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‘The Church dies and resurrects again’ - Rocco Buttiglione on Pope Francis, the decline of Europe, and the future of the Church

Rocco Buttiglione is a political science professor at Saint Pius V University in Rome, as well as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. 

Rocco Buttiglione. Credit: Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


He has served as a Minister for European Affairs and as the vice president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. He is also the author of the 1997 book: “Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II.” 

In a recent interview with the Croatian magazine Bitno, Buttiglione discussed both the points of continuity and the differences in emphasis between the thought of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. He also discussed the decline of faith and culture of Europe, but why he doesn’t lose hope, even when it seems as though the Church is dying.

The interview is reprinted here with permission. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Mr. Buttiglione, in March we marked the 10th anniversary of the election of Jorge Bergoglio as pope. What novelty do you think he has brought to the Church?

The first novelty is that he is the first pope who is not a European. This is something meaningful and worth reflecting on. I remember when John Paul II was elected, he went to Warsaw and he said: We can't avoid asking the question of why the Holy Spirit decided that we have a Polish pope in this period of human history, after so many years of consolidated tradition in this area. Does it perhaps mean that there is something in the history of the Church in Poland that is precious for the universal Church? Do we have to go along the path of pilgrimages to Jasna Gora and to other places of Polish popular devotion in order to hear and listen to the voice of the Spirit? Does it perhaps mean that Polish people now have a particular responsibility in front of the Church?

We know what happened later, and we can have an idea of the reason why the Spirit of God wanted a Polish pope, a Slav pope, exactly in that period of history of mankind.

So, I think we should ask ourselves, “Why do we have a South American pope?” The Church is now predominantly non-European. For the first time in history, Catholics make up less than 40% of the European population. The Church in Europe becomes smaller and smaller, but in the rest of the world, it grows. Now and then people ask me, “Is the Church about to disappear?” I reply, “In Europe, perhaps. In the world, of course not.” Europe is becoming smaller and smaller demographically, economically, politically, and culturally, and the world is not willing to follow the lead of Europe as it used to do until 20-30 years ago.

Another thing is that Pope Francis comes from a poor country. John Paul II also came from a poor country, but it was a different kind of poverty, a communist poverty, the result of a system different from ours, and it has been overcome. Pope Francis comes from a country where they think, to a certain extent, that we are wealthy because they are poor, that their poverty is the result of the system in which they have been assigned a bad place. And he speaks the language of the poor, and he has the mentality of the poor. I don't think the poor are always right, but on one point they are: They've been cheated. There is something wrong in the system, and they suffer because there is something wrong in the system, and we have been unjust to them.

I will add one other thing. We are used to thinking that we live in the age of secularization, but this is true only for Europe. It is not true for the world, and secularization is not the last word of fashion. There are other fashions, other ideas, and other trends. Pope Francis as a non-European pope encompasses all these meanings, and through them, we can understand the novelty that he has brought.

It is exactly this wish to include the whole Church that motivated the start of the Synod process that is happening in the Church today. But it seems that the most dominant questions are still determined in Europe, especially in Germany, where the local Synodal way has prompted some speculation that there may end up being a schism.

What is your take on the topics the Germans have raised, such as women priests or the question of married clergy?

Schism? I hope not. That would be awful and meaningless. Pope Francis put it very well: There is already a protestant Church in Germany, are you willing to make a second one? If you are not, then you must stay within Catholicism. The pope wants every question to be discussed freely, so let us discuss, let us listen to the Spirit, and see what He is doing in the life of the Church now.

There are some things that can't be done, but there are other things that can be done. Ordaining women priests seems to encounter strong theological objections. But married clergy is another question. The rule of celibacy is the rule of the Latin Church, not of the whole Catholic Church. Priestly celibacy tries to bring together two vocations that have done very well together, but are in principle distinct from one another: to be a priest and to be consecrated to God in virginity. These two can stay together, and we have a great number of holy priests that have practiced celibacy, but they can also be separated.

In Ukraine, Greek Catholics are the vast majority of Catholics, and they have priests who are married. They also have a history of sanctity, and many martyrs who were persecuted for their faith. And there are stories of saintly families in which wives accepted the difficult path of sanctity of their husbands, and they went the same way. So, let us listen to the Church, and then let us make decisions.

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What about the question of blessings of homosexual unions that has also been mentioned more than once?

