Professor Rocco Buttiglione, Italian parliamentarian (currently Minister for Culture in Berlusconi's outgoing government), hit the global headlines in October 2004 when his proposed candidature for the position of European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security was blocked after M.E.P's objected to his conservative, catholic views on homosexuality and abortion.
In an interview with Three Monkeys Online on the topic of morality, ethics, and politics, the ex-Archbishop of Edinbugh, Richard Holloway, said of the 'Buttiglione case': &ldquoI do not think he should have allowed himself to be nominated in the first place. There is a valid secular ethic that operates in Europe with respect to sexual and racial minorities, so any public official whose private religious convictions are opposed to these values should refrain from serving in the public realm”.
Continuing its journey into the moral maze, from a decidedly different perspective, Three Monkeys Online contacted Rocco Buttiglione proposing a similarly themed interview to that of Holloway. Minister Buttiglione kindly accepted the offer, and duly invited Three Monkeys Online to meet him for the following interview:
A common refrain from conservatives and religious leaders is that the permissive society of the ’60s and ’70s has led to an erosion in ‘moral values’, and thus to a more violent and less cohesive society. Do you think we have a less moral society at the start of the 21st century?
Less moral? It's difficult to say. The history of the West has always been one of evangelisation, of reaction against evangelisation, and of re-evangelisation. Some have tried to describe it as a history of progressive secularisation that must finish with the death of Christianity, but this doesn't correspond with reality. So it's difficult to say. The past was more Christian? At times perhaps, in others, though, no.
In terms of evangelisation, reaction, and re-evangelisation, what point are we at now?
I don't know if you've seen the film Sophie Scholl? It's a beautiful film about a group of young German Catholics who made up part of The White Rose to bear witness to their faith in the face of the Third Reich. They paid with their lives. Was Europe, or Germany, more Christian in those years? I wouldn't say so. Today Christians at worst pay by having to renounce a seat in the European Commission. For a politician it's painful, but it's always better than losing your head. Naturally there have been periods of a distancing from Christianity that were characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century, then after the second world war there was a phase of re-christianisation that ended in the '60s. Then there was a phase of hedonistic secularisation that continued until approximately the beginning of the '80s. I believe that we've entered into a new phase of re-christianisation.
Accepting this cycle, are Europe and America at the same point?
No, we're behind in respect to America, more or less twenty years, as usual. This phenomena of re-evangelisation, perhaps started before us, in America, because… Look, when I was twenty, in '68, the sexual revolution arrived. What was the theme of the sexual revolution? That it was no longer necessary to channel sexuality towards matrimony and the family, that the family was a historic phenomena that had characterised certain phases of human history, destined to dissapear in a world in which there was no longer need for it. And the functions of the family? Offering companionship, lifelong support, generating children, educating them, taking care of the elderly? All this would be taken care of by new agencies that would emerge. One spoke of the 'commune', the place that would have to take care of these things. Unfortunately it didn't work. We desecrated the traditional values, but new values didn't come along. And now people are starting to re-consecrate the old values, in a different form from the past, but the tendency is that of a reconsecration of traditional values. A reconsecration at times explicit, at times timid, but a fact that has been going on for a number of years.
For Europe, the fall of Communism has to be taken into account, and the fact that in the fight against Communism the recovery of Europe's Christian roots was the driving force. Communism fell without a war; probably it would have fallen even without John Paul II, but it would have fallen with a terrible civil war from the Baltic to the Adriatic, a Bosnia-Herzegovina multiplied by ten, by a hundred, by a thousand, with so many nuclear weapons spread out over the territory. Instead it fell without bloodshed. John Paul II, above all, managed to contain the huge mass of frustration, of hate that had accumulated in that region, in favour of a peaceful transition. This was, without doubt, something that changed European history.
