The election of Pope Francis obviously created a new climate for the relations between the Church and the European Left. At the meeting in September 2014 between the Pope, Alexis Tsipras and Walter Baier, the principle was adopted of beginning a new process of dialogue between Catholics and Marxists.
The first such experience took place from 31 March to 1 April 2016, at the Sophia University Institute, near Florence, Italy. The organizers were the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, the Focolare Movement and transform! europe. In the statement on the motivation and content of the dialogue it is said by the three partners:
“In the face of the current difficulties and dangers in the world all people of good will must unite independently of their philosophies, their religions and their practical and theoretical approaches, to find ways-out of the crisis. To quote Pope Francis, both transversality and a dialogue across the traditional dividing lines are necessary (...)”.
Both sides agree on establishing a “Working Table”, in order to permit each one to better understand the other side, and “to work out widely shared analyses and solutions, and where possible, to define joint fields of action”.
Among the shared analyses is “the conviction that the Earth was given to all people, i.e. humankind as an entirety, including future generations. Thus the cooperation wants to contribute to each and every inhabitant of our planet being able to live a life worth of human beings, in peace, liberty and justice”. The statement also emphasizes that “the differences of starting points are regarded as enrichment and may contribute to clarify, deepen and put across the own point-of-view”.
The environmental and economic crisis, social justice, the migration and human rights were among the main topics discussed. The participants were very diverse: academics, NGO activists, theologians, economists, political and cultural organizers. Also several generations were represented. The delegation of the transform! network consisted of Walter Baier (Vienna), Peter Fleissner (Vienna), Cornelia Hildebrandt (Berlin), Michael Löwy, (Paris), Giulia Rodano (Rome), and the Holy See was represented by Vincenzo Zani, Secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education and Stefano Zamagni (Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences). Most of the participants were linked to the Focolari Movement: our hosts, Bernhard Callebaut and Paolo Frizzi, from the Sophia University, Catherine Belzung (France), Lorna Gold (Ireland), Alejandra Herrero (Argentina), Herwig Van Staa (Innsbruck), Franz Kronreif (Austria), and Herbert Lauenroth (Germany). Other contributers were Pasquale Ferrara (European University, Florence).
Pope Francis Encyclicas, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si and their contribution to a critical, humanist and fraternal perspective were of course an important element in the discussions, and served as reference both for the Catholic as for the Marxist participants.
One can consider this as an historical event in the relations between the European Left and the Catholic Church, which had known many ups and downs in the past. The Symposium was remarkably successful, thanks to the high quality of the exchanges, and the warmth of human relations it favored. The debates took place in an atmosphere of friendship and simplicity, where academic or ecclesiastical titles were set aside, and participants called each other by the first name. There was really a process of mutual learning and mutual enrichment. Of course there were differences of opinions, concepts, emphasis and proposed solutions, but there was an authentic opening towards “the other” and a real interest in understanding his views.
The Pope’s diagnosis of the environmental crisis as the result of a “structurally perverse system” was widely shared by the participants, as well as the need for an alternative to the absurd and irrational neo-liberal policies of “austerity” promoted by the present European establishment. transform! participants proposed a debate on socialist or eco-socialist alternatives, beyond the capitalist mode of production, and the capitalist “way of life”.
Commenting on the exchanges, Vincenzo Zani observed that he was now persuaded that ecology and the environment should become part of the Catholic Education worldwide. The need of concrete action on the issue of climate change, and in solidarity with the migrants trying to find a sanctuary in Europe was another common conclusion.
This is just a beginning! The organizers agreed on the need to continue this initiative, enlarge it, and deepen the exchanges. There will be also a publication with the contributions to the Symposium.