· Vatican City ·

The tragedy of democratic man

 The tragedy of democratic man  ING-028
14 July 2023

Elmar Salmann, a German Benedictine monk from the Gerleve Abbey in Westphalia, is a living icon of sapiential theology. Dozens of young theologians were trained during his thirty years of teaching at the Anselmianum and at the Gregorian Universities. Their writings are immediately recognizable due to references to his thinking, which was naturally sapiential, but also marked by originality, creativity, irony, and a passionate taste for paradox. These components have made Father Salmann one of the most authoritative voices in contemporary theology.

On 16 May last, many of his former students gathered in the Chapter Hall of the University of Sant’Anselmo to celebrate the 75th birthday of Father Salmann. The event was organized by the rector Bernhard Eckerstorfer, osb, with the contributions of the Benedictine Abbot Primate Gregory Polan, of Msgr. Armando Matteo, Secretary to the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and of the theologian Isabella Bruckner, professor at Sant’Anselmo, recipient of the 2022 Rahner Prize.

In connection with this meeting, Father Salmann agreed to a wide-ranging dialogue with L’Osservatore Romano. What has made him particularly appreciated in the academic and theological world, over the years, along with the depth and originality of his reflections, is undoubtedly his witty, colourful, elaborate and ironic language, which he did not fail to use in this interview.

Father Salmann, you have been retired from teaching for some years now, and have returned to your monastery, where you savour rare public occasions. For this reason we want to ask you three fundamental questions: about the state of the world, that of the Church and… about yourself?

The theologian smiles genially, and asks: “... and in what order shall we begin?”.

Let’s start with the world; a world that is changing radically with unprecedented speed. Above all, we want to ask you about what seems to us to be the most important change, far beyond globalization or digitalization, namely anthropological change. In a recent interview with our newspaper, Cardinal Hollerich said, “I am afraid that our pastoral care addresses a man and a woman who no longer exist”.

“I totally agree with this statement. Furthermore I’d say: we are confined to total insignificance in today’s Western world. Obviously mine is a very partial view, but I try to keep up with and understand the vicissitudes of the times we live in, of the profound mutation of society and I would say of the human “fabric”. I should like to be precise on this point: I do not claim to be right, but to offer alternative perspectives, to broaden the range of our intuition. I shall go back a bit, to the beginning of the contradictions of the current time. Like one of your renowned directors, a memory of myself as a child at the time of the Russian invasion of Hungary comes to mind as well as the helpless state of the West on that historic occasion. And later in ’68 that other historical contradiction: when young Czechs confronted Soviet tanks with their bare hands, in the streets of Prague, while young Westerners in European universities, on the contrary, lauded Mao Tse-tung. Contradictions that sometimes converged in inspiration and style. The diversity and the (missing?) impact of incompatible spheres, that do not look each other in the face, always attracted and frightened me. Thus, a completely asymmetrical constellation at the dawn of my stay in Rome, where I saw a huge Trade Union demonstration, one million people in San Giovanni Square, against the abolition of the sliding scale. I was very disturbed, shaken, by the demonstrators’ ardour in defending an institution that only needed common sense to be modified. I had not recovered from that shock when, in a completely different environment, near the Vatican in the afternoon, I met crowds shouting — undoubtedly smaller and more moderate — with the same intensity. The occasion was the Dedication of the World to Our Lady of Fatima. The coexistence of these two worlds on the same day and in the same city gave me food for thought. As a phenomenologist I have always felt challenged by these events, often frightened, sometimes excited, always challenged. With the same intrigued approach I followed the great season of the Second Vatican Council. However, with a disenchanted look, because as a youngster I did not really belong to the Church environment, I was never an altar boy or a catechist. I only decided to study theology at the end of High School. And to be honest, I think that in making this choice, more than my will, it was one of those extemporaneous and paradoxical movements the Holy Spirit often uses that played a part in it: it was the idea of the Trinity that attracted me. Even the Church herself was evolving in a sequence of apparently dystonic images: from an austere and hieratic figure, which seemed to come out of a work by Thomas Mann, to Pius xii, to that of the good-natured and plump peasant Roncalli. (That is how I remember the day of his election, watching television, in a tavern).