First of all, it is clear that marriage can only be established between one man and one woman. And of course, according to Catholic doctrine, homosexuality is a grave matter of sin. Nevertheless, there are people, who being in an objective condition of sin, move towards the Catholic faith, step by step. What shall we say to them? Some of them try to establish something similar to the family. I am old enough to remember the time when homosexuals didn't even dream of having a family or getting married. They were against marriage. They thought that marriage was an abominable custom of the Catholic Church, that sex should be free in the sense of not being linked to a deep personal relationship between two persons and an exclusive personal relationship between them.

In the homosexual community of today, there is a growing trend to ask for marriage. For some of them that is just the way of saying: “There is no difference between homosexual and heterosexual relationships,” but of course that this isn't the truth. On the other hand, there are others who long for a use of sexuality that is not separated from a deep, profound relation of trust and love. The Church can't bless them, but we must talk to them, and tell them they are sons of God.

I am a disciple of Don Luigi Giussani and he used to tell us: “Don't be afraid to pass judgments on facts” – in this case: Don't be afraid to say that homosexuality is bad or a grave matter of sin – “but never pass judgments on persons.” Because only God knows the heart of persons. And it is possible that this person who is homosexual stands in the eyes of God much higher than you, because we all have sins, and we all need mercy.

Let's look at Pope Francis’ social encyclicals. We know that he wrote three social encyclicals and that he has been called a “red Pope” because of them. On the other hand, you were a friend of Pope John Paul II, who was considered an anti-communist pope. Are there any differences in the way they approach questions concerning social teaching?

Of course, there are many differences because the world has changed and in order to repeat the same truth in different ages you can't just repeat the same words, because words have changed their meaning. 

John Paul II came during a time which was dominated by the trial of the Church in communism. Now we live in a different age. I don't want to say that this age will be dominated by the struggle between Church and Western turbo-capitalism, but it is quite possible that this will be the characteristic sign of the age. Does it make any sense today to write an encyclical to condemn communism? Or to condemn national socialism? No, they are dead, they are not the problem. Capitalism is the problem.

It is also important to stress that the Church does not pass a scientific judgment on capitalism…the Church passes an ethical judgment. It says: You can't let people die of hunger. You can't be happy in a world in which other human beings suffer, or are marginalized. 10% of people today in the world suffer from hunger. That means some 800 million people! What shall we do about it? 

That has a lot to do with Christianity because Christianity is an experience of the communion of persons. Recognizing Christ as our true personality, we become part of one another. Pope Francis would say that a missionary disciple is a man who when he says "I", encompasses within this "I" his wife, his children, families of his friends, his parents, his city, and all of mankind. And when I say "I", I can't say it while forgetting about the poor. I can't have a self-consciousness that doesn't encompass the demands of the poor. I can't be happy if so many people around me are unhappy.

It seems that we live in a system in which the main purpose is to produce what Marx would have called “exchange value” and not “use value.” We live in order to make money, we don't make money in order to live, and some are excluded from the human community because they don't produce anymore. On the other hand, there are people who produce money until the end of their lives, and when they die they are completely worn out and alienated. They haven't lived a meaningful life. And worse, they have lost contact with their children, and they have no friends. So every time the Church preaches the Gospel of social justice, she doesn't only look after the poor, but also after the wealthy.

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Another topic that connects these two pontificates is the question of sexual abuse in the Church. From time to time, criticism is heard that John Paul II, because of his experience with communists, was too reluctant to believe accusations against priests. Thirty or forty years later, we see that many bad things have happened, and people are still accusing the Church of failing to do enough to stop them. Do you think that the Church now is dedicated enough to this issue?

I want to make two observations. The first one is regarding the bishops. The problem of pedophilia is bad in itself, but it becomes even worse because of clericalism and because of those bishops who this that the prestige of the clergy is more important than the suffering of the victim, so they try to cover up whatever happens, instead of denouncing it.

These scandals showed us a lack of respect not only for the victims, but also for the priests because the bishops should be fathers of their priests, and I wonder, did these fathers ever notice that some of their children were desperate, and were leading a double life? Bishops often say, “I have never noticed, I didn't have the slightest suspicion.” That is much worse than saying, “I felt something was wrong.” Because this means you were not a father and you didn't spend time with your priest.

The second thing is the hypocrisy of those who are attacking the Church. When I was a young man, the common opinion on pedophilia in society was that it was a crime, or sin, like any other. The priest who would be found guilty of it was sent into a convent to pray and make penance for one or two years, and then he received absolution and was sent again to some parish church. The state did exactly the same. After the convict would serve his time in jail, he would be sent back to civil life, like any other. 

