A Conversation with Rocco Buttiglione: The Pope’s Theologian on Philosophy, Politics, and Economics

Rocco Buttiglione is becoming well known to the readers of Crisis. (See his “Christian Economics 101,” July-August 1992, and “Behind Centesimus Annus” July-August 1991.) He is the Pro-Rector of the International Academy of Philosophy in the Principality of Liechtenstein. I interviewed Rocco Buttiglione the last week of July at his office in Liechtenstein. He had just finished teaching a month-long course for students from the United States and Eastern Europe on “The Free Society and Centesimus Annus.”

Your main work is in the philosophy of politics, economics, and the social sciences. One thing that a student of comparative religion first notices about Christianity is its lack of a revealed law such as is found in Judaism and Islam. This might lead one to say that Christianity is an apolitical religion. And yet, paradoxically, a great tradition of Christian social doctrine has grown up in the Church.

I think we should make a distinction between Christian social doctrine and Christian social teaching. A certain social teaching can be found since the beginning. But it was not elaborated in a systematic form as doctrine because the center of the Christian revelation is not the idea of some particular worldly order. In the center of Christian revelation we do not find an idea; we find, rather, a Person. It is the Person of Jesus Christ.

But the Person of Jesus Christ reveals to us the truth, the truth about God and, at the same time, also the truth about man. This truth about man is that man is a person and that the human person is made for communion. The idea of communion, I think, stands just in the center of Christianity. Jesus Christ is the communion of man with God and the possibility of the communion among all men.

This opens up a new dimension of personal being, a dimension that ancient philosophy and other world religions have not recognized. Sometimes they glimpsed it, but they have not recognized it in its full meaning. The Second Vatican Council puts it in this way: man can realize himself only through a free gift of his own person.

In order to become myself, I need to fall in love with a woman, to have children, to live my life as a service to their lives, to learn maybe for the first time (being in love and having children) how important my parents have been to me, to live my life as a gift of myself also to my parents. Through this school, I need to learn that, even if I do not feel it with the same clarity, nevertheless, I also belong to all other human beings, because we are all made for this communion. True, I experience this communion more clearly with some human beings, but it actually encompasses all. Jesus Christ is the center of this communion. This is an anthropology that is strictly linked to a Christology and to a theology.

Does the rigorous link with Christology prevent the non-believer from having access to this social doctrine? Are you saying, “First you become a Christian, and then we can talk”?

In one sense, I would say Christian social doctrine is theological; it is an essential part of the gospel, the truth about man. In another sense, however, it is not theological, since many of these truths can be seen by man without believing in Christian revelation.

The truth about the social dimension of man can be seen without being Christian, but I think that if somebody who is not a Christian really sees it, he is at least led towards Christianity. He must ask himself how such a truth is possible. This is the question of Nicodemus: How is it possible? I see that there is something in me that leads me towards this truth about man. But I see also that there is a deficiency of my nature, an original sin, that makes it impossible for me to act upon this truth, or even to see it in its full beauty, without help coming from God.

It is a little bit like what Plato says in the Phaedo: How beautiful it would be if somebody came from the other side of the Sea of Being to tell us the truth! Everyone who really sees the mystery of man must end in an attitude of prayer, asking God that, if He exists, He might come and reveal Himself to us. In this sense, Christian social doctrine as a practice and as a theory is a part of the Gospel and an introduction to the truth about Jesus Christ. Living the reality of society, one is led to ask himself seriously the question about the Person of Jesus Christ and about His divinity.

So, in one sense, you can take the social doctrine as a civil philosophy, but if you take seriously this civil philosophy, you are confronted at least problematically with Christianity and the Person of Jesus.

What bearing does the “truth about man” have on the social order and political institutions?

If you understand man in this way, then you also have a different insight into the nature of the social order. The social order should be reduced to a system of human actions. This system can then be seen in a double perspective: I am a subject. I am not an instrument of another human being. Nobody has a right to take my life. Nevertheless, my life is given to me in order to be given.