Each Pope is unique, with his own style. And this is certainly an asset. After all, it is a repetition of history as little as 10 years ago.

Exactly so. That’s it. These changes of pace are rather healthy. I can also say this from my own experience as a monk. A sensible convent always elects an abbot with the opposite characteristics to his predecessor. Because change is always positive and one shouldn’t be afraid of it. But let’s go back to the original question. What is peculiar to the present time in light of all these changes that we have experienced over the past 60 years? It seems to me that we have come to the end of a line, a threshold, the limit of the lifestyle that man has chosen in recent decades. It is a style I would call: “democratic man”, which is not a mere political form, but the intrinsic nature of the style of contemporary people. Democratic man tends to democratize everything, and, representing a constellation of minorities and related rights, ends up on the contrary undermining the foundations of democracy as an organized form of civil life. Thus, for example, parties (merge) into movements, as demonstrated by the example of Berlusconi or of “Cinque Stelle” in Italy, Macron and “En Marche” in France (2016), “Podemos” in Spain (2014), and the “Die Grünen” or the extreme right here in Germany. The other side of this organizational fluidity is the emergence of ‘strong men’: Trump, Erdogan, Morawiecki, Orban, Xi Ping, just to name a few. So, democratic man completes, fulfils and destroys the democratic order at one and the same time. In the 1990s it was thought that the democracy of rights was the trump card in politics, but this idea has only generated a culture marked by Manichaeism, which damaged democracy. And not only that, because this form of Manichaeism, that arose between the parties and in the parties, then spread to culture and society causing that global polarization which is the true hallmark of our times. This Manichaeism and polarization also infected the bishops and the Church. It is no coincidence that the totalitarian trend pervades a large part of the world, regardless of the different historical and social conditions. I am surprised — and confirmed — by the case of Israel, which is paradigmatic of this phenomenon: the only democracy in the Middle East, which nevertheless risks implosion in the face of the combined forces of polarization and authoritarianism. We are confronted by a planetary phenomenon, which is a very serious challenge. And we should ask ourselves how democratic man can reverse the perspective and rebuild an institutional form based on representation.

The same dichotomy runs through religion: we are agnostic and spiritual. The two dangers against which Pope Francis continually warns us: neo-Pelagianism and neo-Gnosticism whereby ordinary religiosity swings from oriental syncretism to fanatical rigorism, and so on like a spiritual supermarket offer. And here too we may ask how man, agnostic or spiritualizing, can find an institutional format to allow religion to express itself? Today, however, we are still in the destructive phase; think of the now dominant perplexities regarding the ontological, juridical and mystic form of the sacraments. Sacramental practice is about to sink, but what can replace it? We do not know. These are grave problems for the world and for the Church. And they are also serious problems for each individual ‘democratic man’. Think of the cult of ‘great health’, the myth of longevity; we are still children at the age of 70, as Armando Matteo describes so aptly in his books. We are saturated and exhausted so that the word “redemption” comes to mind only a minute before death. There is widespread despair behind the scenes, the illusion of everlasting youth. The myth of fitness and eternal youth hides existential anguish, which finds expression, for example, in the debate on euthanasia and the end of life. We have flogged life, and life is now taking its revenge. The fact is that our ecclesial moralism does not sooth the wounded flesh of this anguish. The same dynamic of thought applies to ecology: we have lost eschatology, and now we seek to recover it by blaming a catastrophe. We want to avoid the catastrophe with means that will never be enough, and this creates a mixture of fanaticism and disconsolate resignation. And the same goes for justice: democratic man wants to do justice to the uniqueness of each one and to the equality of all. But no one can sustain this claim; this contradictory dogma of 1968, a combination of liberalism and socialism, has cornered us. And the same goes for sensitivity: a term that sounded like an affront in my youth. While today it is imperative to be sensitive to the other’s sensibility, considerate of every minority and counter-minority. Let’s be fair, it is a great victory for humanity that comes from a new historiography introduced by the Frankfurt School and from the tragedy of the Shoah. But today the fact is that each one feels like a minority and the victim of something. The minorities have won, to the point that there are no majorities any longer: democracy has ended by destroying itself thanks to democratic man, whose boast is to represent each person and hate mediation.

