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Marcello Pera on Church and Politics in the Pandemic

Post-Coronavirus Working Panel

The supermarket of rights, the silence of the Church, the death of the European Union, and the Chinese model

All-round interview with prof. Marcello Pera


[The interview is published simultaneously on and]


For more than two months, we all have been involved in a crisis that has become increasingly systemic. Capable of dissolving many decades of illusions, it also reveals the spiritual disease profoundly corroding realities that otherwise seemed solid such as the EU, the State, Italian democracy, our formerly Christian civilization in its mass culture and underlying ideology, as well as the Catholic Church itself.

In our quarantined Italy, new illusions have arisen to fill the space left by vanished ones. However, the new, ephemeral illusions will likely also vanish as the economic crisis that will follow the health crisis makes its grip felt.

So, we need to understand the cultural-spiritual crisis of a civilization that preceded its health and socio-economic woes to make a proper analysis of the post-crisis period, how to overcome it, and how to rebuild.

That is why our Observatory has established, working from Archbishop Crepaldi’s document, a Working Panel on the coronavirus aftermath to consider a Catholic response to the crisis based on the philosophical-theological heritage of the social doctrine of the Church.

We talked about it with Professor Marcello Pera, an illustrious philosopher, former professor of Philosophy at the University of Pisa. One of the most authoritative thinkers of Italian free-enterprise conservatism, he was a senator during four legislative sessions and President of the Senate from 2001 to 2006. A lay intellectual most attuned to Catholic Tradition, he established a philosophical dialogue with Pope Benedict XVI that has been recorded in publications and continues to this day.


Professor, Archbishop Crepaldi spoke of an EU that “died from coronavirus.” Instead, you backdated its death, considering the virus only as a manifestation of it. Who killed the EU? What did it die from, and when?

I believe that in substance, we agree. Without the coronavirus, there would have been no EU death certificate. It showed that the Union is not a federation–as it is known. But neither is it a community because it does not take on the difficulties that affect its members, particularly a few of them. Instead, it has become patent that some states hegemonically dictate the rules to others exactly as happened with Greece, only this time, the event was less bloody. I also note that it was precisely the pro-Europeans, those who always wear the medal of honor on their chests and pat themselves on the shoulders with self-satisfaction, who broke the toy. At best, they have transformed the Union into a bank, an insurance company, an institution that lends money and everyone chokes when they have to pay it back. Having never put its identity and its destiny at stake, Europe melted away at its first serious and dramatic test. It is made up of a jumble of states that stand together when it suits them but are mostly opposed to each other on the coronavirus today, as they were yesterday on Islam and immigration.

The problem is, therefore, the very identity of Europe (over and above the EU), whether or not it recognizes itself as a Christian Civilization and is therefore capable of otherness vis-a-vis the Islamic Umma and Eastern civilizations. Is Europe still a Christian Civilization? Is not the self-consciousness that prevails in its culture one of emancipation from Christianity and liberation from its Christian historical identity toward a universalism that tends to be a-historical, stateless, and agnostic?

No. Europe is no longer Christian or less and less so. It is not conscious of having been baptized and considers the Christian religion an obstacle to progress. It claims to believe in “rights,” but she cannot explain where they came from. Secondly, when it discovers that some rights are uncomfortable or clash with other rights, it merely ignores them. The right to life does not preempt abortion. The right to start a family and have children? It doesn’t apply to homosexual couples. The right to dignity? It doesn’t apply to euthanasia. And so on. We are a supermarket where everyone chooses what they like and reads the label of origin. If he chances to find a product “made in Christendom,” he discards it as it lacks a seal of guarantee.

Do you think it is correct to say that the EU, rather than an artificial betrayal of Europe, is a consistent and extreme institutional expression of Europe as conceived by post-Christian culture? Is the EU crisis really a crisis of post-Christian Europe?

Yes, that’s right. It is not a deliberate design but rather an almost automatic, inertial development. Beginning in the seventeenth century and even more so in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment, Europe faced a great split between knowledge and faith, science, morality, politics and religion. This event, in my view even more traumatic than the Protestant reform, has never been absorbed. At best, knowledge and faith went on two parallel tracks, ignoring each other; at worst, they opposed each other. “Post-Christian” means that our culture is independent of Christianity. Even when it does not deny Christianity, our culture denies its moral, political, cultural, and salvific function. That is what secularism, the official culture of the European Union, says today, and therefore, the secularized European Union disregards its roots.


