January 01, 2008

A year or so ago the notorious paleo Catholic John Zmirak sent me a notice about a political discussion to take place at the Columbia Law School, and the name of the moderator, Lorenzo Albacete, caught my attention. A magazine called Triumph had been an important part of my political, intellectual, and even spiritual life in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and a young astrophysicist of that name had been a frequent contributor. Dr. Albacete was now Msgr. Albacete, and national coordinator of a movement called Communion and Liberation, about which I had become intensely curious after a friend of theirs had been elected Bishop of Rome. As for Triumph, founded by Brent Bozell (the father) and Frederick Wilhelmsen, it was paleocon before paleocon was uncool. Its fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church was absolute, and its critique of the imperial warfare state, uncompromising, even extending to a properly qualified sympathy for Black Power in the inner cities. The stand I recall most vividly was in favor of the brave Air Force officer at a missile base who had earnestly requested transfer to a combat missions in Vietnam because as a Catholic Christian he could not in good conscience give the order to incinerate innocent civilians, however ungodly the government that ruled over them. The Air Force discharged him as mentally unfit to serve his country.


Of course it was America that was mentally and morally incompetent, groveling before the idol of child-eating Moloch, unfit to serve the living God, and the “radical feminists” had nothing to do with it, at least at first. Roe v. Wade would come, inevitably, later. But it was Catholic America that cried out with Miss Ayn Rand that the only good Commie is a dead Commie, that every last man, woman, and child, every dog, cat and field mouse must be exterminated, and if the Holy See objects, let Rome thank God that we protect them. To think otherwise, to question the moral legitimacy of strategic nuclear weapons, was to be a pinko, a traitor, if not necessarily a Jew, then probably a homosexual. Now as far as I know the advocates of nuclear disarmament were no more poofters than, say, Francis Cardinal Spellman — not to mention J. Edgar Hoover — but the stereotype stuck, and we live with the results. When the remnants of human decency are stigmatized for a generation as “gay,” eventually people of homosexual inclination will assume positions of moral authority over the rest of us, and the “straights” among us will cheerfully revel in their own inferiority, as the purveyors of popular culture do now. We started out before the middle of the last century with the idea that innocent civilians are to be wiped out because of the wickedness of their rulers, and after fifty years our culture has become so hostile to human life that those of us who are openly attracted to the opposite sex are held up to ridicule as “breeders.”


It is pointless to be obsessed with foreign policy or domestic politics when it is the whole culture that is sick, sick unto death, our own death and the death of the world, and when our sickness is a sickness of the spirit that is not of today or of yesterday, but a progression measured in decades, nay in centuries, the centuries since what some are pleased to call a “Reformation,” if not, indeed, since the schism of 1054. The healing of this sick culture cannot even begin until we stop trying to placate the Puritans, the godless sex-crazed Puritans as well as the sex-denying sanctimonious ones, and reach out for reconciliation with the other remnants of traditional Christianity, that is, with Eastern Orthodoxy, with Oriental Orthodoxy, and with the even more ancient Church of the East, now threatened with extinction by America’s allies.


My own desire for reconciliation brought me to the East Village a little more than two years ago. I was at a little Orthodox church of the Carpatho-Russian jurisdiction, listening to the actor Peter von Berg read from something he had found on the Internet:


“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter… The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.”


Our little group proceeded to a game of Guess the Author. A man who knows the Islamic tradition very well from the inside said that these had to be the words of a great Sufi master. The leader of one of the smaller Orthodox denominations suggested that great and good man Philip Sherrard, with whom I myself had been privileged to study, though all too briefly, and indeed it seemed like something he might have said, though for him, perhaps, even Bach would represent the egoistic assertion of Latin Christendom. Von Berg let us discuss this for a good while before he announced something that I already realized, that these were the words of the man the Catholic Church had recently elected Pope — though certainly not the Panzerkardinal depicted by the aggrieved media in the style of World War I posters of the Kaiser. They were addressed to a Meeting for Friendship Among the Peoples at Rimini, the very name, I must admit, having unpleasant associations with the late Mrs. Roosevelt.


The Rimini Meeting turns out to be an initiative of Don Liugi Giussani and his friends, indeed, the chief public manifestation of the Communion and Liberation movement he founded. Or inspired. Or something. If that seems a little vague, well, it’s a movement, not an organization, though it includes organizations, one or two of them living in community without vows. The main activity of the movement seems to be weekly discussion groups called School of Community. Since making contact at Columbia Law I have been going to one where the Upper East Side blends into Spanish Harlem, a block and a half from the great mosque. There is rumored to be one that meets in the Pope’s private apartment in the Vatican, and it is good to know that he and I are on the same page. Literally. (Cardinal Ratzinger had recruited his personal staff from a CL community and brought them with him into the Vatican. Nobody makes strudel like his pastry chef, and heroic efforts had to be made to get it to him for his birthday, which fell during the interregnum.)


Josef Ratzinger revealed himself to Communion and Liberation at Rimini in an intimate manner that could not be imagined from his official pronouncements. As John Paul II entered the hospital for the last time Ratzinger found himself in a very public light indeed, for he had been appointed to preach at the funeral of Father Giussani, a media event which many have compared to a state occasion. There he struck the same note:


Fr Giussani grew up in a home—as he himself said—poor as far as bread was concerned, but rich with music, and thus from the start he was touched, or better, wounded, by the desire for beauty. He was not satisfied with any beauty whatever, a banal beauty, he was looking rather for Beauty itself, infinite Beauty, and thus he found Christ, in Christ true beauty, the path of life, the true joy.


