French vs American Models of Freedom and Religion
The theme of this convention is the relationship between religion and freedom, and the different conceptions of this relationship in the United States and in Europe. Before we begin to examine these differences, it seems opportune to remind ourselves of some important common elements, because it is only within these that the distinctions will find meaning.
Regarding religion, the common and decisive element is that fundamentally we are talking about the same religion, Christianity. Regarding freedom there is at least one decisive element in common: both in the United States and in Europe there has developed what we may call a great "History of Freedom".
In Europe the demand for freedom, in order to affirm itself historically, had to set itself against values and claims which impeded its progress and seemed incompatible with it. Among these were, first of all, the pre-existing ethical, judicial and political structures, as fir as these were understood to be valid prior to, and independently of, any choice of ours, that ultimately led to the truth, to God himself, as the recognised supreme guarantor of these structures.
Therefore, particularly in France, the Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789 assumed an aspect hostile to the Church and also frequently closed to transcendence. The Church in its turn laboured and delayed in distinguishing between anti-Christian motions, which it obviously was obliged to oppose, and claims for social and political freedom, which it could and should have received in a positive way. From this arose, in Latin countries, between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, what the then Cardinal Ratzinger called "a new schism", between Catholics and "laymen", where the very word "lay" assumed a connotation of opposition to religion which it did not previously carry.
Thus there came into being the secular state, which abandons and sets aside the guarantee and the divine legitimization of the political order, and reduces God to a private matter (cf. Marcello Pera Joseph Ratzinger, "Senza radici", Milan, Mondadori, 2004).
Nothing of this sort happened in Protestantism, which from its beginnings saw itself as a movement of emancipation, liberation and purification, and thus had no difficulty in developing a relationship with the Enlightenment, with the risk which has in part become reality of emptying the Christian truth from within and reducing it to a cultural phenomenon rather than faith in the real sense of the word. In any case, for concrete historical reasons, the churches born of the Reformation in Europe were constituted as State churches, drawing close in this respect to the Byzantine and also the Orthodox traditions, where, unlike what happens in Catholic societies, the Empire and the Church appear to be almost identified with one another, and the Emperor is also head of the Church.
Nothing existed in 18th and 19th century Europe which could be compared with the kind of relationship which developed in the United States of America, and which indeed was a determining factor in the formation of North American society. This society was in fact formed to a large extent by groups of Protestants who had fled from the system of State churches that prevailed in Europe, and who formed free communities of believers.
American society is thus founded on free churches, for whom it is essential to be not a State church, but based on a free union of people. In this sense one can say that at the base of American society there is a separation between Church and State, determined, or rather insisted on, by religion: therefore, very differently motivated and structured from the "hostile" separation imposed by the French Revolution and by the State systems that followed it . . .
Two great phenomena which have appeared on the world scene in the last decades are the reawakening of religions and of their public role, and the emergence of great ethical questions which clearly refer not only to the personal and private but also to the public dimension. The reason for this can only be found on the basis of the conception of man to which they refer: in particular the fundamental question of whether man is simply a being of nature, fruit of cosmic and biological evolution, or whether he possesses a transcendental dimension, which cannot be reduced to the physical universe.
At the same time a radical contestation of Christianity has gathered new strength and is developing mainly on two fronts: one concerns Christian morality, conceived, according to the line indicated by Nietzsche, as mortifying man's natural spontaneity and as therefore precluding the joy of living. The other concerns the Christian vision of the world, considered already surpassed by the developments of science and its "rationality" which would tend to confirm almost conclusively the purely "natural" character of man, and would have found in evolution an explanation of the universe complete in itself, which would preclude any reasoned discussion on God . . .
Catholics today are making a notable contribution to keeping alive that civil function of religion which characterizes the history of the United States of America. At the same time however there are strong, influential currents and tendencies in North America which are in favour of a "French" model of laicism, substantially closed and hostile to any public role for religion, and which today are actually aiming at promoting a relativist and naturalist ethic, alien to Christian humanism . . .
In Europe, opposite tendencies are at work, in some way related to the American tradition, which are expressly known for greater efficacy and topicality. Symptomatic of these tendencies is the position adopted by the French President Sarkozy with regard to laicism. Italy represents a special case in this picture, which might not constitute a rearguard position, as is often said, but on the contrary be indicative of developments destined to spread. In Italy, in fact, Catholics and the Church are exercising a vigorous function of civil and public awareness and, what is particularly interesting, they are not doing this alone, but in substantial agreement with many lay people who are worried about the possible loss of European humanism, and are consequently in favour of the public role of Christianity.
The then Cardinal Ratzinger, in the book I have already mentioned, furnished the historical and theological motivation behind this synthesis, maintaining that "the distinction between Catholics and lay people must be relativized, since laymen do not constitute a rigid block, a kind of 'anti-confession' opposed to Catholicism, but are often people who, while not feeling themselves capable of taking the step towards ecclesiastical faith, with all that it entails, are nevertheless passionate seekers of the truth, and suffer for the lack of truth regarding man. Thus, these people take up the essential contents of that culture which is born of faith, and with their diligence render it more luminous than any faith taken for granted and accepted from habit rather than as a result of knowledge gained by suffering.
As in the United States, so in Europe, in order to achieve an efficacious exercise of the public role of Christianity, it is very important that there be a loyal collaboration between the different Christian churches and confessions. Of particular significance and interest in this regard is the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church, which intends to construct a fruitful relationship with the Catholic Church on these very themes. Extending our attention to the international and world scene, the public role of religion would seem to constitute the most favourable and most urgent terrain for interreligious dialogue.
The public importance of religions, in particular Christianity, and their efficacy in promoting dispositions for freedom, are never, in fact, simply cultural, historical or sociological phenomena: they depend above all on the religious quality and vitality of the community of believers. On the one hand these communities must not be closed in on themselves, but open, capable of weaving relationships, of meeting and interpreting the requirements of the societies in which they live, in order to be able to bring to those societies the values they hold.
On the other hand, this requires that religious communities be intimately convinced of their own credo, and fascinated by it, so that they live it consistently with joy: this is the fundamental condition for them to be able to animate the broader society, infusing it with vital energy and a reason for living. I find particularly relevant in this regard the riders proposed by Rémi Brague, in the edition of "Aspenia" dedicated to religion and politics, to the celebrated thesis of Böckenförde according to which the secularized liberal State lives upon presuppositions which it cannot guarantee.
In the current climate, which is characterized not only by a revival of religions but also by a radical attack against Christianity, the comparison between the "French model", according to which religion, and Catholicism in particular, is an obstacle to freedom, and the "American model", which on the other hand sees in Christianity a source and stronghold of freedom, would require us to take into consideration the great question of the truth and validity of Christianity . . .
Christianity is usually represented, and rightly so, as the religion of love, and as the religion of the word (Lògos) of reason and truth. It is far less frequently described as the religion of freedom. Yet already in the Old Testament God reveals himself as the Liberator of the People of Israel, and in the New Testament we read the words of Jesus, "If you live according to my teaching . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn 8:31-32).
The relationship between God and man is, therefore, on both sides, distinguished by freedom. God was completely free in his decision to create the world, liberrimo consilio, as affirmed by the First Vatican Council, while man can believe in God who reveals himself to him, and entrust his life to him, only freely and willingly, as the First Vatican Council and later the Second teach us.
So it is not far-fetched to describe the Christian faith as a religion of freedom, even if in the course of history Christians have not always been faithful to this original inspiration of their Creed. To refuse to allow the cause of freedom and the cause of Christianity to be separated is thus a real and essential imperative both for the present and for the future.
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