During the private audience that Alexis Tsipras, then still leader of Greece’s parliamentary opposition, and I had with the Pope in 2014, which, as L’Osservatore Romano reported, lasted 35 minutes, the Pontiff said it was high time to turn a new leaf in the relations between the Catholic Church and the left. This is by no means a trivial question since these relations are complicated by mistrust and centuries of conflicts that separated the labour movements from the church. It is not hard to see that today neither side represents a homogenous unit and that the experience they have had in dealing with each other vary according to period but also locality, continent, and country.
What then could provide the basis for a dialogue aiming at common action in the world? On the left side, the basis could be the feeling – already newly awakened in the 1980s in that decade’s very significant peace movement – of the common responsibility of all communities of conviction for the fate of humanity as a whole. Knowledge of the dangers threatening humanity through the reckless plundering of nature oriented to growth and profit has also helped in overcoming deterministic and simplistic notions of progress among the left and has generated a debate leading to fundamental questions of the meaning of human existence.
On the Church’s side, with the election of Pope Francis in spring 2013 new standards were set both in spiritual terms and for the worldly engagement of Catholic Christianity. In his first encyclical Laudato Si’, the Pope criticised the consumerism and dominance of the economy – especially of finance in relation to politics – that characterise the centres of contemporary capitalism and not only prevents effective environmental protection but generates enormous social-policy distortions and a growing gap between rich and poor countries.
We were surprised by the directness and openness with which the Pope called for a ‘transversal dialogue of the Church and the left’ during the meeting, although it follows logically and necessarily from the position that both sides have taken on a significant number of questions involving the world.
In my view, there is a further, if you will, mental precondition for the dialogue that exists aside from the common recognition of the dangers threatening humanity: the perception of the defensive in which humanism, in the broadest sense, finds itself in the face of the totalitarian claim to universal validity made by the neoliberal ideology of contemporary capitalism, particularly as its crisis has produced a new populist nationalism that has become a threat to democracy and peace. Solidarity with the refugees became the acid test of any community calling itself humanist.
In a workshop in the framework of the structured dialogue that has developed from the discussion with the Pope, one of the Catholic participants made this sober observation: ‘We, that is, both sides, position ourselves critically and in opposition to the status quo, and we find ourselves in a minority position in our societies.’
In such a defensive position how could we do otherwise than act together? In more than three years since the meeting with the Pope the issues and forms of this dialogue have been concretised. In September of 2018 a European summer school of Christian-Marxist dialogue supported by several universities will be held on the Greek island of Syros, known for its bi-religious character.
The following contributions of three prominent participants demonstrate that what is involved here is neither a diplomatic circumvention of existing differences of viewpoint nor a syncretism but an open and honest effort to understand what we have in common.