Thinking out of the box
The Tablet23 March 2017 | by Christopher Lamb The Vatican’s blue-skies sage tells Christopher Lamb that the role of the Church is not to offer ready-made answers but to stimulate discussion and debate
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi stood there, beaming, on a stage dominated by women. It was an unusual pose for a senior Roman curial official given that they rarely, if ever, find themselves on a platform where men are outnumbered by the opposite sex. But inside the Holy See’s press office earlier this month, the Vatican’s blue-skies thinker in residence happily stood alongside the 37 Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish women he had appointed as a consultation group to the Pontifical Council for Culture over which he presides.
This is a cardinal unafraid to think outside the box; he pushes boundaries. His passion is ensuring that the Church is able to have a conversation with the contemporary world, and he knows that’s difficult to do if women aren’t involved. In one sense, he is a walking paradox: while he’s at the heart of Church institutions made up of hierarchies and protocols, he is able to look up and out and cue in the Vatican to the latest global trends.
Sitting with him in his office on the Via della Conciliazione is a mind-expanding exercise, the equivalent of having your intellect rolled out like a piece of pizza dough before being put inside a wood-fired oven. During our hour-long interview, his quotations range from Oscar Wilde to Martin Luther King Jr as he darts between President Trump, globalisation and the impact of digital technology.
Ravasi fizzes with ideas and bonhomie: when our discussion turns to violence in sport, he roars with laughter at my inelegant pronunciation of “Serie A” – Italy’s top football league – which comes out as “Syria”. For almost a decade now, he has led the Pontifical Council for Culture, set up by John Paul II in 1982 but with its roots in the Second Vatican Council’s opening up of a dialogue between believers and non-believers. It’s a job he’s taken to with gusto, and despite his 74 years he shows no sign of slowing down.
“I don’t sleep very much, five or maybe four and a half hours a night,” he says. “Therefore, I have a lot of time to study.” What drives him is hinted at in a story he tells me about the late American-French writer Julien Green, a convert to Catholicism. “I met him once in Milan and he told me what his fundamental concept of Christianity was. He said he was an Augustinian by nature, and then he used a phrase, ‘As long as you are worried, you can be at ease’. The Augustinian restlessness is questioning, searching.”
For a long time Ravasi has poked and prodded at the Big Questions. A biblical scholar, newspaper columnist and one-time host of a religious television programme, he is as comfortable discussing the latest trends in artificial intelligence, music and smartphones as he is with Old Testament exegesis or sexual ethics. He sometimes ruffles feathers among the Vatican’s old guard, as when he tweeted a warm tribute on the death of David Bowie.
“I am eclectic by nature,” he explains. “The eclectic tries to develop everything as much as possible.” This approach, he stresses, means you must always keep your eye on the big picture. “You can have a doctor, a specialist, who heals your liver but does not take account of the whole person, and as a result the patient dies for another reason. The true doctor is able to take account of all the competencies and keep them together.”
The eldest of three children, Ravasi grew up in the province of Lecco, east of Lake Como in northern Italy. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father a tax official who opposed the Fascists during the Second World War; he later deserted from the army and was separated from his family for 18 months. Ravasi has said it is this that drives his search for what is beyond the transitory. “I’m fighting loss and death, which probably relates to the absence of my father in my first years.”
As a young man he spent summers on archaeological digs in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. The work of his department includes last year’s restoration of the catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, among the oldest in Rome, but its main focus is on the future. It has sponsored a range of initiatives, from sport and music to science and art: in 2013, for example, he ensured the Holy See took a stand for the first time at the Venice Biennale.
One of Ravasi’s pet projects is the Courtyard of the Gentiles, which provides a space for dialogue with atheists and agnostics. There are, he tells me, three ingredients to a good discussion with people who hold different views from your own. The first is, Don’t judge. Quoting Spinoza, he says it is important when talking to people we disagree with “not to complain about them, not to laugh at them, not to humiliate them … but first of all to understand”. The second is, Listen. And the third is, Have something to say, be well prepared and, without proselytising, be able to “present a model”.
Some in the Church, he says, are fearful of dialogue; some are “scandalised” by the attitudes of young people. This is partly due, he believes, to the inadequate training of clergy. “A young person at school learns the theory of evolution, but the teacher presents it as a global, philosophical, anthropological theory. The young person then goes to the priest. If this priest has only a vague understanding of Darwin, it’s clear he cannot dialogue.”
And dialogue, Ravasi is convinced, is sorely needed today, given the drift towards superficiality and indifference, and a diminishing ability to make critical judgements. When it comes to the realm of sexuality, for example, this means that few are able to judge or assess things according to a “distinct formula” or set of ideas. “Sexual morality doesn’t exist anymore in contemporary culture,” he says.
For Ravasi the right approach is to first better understand the world, and then to communicate. He would like a discussion inside the Church that finds the “right equilibrium”; it must include lay people and women. “You have to have a language to present your values,” he explains.
One of the difficulties the Church faces is simply getting young people’s attention. Things are moving so fast, Ravasi says, that it is harder and harder to predict what the future might look like. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are already becoming outdated. “Up to 10 years ago, the evolutions were quite comprehensible,” he says. “Now it is all much faster and more unpredictable.”
These changes, particularly the opportunities that digital technology has created for politicians to reach people directly without relying on traditional media, have, Ravasi believes, contributed to the growth of populism. “Up until 10 years ago, in the United States they would never have imagined Trump would have become president.” Now, in Europe, as well as in the US, this possibility has “unfortunately become normal”.
He agrees that the root of this political shift is a reaction against globalisation: voters feel left behind by a system they see enriching elites. But for him globalisation has already evolved into “glocalisation”, with global products being adapted to local cultures – as, for example, in the way McDonald’s tailors its menu to suit local tastes. “It’s no longer the global that dominates,” he says. “The local tries to enlarge itself.”
Ravasi gives the example of Islam seeking to expand out of the Arab world, and the growing influence of China and Russia. “China is no longer just a circumscribed ‘sector’ affirming its powerful identity: the Chinese are now buying Italian football teams. It’s a local culture that is trying to extend its horizon,” he says. “Russia is trying to interfere with the US. This is a different globalisation. It’s not one that simply affirms its own identity. No, they try to conquer another, different space.”
Faced with this uncertain world, Ravasi believes it is not the Church’s job to supply ready-made answers but to spark discussion and debate, and to help to make people, especially the young, think critically. In this way, he says, quoting Martin Luther King Jr, Christianity can move from being a thermometer that measures the temperature to being a thermostat that warms or cools it.