«Catholics must be bolder»
Father Antonio Sciortino, editor-in-chief for «Famiglia Cristiana», talks to Federica Zoja 1 March 2011

After events in Rosarno, the subject of immigration appeared to have vanished from the political debate in Italy.

Unfortunately, rather than being governed, the immigration phenomenon is often exploited to obtain political and electoral consensus. This happens not only in Italy but also in France where Sarkozy’s popularity increased, albeit only a little, thanks to the deportation of the Roma. It is no coincidence that, with a degree of obsession, foreigners are discussed close to election dates, thereby nourishing and increasing people’s fear and mistrust of strangers, used as scapegoats for social and economic unease. After the elections silence falls again in the media and in politics. And yet, multiethnic and intercultural society already exists and like it or not, approving it is not up for debate. It is instead a reality that should be governed in the best possible way. Immigration is an thorny issue that involves a number of problems, but if well-governed it is a resource that is significant in helping growth in countries open to hospitality and real integration. Nowadays Italy could no longer manage without foreigners. Without them the country would be on its knees; their work accounts for ten percent of Italy’s wealth.

Has this subject become less important also in the debate held within the Church?

In the meantime there are many organisations within the Italian ecclesial community that effectively operate in the field of hospitality and support for foreigners. The Church also keeps attention active as far as exclusion and rejection provisions and policies are concerned, which violate not only people’s dignity, an inalienable right of all human beings, but also international laws and treaties that must be respected since the states have signed them. Authoritative personalities such as Monsignor Marchetto from the Migrants Pontifical Council and Monsignor Giancarlo Perego from the Italian Episcopal Conference’s Migrantes Foundation, have spoken out against statements made by Minister Maroni about stricter policies against foreigners and against the expulsion of the Roma in France, deploring provisions against ethnic groups such as the Roma. One must also remember the words Benedict XVI spoke at the Angelus on Sunday August 22nd when he invited us to welcome people from all countries and to educate the young to universal brotherhood. These authoritative interventions are not always supported as they should be by broad consensus, especially by Christian politicians who are members of the majority. Among the many distinctions, often the agenda of a political party will prevail over a clear defence of the evangelical principles of hospitality and the equality of all human beings, regardless of the colour of their skin, their origin and religious beliefs.

In your opinion, what role could the Italian Church play in reviving the debate on immigration, integration and hospitality?

The Church does not take sides, nor should it be perceived as doing so. The Church is not a member of any political movement. The Church’s role is to powerfully announce values and denounce abuse and discrimination against those who are weak and defenceless, regardless of who commit them. Perhaps, so as to encourage better welcoming and integration of foreigners, albeit respecting the law, Catholics should be braver, bring a state of ferment among the people, helping them overcome fear and mistrust of foreigners. When necessary, the Church must raise its voice on these issues, not hesitate or remain silent. Silence is not in line with the Gospel. As the Evangelist Matthew reminds us, when speaking of the Final Judgement, we will be judge on this point too, “I was a foreigner and you welcomed me” (Matthew, 25).

Monsignor Rino Fisichella’s words gave rise to a significant amount of controversy when in an interview with the Corriere della Sera a few months ago during the regional elections, he said, “First of all I believe we must acknowledge the popularity of the Northern League, of its now twenty-year long presence in parliament, of its deep roots in the country which allow it to perceive more directly some of the problems present in the social fabric. As far as ethical problems are concerned, it seems to me that this party expresses full agreement with the thoughts of the Church. Regarding immigration one must be capable of merging the needs of citizens and those of the labour market, aware that we cannot consider immigrants as labour goods, that the dignity of human beings must be respected and that on the other hand the Church will never go against requests for legality. Our criteria is to dialogue and to respect the electoral choices made by citizens.” How did you interpret these statement? Do you think these are personal opinions or the mark of a rapprochement between the Northern League and the Vatican?

One should ask him directly if he was expressing a personal opinion or not. The Church must of course acknowledge electoral choices made and attempt to establish a constructive dialogue with everyone. This is no reason, however, to abdicate from the Gospel and support policies in conflict with it. The Church cannot easily allow itself to be manipulated only believing in opportunist statements of loyalty to the doctrine of the Church. Coherence is a virtue in politics too. It is for everyone. One cannot suddenly move from Celtic rites to worshipping God and then deference to Christianity after insulting the “great Bishops” of Rome, not to mention the rest. If the cardinal of Milan reminds one that prayer is an inalienable right for all people and also requests places of worship for other religions, he is immediately insulted by as an imam or “bishop of Kabul” by members of the Northern League. Even the battle over the crucifix is instrumental in the affirmation of a Christian identity in opposition to the Muslims present in our country. It is a battle that safeguards crucifixes as furnishing in public offices but totally ignores the message they conveys. Those open arms on the cross portray universal love for all human beings without distinctions of any kind. They are open to embrace and include everyone, not to exclude some. One cannot use the crucifix as a weapon in political battles. As Cardinal Tettamanzi said, we must stop calling ourselves Christians, it is more important to live as Christians. The defence of Christian roots is proven by results.

What is changing and why in the Vatican’s position on the subject of migrants? Is there a greater hardening?

The Vatican’s position as far as immigration is concerned has always been coherent and in line with the assertion of the fundamental rights and dignity of human beings. And the church does this unfailingly. The Pope himself on a number of occasions has defended both legal and illegal immigrants reminding us that Jesus was a refugee in Egypt and warning us against the danger of a revival of racism all over the world. In his last encyclical too, His Holiness wrote that every foreigner is a person just like us and has all the same rights in all matters, adding that if one starts from this fundamental principle is it easier to address the problems posed by immigration.

Has the E.U. sentence in favour of the removal of crucifixes from schools negatively influenced interreligious dialogue and the debate on immigration? The case was presented by an Italian of Finnish origin and not a Muslim as some in Italian public opinion assumed.

Over the centuries the Church has faced far more complex problems. The European constitution has no explicit reference to Europe’s Christian roots and even if there is an attempt to remove crucifixes from public places, Europe, as John Paul II reminded us, either is or is not Christian. One cannot understand anything of western civilisation (art, literature, painting, music…) if one disregards Christianity and knowledge of the Bible. Fighting against the crucifix means opposing a universal message of love and tolerance for everyone and this is shareable even by those who are non-believers. Furthermore, this is a rearguard battle against civilisation and culture too. The Church however has not stopped having a dialogue with everyone and provides everyone with the opportunity to profess their own beliefs. The Church does this even when in various countries in the world this is not based on a principle of reciprocity and even when the Church is persecuted because of her faith in Christ.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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