This leads to a confrontation with systems which pretend that they can take your life, that they can reduce you to the role of a cog in a machine. But, on the other hand, the fact that you are free and that no society can treat you as a mere piece of social matter, does not mean that you have no obligation to society. Rather, these obligations run through your own person.

This, I think, is the key to two fundamental concepts of social doctrine, that is, the concept of private property and the concept of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. There is a piece of this land that belongs to me. There is a body that belongs to me. There is a certain spiritual richness and creativity that belongs to me. Nobody can take it. Nevertheless, I cannot make use of this to enslave others. I must make use of it in order to enrich the lives of others.

Does the nature of the political sphere require that you apply these principles of social doctrine in a prudential way?

These are principles that remain forever; they are linked to the nature of man. The different applications of these principles may depend on contingent, historical situations, and, for this reason, Christian social doctrine is one, while at the same time, it also changes in time. In a sense, the fundamental teaching does not change, but Christian social doctrine proper may change to a certain extent; it may be formalized in different ways.

The Parasitic State

With regard to the mutability of Christian social doctrine, some interpreters have spoken of a paradigm shift in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, in particular because of the way it treats the state. For example, it does not affirm that the state perfects society. It does not use the organic metaphors for the state and society which were common in the writings of Leo XIII. It seems much more open to the modern liberal state with its basis in rights and contracts, checks and balances, than previous papal writings. How actual is that shift?

If there is a shift, I would say it begins with Leo XIII and takes a tremendous turn with the Christmas radio messages of Pius XII. Quite simply, there is a medieval tradition that does not really see the difference between society and state because, in ancient society and in medieval society, society and state are not divided from one another, and the state is to a large extent the expression of human society.

In modern times, on the other hand, society and state are two different realities. Society becomes more autonomous in relation to the state, and the state, in turn, tries to dominate society. Society has to defend itself to a certain extent against the tyranny of the state. What in the Middle Ages was so mingled together that you could scarcely distinguish each of the two subjects now becomes clearly separate, and the Church is perfectly conscious of this separation. Therefore, you cannot attribute to the state the duties that belong to society. You must recognize the autonomy of society.

That is not a novelty of Centesimus Annus (1991). It is expressed in Centesimus Annus with great force and in a very convincing way, but if you read Quadragesimo Anno (1931), I think you will find 99.9 percent (in a different context, of course) of what Centesimus Annus says on society and the state.

But why should Christian social doctrine ratify the separation of state and society?

This is more realistic in our time and sets energies free for the tasks of today. When there is a task, the state is not necessarily the subject that has to perform it. When there are rights, the state does not necessarily have to step in and achieve the exercise of these rights. Many times society has the first responsibility. The state should enter in only if society is not capable of performing its own operations, and the state should remain in control and retain these functions only insofar as society is not strong enough to undertake them.

That is the difference between legitimate intervention of the state and statism, the tyranny of the state. If you have a great crisis, people are starving, and the business community has no solutions—they don’t succeed in creating jobs, and so forth—of course the state has the duty to intervene and do something. But it should try to do this in such a way as not to weaken ordinary social forces or, rather, in a way that increases their force. And the state must be ready to retire when the social system is again in good health and can perform the operations that are proper to it.

Then the endorsement of the market economy in Centesimus Annus, does not mean that it is hostile to certain forms of welfare?

The encyclical is not negative on welfare; it makes a distinction between welfare states and social assistance states. Welfare means that something is due to man because of his dignity, and even if he cannot give anything in exchange for it, society and the state (first society, then, if needed, the state) should act to give it to him. You cannot let people starve. Every person has a right to life. He has a right to be healthy, to develop his personality. This is a great achievement of the welfare state: that society in general and the state in particular, if society fails, is responsible for this.

But that is not what the social assistance state is. The social assistance state is, rather, a state that does not help people to enter into the market to regain the strength, to gain the skills, the knowledge, the credit, the instruments needed to become autonomous individuals; it is a state that encourages passivity in people, transforms them into objects of the state’s assistance.

Family Ties

Can you explain concretely how the social assistance state has led to this passivity?

