A Discussion with Luciano La Rivera, S.J., Journalist at Civiltà Cattolica Review, Rome

With: Luciano La Rivera

July 18, 2012

Background: In this exchange on July 18, 2012 in Rome, Luciano La Rivera, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed La Rivera's work as a reporter for a Vatican publication. In addition, they discussed the state of the Catholic Church in Italy, as well as the Catholic Church's role in international affairs, economics, and technology.

When and how did you discern your vocation as a Jesuit?

I’ve been a Jesuit for 18 years now. Growing up in Milan, I went to a Jesuit high school and was part of a group that became a Christian Life Community under the direction of one of the Jesuits at the school during my last two years there. I suppose you could say that the Jesuits have always been a part of my life, but I avoided the question of becoming one until after university. It started as a negative question—why not be a Jesuit? But I increasingly came to feel that that was the life for me. I admired the way the Jesuits lived and realized I wanted to be a part of that and to consecrate my life to God. At that point, I read a book on the history of the Jesuits, and I ultimately decided to join the year that Centessimus Annus was published.

Describe what you do now.

I am a licensed journalist in Italy, so my work consists of writing and editing for Civiltà Cattolica. That’s what I like to do anyway, so the Society [of Jesus] has let me remain here rather than pursuing a Ph.D. or an academic career. Given my background in economics and my personal and professional interests in politics, I’m tasked with writing articles on international affairs and economic matters. I’m naturally curious and I very much enjoy reading (more even than writing), so this is a good position for me.

What about the issue of imprimatur? What’s it like to write for a publication that is subject to official censorship?

I don’t really mind censorship. In fact, it usually makes my articles better; even though we circulate our drafts around the community here before submitting them for official review, the review process usually produces suggestions on how to tighten and sharpen articles still further. Knowing that my work will be reviewed pushes me to write pieces that are well-argued, synthesized, and relatively free of convoluted metaphor, stringent critique, or polemic. Civiltà Cattolica is reviewed and published by the Vatican secretariat of state, so it’s a bit more politically sensitive than other Jesuit publications, but I’ve never had any serious problems with it.

How would you describe current popular opinion of the Church and the Jesuits in Italy?

The Church is generally well regarded, but it’s passé to say that you’re Catholic or Christian in Italy today. Most people are Catholic, but it’s rare to see people either publicly affirming their belief or practicing devoutly. The prime minister, for example, is a good Catholic, but you’ll never hear or see him profess his faith in public. Even though people aren’t very outwardly Catholic, I believe most of them have had a good experience with a priest or a nun, so the clergy are usually thought of kindly. The Church does a lot of social work, too, which people appreciate, and we have the pope right here, so of course there’s some pride at having the highest office in the Church in this country. As for the Jesuits, they’re some of the most visible and popular clergy in Italy. Given that we’re so involved in social work, Jesuits are often discussed and quoted in the newspapers and on television in stories about social issues and politics.

What do you see as the way(s) forward or the most important future roles for the Society and for Civiltà Cattolica?

The most important thing for the Society is to keep up our network. We’re spread out across the whole world and we’re doing a lot of good work, so it’s critical that we stay connected with each other, with the Church and with the people we serve. Part of keeping the network functioning is building culture, both for ourselves and amongst lay people who encounter us through our universities, schools, and social apostolates. Our goal, especially in education, is always to help build responsible and committed citizens, so it’s important that we be able to embody our own culture well enough to imbue it to others. Civiltà Cattolica is a vehicle for Ignatian spirituality and culture (as are our schools and universities), so part of our job is to determine how to keep that culture alive and relevant in the modern world.

Naturally, part of that means talking about politics and economics both at home and abroad. We have a lot of articles on Italy, but we’re not a newspaper—we don’t editorialize so much about what the government should do. Other Jesuits do have a voice in government, however, since the government often calls Jesuits to serve in a couple of ministries as ex officio experts on social justice issues.

How about foreign affairs? What kind of perspective do you take on relations with the rest of the world, particularly the United States and Europe?

I appreciate some things the United States does, but there are others that concern me a lot. Still, as an avid consumer of world news, I realize it’s always more complicated than it looks. I try to take as broad and objective a view as possible and explain things in as much context as I can. That’s the approach I take both with my writing and in conversation with my brother Jesuits—when they aren’t frustrated with me for trying to take a broader view than they want to consider! Thus, even when I’m critiquing the decisions taken (or not taken) by a government, I try to give my readers a sense of the context in which the decisions were taken. In my mind, that exemplifies the Jesuit way of thinking: be critical, but don’t be ignorant of the bigger picture.

