Interview with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone
Published by Famiglia Cristiana, January 2008
Conducted by Alberto Bobbio
After the pope himself, the Secretary of State is the second most powerful figure in the Vatican and, at least arguably, in the global Catholic Church. The present occupant of the position, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 73, recently sat down for a year-end interview with Famiglia Cristiana, a leading Italian weekly. Bertone discussed a wide range of issues, beginning with Italy and extending to Benedict XVI’s recent document on the Latin Mass, relations with Israel and China, ecumenism, dialogue with Islam, the United Nations and Benedict’s upcoming trip to the United States, and Bertone’s hopes for greater cooperation among Catholic media outlets and NGOs. The following is an NCR translation of the interview.
Your Eminence, in the encyclical Spe Salvi the pope does not sidestep cultural debate. Indeed, he enters it without fear: the Enlightenment, Marx, the Frankfurt School, totalitarianism and relativism. How has the encyclical been received?
There’s been some critical discussion about the relationship with science. But I believe that it’s been well received by Catholics and by the other Christian churches and communities. Around two million copies have been circulated. It expresses a precise line of thought, at times biting, certainly stimulating from a cultural point of view, on totalitarianism – which raised false hopes, deluded the masses, and generated so many mirages on the path of humanity. It then takes up dialogue with science, without denying the role of science, its function, I would even say its mission. Certainly, it rejects false applications of science. It’s a timely text, upon which the entire world will have to reflect, even in Italy, where hope sometimes seems to be missing.
In what sense?
I see trepidation, delusion, sometimes fear. The aspiration to well-being, the habit of having it all, of living in prosperity, the euphoria of wealth presented as the lone measure of hope, are today placed at risk by the economic situation. This always happens whenever hope is based upon material goods.
How do you see Italy from this palace that looks out over Rome?
A bit ‘litigious,’ despite promises of building bridges and thinking about the common objectives of political and social forces. The legitimate diversity of opinion shouldn’t block the process of seeking the common good, rather than pursuing so many particular benefits that don’t help Italy grow. The choice of the Italian church to dedicate its recent ‘Social Week’ to a reflection on the common good is an appeal that needs to be heard.
Italy is depicted as a country in decline. What’s your opinion?
I don’t like prophets of doom. There are criticisms that need to be made, but one can’t always present Italy negatively. Self-inflicted wounds in the court of international public opinion are damaging to all those true, positive resources, to the Italy that keeps fighting, that works, and that commits itself to others.
Who tells the story?
That’s the problem. Television and the newspapers speak abundantly about crime and violence. Pages and pages are dedicated to crimes in the family. I see a sort of inclination in the media to present everything bad that strikes the family. They recount extreme situations, so that the normal family seems to disappear from the horizon – families with their difficulties, but where people care for one another, where children are educated for solidarity and for commitment to others, families that take on children in difficulty or that adopt children at a distance, which is a sign that situations of misery in the world are also a concern of our normal families. In Italy there’s a widespread way of seeing the world that’s generous, caring, and altruistic. Why did that soldier in Afghanistan die by throwing himself at a kamikaze in order to save the lives of others? How do you explain the generous act of the fireman Giorgio Lorefice from Genoa? It’s because they were educated by the inspiration of the gospel, according to which one’s own life should be spent for the good of others. Families rooted in this teaching are the majority in Italy, but the media never seem to notice. Meanwhile, the Italian church is highly esteemed both in Italy and abroad, both for its work of evangelization inside the country, and for its cooperation with other churches throughout the world.
What about politics?
The wisest and most objective position is that of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano: he never hesitates to indicate things that aren’t going in the right direction, but he also values the riches of a good, diligent, generous and moral Italy.
You recently met with Silvio Berlusconi and Walter Veltroni. What did you say to them?
Above all, I listened. It’s not true that the people I meet receive directives from the Holy See, like I read sometimes in the newspapers. Certainly, they ask our opinion. We’re concerned above all with defense of the values of life, with the moral and social patrimony that’s in the DNA of the Italian people, which we always present under the profile of the social doctrine of the Church. The Church is also a resource for the political community in Italy.
However, some speak freely and often of Italy as a country controlled by the Church.
A conception of secularity that’s opposed to religion is anti-historical. Even the president of ultra-secular France, Nicolas Sarkozy, said just a few days ago in Rome that the Catholic Church is a resource rather than an obstacle for the development of his country. It does not contradict Republican ideals. Will it ever be possible for Italian secularists to think like this?
The church in Italy suffered some heavy attacks this year. Was the situation better in the era of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party?
There was more respect. The position of Gramsci and of many communists with regard to religion was quite different from certain contemporary secularists, who assert that a Catholic cannot have a positive concept of the secular state. If so, then who were Giuseppe Lazzati, Igino Giordani, Giorgio La Pira, and other great figures? In my view, there are some prejudices based on stereotypes which almost suggest that a Catholic can’t really be a true citizen.
On the so-called ‘non-negotiable values,’ in the first place life and the family, 2007 was difficult …
It was a busy year for Italian Catholics. We could say that the last episode on this journey was the insertion of a norm against homophobia into a decree on security, which is a completely different subject. The position of the Church is not partisan, but corresponds to natural law. The Communist Party of Gramsci, Togliatti and Berlinguer would never have approved the directions that we see today. Great Communist and Socialist intellectuals who I knew personally had a secular vision but a moral one, meaning that they believed in an authentic moral and ethical project.
Did you talk about this with Walter Veltroni?