Only later did we realize that pedophilia is a profound personality disorder and that it is connected with continuing behavior. At the same time, it was considered that the children will easily forget what happened to them. Only later we realized that victims suffer for a long time, perhaps their whole life. And that it is a tremendous obstacle to the adequate development of their personality.

Some from those cultural areas that are today the loudest accusers of the Church several decades ago wanted the liberalization of pedophilia. Think of the Greens. Think of the Socialist Party in Germany and some other countries. They had a proposal for the depenalization of pedophilia. And think of the great intellectuals that we all consider as the master of Western thought, I would add: the Western thought in the age of this decay. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, and many others…62 of them signed a manifesto demanding the depenalization of pedophilia. They wanted it to be considered a normal stage of development in the life of a child. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the German and French Greens, wrote a book Le grand Bazaar in which he openly presented himself as a pedophile. That was the state of mind of Europe in the years of the pontificate of John Paul II. And the Church was accused of being against the happiness of the children because she was against sexual contact with children. Does anybody remember this? I do.

Let's turn to Europe, which Pope Francis once compared to a tired old woman. When and why did Europe lose its position as a center that drove social change throughout the world?

I will explain this through the story of the failed European constitution. I was on the Parliamentary Commission for Constitutional Reforms, and together with some other members worked on the inclusion of Christian values in the European constitution, but we were defeated. And in the end, not only did we not have Christian values in the constitution but we ended with no constitution at all. These two things are connected because, in a referendum in France, those who wanted a European constitution felt offended by the fact that there were no Christian values and did not vote. And those who were against Christian values and the constitution voted. 

With this refusal, we found ourselves in a situation which has caused a strong anti-European feeling in many countries. And this creates a big problem because we need the European Union. In the world of today, there is an enormous concentration of power on a continental basis. You see, the USA is not a nation like Italy or Croatia, it is a continent. And China is another continent. India is a continent. In the near future, we will either learn to be united and exercise our sovereignty all together or we will be only puppets in the hands of the great powers.

But you can't have a united Europe if you don't have a European people. And you can't have a European people if you don't recognize a common history, and if you don't have common values. And this is exactly what we neglected…I was ready to accept the term “Judeo-Christian values” – Why not? After all, Jesus was a Jew – or “Judeo-Christian and classical values,” because Europe grew out of the encounter with Greek philosophy, Roman law, and the Christian religion. I wouldn't mind mentioning the Enlightenment also, because the Enlightenment lives out of Christian values, interpreted in a secular way, according to the philosophy of immanence not of transcendence. But we ended up with no common cultural rules. The chapter on culture in the unified version of European treaties has only one article. And it is clear they wrote it because they knew they had to write something on culture, but they didn't know what to write.

The thing is, we lost the enthusiasm which we had before. Take the Ode of Joy which is the hymn of Europe: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! ” [which translates as] “Joy, daughter of the gods, we enter into your temple full of fire, possessed by the spirit.” It is the spirit that breaks the limits of my individual personality and creates “we,” so I don't think anymore as “I,” but as “we.” It is a kind of wedding of nations. And without this religious enthusiasm, you can't have a “we.” And we have lost, refused, this religious enthusiasm. 

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This spiritual emptiness is something that is felt strongly. Czech theologian Tomas Halik said the empty churches that we experienced during the COVID crisis was perhaps a sign of the times, of what awaits us in the future - not only in Western Europe but also in Eastern Europe, where there are at least some people still going to church. What do you think has happened to the sense of sacred in Europeans?

The discovery of modern science made a huge difference between the West, to which Europe belongs, as well as the rest of the world. Modern science is based on a knowledge of the movement of pure objects in time and space. But in Aristotle’s view, and in the vision of reality of many others, objects are not pure objects, because they have a soul, dignity, a measure of beauty. They are seen not only by the eyes of the scientist but also by the eyes of a poet. We in the West have discovered modern science, but it seems that we are paying for this by losing the capacity to see the other dimensions of reality. We have lost the capacity of seeing reality as a place in which there are also subjects.

We have enormously expanded instrumental rationality, that is, the capacity of making use of objects to fulfill our desires. But we have lost the wisdom, the capacity of knowing what is worthwhile to desire, because we are not educated to formulate our desires. Take sex for example. Today people are having much less sex than they used to. And the reason lies in the fact that we tell the young people: “Do whatever you want.” And young people wish that we would tell them what is worthwhile, in the domain of sex, but also in the other domains of life.