If the crisis is spiritual, the answer can only be on that level. What response should one give to the death of the EU and the pathology of Europe? Are we to surrender to inevitable mourning, or is it still reasonable to work for the Christian civilization of Europe?

If the crisis is spiritual — and it is –, then institutions are not enough to solve it. We need a new culture. Here I would like to repeat what I have said so many times. Christianity is not only faith in God incarnate, crucified, and risen. It is also the culture of the centrality of the person, which reveals its nature as a creature. True, one thing is coupled with the other, but they are distinct. If this distinction is made, even a secular person who does not have faith and does not belong to the Church of God may become an ally to affirm Christianity on the cultural level.


This pandemic has also eclipsed the public presence of the Church. For the first time in two thousand years, Easter has been celebrated without the people, Holy Masses have been forbidden to the faithful for two months, there are no weddings, First Communions, baptisms and confirmations. Even the dead are buried without a funeral. All in silence, we have renounced everything, even funerals for our dead, without raising our voices, without moaning. How do you read this silence of the Church?

Bitterly. I read it as an effect of the secularization of the Church. If the latter looks only at its historical, temporal dimension, then closing a church is like closing a theater, gathering in a church is like gathering in a cinema, going to Mass is like attending a rally. You lose the spiritual dimension, the Body of Christ. At a mass, baptism, or funeral, the faithful know there is a risk of contagion but also know how to calculate it, reduce it, and avoid it. If for their “own good” decisions of the ecclesiastical sphere are transferred to the State, the latter reduces the Church to its merely public institutional dimension, and the Church adapts itself to it.

I was struck by so much silence and saddened by so much zeal to comply with the safety and precautionary measures that the government set. Unfortunately, the example came from above. President Conte must have been very surprised. He believed he was authorized to treat the Church like any other secular body but found himself contradicted and strongly criticized. “How come?! – I suppose he told his senior Vatican contacts – were we not in agreement?” Indeed they were, but the pushback by the faithful was too strong, and they corrected the mistake — or so I hope.

The theology of history is inscribed in the Divine Revelation found in the Old and New Testaments. Just consider the powerful, universal fresco that constitutes, in the Apocalypse of John, God’s gaze on the history of the world with its eschatological outcome. The Church responded to the crumbling of the Roman Empire with Augustine’s De Civitate Dei. Then, throughout the centuries, history and meta-history, time and eschatology constituted a happy dialectic to read events in the light of Revelation. Today, the Church or its Pastors appear almost embarrassed to read events on a key that transcends the mundane order, illuminating events with the light of Divine Revelation, and bringing the hermeneutics of facts to the theological terrain. By self-censoring its function of making God present in the world and presenting His voice and His view of things, is the Church not condemning itself to uselessness? Is manifesting God to the world not precisely the Church’s specific contribution to the common good?

I’m afraid something irreparable has happened in a short time. The Church has gone out to meet modernity, has flirted with the spirit of the times, and presented itself as modern. This event is traumatic because it means passing from the dimension of eschatological salvation to that of ideology and freedom. What else does an ideologized Church that deals with social justice, human rights and civil progress have to say? It becomes a secular voice among other secular voices and goes in tow of secularism. Ecology is the most emblematic example: saving the planet or the Amazon is not the same as saving souls. What is more, trying to save the planet by insisting on the intrinsic goodness of nature or its balance upset by man is tantamount to professing an ideology, which, furthermore, is false from the Christian point of view. In Christian theology, not only man is fallen, but the earth as well. It is no longer Eden. It no longer only bears good fruit but also produces poisons such as coronavirus. The fallen earth is as much a friend as it is an enemy of man. Mythifying it as a good mother who feeds her children is a form of paganism.

