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While he was occupied with the life of the two Institutes, don Antonio also attended to another work indicated to him by the Pope as his specific mission, to write books.
The numerous trials he faced in establishing and looking after the two Institutes were nothing compared with the sufferings which came from his activities as a thinker. A mysterious plan of Providence disposed that in the apostolate most congenial to him — intellectual charity — he had to die as a grain of wheat in order to bear much fruit.
Intellectual charity is a very sensitive and difficult work, even though a very necessary one. In fact, if minds do not reach the truth, the whole person remains in darkness. It is here that his work as a thinker and writer comes in. In his book Degli studi dell’autore [About the Author’s Studies], he shows the urgency in combating error, he reduces Truth to a system and proposes a philosophy which should provide a solid basis for the sciences and at the same time be a valid support for theology.
With his Nuovo saggio [New Essay], don Antonio begins his reflection in the philosophical field. The work contains the foundation of all his thought, that is, the affirmation that the understanding is illuminated by the light of being or the light of truth through which there is something divine in human beings. Such a principle is applied also to morals, to anthropology, to politics, to pedagogy, building up that system of Truth, on which he wishes to organise his philosophy
In 1839 he published his Trattato della coscienza morale [Treatise on Moral Conscience], which let loose a great polemic on the part of some Jesuits, who held it to be a distillation of all heresy. In condemning it, they did not spare him insults and personal attacks.
Immediately people sprang to the defence of don Antonio. Urged on by his friends, he himself replied with the essay, Risposta al Finto Eusebio Cristiano [Reply to the So-called Eusebio Cristiano] with the aim of clarifying his thought. However, he saw that it was not a “problem of knowledge”, but a pretext to attack the Institute; therefore he did not reply further. His friends and followers did it for him.
It was only some years earlier that the Pope had pointed out don Antonio as a man “exceedingly famous for his knowledge of things human and divine”, that is for theological and philosophical learning, and now his enemies indicted them!
In order to put an end to this polemic, Gregory XVI intervened in 1843 with the decree of silence imposed on both parties. For the time being the polemic died down, but it was not resolved because his adversaries collected in a Memorial Rosminian statements which they judged to be heretical and secretly had it spread round among prelates in order to gather signatures against him.
Nevertheless, apart from criticisms, the teaching of don Antonio became hugely successful. It entered into Seminaries and Universities in Italy and abroad. There was no true “Rosminian school”. He himself did not agree with this, because this sort of thing was incompatible with his characteristic universal spirit and thinking on a large scale (“pensare in grande”).
Among the diocesan and regular clergy he always had faithful followers and persistent defenders. In the lay field scholars and admirers, such as Pestalozza, Stoppani, Tommaseo, Bonghi and Manzoni were not lacking. The latter made a flattering judgement, describing him as “one of the five or six great minds that the human race had produced for centuries.”
He combined the fascination of the thinker who reconciled tradition with modern thought, with that of a man of lofty moral conscience and master of the spiritual life. Many people turned to him as a sound spiritual guide: religious and lay people, outstanding personalities and ordinary people, as his Epistolario witnesses.
Since finance was available, provided by a benefactor, the Prince of Arenberg, don Antonio was moved to undertake another apostolic project, the Collegio di san Raffaele [College of Saint Raphael]. This would be a scientific foundation for fostering medical studies with a hospital annexed to it. Don Antonio desired to offer doctors who might be interested, a school with modern equipment for their researches and experiments for the benefit of humanity. Unfortunately the situation at the time did not favour the initiative.
Because of the vast prestige he enjoyed, the Piedmontese government of King Carlo Alberto entrusted him with a diplomatic mission to the Holy See, at a difficult time of the first war of independence. Gioberti suggested Don Antonio as the most influential person for this.
In August 1848 Pius IX welcomed him with the friendly words: “You do not wish to come to Rome to be near the Pope; now that God has sent you, we shall put you in prison, and not let you go any more.” This was an allusion to the Cardinalate to which he was invited to prepare for the consistory of the following December.
Don Antonio was obliged by events to give up the diplomatic mission and in November 1848, when revolution broke out in Rome, he took part in the flight and exile of the Pope to Gaeta, which was explicitly desired by the latter.
Here the environment immediately became very hostile. Austria was not indifferent to the changed situation. His teaching came under suspicion again. Also his book Delle cinque piaghe della santa Chiesa [On the Five Wounds of Holy Church], recently published, provided fuel for fresh criticisms. Even though the book was the fruit of a great love for the Church, don Antonio, seeing its unity and liberty threatened by grave situations throughout its history, had the courage to denounce the “wounds” and indicate the remedies. Unfortunately it was interpreted in a way which completely twisted the thought of the author. Moreover, every illegal action was taken to keep “such a dangerous” man away from the Pope.
In the kingdom of Naples don Antonio met difficulties also from the Bourbon police who kept an eye on him as an unwanted visitor.
Meanwhile the suspicions regarding his doctrines increased. Pius IX was seriously preoccupied and in April 1849 wrote thus: “With paternal affection we exhort you to reflect on the works you have published in order to modify, correct or retract them.”
The words of the Pope left him “totally in the dark”, not so much for bringing up the subject of his teaching, but because, by not alluding to any specific point, the reference was to all his works in general. But what were these incriminating things? And on what points in particular? The state of mind of don Antonio appears in his letter of reply to the Pope: “Most Blessed Father, I am a devoted and obedient son of the Church, which is the pillar and ground of truth. I submit to all its decisions and I have never had a doubt in my mind against them, adhering with the whole of my being to the heavenly doctrines taught by her, where alone is to be found the peace, the joy and glory of the human mind and the hope of eternal happiness. I have submitted time and time again, with both public and private declarations, all my works and all my opinions to this infallible Teacher and mother, in whose bosom, by the grace of God I was born and reborn to grace. The tenor of the most esteemed letter Your Holiness addressed to me causes me to protest afresh before you my complete attachment to the doctrines of the Holy Roman Church of which I am a son. Blessed Father, I aim to modify everything that calls for this in my works; to correct everything that needs correcting; to retract everything that ought to be retracted (….) I wish to trust in all things in the authority of the Church, and I want the whole world to know that this is the sole authority that I am guided by; that I delight in the truths taught by her; that I glory in withdrawing any errors that I may have fallen into, anything contrary to her infallible decisions.”