A philosopher who saw this very well was Heidegger. Heidegger saw the growing alienation of the West, that we have become foreigners to ourselves. We don't live from within. We have no true passions. Our passions are oriented by show business, by the lives of the stars in Hollywood, and not by our own life. And when we turn our eyes to our own life, we don't find meaning in it. 

This also affects the Church.

Of course it does, but we should never lose hope. People sometimes ask me, “Will the Church survive the 21st century?” And I tell them that the Church already died more than once in history. The Church died in the 6th century, and God sent St. Benedict and St. Cyril and St. Methodius and St. Patrick, and the Church was resurrected. And again in the 12th century, in the time of great heresies of Albigensians and Cathars, God sent St. Francis and St. Dominic, and the Church was resurrected. She died again during the Reformation in the 16th century, but was resurrected again through St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa, St. Charles Borromeo, and so forth. The Church dies and resurrects again. The only important thing in life is to see the saints in your time and to follow them. 

Who are these saints today?

Well, I have met some saints in my life. One was John Paul II, but as I have said, he belongs to another age. I do not doubt God will send other saints.

When we talk about Europe and the spiritual decline, you yourself have an interesting history with this topic. You were supposed to become a European commissioner, but you didn't want to deny Church teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman, so you were blocked. Did you ever regret your decision?

No. For two reasons. The first reason is that we lost a great battle. My personal history is part of the great battle that we lost. The battle of Christian values in the constitution and the battle on the constitution itself. Also, I could have done very little even if I had become a commissioner, because I would have been a commissioner in a commission that was bound to be absolutely ineffectual.

And the second reason is that sometimes when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I think of the man I was when I was 16. Then I ask myself, “What would he think of me now? Would he be proud of what I have done or what I am going to do today?”  And that day my conclusion was: “Well, he wouldn't be too unhappy with what I have become now. A man who serves his conscience.” Is a seat on the European Commission worth more than one’s conscience? I don't think so.

Regarding this, there is only one thing I regret, but I don't know what I could have done differently. I didn't want to offend anybody. I didn't want to condemn homosexuals. I have been a friend of homosexuals, one of them was a great Italian playwriter Giovanni Testori and he used to say to me: “I am a sinner, but you too Rocco, worse than me.” I would respond “Of course Giovanni, I am a sinner. Perhaps worse than you, nobody knows.” And so, I am sorry if I offended them. But I always say, “I am a sinner like you, don't be afraid to recognize that you are a sinner in front of God, and ask for God's mercy.”

There was a demonstration against me once. I went to the theatre and there were some LGBTQ militants who had a banner. And on the banner was written: “We, the sinners.” I went to them, there were police between us, I asked the policeman to let me go, so I put myself under that banner, and said: “I am a sinner like you and I won't refuse you, my brothers, because of your sins. So, please, don’t refuse me because of mine.”

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Your case raises the question of what Catholics in politics today can do to make changes. For example, I don't think it is possible that a political party advocating for a ban on abortion could win the election - not even in Croatia, not to speak of Western European countries. So, what is the scope of action for Catholics in politics today?

I think that Catholics have remained mentally in an age that has been overcome. When Catholics think of politics, most of them think of a Catholic party. This is not a problem in itself, but Pope Francis, whose pontificate is intensively political, proposed a different way. He stresses the point that we have to build up not a party but a people, a nation. You see, the nation is not a thing, which is there or isn't there. The nation is a process. It is a system of processes. And nations are born whenever two people gather together, and they recognize each other and start thinking in terms of "we."

Nations are born in families, in groups of friends, in organizations of civil society, in the city, and so forth, all the way up to the state. So what Catholics should do in politics is recreate this feeling of being a community. Recreate a spirit of a national community…We are here in order to say that Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind. And of course, in due time we must also say that abortion is wrong, or that homosexuality is wrong, without condemning anybody, but this comes later.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium says: Don't waste your time defending spaces of power. We must activate processes in which the lives of people change. Catholics became Leninists and started believing that we must grab the Winter Palace, the state power, and then we will change the world. No. We must begin with a small group of people who live as brothers. Who live according to the truth, who are really interested in the wellbeing of others. And if this grows, it will change the life of the nation.

