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In these days of inflamed electoral rhetoric, many ask me to discuss the role of Catholics in politics. But for the proximity of the elections, I would be disinclined to accept these invitations, for the simple reason that there is nothing original to add to what has already been said, if indeed something original has ever been said. But today we are still experiencing the severe and gloomy atmosphere that hearkens back to the tragedy suffered by our Jewish brethren – and not only the Jews – a tragedy that has shaken Italy, Europe and the world. This absolute senseless evil was realized by the perpetrators of those horrors called Nazism and Fascism. I thought, therefore, that a reflection on what happened during those grim years of the twentieth century could help Christians today, not so much to choose the party and candidates who are trustworthy, as to understand the attitude that we should have as believers who are called to govern and represent our interests and values in the face of power.
On June 7, 1979, on the main street of Brzezinka, before the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Oświęcim, John Paul II uttered phrases heavy as boulders, saying that the entire Christian message could be contained in the statement that the living God came close to man and can be encountered in the concrete and historical person of Jesus because he is God and reveals the infinite Personhood of God. Jesus also “reveals man to himself.” This was exactly what totalitarianism of any kind tried to deny in every way; with the camps, with the gulag, with the culture of death and denunciation. Humanity had been emptied of its true meaning, its subjectivity and any reference to its spiritual dimension. Paradoxically, the extermination camp is ultimately, a place designed for metaphysical purpose – to show that there are no truly human values, that man can be reduced to bestiality, and in those horrible places nothing human can happen.
However, in the midst of that absolute evil (“Is it even possible to go back to writing poetry and doing philosophy after Auschwitz?” asked Adorno) Father Maximilian Kolbe voluntarily offered his life for a brother. John Paul II called it “a spiritual victory similar to that of Christ.” Right there, in the place built to destroy the root of what is human in man, Kolbe vindicated the whole of humanity and showed it in all its grandeur.
So, the gift of Kolbe – Kolbe and many like him- restores the existential link between truth and justice, and with it rehabilitates the Christian principle of that religious edict, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Christians not only can but should decisively oppose totalitarian power in any of its pretentious and arrogant manifestations. They must oppose the vulgar and persuasive populism, even and especially if it manifests itself with the superficiality of a banal show. Therefore, Kolbe’s witness, according to the words of John Paul II, is not reducible merely to an exemplary model. Rather, it is the highest dimension to seek in the life of a Christian.
In that place of infinite evil, created to annihilate man and negate his spiritual nature, Kolbe demonstrates the true greatness of that spiritual nature. In this precise instance our martyr, above all, provides the response to Adorno’s philosophical question that contemporary philosophy could not answer. Kolbe denies the nihilistic metaphysical claim and, in the end, offers the Christian and profoundly freeing antidote against every form of totalitarianism: the institution of conscientious objection.
The ability of our own institutions (those that prove able) to defend the dignity of the person will be equal to our capacity to give witness in Christian political-oriented action. Promotion and defense of the person will materialize at an institutional level, using the instruments (parties, unions, associations and social institutions) that we can build and make available to all citizens, starting with the capacity to bring together a democratic consensus, and therefore beating our opponents on the grounds of democracy. Political proposals can also be expressed by the opposition and lead to conscientious objection. If through the dialectic majority-minority we are unable to account for our reasons in front of the electoral body, the ultimate form of conscientious objection that Father Kolbe has taught is martyrdom.
If our Christian living according to virtue doesn’t translate into a form of civilian life with the capacity to build institutions which are able to offer solutions to human problems, and if it will not be subject to the respect of those institutions with their rules and procedures, it will say that even in spite of any good intentions, we would be acting like bad citizens or as Christian politicians – of which there are already many examples.
In this sense, institutions are the humble but necessary means which allow us to search for a necessary consensus on legitimate dissent. This is the only possible definition of political democracy and polyarchy in a free society. At the same time, understanding politics as “an indirect way of charity,” or as “the institutional path of charity,” removes us from the serpent’s temptation of wanting to take the place of God: Eritis sicut Dei cognoscentes bonum et malum.
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