During his lifetime Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the retired archbishop of Bologna whose death earlier this month made national headlines but not the international papers, came to be one of the most controversial and influential cardinals of Italy. The issues he spoke out on—in a generally reasonable and heartily humorous way, walking his readers or listeners through the stages of his customarily conservative argument—were some of the most contentious and politically incorrect issues of the day.
Cardinal Biffi’s fame rests on what he said as well as on the way he said it, often taking a page from literature or from a children’s tale. He called himself, with the self-deprecating humor that came to be his hallmark, a “Pinocchiologist,” referring to his analysis of the famous wooden puppet as an allegory of Christian redemption, although the book was written by someone who had fought on the side of the anticlerical Risorgimento in 19th-century Italy.
Another of his favorite authors was Vladimir Soloviev, whose portrait of the Anti-Christ foresaw, back in 19th-century Russia, the actualization of the New Testament prophecies in the rise of a world leader, the president of the United States of Europe, the kind of reassuring figure which is familiar to us today: pacifist, environmentalist, philanthropist, vegetarian, animal lover, and a uniter of all religions.
When visiting with the cardinal, you would be taken through a long line of sumptuously gilded and frescoed halls, at the end of which his secretary would show you into his presence, in a similarly sumptuous room, laden with centuries of his predecessors’ history. What stood out in all this was his own attire, which on normal days was simple, black priestly garb.
Long before Pope Francis shunned the papal apartments for the smaller and more practical rooms in Santa Marta, you might find a bishop who was willing to answer the door himself. In Cardinal Biffi’s case, respecting the protocol of centuries of predecessors should be read in the light of his self-deprecation; as he explained, humility is something one must apply to oneself, not to the glory due to God.
The stance that Giacomo Biffi was most famous for was indubitably his position on the risks of post-Cold War immigration, which started changing the face of Italian demographics at the beginning of the 1990s, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was the time when the poor and unemployed first started being herded, at a price, from Third World countries (then Albania and Northern Africa) to the shores of Italy. From the outset any demand for limits to this illegal immigration was branded as selfish, xenophobic, and racist, and logically, the loudest taunts, echoed across the world, lay in wait for anyone in the Church hierarchy who might speak out on the subject.
In this context, in September 2000, a full year before 9-11 yanked open the eyes of the West, Giacomo Biffi, from his seat in the city that had been the Communist showcase for the Western hemisphere throughout the Cold War, spoke out against indiscriminate immigration, openly asking the civil authorities to prefer Catholic immigrants over others, for the sake of the welfare of the hosting population:
Italy is not an empty or partially uninhabited moor, with no history, with no living and vital traditions, without it’s own unmistakeable cultural and spiritual physiognomy, which one can fill up indiscriminately with just any population at all […] a truly “secular” State should have among it’s principal concerns that of promoting a peaceful integration of the populations. Therefore concrete measures have to be taken to ensure that those who intend to settle down here may absorb the culture of the spiritual, moral and juridical reality of our country, and get to know as well as possible the literary, aesthetical, religious traditions of the particular humanity which they have come here to join. In a realistic perspective (all else being equal, especially regarding honesty of intentions and correct behavior), there ought to be a preference for the Catholic, or at least Christian, populations, whom it is far easier to integrate (with reference, for example, to the Latin Americans, the Philipinos, the people from Eritrea and the ones from many Eastern European countries, etc.), followed by the Asians (such as the Chinese and the Koreans) who have shown how capable they are of fitting in with great ease, while maintaining the distinctive features of their culture…
Cardinal Biffi distinguished between levels of responsibility: Catholics and the Church are responsible for charity and evangelization towards all, both believers and non, he taught, but the State is responsible for discerning which immigrants to let in and for managing the influx based on the simple fact that although immigrants are entitled to all human rights, there is no such thing as a right to invade.
Generic praise heaped on gestures of solidarity and the primacy of evangelical charity—which are of course legitimate and even due—are more generous and well-meaning than they are useful, if they avoid facing the complexity of the problem amd the roughness of actual reality. We have had two very lengthy documents on the subject: in 1990 the Pastoral Note from the “Justice and Peace” ecclesial Committee called “Men of different cultures: from conflict to solidarity” and the 1993 Pastoral Guidlines of the Ecclesial Committee for Migration called “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Both texts are mostly and duly designed to build up and spread throughout Christianity a “culture of welcoming.” What is lacking is a bit of realism in evaluating the difficulties and problems; and above all there appears to be insufficient importance given to the evengelizing mission of the Church towards all mankind, and therefore also of those who come to live here in our midst.