So if this is your view of the current world, let us move on to the second question: what is the state of religions today, of the Church?

There is an immediate connection between what I have said so far and the state of religions. If in the years of my youth the institutional Church in the West represented the paradigm, the horizon of culture and politics — even to those who opposed it — she is now inexorably falling into an abyss. We were at the peak of social appreciation. Today we are considered of minimal importance, we are ending up being forgotten by everyday life.

Pope Francis has highlighted this in no uncertain terms. Christianity is over. And perhaps this is also providential, because it gives us an opportunity for purification...

Exactly. The Pope is right. We are condemned or perhaps benefited by marginality. We are looking for another way. But which one? It is easier said than done. Difficult to identify. Maybe impossible. If not with the help of the Spirit. How can one practice a religion that claims to be truthful and true, while accepting that it is ignored by the majority of men and women, without becoming a sectarian, plaintive and self-indulgent denomination? And moreover, what form of institutional representation should a new way of living and professing oneself a Christian have? What form should the liturgy and the sacraments have, which must certainly be human, but not only humanistic. And here we come to the objective fulfilment of Vatican ii , because at present the problem is no longer how to implement Vatican ii , but to invent something new. The style of the comments and hermeneutics of Vatican ii are the same, open to life and to the world. Nostra Aetate is perhaps the most evident novelty. The [Vatican] Council has certainly led to a humanization of the Message, to spiritualization in the style of Luke. We are living in the era of the third Gospel, a dramatic and extraordinary passage that has run parallel to my life. But this humanization has not made us more human; that is, I mean it hasn’t given the mystery a profile. Today the Eucharist is a “fraternal meal” — well and good — but what have we done with the Mystery, with the Real Presence, with the actualization of Jesus’ Passion? The effort to comprehend the Mystery has been pushed to the point of losing it as such. Thus the humanized Christian undermines the structure of the mysteries and with them the role of the Church. It is a parallel action to what I said above about democratic man. We have gone from God the Father who is omnipotent, to Jesus who is Lord and King, then to the Logos which is the theological approach to the truth of the Bible, and then on to the kenotic Christ of von Balthasar, and the Human God, and then the dishevelled Jesus, prophet and revolutionary of 1968, then once again the Brother who walks with us, like us perhaps without a divine aura anymore... So many images of God that keep pace with the evolution of democratic man. The same goes for the Church: from the parish, to the parish family, then to the community. But a parish is not a community: five thousand people do not make a community. Just as a Benedictine Monastery is not a community; it may have community moments, certainly desirable, but I became a monk to follow a Rule of life, not to enter a community.

Your last statement raises a further question: epochal changes, such as the one we are experiencing, have always seen an active presence of monks who have facilitated the transition to the new by carrying over the richness of the old. Today this no longer seems feasible; institutional monasticism is also in a deep crisis.

Very true; institutional monasticism is going through an abysmal crisis, perhaps an irreversible one. Some of us humbly and unobtrusively carry out the slow transition from the old to the new even today. I am thinking, for example, of those monasteries that are in dialogue with the Protestant world, or even of myself in my small way, accompanying priests who have left. But certainly, by and large, we are no longer the midwives of the new. Not because we lack the strength, but simply because we don’t know what to suggest. Even the new forms of contemplative and secular religious life that arose after the Council do not seem to do better; indeed at times they seem more anachronistic than we do.

