The prophet of Catholic freedom

He conversed with the great figures of the period; he fought the battle for that liberal Catholicism that would then win the war in Western democracy typical of the second half of the 20th century; he wrote thousands of pages of philosophy. But nothing of all that would have saved him from oblivion if had it not been for the Rosminians

by Giuseppe De Rita

 

The frontispiece of The Five Wounds of the Holy Church, published by Rosmini for the first time in 1846 and put on the Index in June 1849
      A master whom only his disciples have saved from cultural and ecclesial oblivion. Here lies the mysterious mechanism that, after a century and a half, has led to the decision of the Church to beatify Antonio Rosmini.
      In his life he conversed with the great figures of the period from Carlo Alberto to Pius IX to Manzoni; he vigorously fought the battle for that liberal Catholicism that would then win the war in Western democracy typical of the second half of the 20th century; and especially he wrote thousands of pages of philosophy, of religious culture and of social thinking. But none of these three features (the friendship of the great, having foreseen “Catholic freedom”, having written thousands of pages) would ever have saved Rosmini from oblivion and rejection. His enemies were too many, ecclesial ones especially; too difficult it was and is to understand his thinking; too many, scholars and clergy, have preferred to retain him too intelligent for the poor minds of the faithful. And then the Holy Office had chastised him, and the circumstance was a good alibi for everyone.
      If he has been saved from generalized and collective oblivion, he owes it mostly to the Rosminians, to his disciples of the Institute of Charity created by him and tenaciously faithful to their own Church being, against all the boycotting. It is the Rosminians who, with their schools, have trained tens of thousands of boys according to a formative philosophy of personalist and liberal cast, implicitly in contrast to the totalizing state pedagogy or to the militant Jesuit pedagogy (to which I owe my own mode of thinking, for that matter). It is the Rosminians who have with constancy, but without public clamor, continued for decades to set the problem of the structural quality of the Church, reproposing The Five Wounds and even more by proposing the spiritual primacy of its freedom against the temporal power. It was the Rosminians who chose to dialogue with that section of the Italian cultural élite that has over the decades cultivated a democratic spirit, a sense of collective co-habitation, the daily breath of spiritual charity; I can testify to what “elitist” prestige surrounded Father Bozzetti in the post-war years, many can testify to the strong influence Clemente Riva had on an important part of the most recent Italian ruling class.
      It was the Rosminians, stubbornly convinced they were in the right even in the periods of greatest frustration, who saved Rosmini from potential (and by many wished and provoked) oblivion. All honor to them then. But honor also to their founder, if it is true that one knows the leader from his followers: at bottom it has been the profundity of his thinking (inexhaustible for those who have gone into it) that made potent the wish of the Rosminians to witness to it. As Buber said: «it is the root that bears».
      To make a choice of relative importance among the components of this “root” is a difficult thing, but as an “amateur aggregate” of the Rosminian world, it seems to me that Rosmini and the Rosminians have been right on four large issues: primarily by insisting on them against many adversaries and then by getting them to penetrate bit by bit into the collective consciousness, though without taking the public and media stage.
      The first issue is that of religious freedom. After Vatican Council II it seems a foregone conclusion. But let us look at Rosmini’s times, when the State of the Church and the Sovereign Pontiff still existed: and no one certainly was scandalized because in the Albertine Statute it was written that Catholicism was the «religion of State». The only one to react toughly was Rosmini, who wrote: «The Catholic religion has no need of dynastic protection, but of freedom. It needs its freedom protected, and nothing else». The Church, being a natural and spontaneous society, does not condense into power, but filters and penetrates everywhere like air and water; and it only needs not to be constrained. The faith enters hearts without passing by way of the summits of power. Not many, in the decades marked by Vatican I, had the courage for declarations of this kind.
      The second great Rosminian theme has been the freedom of the papacy from its temporal power. I have recalled elswhere a letter of Rosmini to Cardinal Castracane in 1848, in which he wrote: «Should the federal unity of Italy take place, the supreme pontiff would remain an altogether peaceful prince and would send nuncios on spiritual business; and would send them, moreover, not to the princes but to the Churches of the world». He saw correctly and has been confirmed by the facts, that today match with his view, a view, I repeat, of 1848, that is previous by more than twenty years to the national unification of 1870.
      The two themes so far mentioned (religious freedom and separation from the temporal power) are linked in underground fashion to another large Rosminian theme: the rejection of the dominance of political power, the great choice that made Rosmini the Italian standard bearer of liberal Catholicism, and – if the term upsets no one – of democratic Catholicism. I have always very much liked his denial of «the lordship that does not create society but dominion and bondage», not least because I link the phrase to another that points out that «the construction of society is a complex of actions and a plurality of persons», where one sees the beginning of the issue of cultural and political pluralism and of that “development of the people” that has characterized Italian democracy over the last decades.

The first issue is that of religious freedom. After Vatican Council II it seems a foregone conclusion. But let us look at Rosmini’s times, when the State of the Church and the Sovereign Pontiff still existed: and no one certainly was scandalized because in the Albertine Statute it was written that Catholicism was the «religion of State»

      And it comes naturally and spontaneously to me to connect this faith in the development worked by a plurality of persons with the consideration that a society of so many subjects can grow, can explore all its possibilities in calm, only if one respects and gets respected all rights, the security of all rights, the free use of all rights. This and nothing else is Rosmini’s liberalism, that created so many problems for him and for his Congregation: society should be built in such way that all can have the free use of their own rights. This is the common good that transpires from his complex socio-political thinking: while subjectivity as long as it remains shut in on itself is not living, it becomes so when it enters into relation with others, «conspires with others in the creation of a society the shared goal of which is the free use of rights».
      One can imagine, at this point, how I would like to go into the further paths that these issues open: the value of individual subjectivity as great social driving force, when the temptation to ethical subjectivism is avoided; the value of relations as life paths that do not close into self-centeredness, be it out of narcissism and/or depression; the value of the relation with others, with the other from yourself as real path of arrival at the absolute Other. But they would take too long, they would force one to enter into themes and dialectics that animate the philosophical and sociological debate of recent years. I force myself, in any case, to avoid them because I want to remain faithful to the intention with which I began to write: i.e. to demonstrate that Rosmini was certainly a great man, but that he has had the fortune that his Rosminians have gone ahead for years with his great themes (religious freedom, the end of temporal power, the option for democratic pluralism, faith in a multi-agent development) developing them, and affirming them over time till they have become the issues not of an outcast minority but of a marching wing of the Church in its historical evolution over the last hundred and sixty years. They have been humbly faithful to the Church and to their founder and prophet; they all deserve, even those who are no longer with us, to feel as their own victory the arrival at the winning post of beatification.