If instead one talks about the United States, there's a turning point. You know where you can find it? In a film called Pretty Woman. You know Pretty Woman? The film begins in the camp of sexual liberation, so the protagonist is a prostitute, who goes to bed with 'a client', but this appearance is in a way the price paid to the prevailing trends. The real theme is true love: when she falles in love, she doesn't want to be treated like a sex object. She want's to be properly courted, like a princess. And the man, when he falls in love, discovers another dimension to his life. First he was a shark in the world of high finance: he bought companies, holdings, to break them up, to sell them for profit, perhaps firing the people working in them, just to make money. When he falls in love he wants to build up something, he wants the firm to grow, that the workers are saved, and in the end they end up building a family.
If you look beyond the appearances, there's a powerful progression there that corresponds to real life experience. When I was twenty, it was '68; thirty years later, I met a friend – I have four children – and he told me: &ldquoNow I understand how beautiful it would be to have children, but it's too late”. Probably at fifty, you'd like to have grown up children, but it's unlikely you’d feel like starting a family at that point.
Let's move on to the subject of ethics and legislation. How can one define the relationship between the two concepts. Should all laws be moral? Should every moral value be legislated for?
Definitely not. If all immoral acts were punished by law, there'd be few people left walking free on the street, we'd all be in jail, including myself probably. No, moral conscience is one thing, the law is another. We have to hold onto this difference. I can think that you are mistaken, but I have to be ready to give my life to maintain your right to make mistakes. I have to, though, have the right to say that you're mistaken. This is the principal of the liberal society. Priests have to have the right to say that a sin is a sin. Laypeople [laici] have to have the freedom as well to say when a sin is a sin. Sinners have to have the right to sin, up to the point, obviously, where it doesn't produce damage, at which point the law intervenes. The law doesn't touch upon the morality of our behaviour, but it touches upon the defence of the rights of the other. It's an old distinction that remains valid. Today there's a tendency to deny this distinction. My case in Bruxelles is an example. I support non-discrimination for homosexuals, but I think, or at least I have the right to think – without saying whether I think it or not – I have the right to think, along with the catechism of the Catholic Church, that homosexuality is morally wrong. I've the right to think that. In Bruxelles, they questioned me not to find out what my politics were: they wanted to know what my moral convictions were. And they discriminated against me for my moral convictions, which furthermore have nothing to do with politics, apart from the fact that in matters relating to the family, the European Union has no competence. It's a competence of the State, and it's as well that it remains a competence of the State.
We've spoken about ‘sins’, that aren't necessarily illegal where they don't offend the rights of others. What do you think about the campaign in various European countries for legislation recognising civil unions (also for homosexuals) [Editor’s note: In Italy this campaign is refered to, from its acronym, as PACS]? Campaigners argue that the absence of legal recognition of a union is the denial of a civil right.
A right? No. Let's leave aside PACS. The problem is matrimony. I think the State shouldn't poke its nose into the sexual relations of consenting adults. On the other hand, I think that the family, the traditional family, has a fundamental social role, because it's there that children are born and the investment in children is the greatest investment a country can make. The benefits of this investment go to everyone. Those who don't have children have a disposible income much higher than those who have children. With the same income, with the same salary, someone single is almost rich; if one has children, almost poor. It's not right, because children will pay taxes and contributions that go towards pensions and the health system also for those who don't want children and thus are richer. Europe's problem is that of encouraging young people to marry and have children, because otherwise Europe will die. The family has a social function and so it should be sustained. Other forms of sexual union are a private matter: you can go to a lawyer, if you want, and draw up a contract with this other person.