In short, it would seem that your father was a good prophet, according to the well-known anecdote whereby when you informed him of your decision to become a Catholic monk, he replied, while respecting your decision, “Elmar, you are embarking on a sinking ship”, or am I mistaken ?

(laughing) Yes, that’s exactly right! I have a vivid memory of that episode. It was at Villa Celimontana in April 1966. I did not reply, not out of respect for my father, but because I knew then that he was right. Yet at the same time I felt that I had to take that path. Nothing could have stopped me. It is the inescapable power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Every time I go back to Rome I take a walk in Villa Celimontana and sit down on that bench that is still there, and I imagine talking to my father, saying “Yes, you were absolutely right ... but I even more so!”.

Your vision of democratic man who consumes democracy, and, likewise, of the spiritualizing and humanized Christian, brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase: “Human, all too human”. Does too much humanism dehumanize?

Yes, there is a risk. And I would add that going to the limit of this humanization saves neither man nor classicism. Democracy is not saved, and the Mystery is not saved.

So was Heidegger right when he said that only a God can save us?

But Heidegger, let’s not forget, was a former altar boy and the son of a sexton! Joking aside, he had an infallible nose, and retained all his enigmatic nature. However, he had a sense of the sacred, he created his own private mythology; somehow he anticipated the movement I have described here. He skips Christianity in the name of an existentialist, ontological, mythological religion and here, along the crest of existentialism, an interesting trajectory opens up which leads to France which, from a religious point of view, has already gone through many of the vicissitudes other European countries are going through now; in some way the French are a laboratory. And this leads me to think of another problem regarding the regionalization of Christianity. In France, Christianity has already imploded and exploded, while we are still at the implosion stage. In this sense, the Synod is a necessary and emergency intervention; it is a pity that in my country they have chosen to give it an a priori programme, and this has been its predictable limit.

From this point of view, Remi Brague’s proposal is interesting; in “The Future of the West” he hopes for a return to Romanitas. The Romans were extraordinary in their ability to take on nations, absorb traditions, religions, philosophies; they assumed and transformed. So that even Paul could claim to be a Roman Citizen, and, despite being a Pharisee rabbi, he could appeal to the Emperor. Allowing space for “each one next to the other” was the real winning formula of the Romans, much more than military conquest. In this sense, I think we should recover Romanitas: hospitality as a gesture of fruitful weakness. Hospitality as a gesture of disarmament. Surely a gesture that is challenged by precariousness, and for this reason it must be corroborated by prayer, by courage. It takes more courage to host than to reject. Rejection is an expression of weakness.

Jesus didn’t write anything, he didn’t want to be a philosopher of himself, nor a dogmatic or moral teacher. But he gave a push, caused a scandal (in German it is the same word: ‘Anstoß’), a ferment, and then he left the Spirit to work. Without the Spirit the Church would not have existed and could not exist today. A Statute both “Roman” and Christian would be a great turning point for the Church, but also for humanity. The Church, although a minority, would once again be the salt of the earth. After all, this is what Pope Francis is trying to do. Of course, there are no guarantees, but we, like him, trust in the action of the Spirit. A structure of exposed Christianity, in which ‘weakness’ is recognised, accepted, welcomed, experienced, to give birth to another type of transforming force. It is the new frontier of the evangelization of society. Being strong without being powerful. Being truthful without being fanatical. Having a sense of aesthetics without being aesthetic. Having a sense of righteousness without being moralistic. To be one, but not without the other. “Never without the other”, as De Certeau, sj , said, another French genius, who is increasingly timely and appreciated today in this quest to find the appropriate human demeanour for a minority living in a new society.

So, is Pope Francis the first ‘chapter’ of this new adventure of Christianity?

