By Hilary White

ROME, March 4, 2009 ( – Two prominent Catholic cardinals have struck out at the secularist trend of excluding all religious belief from public life. The patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Scola, and Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a former president of the Italian Bishops Conference and the vicar for the diocese of Rome from 1991 to 2007, have warned Christians not to withdraw from active involvement in public life.

Writing in an editorial published February 20, in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Scola wrote, “It seems to me that we often lose sight of the heart of the matter: every faith must always be subjected to a public cultural interpretation.” He quoted the late Pope John Paul II, who wrote, “A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not fully thought out, not faithfully lived.”

The two cardinals’ comments come in response to criticisms that the Church should have remained silent in the case of Eluana Englaro. Eluana, the young disabled woman sometimes described as “Italy’s Terri Schiavo,” died in early February after her food and hydration were removed with the permission of Italy’s courts. During the public debate over Eluana’s killing, leftists in Italy’s Parliament accused the Church of trying to create a “theocracy” and impose its will in the political arena.

“Faith,” Cardinal Scola wrote, “inevitably has to do with the reality of life and death, love and sorrow, labour and recreation and civic action.”

He criticised as “reductive” the two prevailing schools of thought on the action of Christianity on Italian civic life. He rejected both “Christianity as a civil religion” – a kind of “ethical cement” holding democracy together – and the idea that it is a purely internal matter for individuals concerned for their own salvation. The latter, he said, would leave no room for Christians to address key bioethical or political issues.

Cardinal Scola wrote the piece in response to criticisms by Enzo Bianchi, an influential lay preacher and founder of an “ecumenical” monastic-style community in Bose, who said that the fact that churchmen actively intervened in defence of Eluana’s life was “unworthy of the Christian approach.”

“Such an attitude,” Cardinal Scola said, “produces a dispersion (diaspora) of Christians in society and ends up hiding the human relevance of faith as such.” In this case “a silence is demanded that risks making adherence to Christ and to the Church meaningless in the eyes of others.” 

The “implications of the mysteries” of Christian religious belief, he said, are “intertwined with the human affairs of all time, showing the beauty and fruitfulness of faith to everyday life.” Cardinal Scola used the example of the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of life and marriage: “If you believe that man is created in the image and likeness of God, you will have a certain conception of birth and death, the relationship between man and woman, marriage and the family.”

The implications lead all believers, including the Pope and bishops, “to talk humbly but strongly with everyone” on public issues. The Church, he said, is not interested in acquiring and imposing political power. “Its real purpose, in imitation of its founder, is to give everyone the consoling hope of eternal life.”

In Genoa on February 18, Camillo Cardinal Ruini warned of a new type of materialist secularism, the “conceptual nucleus” of which is “the conviction that man is entirely reducible to the physical universe,” and which has as its fundamental task “individual freedom,” interpreted strictly in material terms. Against this fundamental task, he said, “any form of discrimination is to be avoided.”

“This freedom, according to which in the final analysis everything is relative to the individual, is set up as the supreme ethical and legal criterion: every other position is admissible only as long as it does not challenge, but remains subordinate to this relativistic criterion. In this way, the moral norms of Christianity are systematically censored, at least in their public influence.”

But religious belief, and Christianity in particular, propose a transcendent meaning and purpose for human life that require certain restrictions on human activity for its fulfilment, said the cardinal. This has created what he called a “new schism” between Catholicism and materialist “secularists” in which the expression of Christian teaching is being suppressed.

“In this way, there has developed in the West that which Benedict XVI has repeatedly called ‘the dictatorship of relativism,’ meaning a form of culture that deliberately severs its own historical roots and constitutes a radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but more broadly of the religious and moral traditions of humanity.”