To a large extent, it is the result of policies that do not take into account the family. A great problem of today is the social assistance state that takes the tasks that are proper to the family and, in doing this, weakens the family in such a way that the family will never be able to reappropriate those tasks. And then an intervention that should be a provisional intervention for a short time and in exceptional situations becomes a situation that for large sections of the people is normal. It is the only situation they know.

The family—the love between men and women, and the fact that they have children—is a miracle. It is something that requires a great amount of courage. It is a great adventure, and it is an adventure that is important for all men. The family has a social function. It procreates and educates the new generation. Therefore, society must take a certain responsibility for the family; the family must be an interlocutor of social policy. You cannot just think of society as if it were all individuals. There are families. There are other mediating institutions.

Would you extend this notion of “interlocutors” of social policy to other mediating institutions?

You help the poor better if you do not construct a bureaucratic organization run by the state or by a state agency, but rather through mediating institutions. I do not say that the state should not have a policy of support, but this support should go through these intermediate institutions. It would cost less, be more effective, and help the moral growth of society, instead of destroying its moral vigor.

If you have a old man who is disabled and you just put him in a government hospital, it costs an enormous amount of money, and he will not be happy. If you succeed in keeping him in his family, it costs less, he will be happier, and his family will grow. It will grow in human maturity, the relation of self-giving one to another, and will produce better citizens, men who are responsible for one another. Many policies of the social assistance state have broken the link between the generations. This is the reason why aging people become, at least in Europe—less, I think, in the United States—such a tremendous problem.

You have just spent nearly a month teaching a course on “The Free Society and Centesimus Annus.” What did you hope to accomplish in this summer session, and what have you learned from it?

Let me start with a book. Maybe ten or 12 years ago I read a book by George Huntston Williams, The Mind of John Paul II, a very good book, very informative, but in this book there was a reproach that the Holy Father did not understand the American mind and the principles of the free society. I was convinced, instead, that the pope understood these principles very well and that his criticisms of Western societies were not from the outside, from the vantage point of a rural society, but from the inside, from a deep understanding of the values of these societies and, at the same time, of the dangers of these societies.

I found the dialogue with Michael Novak, Richard Neuhaus, Robert Sirico, Maciej Zieba, George Weigel, and you and the others extremely fruitful. Together we saw that the Church really does speak from within our societies. She sees the values and advantages of democracy, of the free market system. The Church has no enmity towards these institutions. But the Church sees that without a strong moral and religious framework, all the great results of our democratic civilizations will collapse.

This is the great achievement of this seminar: that this dialogue is possible. Coming from very different experiences, with very different cultural sensibilities, we may meet on this basis. I think this can help give our civilization the moral support she sorely needs.

What are the symptoms of this need? What is the great danger facing the modern democracies?

Democracy runs the danger of being allied to moral relativism, and moral relativism destroys the faith in human dignity that is the backbone of democracies. Relativistic democracies are divided in themselves and end up in demagogy. I think there is a terrible danger to our societies, and it is very important that we unite in order to save democracy—to save modernity, also—from suicide.

In 1986 you took part in founding the International Academy of Philosophy. Is this part of the rescue mission?

I would say the mission of the Academy is the encounter of modern man with the Christian message and a renewal of the tradition of classical philosophy, precisely through this encounter with modernity.

As a rule, you find two attitudes with regard to Christianity and modernity. Everyone seems convinced that there is an opposition between them. Some think that Christianity is better than modernity, and therefore that modernity is bad. Some think that modernity is good, that Christianity is bad, and that the best Christianity can do is to conform itself to modernity. We, instead, worked on a different assumption: that modernity is not a solution, but it is a problem. Christianity may be the solution to this problem. There is a way of being Christian in modernity that is more satisfying because it answers the great questions of modernity. Modernity is not an answer, but rather a question.