Who was, who is, this Luigi Giussani? To be brief about it, Don Gius (“Don Juice”) was a seminary professor of Byzantine Slavic theology who became a high school teacher because he found Italian kids of the ‘50s to be depressingly clueless. They might be good Catholics from good families, but they had no idea whatever of the vital human questions to which Christianity proposes Jesus Christ as the answer — except for the handful of Communists, who were stuck with a package of wrong answers, but at least were relatively alive. Christianity was dead in Europe because what was left of our common humanity had no place in the culture of the elites or that of ordinary folks. Sound familiar? Don Gius started a Christian youth movement based on the candid discussion of vital human questions, often provoked by the great works of literature, music, and the visual arts. Don Gius had found that it was the Romantic poet Leopardi who touched his own humanity in a way that made the Gospel meaningful to him. (Yes, Leopardi was on the Index, along with Manzoni, another favorite, and, of course his beloved Rosmini.) Communion and Liberation grew up among former students who wanted to keep the conversation going after graduation, in some cases, long after. Numbers are hard to estimate except for a small Fraternity, which is recognized as an Association of the Faithful of Pontifical right under the patronage of St. Benedict, the Father of the West. Even there the edges are blurred, because a priest drops his formal affiliation with the Fraternity when he is made a bishop, but remains connected to the movement in a vague but vital way; and a number of these men are high in the hierarchy these days, as we shall see later.


As far as I can tell, CL was brought to America by Italian university graduates, and Giussani’s basic approach has been greeted with enthusiasm by a number of veterans of the old Conservative movement who did not go along with the neocon putsch of the Reagan years. I will not name names here, because the movement leaves people free to do their own thing without any central coordination beyond setting the text for School of Community. People who know each other through the movement find themselves collaborating on various projects on their own initiative, perhaps inspired in one way or other by the vision of Don Gius, which of course each interprets in his own way. More significantly, people who have found their vocation in expressing the Christian vision in terms of the wider culture are often delighted to discover, through CL, that they are not nearly as alone as they might have imagined.


Some Italian ciellini, as CLers are called, didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing their own political initiatives from the inspiration, and the movement as a whole suffered; since the middle ‘90s there has been a desire to limit movement activities to the ample spheres of religion and culture, and even there it has become customary to speak of the collaboration of friends rather than the work of a movement. This is not hiding behind “fronts,” but merely an attempt to be honest; where there is no control whatever, the idea of a front is meaningless. Leading such a movement would be like herding cats, CL people often say, a phrase I used to hear a lot in Mensa. Of course the Church, unlike the IQ society, has a Popemobile, the main function of which is to keep away the herd of stray cats which would otherwise blur the image of a sedate and serious ecclesiastic.


Here in New York the major CL activities, apart from School of Community, are the annual Good Friday Way of the Cross over the Brooklyn Bridge to the site of the World Trade Center, and the Crossroads Cultural Center, which organized the program at the United Nations at which Angelo Scola, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, presented the first issue of Oasis, a journal of inter-religious dialogue, with the participation of Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress and Sayyed Hossein Nasr, once head of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy.


I was particularly pleased to see Cardinal Scola, of whom I had heard a great deal, in dialogue with Dr. Nasr, whom I had met shortly before the unfortunate revolution in Iran. Scola is a man to watch. Born in 1941, he is young enough to have belonged to Gioventù Studentesca near the beginning of Giussani’s youth ministry, and he was active in Communion and Liberation when the movement came of age. Scola was one of the founders of the international theological journal Communio — together with Cardinal de Lubac and Cardinal designate von Balthasar, two theologians of great importance to both Giussani and Ratzinger. (No, Communio was not a CL initiative, but it is generally understood that the name was intended to indicate a certain affinity.)


Next January 20 the Crossroads Center will present a three way discussion of the relationship between faith and reason, a key theme of Benedict’s papacy. The participants will be Father Julian Carron, handpicked successor to Don Gius, Msgr. Albacete, and Columbia biologist Robert Pollack; the evening before there will be a concert of rhythm and soul music to support the work of AVSI with HIV-infected mothers in Uganda. These women, by the way, make a wretched living by knocking rocks together to make gravel, yet when they heard about Hurricane Katrina they put together what cash they had to send to New Orleans: the spirit of Don Gius.


Many of Taki’s readers will already know that, in the conclave that elected Ratzinger as Benedict XIV, Cardinal Scola was the Paleocon Candidate, backed by Srđa Trifković in Chronicles as the papabile most likely to arrest, perhaps even to reverse, the decline of Western civilization. And he may yet be called upon to do just that — but not, I hope, for many years. Benedict is the man of the hour, a Giussanian in his own right, though more a contemporary and friend than student and disciple. He has indicated in many ways that he favors the CL charism as a particularly apt way to bring the gospel of Christ into a world that has seemingly lost its reason, as Scola is striving with might and main to bring the witness of Christian reason into the discussion with Muslims, not all of whom are fanatics or terrorists, just as not all terrorists and fanatics are Muslims, or even religious. It is the same witness that Father Carron is bringing to New York next month, and it is in harmony with the witness that Italian doctors are bringing to Uganda, and that their patients sent to the people of New Orleans.


Communion and Liberation people do not advertise themselves or their movement. For them the only message is Christ, and they work closely with others whose charisms propose the same message, including Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Missionaries of Charity, and with other laypeople active in the world. They don’t seem to need their own hierarchy or liturgy. They participate fully in the life of their parish churches, not as camouflage, but as a matter of principle. And they strive to think with the mind of the Church, not only about their private lives, but in relation to matters of state. That’s good enough for me. And it’s a good thing for all of us.


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