Certainly. I expressed the hope that Catholics won’t be mortified by the new Democratic Party, and that it will be inspired by the tradition of the great popular parties which had a solid anchoring in the moral principles of social co-existences.
Let’s get back to the Church. The moto proprio on the Latin Mass provoked reactions. What are you thinking of doing?
There were some disproportionate reactions. Some went so far as to accuse the pope of having reneged on the teaching of Vatican II. On the other hand, there were those who interpreted the motu proprio as authorization to return to the pre-conciliar rite alone. Both positions are wrong, exaggerations that don’t correspond to the intentions of the pope. The preparation of an ‘instruction’ that will clearly establish the criteria for application of the motu proprio is expected.
In terms of ecumenism, can we speak, in your opinion, of a major advance with the Orthodox?
There were steps forward. The ecumenical problem is among the priorities of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He said so in his first public address, and he put the question at the center of the recent consistory with all the cardinals of the world. Papal primacy remains one of the problems that needs reflection. On some themes, for example the family, peace, the environment, unity is more visible. On theological issues discussion will continue. But I believe that, precisely because of the esteem Pope Benedict XVI enjoys as a theologian, concrete steps can be taken also on this level.
What will the letter sent to the Vatican by 138 Muslim intellectuals bring in the future?
It will stimulate a concrete deepening of dialogue with Islam in the pluralism of positions. The response of the Holy See was positive and heralds further steps. The pope has expressed his willingness to receive a delegation. We have to think carefully about what unites us, without forgetting what divides us.
Is the Middle East the most serious question for you?
It’s one of the problems that concerns us the most. The pope talks about it with the leaders who come to visit the Vatican, and he also offered an extraordinary number of appeals on the subject during his Sunday Angelus addresses this year.
How are relations with Israel going? What’s the situation?
We understand the problem of security in Israel. But this must not mutate into a negative attitude towards members of the Catholic Church, which has done so much in the last 15 years both for regularizing relations with Israel and for improving the understanding of Judaism. The Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Pizzaballa, has pointed out that pilgrims from around the world contribute to shaping a more accurate image of the State of Israel in the world. Pilgrimages to the holy sites, moreover, are also a source of income for Israel. This year, pilgrimages grew larger than in the Holy Year of 2000. Sometimes, however, it seems to us that Israel doesn’t appropriately or adequately value all this. We’re engaged in an intense dialogue, but unfortunately we’re not able to obtain solutions to concrete problems: property rights, visas, etc. Our religious personnel in the Holy Land can’t get visas, even though you certainly can’t say they pose any threat to security. This is a kind of closure that gets in the way of serene activity.
You’ve been to Latin America several times. There were some criticisms of the final document from the meeting of the bishops in Aparecida …
The document was unanimously approved. Some criticisms came from the base communities, because there wasn’t a univocal positive evaluation of them in the document, but one that’s more realistic – a view shared, in any event, by all the bishops. For the most part, the problems that came up in the past have been resolved. The Church in Latin America is moving forward very well, including its charitable works. The Church in Peru, to take one example, didn’t wait for help from more wealthy churches when the earthquake struck last August, but rather got to work immediately in a spirit of solidarity.
What about the Venezuela of Chavez, who was reined in by the popular referendum?
The Venezuelan church has never stopped the dialogue with the political authorities. The people of Venezuela demonstrated great liberty and courage. In Latin America, the leaders have to learn to listen to the people, who are maturing and are becoming aware of their right to be protagonists.
Are there conversations about Cuba in the offing?
I’m preparing a trip to Cuba in February. I hope to see the brother of Fidel Castro, Raul, who today is running the country. One positive development is a grand public monument to Pope John Paul II in Santa Clara, which I will bless, and which recalls the 10th anniversary of the visit of Karol Wojtyla to Cuba.
Let’s change continent. Any improvements in relations with China?
There are openings and contacts underway. One important development was recognition this year by the party of the positive value of religions. Let’s say that we’re taking small steps, but we’re moving forward.
The pope will go to the UN this spring. A few weeks ago newspapers wrote about the criticisms of Benedict XVI regarding the United Nations. Where do things stand?
It was the usual distortion of a speech from which certain phrases were lifted out of context. The concerns of the pope with regard to the United Nations are the same as those of Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, a man of great spirituality. The Catholic Church has always supported the work of the United Nations and that position won’t change. The address by Benedict XVI to the United Nations will confirm the necessity of upholding the values that undergird historic international declarations, despite the difficulties of sustaining a global consensus among almost 200 countries with diverse political and ideological opinions, and he will also confirm that there is no substitute for the United Nations.
The trip will take place in the middle of campaign season in America. Is there a risk of the trip being instrumentalized?
Someone once said that in the United States it’s always campaign season. The pope is non-partisan. Of course, it’s impossible to control how the trip might be instrumentalized.
L’Osservatore Romano is changing. Are you satisfied?
Yes, they do good work at our newspaper. But we have to reinforce synergy among the Catholic media. There are Catholic agencies such as Misna and Zenit that have an important place in the media. But we have to do more: we need synergy among Catholic editors, faculties of communications, newspapers, radio and TV. There’s a project we’re working on to connect L’Osservatore Romano to certain Italian dailies. It’s the same thing we need to do for Catholic non-governmental organizations: working together rather than separately, or, worse yet, in opposition. The conciliar idea of the Church as communion needs to be translated into the daily activity of NGOs and the Catholic media: creating networks and having a greater impact, because otherwise we risk decline and not meeting the challenges created by contemporary society. But I see many resources and a great deal of commitment, which is why I’m incurably optimistic.