Augustinian Revival

In the United States—to speak only of Catholic philosophical circles—there are at least two influential interpretations of modernity which would make it difficult for us to adopt your program. One is Leo Strauss’s idea that modernity begins with Machiavelli and is an essentially political effort which intends to divert men from the eternal things and to engage them in an all-sufficient project—political and scientific—to satisfy their passions. Another interpretation of modernity, which locates its essence in the theoretical domain, says that almost immediately after Saint Thomas the existential sense of Being was forgotten, leading eventually to the breakdown of Aristotelian/Thomistic realism and the triumph of subjective idealism in modern times. Some who accept this theoretical interpretation reproach liberal political institutions with the charge of a similar subjectivism or individualism. But you would find both these historical tales inadequate to explain modernity?

I have been for 20 years the student of a great Italian philosopher. He is very Italian, and therefore he is unknown abroad. But I think he is really one of the deepest thinkers of our time: Augusto Del Noce. He is also a great expert on Descartes. Del Noce maintains, rather, that modernity begins with Descartes.

Descartes proposes a philosophy that does not need an Aristotelian metaphysics and can therefore be reconciled with modern science. The access to metaphysics and Being is found in the interiority of man and not in the external world. So whatever rules science discovers in the external world pose no problem. In order to reach Being, you must start with the depth of your own soul. This is an Augustinian turn. Descartes wanted to be a Catholic philosopher; his philosophy—and therefore all modernity—can be understood as Augustinianism.

But Augustinianism was recovered in the wrong form. In Augustine there are two moments that are equally essential: the polemics against the Manichaeans and the polemics against the Pelagians. That is, Augustine is against those who say that there is nothing in the world that can lead us towards God—that the world is in itself intrinsically bad—and he is against those who say that the world is in itself intrinsically good, so that we can reach God without the help of grace. In Descartes, the anti-Pelagian aspect is missing.

But there is a tradition of Christian thought in modernity that tries to continue Descartes, reintroducing the missing anti-Pelagian element. The first in this line is Pascal. Many have read Pascal as anti-Descartes. This is false. Pascal continues Descartes, and he criticizes Descartes in order to bring to conclusion the real intention of Descartes. Then you have Malebranche and, in Italy, the great tradition of Vico and Rosmini. You have also a similar path in the phenomenological movement. Husserl is a kind of new Descartes, and then Dietrich von Hildebrand is a kind of new Malebranche or Pascal.

This would lead to the work of the International Academy of Philosophy.

Yes. The founder of the Academy, Josef Seifert, is a disciple of von Hildebrand. When I met Seifert, we immediately found we shared a similar position because of this general understanding of philosophy.

In “The Person: Subject and Community,” published in The Review of Metaphysics, Karol Wojtyla also says that it is necessary to make use of the analysis of consciousness in a realistic philosophy of man.

Wojtyla has a very powerful intuition of this positive side of the philosophy of consciousness in Descartes. Philosophy of consciousness must not be rejected; it must be integrated on the basis of philosophy of Being. Tradition must be renewed.

How does it stand, then, with the question of modernity?

There are two different senses of modernity: modernity as break with the past and modernity as renovation of the past, the new form that truths must acquire—truths that have always been true and will always remain true. I think that the second attitude is very close to that of Vatican II. It is neither Christianity converted to modernity nor the rejection of modernity. It is rather the way of reintroducing the Christian moment in modernity.

Without the Christian moment, modernity is condemned to dissolve itself. A book that has been very influential on my formation is The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. Horkheimer and Adorno see very clearly that the Enlightenment, when it loses the reference to an objective truth, must become incapable of condemning evil. And then rationalism turns into irrationalism, absolute relativism, the dissolution of philosophy and, in the long run, also of society. Modernity without the Church, without religion, is condemned to death. So is a philosophy of consciousness without a philosophy of Being that gives to this consciousness a firm content of truth.

How does this program of philosophical aggiornamento retain the perennially valid insights of classical philosophy?