You see, the first problem is not “What to do?” In 1903, Lenin published a small book called “What is to be done?” but that was the wrong question. That was the communist question. A group of thinkers, among whom were Bulgakov and Berdyayev, published in the same year “Problems of Idealism.” And they asked the question “How shall we be?” What is the correct way of being? I think we should start with this question, and all the rest will come later. It is written: Take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.

How shall we be? seems like a very relevant question today, because there are ideologies like transgenderism or transhumanism that want to make human beings disappear, along with everything we know about them. What do you think is behind this idea of humans wanting to be "trans"?  

Profound desperation, lack of hope. It was already described by Pascal. Pascal has this concept of “divertissement.” It is an attempt not to allow your attention to concentrate on yourself. You try to avoid going into the depth of what you are. You try to avoid the question "Who am I really?", "What do I really love?", "What do I really need to be?". Being in this state, you try to find things that distract your attention so that you don't look into yourself, and don't find what is really important.

Also, there is a big confusion about the meaning of freedom. What is freedom? Now they try to say: freedom is to do whatever you want. That is not freedom. Freedom is belonging. The moment I felt most free in my life is when the girl whom I loved said "yes" to me. Freedom is a fulfillment of desire. But in order to be free you must know your desire. You must express your desire, and you must pray for the fulfillment of your desire. Freedom is like a dance. I try to lead, but the girl can lead me in another direction and I must learn to move together with others. And God is the music in which dance takes place. And now, they don't want us to get in touch with each other. This modern style of dance in which you move, but you are not dancing with the other person, is a good image of that.

For the end of the conversation, let's turn to the most recent happenings in politics. When Giorgia Meloni became prime minister of Italy, there were many from the conservative side who showed enthusiasm that there is now a leader in Europe who is not afraid to promote conservative values.

There was even some kind of enthusiasm that this wave will continue in other European countries, so there might be some kind of conservative counterrevolution. Is this enthusiasm still present, at least in Italy, and how do you view it?

I must say I didn't like Giorgia Meloni for a long part of her career, but in these last two or three years she was very good. I don't know if the true Giorgia is the one before or now.  Once I told her: “Giorgia, don't say: 'We want to leave Europe'. Instead of that, say: 'We don't like this Europe, we want a better Europe. We want more Europe and a better Europe.'” It seems that now she is moving along these lines.

Also, I want to warn against the counterrevolution, depending on what you mean by that term. The counterrevolution shouldn't be a revolution of the contrary side. Counterrevolution, in its positive meaning, should be the opposite of a revolution - the capacity to lessen political tensions, the capacity to enter into a dialogue with your opponents, and to make policies in which all can participate.

The real problem today is the tension in the political spectrum. People don't talk to one another. And it seems that some of them here are thinking that the nation without their opponents would be better off. No, Italy would be better with a better opposition or with a better government, depending on your point of view, but it would not be better "without" the opposition or the government. Let us talk, let us not lose human contact with the other. 

Speaking about loss of human contact, how do you see the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine? Is there any kind of resolution that could happen in the near future?

I think that we should thank the Virgin Mary because we succeeded in winning the first round, but now we have to go talk with Putin. Putin is wrong, but he is a human being. The most likely outcome is that the war will last for a long time. One million people will die, and a large part of Ukraine is already destroyed with enormous human suffering.

We are seeing a succession of Russian offensives and Ukrainian counteroffensives, winning and losing 50,000 – 60,000 square kilometers each time, and it is hard to see the end of it. On the one hand, Ukrainians are willing to fight and die for their country. If anybody doubted the existence of the Ukranian nation, Ukranians gave witness with their blood that there is a Ukranian nation. On the other hand, the West is not willing to give the Ukrainians the weapons that are needed in order to gain a final victory because they are afraid of the nuclear war that might be the result of the total Russian defeat.

This means that we have to talk. Better now than later. And I see that this idea started gaining ground in the USA. I also think it was wrong to refuse the Chinese proposal without taking it into consideration. Of course, it was not a good proposal, but we should have at least started a discussion. China could make the resolution of the conflict easier. This opportunity has been lost, and now the great danger is that the Taiwan crisis will follow. It is the Third World War in pieces of which Pope Francis has spoken many times. The secular crisis in Europe which we have discussed has made us lose the capacity of seeing the world and the developments in the world, and this led us to war. We have to pray to the Holy Virgin that war doesn't spread, and we have to talk. 

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