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Bartolomeo Sorge
“When politics loses its values, it loses its soul”

Interview with Bartolomeo Sorge
“Right now in globalisation we need a new humanism”: Interview with Karin Krog | Collage (Detail): © privat/TEMPUS CORPORATE

Bartolomeo Sorge, born 1929, is an Italian Jesuit and catholic scholar active since the era of St. John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. He was interviewed by Joerg Nies, and young Jesuit currently based in Stockholm.

Nies: Dear Bartolomeo Sorge, you were born in 1929 on the Isle of Elba; you joined the Society of Jesus in 1946; you're a religious leader and priest. You studied at various universities and were the editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica for more than ten years. [La Civiltà Cattolica (Italian for Catholic Civilization) is a periodical published by the Jesuits in Rome, Italy. It has been published continuously since 1850 and is among the oldest of Catholic Italian periodicals.] Later, you founded the Institute of Political Formation in Palermo. After that, you edited a magazine called Aggiornamenti Sociali [Magazine and think tank of the Italian Jesuits founded in 1950]. Today, you live in a Jesuit community in Gallarate (Italy), which is where we're now.

Sorge: Look, what I would like to say, as a general impression of a whole life in the trenches: We have witnessed a change in civilisation with very particular repercussions in Europe. In cultural anthropology you distinguish two types of crisis: there's economic crisis and there's structural crisis. Imagine a house. The foundation of the house, the floor, is the culture of a people. When there’s a homogeneous culture, structures are built, i.e. the walls of the house. And these are influenced by the values of the people. With the roof the structure of the house is complete and can last for a long time. I can make many changes inside the house, but those are economic crises. The structure of the house remains the same.

Right now in globalisation we need a new humanism.

Bartolomeo Sorge

What's happened in Europe and in the world is not only an internal, economic, but also a structural change: it's the model of society that no longer holds up. The year 2000 essentially marked the disappearance of industrial civilisation - with its values, with its floor, its culture. As long as it lasted, industrial culture held up the walls, which are the political institutions of the realms of work, family, school. When the floor breaks, the structures come down. In a crisis, values change: people are divided on values and customs, the floor of the house. The crisis is no longer just economic: It’s the model that needs to be rethought now. Today we're experiencing the economic crisis, caused by industrialisation. The problem with such transitions is that we don't have models, because yesterday's model is no longer needed and tomorrow's isn't here yet. The trick is to invent new ways. I always say the challenge of the twenty-first century is "to live together, respecting our differences", because right now in globalisation we need a new humanism, superior to past humanisms. The future’s uncertain but it's a commitment - a common house. That, then, is the beauty and difficulty of life today. When politics loses its values, it's like a living being that loses its soul. When that happens, the organism deteriorates, rots and corrupts. In fact, the crisis in all countries today is a crisis of ideals. If there's no moral tension you become corrupt, and today corruption eats away at even our most advanced democracies.

Nies: Regarding morality, what should today's values be?

Sorge: I'd refer to the speech John Paul II made at the UN on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding in 1995. There were hundreds of different people in the audience in front of him and the pope said: “Let’s start with the common ethical grammar that is inscribed in the conscience of all humanity”. Black people, white people, the Chinese, Buddhists, atheists, Muslims, Catholics; all have an ethical grammar with certain fundamental values. Firstly, the dignity of the person. You won't find any human being who doesn't admit the dignity of the person. The idea of how to defend it is different, but not the principle. Another value: solidarity. The human person is essentially a being in relation. No one can exist alone. To be human is to be in relationships with one another. If we lose these relationships, we destroy the dignity of the person. Then there’s subsidiarity, which means that everyone is valued for what they can do. And the common good; that is to say, there are common goods which we either all reach together, or we all die. The ecological problem, that is, the problem of safeguarding creation, is an example of this. It’s a question of life or death, because the house belongs to everyone. Either we look after the house, or we all die, because it's the only house that we all have.

The ecological problem is a question of life or death.

Bartolomeo Sorge

If one keeps these principles of a common ethical grammar in mind, they can be the foundation of the new globalised humanism of a new world united in plurality. Then little by little, as civilisation grows, there can be other values. The constitutions of each people can have other values unique to their own nation; this isn't a problem. But we must find a floor for that new house first. The institutions must be changed on the basis of this new awareness. We need to revise the existing agreements, especially given the influx of migrants. It is a new problem typical of the third millennium. Then we need the inhabitants. We made Europe, the house, this means that the Germans must remain German, but they must accept the common culture, those values that allow us to build common walls together. It’s less important to make Germany, Italy, and France European; we have to make the Italians, the Germans, and the Spaniards into Europeans. And so the real task is the formation of humans, because in politics, in economics, in life, in history, what counts is humans; humans change history.

I have seen that it's possible to renew politics even in times of structural crisis.

Bartolomeo Sorge

If someone were to ask me, "Father, what, in a single word, is the most important thing to do in this structural crisis?", I’d say education. If we don't train in terms of technology, new forms of work, and in terms of culture, if we don't train up a new ruling class we'll never succeed in winning the battle for a modern united Europe in the third millennium. If we don't train, even if we make the most modern, up-to-date laws, they'll be no good.

Nies: Was it this kind of education that you tried to establish in Palermo?

Sorge: Yes, very good. For me, going to Palermo was like the second step of my formation, a European formation as well, after doing 25 years of research and lectures. I had frequented palaces: the Vatican Palace, the Quirinal Palace - I met three presidents of the Republic; that was my environment! The next day I found myself in the streets in Palermo, where all those people were killed by the mafia. I asked myself, "What can we do to help Palermo to return to the rule of law?” Train, educate. We created a serious 2-year program, and it really had an impact, because it introduced a new conscience into civil society. If we want to change the world we have to start with the people, not the palaces. We started from the neighbourhoods, the simple citizens, the believers and the non-believers, the right and the left. The whole city was willing to fight against organised crime to restore rule of law to Palermo. This was the beginning of what was called the Palermo Spring. It was this union of everybody, this conscience, this ethical grammar that can unite all men of good will that then creates a new ruling and legal class. I saw that it's possible to renew politics even in times of structural crisis. By going to Palermo, I had a historical verification of theoretical research. I took this lesson with me here too. Having confidence in a future that depends on us, on training, on ideals, on learning to live together, respecting those who are different. Then Pope Francis came along, and he’s pushed us more on this: The Church going out into the world. It’s not us, the believers, in, and all the others out; we’re with the others! We live in a common house. This is the incarnation of the Christian in history today. The agenda of Pope Bergoglio's pontificate, unity in diversity, is exactly what the world needs.

Nies: So how can the Church help today in terms of the development of unity in Europe? What advice would you give to a new generation?

Sorge: The Church has to bring the cement to glue together the new bricks of the house, bricks which represent love, inviting everyone to help each other, as brothers; the time for it has come.

The Church has to bring the cement to glue together the new bricks of the house.

Bartolomeo Sorge

Recently the city squares have been filled with people who want to commit and change things. When civil society starts moving, that's when change happens. I saw it in Palermo. People are standing up. This is a sign of hope. Humanity is rational and there is reason in political life too. I think that Europe, with its cultural heritage of two thousand years of life, can be a crucial force for global unity, which, in spite of everything, is still progressing. Nobody can stop history. It can be steered, but it can't be stopped.

Nies: Father Sorge, thank you so much for this interview.