Karol Wojtyla has written an article on the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the doctrine of natural law in which he says that Thomas gives us a static image of man—a perfect but static image of man. In philosophy, as in physics, statics is not enough; you need dynamics. We want to understand man in action. Otherwise, we understand that a certain truth is true, but we don’t feel this truth as our truth. It is quite different to understand that a certain action is bad in itself and to understand that it is bad for me. In order to understand that it is bad for me, I must understand that it is bad in the contextual dynamism of my concrete life. For this I need to understand this dynamism of life. So statics is not enough; we need a dynamics. But, on the other hand, you cannot construct any good dynamics if you do not have statics. So, we have to develop a philosophy of consciousness—that’s the great discovery of modernity, human consciousness, the interiority of man—but this must be developed on the basis of a philosophy of Being.

Natural Law

Some scholars have noted that the Holy Father very rarely speaks of natural law. In Centesimus Annus he mentions natural law in only one passage and then immediately glosses that by saying, “this is what I mean by the subjectivity of society.” How do you account for this reticence?

I think just for this reason: If you are considering the movement of a human body, you do not see the bones. You see the dynamism of the movement, and you do not see the inner structure. If you try to understand man through the dynamism of his action, you do not see immediately the interior metaphysical structures, but you cannot forget for one minute that these metaphysical structures are there. The painters of the Italian Renaissance, in order to paint their beautiful bodies and, even more, the beautiful dress of these bodies, dissected the corpses to study the anatomy of the bones, muscles, flesh, and so forth. But they did not paint the bones. They painted the living human being.

I think this is the method of the Holy Father. It gives you the full living human person. He deals with the human person, in a sense, just as Jesus did. You don’t find any speech on natural law in Jesus. But nevertheless, if you analyze what he said and try to see the inner structure of his thoughts, you find that the natural law is always presupposed.

You would maintain, then, that the apparent subjectivism and individualism of modern thought can be overcome from “within,” i.e., without denying the legitimate rights of subjectivity.

There is an enormous difference between subjectivity and subjectivism. “Subjectivism” means that I am the measure of all things and that there is no objective measure for myself. And so, if I turn to subjectivity, I destroy the objectivity of the world. This is subjectivism. “Subjectivity” properly means only that I am a subject, that the world is made up of subjects and of objects, that subjects are equally as important as objects, that there is an objective structure of my subjectivity, an objective truth regarding my subjectivity, and that I must discover this truth and the way in which this truth determines my passions and the actions of my person.

I think that this is the way of the renovation of tradition in modernity. You do not lose one word of the great tradition of the philosophy of Being, but you incorporate the dimension of consciousness into the philosophy of Being. Consciousness is also a form of Being and should be recognized in its own right within the philosophy of Being. This approach opposes, however, any attempt to constitute Being in consciousness and thereby to destroy it. The great attempt of the philosopher Wojtyla was to follow this approach, and this is the great force of Christians in modernity.

Would you maintain that this renovated Augustinian philosophy can provide the appropriate foundation for a renewed Catholic theology?

Of course. Here I should mention the name of Henri de Lubac. Among de Lubac’s books there are three that are relevant in this sense: Surnaturel, Augustinianisme et theologie moderne, and the book on Pico della Mirandola, The Unfulfilled Daybreak of Renaissance. Each of these books proposes the same thesis: i.e., that there is a positive sense of modernity linked to Augustinianism. This sense of modernity is exposed to grave dangers: unilateral Augustinianism (Descartes, but also Luther, Baius, Jansen) and a Catholic reaction that has gone too far. In an attempt to preserve the truth, the Catholic reaction rendered this truth less flexible and less capable of answering the questions of modern man. It led to a purge from Thomism of all that was related to Augustinianism. In many commentators this is evident, and de Lubac shows it clearly. The result is a Thomism that takes Augustinianism, or what they call ontologism, as a fundamental opponent. This creates a breach in which Christianity does not speak directly to the soul of modern man, but seems to say instead, “First you leave modernity, and then we can talk.”

The attempt of de Lubac—de Lubac is one of the great and real fathers of the Council—is to go back to the positive meaning of modernity reconciled with a Thomism which has not expelled Augustine. Thomas, after all, wanted to reduce to a great synthesis all of the Christian tradition. He wanted to reconcile Aristotle not only with Augustine, but also with the Greek Fathers. His work was not an opposition of Aristotelian philosophy to the Fathers.

