Mauro Magatti

Magatti: "Hope that resists despair"

A dialogue with a sociologist from the Catholic University in Milan about Carrón's letter on Coronavirus. Fragility, the truth of our lives, the rediscovery of a "common good". And the meaning of an existence that is not self-referential.
Davide Perillo

"More than fear, I would say despair." Mauro Magatti, a 60-year-old sociologist from the Catholic University in Milan and columnist of Corriere della Sera and Avvenire, has spoken often about the Coronavirus emergency in these days. He has almost always focused on what this dramatic event can allow us to discover or rediscover (empathy and mutual responsibility, the risk of information gone mad and the call for "global common good").
He does this also with regards to Julián Carrón's letter, which was published in Corriere della Sera a few days ago. In Carrón's appeal to come to terms with "with reality [that] exposes our essential powerlessness” and to look around us to intercept "people who embody the experience of this victory" ("this is why God became man, why he became a historical, embodied presence”), he sees this as a chance to understand more about ourselves, the world, faith. And the conditions in which we are living. "Despair. Because we are in front of an unwanted visitor that we usually delude ourselves into removing: death. It is something that is being constantly introduced into our daily lives. Only, normally, it remains a private fact: the relative who falls ill and leaves us, the accident... Such contagion brings the presence of death, which contemporary society tends to ignore, into the public sphere. This is what disorients us".

But what does it allow us to understand about ourselves?
First of all, we are brought back to the fundamental experience of our fragility, of our precariousness. The word "prayer" comes from "prece", which has the same Latin root as "precarious": if you are not aware of your mortality, of your exposure to what is "beyond you", you are no longer able to pray. Recovering the meaning of this existential precariousness can be distressing, when it is not elaborated and does not find an answer, or it can be an element that brings you back to your real condition, to what we are. And, therefore, also to our religious nature, however we want to define it. And this is very interesting. A society that has overlooked certain issues for a long time can no longer do so. Our life, which is so organized and functional, has come to a complete halt in just a couple of weeks. Implausible. Who could have imagined this? Well, in a society of technocratic certainty, we discover suddenly that the narrative we have followed so far does not hold up.

"Each of us must say for himself, observing all that is happening within and around him, which attempts are really capable of addressing the problem and overcoming the fear”, says the letter. We are called to verify what grounds us, whether or not our ideas hold...
I agree. This situation pushes us to confront the truth of our lives. But perhaps we need to go one step further.

What step?
Modernity uses the word "truth" as "certainty". From Descartes onwards, truth is essentially identified with scientific, mathematical certainty. Instead, we must recover its full, complete meaning. It is an opportunity to confront the truth of our lives. That is, the meaning of what we are doing, the ability to love others, the world, God. It is a moment of truth which, paradoxically, questions our certainties and pushes us to a deeper level. Carrón's expression is interesting because it is as if this crisis is pushing us towards something that we normally risk losing.

We deal with the most urgent, vital questions as though they were identical to those that have a definitive answer capable of solving the problem: but the answer, many times, is not of the same nature...

Exactly. The truth is something wider and deeper than known certainties.

Is that why Carron's asking to "tap into a presence”?
True, but we must avoid misunderstanding: at this moment, when we feel a sense of acute bewilderment, we experience an absence, rather than a presence. Religions, even Christianity, have always been subject to defining ideas. The plague comes, or an earthquake, and immediately there are those who see it as “God’s punishment”, His will. But this is a moment when people are increasingly feeling an absence, expressed in dramatic questions: why has this virus come? why is my father dying? We must not rush to somehow represent a presence that, in this moment, seems not to be there. In order to discover a real presence, we must have this experience of absence. We need the patience to allow this condition to mature, because otherwise the presence itself becomes incomprehensible.

But the image of the child, whose fear disappears in front of its mother, is striking because of its immediacy…
It evokes well that being suspended, which is our mortality: and being suspended either brings despair, or makes you discover that you are in another embrace, a different one. In another truth. Which is exactly the point that, today, the Christian experience of faith struggles to say about itself. That is why I said that the answer to absence is certainly a presence. But this presence must be discovered. And one can discover it only through a path. We discover it in our existence a little at a time. Even if we experience this absence.

And this leads us to look around and look for concrete signs, witnesses. You wrote that even in such conditions, the things that restore hope are "acts of noble generosity": the dedication of doctors and nurses, certain gestures of solidarity... What do they tell us?

Certainly, it is fundamental for us to be immersed in this situation not by living an experience of despair, but of hope – that is, of a different way of dealing with precariousness. Otherwise only despair remains. The word "testimony" is perhaps a little overused, but it is pertinent. How does our society move in such a situation? "Let us activate all our science, which will find a vaccine, so that we can go back to being invincible.” Of course science is indispensable and so is a vaccine, but we tend wrap everything within it. Instead, our task as Christians is to say: we do everything, we seek treatment and we wait for the end of the epidemic, but we take note that we are exposed, we are mortal. And this mortality is not the end of the world: it is the condition that opens us to a fullness of life that goes beyond us. At this moment, being able to be a reflection of this presence is very precious. There is a step in between, which comes from the ability of Christian communities to introduce this element of research.

I was struck by your call to rediscover that there is a "global common good", that we have a "mutual responsibility": what does this responsibility have in common?
Contagion comes from "con-tangere". It is a word that evokes a sense of threat, especially now, but it actually speaks of our "being with". There is contagion, but there is also connection, collaboration... One of the things that we can learn again in this historical phase is that, contrary to the radical and hyper-individualistic culture of the last decades, each of us is ourselves, but we are also with others, the world, the cosmos. It is an unrealistic fantasy that we exist "regardless of". Such contagion teaches us, in a painful way, this "being with". It can produce a withdrawal from the other, but it also pushes us to look at ourselves more, to assume behaviors that are not harmful to the other, to understand that if you get sick, someone else will need to cure you, and so on. We are not the sum of “individuals": we are "individuals" who are with each other. This event can allow us to rediscover this.

In your experience, what withstands the test of this despair?
For me, it is the meaning of a life that is not self-referential. I did not give it to myself: I am not the beginning, nor am I the end. This is the fundamental meaning of faith: death does not have the last word upon life. This event does not only convey despair to me. It also transmits hope and an awareness of the meaning of what we are. That is, a relationship with God.