On Europe, I’d say that European integration is a good project, but we’ve reached a point at which it will take really clever politicians to keep it going. We have to find them: Europeanization is important not just for the region, but also for the world. In the past half-century, we’ve seen a drastic decrease in conflict, an amazing coordination of the laws of a whole group of countries, and a model of regional integration that may point the way forward in the process of globalization as a whole. I’m optimistic that the process will continue—and to succeed—but it’s going to be long and complicated. In the meantime, we can’t forget the poor and the marginalized. Even in an age of austerity, we need to maintain social welfare programs for reasons of humanity and even more so of unity. If we cast off the poor people, that will send a strong message that Europeanization is only for some people and not really the holistic societal movement it’s billed as. Even the Jesuits are responding to the demands of Europeanization. We’re called to think and serve as Europeans rather than remaining tied to our places of origin. That’s partly a response to the sociopolitical processes of integration, but it also has to do with the pastoral need of the region. With religious belief at such low ebb across the continent right now, part of the reason we’re deepening the integration of the Society across Europe is to cooperate for the re-evangelization of the continent. It’s the only way we stand a chance of preserving the faith in this region.

What about the politics of technocracy that have sprung up on the continent in response to austerity policies? Do you regard those as moral?

Politicians are often ignorant of the subtleties of economics anyway, so in some sense technocracy is just a public manifestation of technocratic policymaking that has been going on behind the scenes for a long time. What’s missing in the technocrats, though, is the human skill of politicians, who have to be mindful of and responsive to the feelings and desires of their constituents. It’s easier for technocrats—who are appointed for their competencies in cost-cutting and efficiency—to regard the poor, the handicapped, and migrants as expendable. Austerity is necessary to recover from our past profligacy, and we need technocrats at the moment to make the system work better, but the underlying problem is that we have not elected people on the basis of genuine competency in far too long. We need a politics that’s driven by the real issues.

In order to restore competitiveness, this country needs to make some big investments—in new technology, in education, and in environmental security, to name a few of the most pressing. One problem with austerity and technocracy is that they’re not really mandated to make those investments, but instead to cut costs and services until the debt somehow comes under control. Another problem is that these policies are a catch-22: there’s no alternative, but they’re not self-imposed or democratically elected, so they’re less morally valid than electing people to keep our financial house in order in the first place.

If they’re less moral, why are there no viable alternatives to these policies?

The biggest reason is that we’re now so interconnected that each country can really do damage to the others if it gets in trouble on its own. Moreover, we’ve integrated in a way that’s essentially irreversible: some people call for an exit from the euro, but that’s worse than useless—it will destroy the economy, and we’ll still be in debt even if we denominate it in a different currency. Leaving the monetary union would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. From the other side, the euro is a common value, and no country is allowed to kick another one out. That’s why the EU has shifted to a policy of crisis containment in the form of austerity and technocracy. They know we have to hold the project together, so they’re trying most of all to keep the financial malaise from spreading any further.

Another issue with technocracy is that people expect it to work within 18 months or so. Spain’s time has already come and gone without substantially improved conditions, and you can see how restive the population’s getting over there. In politics as in economics, we’ve created systems and structures that we don’t have the cognitive or political ability to run effectively. Italy will conclude its first 18 months of austerity right around the time of the election, so we’ll see what happens then. Hopefully we’ll have some constructive politics by then; now, we’re seeing how easy it is to express rage but how hard it is to come up with more intelligent ideas. Instead of populism, we need to start changing rules and culture in both government and business in order to create a politics that works and to further our continental integration. The social Europe has to be built; otherwise it won’t be Europe at all.

So in your mind, what would a “Catholic” or “Christian” economy look like?

First of all, it would be moral. A Catholic economy, so to speak, would be integrated and set up in such a way as to encourage a holistic perspective based on the natural law, community, and solidarity. To get there would take what Bernard Lonergan calls an intellectual conversion—a radical change in mindset away from competition and profiteering towards co-operation and mutual care. I should also say that in order to really develop a Christian economy, you’d have to dialogue with the world of Islamic finance. Not only would the two have to share wisdom with one another, but we’d have to determine how to build a system that would be workable for everyone. That’s what globalization and financial integration means, after all: to be successful, you have to be mindful of the global context. To develop an economy and call it “Christian” would be self-defeating if it were developed independently and incompatibly with Islamic (or any other) economic system.

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