Which theologians are continuing de Lubac’s initiatives in a revealing and fruitful way?

I should mention, first of all, Hans Urs von Balthasar and then Josef Ratzinger. To come to the younger generation, in which I have a very great hope, men like Georges Chantraine, or Angelo Scola, and many others. I do not want to do injustice to any of them, only to give examples.

With Karol Wojtyla

How did you first get to know the present pope?

It’s a long history. Monsignor Francesco Ricci was extremely active in supporting the Catholic Church and all who were persecuted in communist countries in the 1960s and ’70s. He brought them news and books from the West, and at the same time he brought us news about the great culture flourishing underground in communist countries. He created a group of young people who worked with him in the movement Communione e Liberazione to further a cultural relation to the communist countries.

Monsignor Ricci was fascinated by the young Bishop of Krakow, a certain Karol Wojtyla, and he translated some of Wojtyla’s writings. I was at the time a student of law, but Monsignor Ricci insisted that I should learn Polish and write a book on this fascinating new philosophy—on the one hand, so open to the world and, on the other hand, so deeply centered in Christianity. I resisted for many years. At last I gave up and accepted Monsignor Ricci’s counsel. After a while, the Bishop of Krakow became Pope John Paul II. When I wrote the book, Wojtyla saw it and liked it. He invited me to visit him at once.

Was this your first visit to Poland?

I had been in Poland previously. I was in touch with Wojtyla’s environment in order to write the book. I especially remember meeting Professor Stanislaw Grygiel and Professor Tadeusz Styczen, who was a tremendous help to me in entering into the mentality of Eastern European culture. So I happened to become the last “Assistant Professor” of the Wojtyla School. I have been in Poland many times since, and I have kept in contact. By the way, Wojtyla always liked to take care of young people, especially young families. So I have also been the object of his pastoral care, and he helped my family and my wife a lot.

The role of Communione e Liberazione in this encounter is very interesting. Were you a student of its founder, Don Luigi Giussani?

I belong to the movement of Don Giussani. I was not his student directly, because he was in Milan, and I was in Catania. There was another very strong priest there, Monsignor Francesco Ventorini. He was the founder and the leader of Communione e Liberazione in Sicily.

The Communion and Liberation movement has now come to the United States, but it is not well understood. What is the purpose of the movement?

Don Giussani once read us the words of the Gospel, “Those who follow me will have eternal life and 100 times more in this life.” And he said, “If you are not interested in eternal life, I understand you, because you don’t know what it is. But if you are not interested in having 100 times more in this life—more with regard to the intensity, the quality, of life, more with regard to love, affection, friendship, everything that makes life worth living—then I don’t understand you. Why don’t you try? If it is false, you will not be much worse off than you already are. And if it is true, you have won 100 times more in this life and, in addition, eternal life.” It was convincing.

It’s like Pascal’s wager, in a way.

There is a strong Pascalian element in Don Giussani, and I followed him. As most adolescents do, I found that life was very boring. He promised that, if you just try to live according to the Christian faith, you may suffer, you may have a lot of pain, but you will never be bored. You will have more intensity of life than you may want. I must say that he was right; it has come true.

You could immediately see this intensity of life in the movement?

Yes. It was the friendship of a group of people, Christianity as a community in which Christ was present. Young people need friends, and friendships are very important when you are 16, 17, 18—even later, but especially at that age. But as a rule, they dissolve. Nobody knows why, but after a while, everybody betrays his friendship, one way or another. Giussani’s idea was that if Christ is put in the center of this friendship, it may last for life, and it may become a powerful force for your humanity. And I must say, pedagogically it was a tremendous force.

Is that why Communione e Liberazione, which started with high school students, is now present throughout society? The core of the movement is the persisting friendship of these students?

Yes, I would say so. We have grown, and it has remained with us.


  • Derek Cross

    At the time this article was published, Derek Cross was a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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