Dom Franzoni died on the 13th of July 2017. He had founded the San Paolo Base Community in Rome. This interview commemorates his thoughts and achievements.
This is an abridged version of an interview that Giovanni Franzoni, the former abbott of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, who was sanctioned by the Vatican in the 1970s for certain progressive public stands he took, gave to Michael Grech a few years ago.
Michael Grech: What is a base-community?
Giovanni Franzoni: Base communities were born in the sixties and seventies in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. They sought to answer questions arising from the then current cultural, political and social situations in an open, novel and evangelically-humane manner.
Base communities are made of Christians; lay and religious, males and females—groups that were generally segregated in the official Church; are organised in a largely horizontal manner. They are intent on living the Gospels in contemporary society by contributing to social, political and cultural life and thought. This does not entail imposing Christian values and ideas on the rest of society. (Indeed, some Base Communities have advocated a clear-cut separation between church and state. In the case of my community we have suggested the repudiation of the Concordat between the Italian State and the Holy See that privileges the Catholic Church ahead of other religious organisations).
What it implies is considering social, political and cultural issues—issues like workers’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of minorities (including racial, religious and recently sexual minorities), relations between the developed world and the third world, peace and social justice—as an integral and important part of Christianity’s mission. These aspects were many a time considered as not pertaining to the Church’s mission or at best to be secondary to more ‘spiritual’, ritualistic or liturgical needs by the official church and the hierarchy. It is important to add that base communities are not intent on creating a separate or alternative church but to present, within the universal Church, different and alternative ways of living Christianity.
Organisations similar to your Christian base community are usually accused of adopting a reductive approach to religion; of focusing on the social and material dimension rather than the spiritual. What are your thoughts in this regard?
This opposition between body and spirit is to a large extent incorrect. Even the most orthodox forms of spirituality implicitly admit this. In all religions, spiritual exercises indispensably involve the disciplining and cultivation of the body. This idea is usually associated to Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, but even Isaiah, working at the time of Buddha and Shankara, advocates fasting to cultivate the body so that the cravings and desire of the body do not impede but sustain spiritual ascent.
Hence, even if we consider spiritual exercises, it will be apparent that one cannot tender the soul and neglect the body. That the divide between spiritual and daily life is improper is also evident from ordinary Catholic ritual and ceremonial. When at the end of the Mass the priest invites the congregation to ‘go and live in peace’, he is inviting his listeners to express and infuse with spirituality in their daily life. Whether at home, place of work or in the political sphere; in a union or in prayer; on the Right or on the Left; Christians cannot compartmentalise spirituality and materiality.
A number of Catholic organisations like yours use Marxist theoretical instruments to understand the world and its happenings. Is it possible to have a fruitful encounter between Christianity and Marxism.
Despite Marx’s atheism and his early involvement with Feuerbach’s ontological materialism (a philosophy concerning what exists; which denies the existence of spirit and of spiritual beings like God, and affirms that only matter exists); an involvement largely superseded in his maturity; Marx’s thought is not intrinsically contrary to religion, but simply secular. Marx’ mature materialism is obviously not religious, in the sense that no reference is made to God nor is the existence of the almighty affirmed and established (as on the other happens in other philosophies like Thomism, Augustinian philosophies, and the philosophy of modern thinkers like Descartes, Leibniz, Locke and Berkeley).
Yet, this is not sufficient to make Marx’s philosophy intrinsically atheist and incompatible with Christianity. Rather than atheist, Marxism is secular because it only refers to worldly and temporal process, causes and principles. Marx’s materialism is also historical rather than ontological; dealing with historical processes and events and with their causes and workings, rather than with questions as to whether the soul or God exist.
Marx’ mature materialism is obviously not religious, yet this is not sufficient to make Marx’s philosophy intrinsically atheist and incompatible with Christianity.
Religion, as all historical phenomena, is understood from this perspective. Rather than examining whether articles of belief (‘the existence of God’, ‘the existence of the soul and an afterlife’, etc) correspond to reality, Marx considers what may have given rise to such beliefs and the part they play in social life.
Believing that Marx’s philosophy is intrinsically atheist then, would be like claiming that medicine is an atheist science because it exclusively considers material processes and phenomena, makes no reference to God and is exclusively concerned with curing the material body.
Exactly. Indeed, Marx opposed the young Hegelians because they claimed that religion is the main stumbling block to the human being’s emancipation. The mature Marx focused on economic exploitation and contradictions, assigning to religion a secondary role in all this; a kind of toy which makes such exploitation bearable. This does indicate a limit in Marx’s thought; it shows that Marx considered the kind of otherworldly 19th century religion he was familiar with as typical of religion in general.
The mature Marx focused on economic exploitation and contradictions, assigning to religion a secondary role in all this; a kind of toy which makes such exploitation bearable.
It is debatable what Marx would have said regarding Liberation Theology or certain strands within Islam which serve to feed the struggle of the oppressed rather than inducing them to accept their lot. Moreover, Marx decried some religious figures for their misguided postulation of causes of concrete phenomena in the spiritual realm; when in fact these causes are material and this-worldly.
Nonetheless, Marx’s philosophy is not incompatible with approaches that draw inspiration from Christianity in terms of goals and moral drive. Indeed, it is a useful compliment to latter, since one can use Marx’s analysis of history and society to understand history and comprehend why Christian goals and ideals are not realised and implemented in current society.
You frequently discuss Euro-centricism and Christianity. We frequently hear people using metaphors like the ‘Christian roots’ metaphor in relation to the supposed origin of Europe; a metaphor that evokes a close identification between Christendom and Europe, and which seems antithetical to the universal character of Christianity. Do you think this is correct?