But at the same time, I can marry without having to have children. There are various advantages to being married…
That's possible, and in fact the legislation, the politics should graduate the advantages towards those who have children and give less to those who don't have children. But, you know, if I marry, in principle, I'm preparing to have children. This is the sense of matrimony, even etymologically. They argued over this with me as well, but I didn't make up the etymology. It means 'the context that helps sustain the mother’, matris manus in latin, and matrimony has this function. Certainly in some cases there are no children, and in these cases the law should not give advantages, but there’s a stability envisaged to bring children into the world. Once Europe’s problem – Karl Marx wrote about it in The Communist Manifesto, but Pope Leo XIII also wrote in his encyclical De Rerum Novarum – was the working class. Few blue collar workers remain, and those that do aren’t in such bad shape. Now there are the families. If you search for poverty, you’ll find it, often in the family. Why? Because the family makes this great investment, from which we all benefit, but for which no-one helps. We have to point the spotlight on the family, and make political choices that sustain the family. I’ve the impression that there’s a stress on issues like PACS etc to distract attention from where it needs to be concentrated. Families are the subject.
Slavoj Žižek has written that “in the post-political period, in which real politics has been progressively substituted by a specialised social administration, cultural tensions (religious) or natural (ethnic) are the only legitimate source of conflict remaining”. What do you think: are today’s politics based more on values than on programmes?
Well, politics is always based first on values, because the programmes derive from the values. So clarity on values is the base for politics. One needs to know what the hierarchy of values are from which one takes inspiration, and in a democratic society this is the subject of continuous democratic debate. In this debate, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And if you lose, what do you do? You wait for your occasion, because this is the democratic mode. I can see, though, a type of anti-Christian integralism which says ‘Christians mustn’t participate in this debate’, on anything being discussed ‘because you’re Christian, you can’t enter into free discussion’. It’s not true! We don’t argue that because the Bible says something, then that’s the way it has to be. We argue, bringing forward rational, human, arguments, that have the right to be taken into consideration like those of all the others. Then the people, when the chance arises, decide.
The new Pope, Benedict XVI, is noted for his attacks on relativism. Ex Anglican Archbishop Richard Holloway has spoken, though, of a system of ‘jazz-ethics’, in the sense that in this new society, because it’s multicultural, we have to find a new way to find a consensus. This is a type of jazz, an improvisation. The question though is how do we value different ethical systems? To take an often-debated example, how do we value the system that calls for women to wear the hijab or burqa? There are arguments advanced that suggest on the one hand it empowers women, and on the other that it enforces misogyny. How do we decide, and equally importantly who decides?
Why don’t we let the women decide?
Are you then, for example, opposed to the law that prohibits the wearing of the hijab in schools in France?
Let’s let the people decide, at least where it doesn’t impinge on the rights of others. Clearly, I’m against cultural relativism, when it touches upon a kernel of values that we can define as ‘natural rights’, fundamental human values. If someome comes to me and says: ‘My daughter will marry the man that I decide, and not who she decides’. No, it may be part of your culture, but ultimately it’s a fundamental human right for your daughter to decide who she will marry. If someone says ‘ we mutilate the secondary sexual organs [sic] of our babies’. Eh, no, you can’t, at least no in our society, because it harms a fundamental human right. If a colony of Aztecs arrive and say ‘we sacrifice our babies, because it’s our culture. We won’t sacrifice your children, but we have the right to do it to ours’. No, you don’t have the right do it because it goes against a fundamental human right.
But it also seems a fundamental right for a woman to dress how the hell she pleases, so I don’t see why the State has to poke its nose in there. Apart from one situation, obviously: every State provides that you can dress how you please, but you can’t disguise yourself [travestire]. It’s one thing the headscarf [Fazoletto] that Islamic women place on their heads, and which in my view they have every right to do. Sometimes it makes them more beautiful. The burqa though is another thing as it’s a way to conceal identity, and there are good reasons from a public order perspective for banning it. Perhaps instead of a woman, there could be a man behind it who could be a terrorist. But, limits placed can’t have as their base the wish to impede you from doing what you want – they have to have as their base the wish to defend the rights of others, in this case not to be the subject of an attack – why do we have to constrain freedom? Relativism should be confronted where it damages fundamental human rights, because we’re not relativists if we believe that the human being should be at the centre of society and the rights of every human being should be respected. Once these rights are respected, everyone should do what they want.