Yes, certainly. He is the first chapter, but he will also be the last of the preceding epoch, because reconciling the charisma with the administration of a ‘company’ like ours is beyond the limit of feasibility. Only in this way can we understand his dramatic characteristics. He embarked on this enterprise, which is like Pascal’s wager. And we must bet with him, because we have no other option. All of this inevitably implies a rethinking of the fundamentals of theology as well. In fact, it is necessary that we all be truthful, otherwise no one will listen to us anymore. Letting go, already in the phenomenological reading, of that slightly fabled lexicon, on the one hand sentimental and on the other bitter, which, for example, makes us say that life is a gift. Life is not a gift, or at least it is not perceived as such. It is more correct to speak of a “pre-given”. If we are not honest with our interlocutors, we have already lost this contest between humanism and religion. Think of the obfuscation of sacrifice in current theological language, as if it were something uncomfortable. On the contrary, Jesus experienced the anguish; in the dramatic account of the Passion he is never a hero or a victim, but, at one and the same time, dignified and abandoned. If we do not consider his suffering, with his cry, with thirst, with its eschatological and metaphysical intensity, we cannot understand our painful limitation. It is from this distress that a glimmer of light opens to the future. “Don’t look at me, go forward, walk together”, he exhorts Mary and John from the cross. And it means consent, because “in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” is entrustment, which is synonymous with freedom. That freedom that is threatened and vilified today by the world and by men.

And now we come to the third question: that is, to you, Father Salmann, to your journey. It seems to us that your theological gaze is turning more and more westward, to France, right?

I have to admit that even when I was in high school I felt a bit like a Francophile. Last year I spent the 50th anniversary of my ordination in silence, quiet. I did not “have a party” as is customary here in Italy, because there is nothing to celebrate, but if anything, something to ponder. No party. Not out of false modesty. Jesus at Emmaus does not celebrate a feast; instead he disappears from the disciples’ sight and lets the Spirit guide them on the road of the Kerigma. In my life I have gone through political, social, cultural, ecclesial stages, always with melancholy serenity, shaking my head a bit at an often unbalanced becoming, always looking for a style that would remedy this. A style that I would define as an oarsman, as an interpreter, as one who assists the passage of an ancient and mystic ecclesial language, intrapersonal and psychoanalytical, ready to exchange gifts, poised between language and reality, and living between the shores of Mystery, which I know in its classicism, and the various fringes of the post-democratic world, which I view with critical sympathy. And I came to advocate the one and the other. There are so many different spheres in the Church, the People of God, and I have tried to give them a voice, and at the same time look for notes, music, which penetrate the wisdom of life, the Christian mysteries and the God who is invoked, as a creaturely invocation. If I had to summarize the meaning of my teaching and work, I could say: I have tried to contribute to making the Christian God look good in the history of human thought and action, and I ask myself why this is so difficult to do”.

However, of all these adjectives you have mentioned, the one that is most pertinent is missing: Father, you who are acclaimed “Father” of a generation of theologians.

Well yes, it’s true. I’m not a Brother. And at the same time I don’t wear a moustache or have the gentleness of a father. Sure, I try to be polite, but in a dignified way, even in the convent I address almost everyone formally. I am a formal man, if you like, a Benedictine bourgeois. With touches of Jesuitism. And perhaps of secularism, because without searching, nothing much gets done today. One last thing. I do not deny my life or my bourgeois and entrepreneurial background. Everyone asks me why I stopped teaching and left Rome to go back to the convent. However these two aspects are not opposed but complement each other. I am in tune with finitude, with contingency. Perhaps, if I live long enough, I think my convent will disappear; but that doesn’t scare me. And I am not a stoic either. I welcome the variations of contingency as a blessing from God. The Church is also contingent: in heaven there are no temples nor priests. And there aren’t any Benedictines either, to my great relief... and who knows, maybe there aren’t even any Jesuits, although they always turn up!

Rome, 16 May 2023.

By Andrea Monda and
Roberto Cetera