European histories and societies are too variegated to postulate a common essence which existed at all times, behind all fleeting phenomena. Change and variety have characterised European history, and the attitude which considers current changes and varieties as odd, unique and menacing—seeking an escape to a fantastic, monolithic and un-existent past as a remedy to a troubling present—is mistaken and delusive. Throughout the history of Europe, one can note a legacy of features and events like slavery and war, (apart from anti-semitism and racism which you mentioned), which characterised European history, and which luckily Europeans today desire to surpass.
In addition, the history of Europe following the spread and establishment of Christianity on the continent, was not always a history of moral upgrading, progress and accomplishment.
The influence and legacy of Christianity, or rather of institutions like the church that claimed to speak on behalf of Christ on European history, was not always positive. Following the adoption of Christianity, the Roman Empire become more intolerant to free thought, and certain moral advances, like the desirability of abolishing slavery which for philosophical reasons some pagan Romans were seriously contemplating in the first centuries following the birth of Christ, were reversed when the empire became Christian. Not to mention institutions like the inquisition and the 19th century Catholic opposition to free thought and civil liberties.
The history of Europe following the spread and establishment of Christianity on the continent, was not always a history of moral upgrading, progress and accomplishment.
Hence, I believe that rather than postulating a mythical and preposterous Christian past and suggesting a return to this golden age; and enshrining references to this mythical past in constitutions and documents; we should consider Christianity as a good news which contains a supreme ideal—the ideal of loving God above everything and our neighbour as ourselves following the example of and in communion with Christ and the Church.
Christianity presents an ideal which we are invited to live up and incarnate in each different and distinct epoch. This requires both critical awareness about our supposedly Christian past and the humble attempt to live up to our ideal, without any imposition of sorts on others who do not desire to share it.
In addition, the sole identification of European culture with Greek philosophy and Christianity, ignores another fundamental constituent of European thought, such as the Enlightenment which was fundamentally anti-Christian.
It definitely ignores other fundamental constituents. The exclusive reference to Greek philosophy and Christianity excludes other influences on European thought and culture; both internal (Roman law and institutions; barbarian customs and mores, etc) and external (Egyptian and African influences on Greek and Roman thought; Arab and Jewish influences on European ideas, etc).
However, I do not agree with your characterisation of the Enlightenment as anti-Christian. Though the Enlightenment contained Deist, minor atheist and anti-Christian streams, I do not believe that the Enlightenment was intrinsically anti-Christian. The Enlightenment was not a monolithic and homogenous movement. Apart from the deist and atheist trends, there was a religious enlightenment, aiming to cleanse religion of superstitions, corruption and false beliefs and ideas.
The exclusive reference to Greek philosophy and Christianity excludes other influences—Arab and Jewish—on European thought.
Indeed, the foremost Enlightenment thinker, Immanuel Kant, came from a Pietist background and considered himself a good Christian, even though later in life he abandoned certain aspects of pietist beliefs and practices Kant not only believed that his work (including his refutation of what he considered to be unsatisfactory argument for the existence of God, the unsatisfactory nature of which, he contended, lead to unbelief) cut the ground from beneath atheism, but presented moral arguments for the existence of God and wrote a book through which he believed he had shown that certain fundamental tenets of religion can be sustained through reason alone.
Moreover, his moral work, while relying on pure reason rather than faith or revelation, is thought by many to represent a supreme rational buttressing of the moral tenets of Christianity; ideas like the belief that each person has an intrinsic worth, the un-instrumental commitment towards other human beings, and the like. For instance, Pope Benedict , in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi, notes Kant’s concern for the establishment of the Kingdom of God.
When dealing with issues that concern the termination of life, the Catholic Church adopts an intransigent attitude. You on the other hand, maintain a position that is markedly different regarding euthanasia. Is there a possibility that your views and those of the Catholic Church will ever be reconciled?
First of all I do not like using the term ‘Euthanasia’ or ‘mercy killing’. The term is extremely reductive and fails to capture the scientific, medical, social, moral and cultural significance of the choice a person makes to terminate his/her existence. My reflections on death centre around an important distinction; death as a state, which is the absence and antithesis of life, and death as an event which an integral part of our life.
Considered as an event, death is part and parcel of our lives, just as other events like marriage, illness and birth are. As other events, death may be more or less painful; more or less humiliating; more or less physically, psychologically and emotionally burdensome. Indeed, some Far Eastern Religions and philosophies allow and enjoin one to prepare for a dignified death by slowly and gradually disengaging from life; a disengagement process that the individual may stop and resume according to his/her situation and circumstances.
Merely claiming that one has/does not have a right to ask others to terminate one’s existence, or whether this constitutes or does not constitute a sin, reductively ignores the social, emotional and affective dimensions involved in the request one may make to have his/her existence terminated.
Merely claiming that one has/does not have a right to ask others to terminate one’s existence, reductively ignores the social, emotional and affective dimensions involved in such a request.
Unfortunately, in dealing with issues which have to do with the end of life the official church fails to consider anything but the quantity and duration of life, without giving due consideration to the quality of life and to the fact that, if life is a gift, it involves fee acceptance by the one to whom to gift is bequeathed. One may have good reasons to refuse a gift or to renounce to the gift after some time, if the gift in question becomes exceedingly burdensome and ignominious. It is up to individual to decide in a responsible, thoughtful and intimate manner whether or not to accept such gift.
This individual dimension is also ignored even when the church defines a-priori what constitutes extraordinary or excessive treatment; treatment that the church accepts the patient has a right to renounce. I believe that it should be up to the individual him/herself, in light of his/her beliefs, experience, feelings and situation, to decide, in a calm, serene and reflective manner, when treatment becomes onerous and excessive.
The full version of the interview was published in Italian in the magazine Koinonia, 2010.