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Introduction to the Person of Antonio Rosmini
Antonio Rosmini is one of the most lively and stimulating figures of the present day in the overall picture of religious and lay culture in Italy and Western Europe. He lived in the first half of the nineteenth century (Rovereto 1797 – Stresa 1855). He was a priest, a religious and the founder of two religious Orders (the Institute or Society of Charity and the Sisters of Providence). He was an encyclopaedic thinker, author of more than a hundred works, constituting a type of summa totius christianitatis [a summa of the whole of Christianity] both philosophical and theological (Michele Federico Sciacca’s analogy). He was the embodiment of charity (which for him meant love of God) on all levels, temporal (he supported the poor of all types), intellectual (he provided intellectual nourishment) and spiritual (he helped the spiritually needy).
The spirit which guided him was suggested to him by Pius VIII to lead people to religion by means of reason.
Above all he was acutely aware that western culture needed to maintain unity between faith and reason in friendship, the Gospel and progress, the natural and supernatural world, knowledge and faith. He realized that modern history ran the risk of closing man in on himself in the name of reason, that is, of detaching him from the transcendent, of causing him to fall back on his own strength, of convincing himself that he could fashion his life without the need of God. This would be a journey to death, which would lead to intellectual confusion and the loss of ethical and spiritual values.
In order to fulfil his evangelical mission of intellectual charity Rosmini chose a language and method more in harmony with the times, but he remained solidly anchored to the genuine values, of authentic Christian tradition: he fostered the essence of the faith in Augustine and Thomas, and in drawing on it, he enriched it, but he initiated a method which can be summarised by saying that while preceding schools had started with God to arrive at man, I have started with man to reach God.
Alongside this in the political sphere, he and his friend Manzoni, regarded with interest the rise of liberal democracies, noting in them an evangelical nucleus of freedom and the dignity of the human person which was being encouraged and purified.
The new language, the upside down method, his interest in democratic movements, together with appropriate ideas, which later turned out to be prophetic, aroused some apprehension in traditional Catholic circles, in which we clearly see today both the short sightedness of his adversaries’ views and the confusion between the message and the new means in which it was communicated. They feared that the teaching of Rosmini would lead to a distortion in Catholic dogma and attempt to introduce democracy into the Church. Lay culture, however, opposed the purity of his Christian orthodoxy, his belief that friendship, reason and faith should be intertwined. The first put Rosmini on the same level as Thomas superficially denying that he was faithful to the words of St Thomas, the second put Rosmini on the same level as Kant and his German idealism, denying that he was faithful to this idealistic vision. A century and a half was needed in order that the person of Rosmini, removed from the passions and partisan views of the time, might be seen as a clear and holy thinker, while no one who had experienced it ever hesitated to doubt his holiness.
At one stage Rosmini suffered for the way he related to emerging democracies. In 1849 his two books Le cinque piaghe della santa Chiesa [The Five Wounds of Holy Church] and La Costituzione secondo la giustizia sociale [The Constitution according to Social Justice] were put on the Index of prohibited books.
But his adversaries, as it were, constrained Pius IX to have all his other published works examined up to that time, in the hope of obtaining a condemnation of them. It was a serious examination, lasting for several months in which the contents of his works were scrutinized, and it was followed personally by the Pope. This resulted in his works being declared free from any ecclesiastical censure (1854).
The conclusion of Pius IX disappointed those who had expected a condemnation of all his work. After the death of Pius IX Rosmini’s adversaries got his works examined a second time. This time the outcome satisfied them because it carried a condemnation, though precautionary, of forty propositions taken from many of his works, with the explanation that “they did not appear to be in harmony with Catholic truth”. That “did not appear” can be justified by the novelty of his words and method, and in addition a reasonable apprehension about the influence idealism had on his contemporaries.
There followed a very long period of detailed and painstaking studies on the work of Rosmini, on its content, on his orthodoxy, on the sharing of his ideas with Thomism, on his distancing himself from idealism. It was basically what was suggested by the document of prohibition itself, like a suspension of judgement more than a definite condemnation. This intense study, accompanied by the social and political situation which was changing in favour of Rosminian ideas caused a new Rosmini to come to light and his true identity to be restored.
On the part of the laity Giovanni Gentile was the first to become aware of the greatness of his thought,even though he did not perceive his religious values but on the other hand attempted to associate him with idealistic theories. On the Catholic side, the studies of Michele Federico Sciacca caused the pure orthodoxy and the distinctiveness of Rosmini as an imposing Catholic thinker to emerge. On the strictly Rosminian side, the fathers of his religious Institute promoted the person and thought of Rosmini in his integrity preserving the heritage left by him and defending it from any kind of erroneous exploitation and interpretation.
Gradually decades passed, his holiness and thought began to assert themselves with ever-greater clarity. In Vatican Council II some bishops hailed him as a prophetic figure. The Popes who followed Pius XII all spoke of him with esteem and appreciation, until the time came for the pontifical commissions to re-examine his works. After three commissions, each lasting about two years, there came the outcome of the Nota of the Congregation of July 2001. This officially cancelled the reservations established in 1888. Basically it said that the forty propositions had been prohibited as a precautionary measure because it was necessary that time and study should clarify their exact meaning. Studies had been carried out, suspicion abandoned: there was no longer any reason for maintaining the reservation and suspension of judgement.
With his imminent beatification, then, mother Church offers to those of the present a son which is genuinely hers, a person of integrity, holy because of the evidence of his life and as teacher. His writings constitute an intellectual, spiritual and theological patrimony which is both rich and stimulating. Rosmini has gathered and placed at the service of his brethren old and new treasures of the deposit of faith.
He can help secular people in the correct use of reason, to confidently face up to their salvation and to the transcendent. To believers he offers the possibility of holiness which is thoughtful, aware, and intelligent, one which involves the whole of the human person (feeling, reason and will). To all people he is held up as a bridge builder, a man of dialogue, a friendly person who persuades one to accept the whole truth, to love God and neighbour with their whole heart, thinking and loving on a grand scale, that is, searching for the best in all one does or thinks or loves.
Above all Rosmini today teaches us how to unite the earthly with the heavenly, the temporal with the eternal, the truth with charity, human fragility with the power of the grace of God, the dignity of the human person with the demand that the cross of Christ makes on him. The more we approach his writings the more we become familiar with the charity with which he sees and conveys truths, and the more hope is rekindled in us to track down lost truths and the overall, ultimate meaning of human existence.
In conclusion: I see the beatification of Rosmini in a small way, if you like, as a recognition of his human and spiritual greatness which sweeps away the clouds of the past which have hung over him, a confirmation of the merit which he accumulated in his service of the Church and his neighbour. But above all I see the beatification as a bridge built for the future, as a promise to use and exploit. It is as if the Church is placing on a lamp stand a light which remained for a long time under a table, exhorting us in these times of the obscurity of truth and charity (nihilism and relativism) to make use of the light of truth and of the fire of charity which shines forth from it.
Director of the Centro Internazionale di studi Rosminiani
(Director of the International Centre of Rosminian Studies)