November 12, 2009

What we can learn from the Scandal of the Cross

Raphael: The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (The Mond Crucifixion, National Gallery
There was an interesting piece in yesterday’s WSJ op-ed page on the issue of crucifixes in Italian schools (see my previous posts). In particular, after taking note—in line with the most common reactions, here in Italy, to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against crucifixes—that “anyone who cares about Italy’s national identity and distinctive traditions […] must give serious weight to the cultural case for crucifixes in schools,” the author pointed out that, nevertheless, “Christians might want to hesitate before adopting this line of argument, because displaying their faith's holiest symbol on these terms could come at the price of its trivialization.”

A Muslim colleague of mine, long resident in Italy, told me on the day after the court’s ruling that he had no objection to crucifixes in classrooms. But he said he found all the talk about the object as a cultural icon to be demeaning, as if placing it on par with the regional costumes worn by folk dancers at holiday celebrations.

That’s a very interesting point, in my view. That’s also part of what I meant when, from the very first post of the series, I conceded that the question in itself is a very broad and debatable one, that there is much to ponder and discuss about it. I dare to say, in addition, that in the light of what our schools have become in the past few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Catholic priests (if not the Church itself) were willing to remove motu proprio crucifixes from classrooms! (Hey I’m just kidding …)

But then again, the problem is not primarily a religious one, but rather a cultural (and political) issue, even though this may mean a “trivialization” of the whole issue.

Yet another interesting objection: as the article also reports, Italy’s new opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani said ancient traditions such as the crucifix “cannot be offensive to anyone.” “But if he is right,” continues the author, “Christians should hardly rejoice.” In fact,

Soren Kierkegaard, who foresaw so much of post-Christian Europe more than a century and a half ago, wrote that a society incapable of taking offense at Christianity is lost to the faith, because it endorses the "glorious results" of the church's human history, instead of facing up to the original humiliation and sacrifice of God-made-man, which by worldly values are a scandal.

Yes, the scandal of the Cross… What a glorious, awesome, beautiful mystery! What an absurd anomaly, especially in today’s world! Because Christianity, as everybody knows, is not the same as the world-system. Christianity is of a different order... Yet, I don’t like the way the article ends:

Politicians naturally avoid such discomfiting ideas for the safety of abstractions like heritage and culture, and so prefer to justify the crucifix as a token of national tradition, without going into gory details. But to regard the object in such a way is to obscure its essential meaning, and thus poorly serve Italian students and citizens of all persuasions.

Politicians, in fact, are not theologians, and most of all, as far as I know, they are part of the world-system, they live in and belong to this world. And Christians involved in politics make no exception, though not without a secret regret. Quite a difficult position, no doubt. And an infinite story as well.


  1. The fundamental question was whether the national tradition and integrity of a particular nation (Italy) should be fully respected. It goes without saying that it should. Naturally however, there are always other viewpoints, even for Christians.

    If for example 'too many cooks spoil the broth', could it not be that too many figurative crucifixes banalise the crucifixion? If the majority of crucifixes are standard interpretations, then one might also view this as standardisation. Surely the ultimate sacrifice of the Saviour merits a more inspired homage than a standard interpretation?


Thus one could perhaps make a modest devil's advocate's suggestion that instead of blindly banning crucifixes ad lib in schools, only those that are unworthy of what they are supposed to represent should be banned. After all, education also requires example, including creative merit, sensitivity, inspiration and respect.

    Then it might be suggested that if, rather than having an inspired representation of the crucifixion in every classroom, wouldn't it be better to have a special place, a quiet corner if not a little chapel in each school where this superb example could have its sacred place of honour? This would allow the opportunity of prayer or quiet reflection to those so inclined, whilst sparing others less inclined from contemplating a religious symbol that, for whatever personal or religious reason, they can't identify with.

  2. That’s a very interesting point, Mirino.

    In particular, I agree with you when you wonder whether it wouldn't be better “to have a special place, a quiet corner if not a little chapel in each school where this superb example could have its sacred place of honour.” Perhaps it would be the best thing. But it would also provoke an absolute pandemonium…

  3. If what you say is true, then it could be concluded that one would prefer to perpetuate the tradition of banalising a sacred symbol. This by insisting that everyone has access to it whatever their faith, or whether they are favourable to the idea or not, instead of encouraging the practise of discretion and reverence that would be more in keeping with the Christian faith and the ultimate sacrifice that the crucifix represents.

    If Pandemonium would be the result of practising discretion and reverence, then there would be no hope for Christianity. In principle everyone would have a one way ticket to your allusion of Hell's capital (Milton's 'Pandaemonium' in Paradise Lost).

  4. But it would be, no doubt, a bipartisan pandemonium. And I’m not sure about who would be the most angry--or better still, I have a suspect, but I have no wish to get into a fight, not today…

  5. In Pandemonium each party would blame the other for having landed everyone in such an irreversible situation. But it would be the 'noble heart's club' that would claim to have the solution to redeem mankind. They would organise a municipal tax system to enable all the sinners of Pandemonium to pay the penalties of their sins, and the price of any other unwanted results of their immorality. If this remedy (like restaurant tickets or air-miles) doesn't lead to paradise, their intellectuals will solve the problem by explaining that: 'The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.'

  6. The cross is a tradition. PERIOD.
    Following the logic then we should also take all the crosses away from our piazzas, fountains and street's corners. I don't see where the issue is except for a bunch of morons in Strasbourg who as usual have absolutely no clues what they are talking about.
    Everything else is bla bla bla