John Cavadini (Photo: Matt Cashore/ University of Notre Dame /Catholic Press Photo)

Be realists, ask for the impossible

American theologian John Cavadini describes the “countercultural” value of Giussani’s book: “I am so moved just to know that my students have the chance to read a book like this.” From June Traces.
Luca Fiore

John Cavadini is a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the most prestigious Catholic university in the United States. He is an expert in patristic theology and its diffusion during the Middle Ages. He has written books on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, on the role of Mary in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and on the celibacy of priests. During Ratzinger’s papacy, he served as a member of the International Theological Commission. He is a husband and is tall, elegant, and kind. He is also generous with his smiles. We met him during this year’s New York Encounter, to which he had been invited to give a presentation on the new English edition of the Religious Sense by Luigi Giussani. He recalled that it was Paolo Carozza, a law professor at Notre Dame, who first suggested to him that he read this book by the Italian priest. It was during the 1990s. “Back then I was not teaching yet and today, after years of teaching students, this book seems even more extraordinary. I am so moved to know that my students have the chance to read a book like this.

Today’s students have grown up without being educated about the religious sense. I try to help them develop critical thinking, but I also realize that this is very challenging because for them the religious experience is something that is completely subjective. Their parents and teachers do not encourage them to ask about the meaning of life. The genius of this book is that it demonstrates that it is our reason that asks the questions about what we are living. We are not stones that do not question anything. The point is that becoming aware of our deepest questions is a form of realism. It is the opposite of what most people believe–that to be a realist means to forget about these questions and focus on obtaining concrete results: relationships, career, success… Giussani says: No, rationality and reasonableness consist in listening to the cry for meaning in all of you, which is what reason is fundamentally. And it is reason that propels you toward awareness of an answer that is bigger than what reason can imagine.

Giussani uses the word “mystery”
Yes, our culture has lost the meaning of mystery. Reason needs something that reveals itself without losing its mysterious nature. Our greatness lies in staying open to the hypothesis of revelation. Only this openness can allow us to access the Revelation with a capital “R.” One of the clearest examples of this is seen in the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

What do you mean by that? In what sense?
The mystery announces a message to her that reason cannot conceive: “How can this be if I know not man?” And the angel replied, “Nothing is impossible for God.” She stayed open to what remained a mystery and the mystery grows even after it had been announced to her: “Behold you will conceive and bear a son. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.” Everything that would follow would not be easy. There is a popular devotion that has synthesized this experience in the image of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a path that goes from bad to worse. Simeon announced to her that a sword would pierce her heart. Herod forced her to flee to Egypt. She had to look for her son who went missing during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Then she met him on the road to Calvary. She watched him die; she took him down from the cross. She looked on as the heavy stone covered the entrance to the sepulcher. He who had raised people from the dead lay dead in the tomb. The story ends. Yet, in each of these circumstances, Mary remained open. By being open her true self was revealed, even though from the outside it seemed that her identity had dissolved. Through her openness she showed herself to be the mother of us all. Then the impossible, that which no one could have foreseen, silently entered her life and brought it to fulfillment.

So, you are saying that Mary teaches us the proper use of reason?
Exactly. Think about the many times in our lives that we feel disappointed and that there is nothing more to be done. However, if we look back at episodes from Mary’s life, it will become clear to us that we are in good company. The openness of her reason is a beacon of hope for all of us.

Going back to Giussani’s book: In essence, this text was conceived in the 50s. Is the language it uses still able to pique the interest of those who were born more than half a century later?
The language in the book speaks especially to teachers, and gives them a method even though they may not need to teach the content that Giussani proposes. When I teach, I do not talk about the religious sense, but I look for ways to awaken it in my students. Giussani taught at the Berchet High School in postwar Italy, when all religious language was rejected by the cultural elites. At that time, intellectuals were asking questions such as, How can Christians fight amongst themselves like this? Where did their hatred toward the Jews come from? Where was God at Auschwitz? This rejection has become more widespread and has become part of the dominant culture in which today’s youth are being raised. It is true that among them there are still some practicing Catholics. But I think that almost half of them renounce the faith because they have been taught that religious language does not have an equivalent in reality, that Christianity is something that was made up, that it is a form of superstition. Therefore, the challenge, as Giussani put it, is to help them become aware that they have a heart, that having a religious sense is not something that is imposed on you from the outside; rather, it is intrinsic to your being. Otherwise, of course, the religious dimension would be reduced to power and seems to be a lie disguised as the truth. I believe that the more advanced students can easily pick up the book and read it. But for the younger ones it is necessary to “act it out,” to show its meaning through other means.

Giussani references many Italian poets and writers who in many cases are not known outside of Italy.
I do not think this is a major issue. Other examples can be used. What matters is that he demonstrates how it is done. There is a lot of literature that helps cancel out the other images of the faith and the religious sense. The first thing that comes to mind are the stories of Flannery O’Connor about violence and grace. Or the novels by Walker Percy such as The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and Lost in the Cosmos. I think that the youth can identify with the sense of feeling shipwrecked, that is, feeling abandoned and waiting to hear a message that never seems to come but is still worth waiting for.

In the current polarized state of our culture, the questions that constitute the religious sense can be new territory to start from together.
Many young people are tired of debates that seem to go nowhere. They are also tired because people reduce faith and the church to a collection of beliefs. Instead, I like to think of the title of a book by Flannery O’Connor called Everything That Rises Must Converge. If we start from the topics that divide us, we can argue and debate all we want without gaining anything, because those who are a-religious do not have a sense of the beauty of the faith and tradition; that is, the point where everything that emerges converges. Our
task is to show that the church’s teachings are not a list of restrictions, but something intrinsically fascinating, because He who has started this small group of followers, the Christians, was rich but became poor for our sake. This is something that is attractive if it is taken seriously because it is beautiful and sheds light on everything else. When this is understood, only then is it worth discussing with someone who thinks differently. But the point is that something must be communicated even before starting a debate.

Which page of this book struck you the most?
The last one. Can I read it?

Of course.
“The fundamental dogma of the Enlightenment is the impossibility of a revelation. This is the taboo preached by all liberal philosophy and its materialistic heirs.” This is the aim of universities today, even those who hide behind religious language. This is the consequence of Kant’s attempt to translate the terms of revelation into terms of pure reason. I love this book because it emphasizes how such a claim falls short. Giussani continues: “The affirmation of this impossibility is the extreme attempt that reason makes in order to dictate by itself the measure of the real, and therefore, the measure of the possible and impossible in reality. But the hypothesis of Revelation cannot be destroyed by any preconception or option. It raises a factual issue to which the nature of the human heart is originally open. This openness must prevail if life is to be realized. The destiny of the ‘religious sense’ is totally tied to it.” Then the book concludes with a quote by Franz Kafka that moves me every time I read it: “This is the frontier of human dignity: ‘Even if salvation does not come, still I want to be worthy of it in every instant.’” For me, Giussani calling us to have a reason that is open is decisive. This book provides the tools to say: No, the default position of today’s culture does not correspond to my heart because it is reasonable to be open to the intervention of grace. In the English edition (in the endnotes) there is another quote by Kafka that is provoking.

Will you read that also?
“I try to be a true attendant upon grace. Perhaps it will come–perhaps it will not come. Perhaps this quiet yet unquiet waiting is the harbinger of grace or perhaps it is grace itself. I do not know. But that does not disturb me.” That’s incredible. It is the kind of spiritual advice that helps you rise above your problems. God is the one who can save us if He wants to. Our responsibility is to desire this even when it seems impossible.