at the same time, forms of collaboration, so that each stakeholder will do its own part, and that in the exercise of special reasons, reason as such gets the better of fear, which is always an unreliable counselor and a facile instrument of control, improvised and groundless trust, haste or necessity.

Starting afresh from Faith

Lastly, I will touch on the theme of faith in relation to starting anew.  In my view, the task of faith – I am speaking here of the Catholic faith and not a generic religious faith – is to support, fortify, and be of assistance for everything I have said so far: conscience, education, the correct use of reason at its various levels, the politics of the true common good. Since the Church is the “Bride of the Logos,” she cannot tolerate illogical reasoning, absurdity, contradictions, confusion of plans, ideological arrogance and the action of “anonymous” forces. All this, however, it must do without ever reducing the issue at stake to those very levels it intends to help and never bending itself to those levels. If it did so, it would forego its task of “saving” them, even with regard to their natural ends. Faith sees everything from the perspective of perdition and salvation, evaluates even misfortunes in the light of divine providence, and proposes faith in almighty God, who normally works through secondary causes but can also intervene, as in miracles, – despite the perplexity in this regard on the part of  much of contemporary theology – by interrupting the succession of natural causality, reads the events of history through a theology of history and always invites people to conversion and repentance. The Church never confuses health, in the sanitary sense of the term, with salvation.

The Church will not help the community to overcome the challenge of “health” by becoming a “health care” agency, but by proposing “salvation”, which descends from the heights of the life of grace also downwards to enrich social reality. Now – and with these words I will end my speech – there is an instrument which is particularly suited to this end, this being the Social Doctrine of the Church, an indispensible instrument for this “starting anew”.

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Mons. Giampaolo Crepaldi

Vescovo Emerito di Trieste