The case of the Muslims
It is obvious that the case of Muslims must be treated separately. And it is to be hoped that the people in charge will not be afraid to confront it with eyes wide open and no delusions.
Muslims—the vast majority of them, with few exceptions—come here determined to remain foreign to our “humanity,” whether individual or in groups, in what is most essential to it, most precious and most “secularly” indispensable: more or less openly they come to us determined to remain substantially ‘different,’ in the expectation of substantially remaking us into something similar to them.
They have a different kind of food (not much of a problem in of itself), a different holiday, family laws that are incompatible with ours, a concept of women vastly different from ours (to the point of polygamy). Above all they have a rigorously fundamentalistic view of public life, so much so that the perfect interpenetration between religion and politics is a part of their indubitable and unrenounceable faith, even if they are wise enough to wait until they are a numerical majority before imposing it on us.
So it is not the men of the Church but the modern states of the West who must do some wise book-keeping in this regard. Further, if our State really believes in the importance of civil liberties (among which is religious freedom) and in democratic principles, it should work on spreading them, having them practiced and accepted more and more, everywhere. A little tool which could be of use to achieve this purpose could be “reciprocity,” a request that this not be just an empty word in the countries of origin of the immigrants who come here. [….]
However foreign to our mentality and even paradoxical it may seem, the only effective way of promoting the “principle of reciprocity” on the part of a truly “secular” State wishing to spread human liberties would be for the authorized institutions to allow to Muslims here only what Muslim countries actually allow to others over there.
Catholicism is our “historical national religion”
Cardinal Biffi did not shrink from asserting the privileges that are due to Catholicism’s being historically present on the continent, a particularly relevant position given the long struggle over a mention of Europe’s historically Christian roots being included in the now defunct European Constitution.
As to the relationships with the different religions that are present among us as an effect of immigration, no one should ignore or forget that Catholicism—which is undeniably no longer the “official religion of State”—nonetheless remains the “historical religion” of the Italian nation, the main source of it’s identity, the decisive inspiration of our truest greatnesses.
So it is totally incongruous to assimilate it socially to other religious or cultural forms, which should be fully and authentically free to exist and operate, without however this entailing an unnatural levelling off, or even a nullification, of the highest values of our civiization.
We should also note that a democracy which makes respect for individuals and minorities coincide with a non-respect for the majority and the elimination of the traditional facts of a human community is a singular brand of democracy indeed. Here we must unfortunately point to an increasing number of instances of this, which is a “substantial intolerance”; such as when in schools we abolish the Catholic symbols and customs because of the presence of some people of other faiths.
Evangelization allows of no exceptions
The Lord will take us to task for the genuinness and the breadth of our charity and will ask if we have done everything that was in our power to do. On this, however—all should take heed—we are to answer not to others, but only to the Lord.
Evangelization is by nature universal and does not admit of a deliberate exclusion of categories of people to evangelize. The Lord did not say to us: “Preach the Gospel to all creatures, except for Muslims, Jews, and the Dalai Lama”…. Whoever were to shed doubt on the legitimacy or even simply the appropriateness of this unlimited and mandatory announcement, woud commit the sin of intolerance towards us: this would mean to forbid us to be what we are, i.e., “Christians,” i.e., obedient to the clear and explicit will of Christ.
Europe’s inevitable showdown
In an interview at the beginning of the 1990s Cardinal Biffi was asked with what he termed “enviable optimism”: “Are you among those who think that either Europe will be Christian or it will not be at all?” His answer: “I think that either Europe reverts back to being Christian or it will be Muslim.”
It seems to me that what actually has no future is the “culture of nothingness,” which appears to be vastly predominant among the people of Europe, rich in means and poor in truth: a content-free and limitless freedom, a skepticism boasted of as if it were an intellectual accomplishment. This “culture of nothingness” (supported by hedonism and by libertarian insatiability) will not be capable of withstanding the ideological assault of Islam, which is bound to come: only the rediscovery of the Christian event as man’s only salvation—and therefore a decisive resurrection of the ancient soul of Europe—can offer a different outcome to this inevitable showdown.
Unfortunately, neither the “humanists” nor the “Catholics” seem to realize the tragedy that is unfolding. The secularists with their relentless action against the Church do not realize that they are fighting against the strongest inspirer and the most valid defense of Western civilization and its values of rationality and liberty. When they do realize it, it may be too late. “Catholics,” by letting the awareness of the truths they possess fade away within themselves and by replacing apostolic concern with pure and simple dialogue at all costs, are unconsciously preparing their own extinction. My hope is that the seriousness of the situation may at some point lead to an effective reawakening both of reason and of the bygone faith.
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