Traces N.10, November 2001

Getting Our Hands Dirty

One hundred thirty seven years ago, John Henry Newman wrote, “Observing the world far and wide, the vicissitudes of its history, the multiplicity of human races, their beginnings, fates, mutual alienation, conflicts; the feats or purposeless wanderings; the advances and the casual gains, the impotent end to situations long dragged out; man’s greatness and misery, the vastness of his aspiration, the brevity of his life, the veil over his future destiny, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, moral anguish, the prevalence and strength of sin, we have a dizzying and dismaying vision, that oppresses with the sense of a profound mystery absolutely beyond human solution.”

The climate of war and terror that the world has been living in for the past two months, the fear creeping everywhere, make these words timely ones in everyone’s awareness. Thus, we cannot say that we are alive and Christians at this grave moment in history without feeling the “dismay” and “dizziness” of which Newman speaks. It is a truer, more realistic vision than so many presumed special analyses and so many “scenarios” sketched out by the media and opinion leaders.
The Pope has used stirring words to judge this moment.
Two months ago, we wrote that in this circumstance we are called on to discover who saves us. The entreaty to Christ for the life of the world and the truth of our existence is the clearest and most useful action that we can carry out.
But the Christian judgment is not expressed as a pure wish, it does not float several feet off the ground without getting its hands dirty in the concrete and ambiguous workings of history. The Christian is not a comfortable observer of someone else’s match, since “in any case he already knows how things stand.” Christians are not persons who think they are already living in Paradise. We get mixed up in things like everybody else, in the approximations and contradictions that touch every human, personal, social, and political situation. Any position of detachment, of not wanting to get involved in facing problems, masks a presumptuousness about the Christian’s mission–as if the judgment that arises from faith coincided with a devaluation of the circumstances of personal, social, and political life.

Faith moves a man to realism, not to Utopian flight. Loving the world and mankind not for what they are, but for what they should be is the root of the moralism and Utopia that always generate violence. In taking a position within the events of the world, those who are touched by the Christian event are more restless in searching for adequate and profound reasons and in keeping in mind all the factors at stake. As they confront social and political questions, they will find themselves next to men who are fighting on the same side for more superficial or partial reasons. But this is no cause for them to leave the field.
The graver the events, the more present in the life of the Church is the example and guidance of Shepherds who are capable of taking a stand. Just as the Pope and Cardinal Ruini have done in these months, recalling the United States–committed to the defense of their, and our, freedom against terrorism–to their historic duty, as a great power, to foster and guarantee, as much as possible, “a just and lasting peace.”