Letter from Rome

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

I write as Romans slowly return to the city and think about getting back to work, school, or, well, given the state of the Italian economy, maybe it’s better not to guess.  There’s no rush, because the calendar still says August, and no one is supposed to do anything serious in August.  But that’s not entirely accurate.  Pope Benedict is holding his annual Ratzinger Schülerkreis, or meeting with his former students, and this year’s discussion will focus on ecumenism, especially with regard to Lutherans and Anglicans, according to Catholic World News.  

The subject of ecumenism is a natural one for Germans and northern Europeans, less so for southern Europeans who often assume a traditionally Catholic culture that may or may not be transmitting Church doctrine effectively.  I think about this often in Rome, but I usually don’t get much of a chance to talk about it in public.  That is, until August 28, when I was asked to appear on the Italian television network RAI (watch from the 38-mintue mark of the August 28 “Unomattina Estate” show) to talk about the Republican National Convention taking place in Tampa, Florida.  The producer told me to talk about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and what it may mean for his policies, since Italians know little about what it teaches and who Mormons are. 

I did my best to prepare some mental notes, based on my overwhelmingly positive experience of working with pro-family Mormon NGOs at the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in New York and on why some Evangelicals and Catholics, let also secular types, are nervous about Mormons.  I was ready to say that I didn’t think Romney’s Mormonism would have much of a factor in the election, however, with the state of the economy and how to deal with the debt and entitlement problems as more important ones. 

Unfortunately, the RAI correspondent reporting via Skype from Tampa talked on and on about Hurricane Isaac and its similarities to Hurricane Katrina, followed by a report from Colonel Weatherman (only in Italy do we need uniformed military officers to tell us the weather!).  I did get a chance to say that some of the poll numbers cited by RAI seemed too optimistic about Obama’s handling of the economy and that Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for Vice-President makes the election more ideological than technical, but that was about it.  I guess August weather trumps both religion and politics.

This rushed, early-morning experience at the lavish RAI studios got me thinking about politics, work and leisure a bit more.  In Italy, political offices are generally filled by party members who are selected from lists and there is little discussion of what issues are at stake in an election.  Each party, of course, has its own ideology but you usually don’t hear candidates talk about them and certainly not with any detail or precision.  As a result, party affiliation seems to be largely a matter of personal preference, rather than core convictions or competing worldviews, about who should rule the country – some people like the what used to be called Christian Democrats, now the Democrats of the Center (not an insignificant name change, by the way), while others choose the Social Democrats/Democratic Party, or one of the innumerable smaller parties that exist.  I have yet to hear an Italian explain why they choose one over the others, and I have yet to meet someone who’s switched parties for ideological reasons.  Choosing a party seems to be like choosing a soccer team to follow – you may be fiercely loyal to one team, but in the end, it really is a matter of taste or tradition which one you choose, and not much is terribly at stake.  While this was definitely not the case when the choice was among fascists, communists and democrats, it is impossible to argue otherwise now.  As a whole, the country manages to muddle through and life goes on, even in the midst of a serious economic crisis.

There is no reform party in Italy.  Just about every observer of the Italian economy has recognized that the country’s labor laws are far too restrictive and discourage companies to grow.  Yet no changes take place, primarily because no sector wants to expose itself to the supposed “ravages” of market competition by making hiring and firing of employees easier for employers.  In theory, this restriction of competition is said to be good for workers, who gain in job security what they would otherwise lose in a “dog-eat-dog” marketplace.  But the cost of such security means that those locked out of the employed part of the economy have a much harder time getting in.  Those with secure jobs succeed over those without, and society as a whole suffers from fewer goods and services at higher prices.

Fine, one may say, but whoever said the production and consumption of goods and services was the be-all, end-all of our earthly existence?  Didn’t Aristotle say work should serve leisure, and not the other way around?  This argument would certainly explain the virtually complete lack of commercial activity outside of the tourist sector in August, and wiser men than I have made the case that Americans are workaholics who don’t know how to enjoy life.  But it is quite apparent that such leisure and enjoyment require the means to pay for them, and right now, Italy’s “Daddy” is thoroughly absent.

Rather than a work/leisure dichotomy, I’m starting to think that it’s a question of taking life, including work and leisure, seriously or not.  Is it really good enough for human beings to simply glide through life without a care in the world, the socialist egalitarian dream of the Nietzschean “last man”?  It’s certainly possible to take life too seriously, but I wonder if our problem isn’t the opposite.  Work is just a means of collecting a pay check to go home and entertain ourselves with the TV or the internet, keeping physically (but never spiritually) fit, etc.  Leisure for Aristotle ultimately meant the contemplative life, not a month-long beach vacation.

To end where I began, the Pope can once again serve as our model, this time not necessarily as the head of the Catholic Church on earth, but as a truly cultured European who knows how to make good use of his free time and indeed his freedom.  Not only did Pope Benedict take the time to meet and discuss ecumenism with his former students, he’s also completed his third volume on the life of Jesus and is said to be working on an encyclical on faith.  A Vatican rumor has it that as Cardinal Ratzinger would take his afternoon walks, he would tell his private secretary, an avid tennis player, “Sports will kill you.”  An exaggeration, perhaps, but one that takes us back to an older understanding of leisure with its focus on the life of the mind and the soul, not just the body.  It’s one the fit and tanned Romans coming back from the beach may not have the ears to hear.

Kishore Jayabalan