The toughest crisis, as we said, will be the socio-economic one with its inevitable political-institutional repercussions. Also on this ground, the real issue is first cultural-spiritual-ideological: the idea of man and society, res publica and law, labor, and social relations. We have seen, for example, a growing admiration (and a certain emulation, at least in intention) for the Chinese model. A totalitarianism that uses new technologies (especially artificial intelligence) for a capillary control of the population and centralized state management of social and economic life. Is all this not disturbing? How to read this convergence between a certain Western radical-progressivism (unfortunately even among Catholics) and Chinese socialism?

Yes, the phenomenon is disturbing. Thanks to a combination of technological power and political dictatorship, China is set to conquer the world, and certainly hegemony over America as well. I fear this story will end badly because it will end in a war that will also involve Europe even if at first it tries to play the role of a neutral spectator. War fears aside, it seems to me that there is a serious political error in our attitude toward China, especially on the part of Italy. A friendly relationship is seen as an alliance. You can’t just say that Trump doesn’t like me or help me as I would like, and so I will change my geopolitical position. The western world is a civilization; China is another. Unless you make a partisan ideological choice for communism against democracy, you cannot treat America as a fungible subject. We are America too.

We have also seen, particularly in Italian politics, a tendency to abdicate responsibility to choices of so-called experts, in this case, virologists. There is vast media coverage of managerial and decision-making technicians who, in the name of “science,” override political authority (especially Parliament).  Always in the name of “science,” we then created technical-governmental bodies to control information (under the pretext of eliminating fake news). How is such a regression in Italian political culture possible? How is it possible to have such a rough idea of science?

I will be less strict about experts. When they really are experts and we need their opinion, they are useful as long as we know how and what to ask them. It should not be “what do you think?” because the last word, the decision, is up to those who have a political responsibility. I am not sure this has always been the way the President Conte deals with experts. His latest decree smacks of hide-and-seek. The agency against “fake news” is even worse. A government-run anti-fake news control agency is itself a generator of fake news. Its philosophy is half-way between absolutism and paternalism: It is the government, and not public opinion, that decides the truth and gives it to the people, who are unable to discover it for themselves. I often wonder what Conte’s culture is. I don’t see it as rather freedom-oriented.


To rebuild Italy and Europe after this epochal crisis, we must first think about what we want to rebuild and how to go about it. Do we risk finding ourselves in a Chinese-model Europe? It might not be under the power of a single party, but with a hypertrophied State controlling socio-economic life and using technology to control its citizens (tracking movements, banking operations, purchases, and opinions expressed on the web). It would be the welfare State much dreamed-of by social democrats but always condemned by the Magisterium of the Church.

That is Orwell’s State. We must avoid it. I don’t see as promising the fact that a majority of Italians, hardly knowing what it is about, favor the app that tracks them down and warns them [about coronavirus exposure]. They seem to be willing to sacrifice a whole lot for fearing health risks — the right climate to slide into an absolutist or totalitarian State.


The Social Doctrine of the Church runs entirely counter to this. It affirms the spiritual nature of the free and rational human person, the organic character of man’s social life (family, intermediate bodies, political community), with economic activity respecting the system of free enterprise and initiative, welfare entrusted to the sociality of intermediate bodies, education as a right and duty of parents, subsidiary conception of the State, recognition of a natural legal order binding also on the State, the spiritual value of human work, private property as a natural right, public role of religion, etc. What prevents Italy and Europe from being rebuilt according to the principles of the Church Social Doctrine? What forces could benefit from the Church Social Doctrine for their political and cultural activities?

Look, at the end of the day, I am and remain a layman. Don’t make me base the State on a specific doctrine, especially if it is as detailed as the Social Doctrine of the Church. Christianity is important in my life for certain principles of salvation, and I believe I would impoverish it if I reduced it to a few political formulas that I greatly appreciate. That is why I disagree with churchmen on the question of basic human rights. That whole Mass of rights we have today cannot be based solely on the Gospel; it is often contingent politics. Just consider the right to democracy. I have read about theologians who argue that there may exist a moral doctrine of the Church, but I doubt there is a political doctrine. On this subject, I am indebted to my old and dear Augustine, so distrustful and even hostile to the idea that politics has a pedagogical and even less salvific function. At different times, the same Christian principle can found different institutes. It is better not to make casuistry.


Source: Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân 


Translated by the staff of Fatima Today.

© Reproduction is authorized provided the source is acknowledged.


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