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La Civilta Cattolica: Interpreting the world for the church

A publication that has a special synergy with the Holy See

La Civilta Cattolica: Interpreting the world for the church

Pope Francis has recommended that the periodical La Civilta Cattolica should be circulated in schools, seminaries and formation centers. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

Published: January 30, 2018 11:40 AM GMT

Updated: January 30, 2018 11:48 AM GMT

Jesuit-written periodical La Civilta Cattolica was founded in the mid-nineteenth century but has it only been published in the English language from last year. The following is a speech about the publication's purpose given by its editor-in-chief Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, at a meeting of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines in the city of Cebu.


La Civilta Cattolica made its mark during a time when the very meaning of communication changed, over and above its modalities. It was first published in 1850, 168 years ago. So it's one of the oldest magazine in the world.

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La Civilta Cattolica is not a stack of paper, but is a living history. And this history, made up of faces and people, is organic to the recent history of the Catholic Church. 

We know however that a cultural magazine is mixed, is kneaded, with the times that it spans.  A journalist defined it as a "barometer." I would also add the definition of "thermometer."

What happened in the years in which La Civilta Cattolica was founded? Newspapers began to spread. The question posed then, like today, was: Does the technological innovation of information destine humankind to be more stupid?

La Civilta Cattolica from the beginning has made a radical journalistic choice. In a time in which ecclesiastical magazines of culture were in Latin and used an elevated and distant tone, the founder Father Carlo Maria Curci, together with a group of Jesuits, decided that they must use the language of the magazines of the era, of a restless revolutionary, liberal, socialist and even anarchist resurgence. That is, a "militant" language.

Journalism was perceived as a danger that sewed confusion while the "truth" of the book gave stability to society and religions. The newspapers with their rapid means of diffusion seemed to give rise to a kind of post-truth. What to do, then? Counter the dangerous tide of paper or dive in headfirst?

The first challenge of La Civilta Cattolica was therefore a communication challenge. And the message was clear: the church must confront the huge communication challenges and not shirk from them. And she must address them from within, not criticize them from the outside.

This is what La Civilta Cattolica intends to offer its readers: The sharing of an intellectual experience illuminated by the Christian faith profoundly grafted onto the cultural, social, economic, and political life of our times. Its contribution is serious and educated but not elitist or for specialists. It is above all a journal sharing its own reflections not only with the Catholic world, but with everyone seriously involved in the world and wanting trustworthy sources of formation that inspire thought and allow personal judgment to mature. It is in its genetic code to be a bridge, interpreting the world for the church and the church for the world, contributing to an open, full, cordial, and respectful dialogue. La Civilta Cattolica — our predecessors wrote in 1851 — "enters under your roof to bring you news, to propose doubts, to give you clarifications of this or that question, among the most debated."

The identity of our masthead includes therefore not only good analyses and original research, but also the taking of positions which are able to speak to the intelligence and the heart of our readers, urging them to make choices.

A special synergy with the Holy See

The cultural proposals which the journal has offered since its foundation are characterized by a special synergy with the Holy See, as is also attested by Pius IX's brief Gravissimum Supremi of Feb. 12, 1866. From that time on, the journal has been able to perform a service to the church, and in particular to the pope, in his universal commitments. This "particular bond with the pope and the Apostolic See" — as Pope Francis reminded us ("Discourse to the Community of Writers of La Civilta Cattolica," June 14, 2013) — is an "essential part" of the journal and therefore is to be considered "one of a kind."

Pope Francis said on the occasion of the publication of the 4,000th issue of La Civilta Cattolica:

 "Your navigation is not solitary. My predecessors, from blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI, meeting with you in audience, have acknowledged many times how your navigation is in the Barque of Peter. This closeness to the pontiff is always an essential trait of your magazine. You are in the Barque of Peter.  It, at times in history — today as yesterday — can be tossed around by the waves and there is nothing surprising about this. But even the very sailors called to row in Peter's boat may row in the opposite direction. It has always happened. You of La Civilta Cattolica must be 'expert and courageous rowers' (Pius VII, Bull Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum): therefore row! Row, be strong, even against the head wind! We row at the service of the church. We row together! (Homily at Vespers with Te Deum, Sept. 27, 2014). This is the closeness between you and me.  And I express my 'strong desire that this closeness is not only maintained, but is strengthened' (John Paul II, Discourse to the writers of La Civilta Cattolica, Jan. 19, 1990). Let's always go forward in our navigation, pushed by the breath of the Holy Spirit who guides us."

Considering the situation of the today's world, our task to follow Pope Francis, his vision, his path is even more demanding than ever because there are many — not only Catholics, Christians, and believers, but also many non-believers — who consider Pope Francis a world leader; a man of such moral authority and trustworthiness that he attracts people from every continent and offers responses to questions and uncertainties all over the globe, both about today's realities and particularly about our common future.

 La Civilta Cattolica is the fruit of writers, all of whom are Jesuits

The specificity of La Civilta Cattolica, its proper contribution, which the editors can offer, comes from this uniqueness: The fact that it is the fruit of writers, all of whom are Jesuits.

La Civilta Cattolica is the fruit of an editorial board which is called "the college of writers." The review is the expression of the work of a team, and therefore of shared research and toil: every article before its publication — whether it is written by members of the editorial board or comes from elsewhere — is subject to the judgment of the others and, in the end, is the fruit of an internal dialogue. We writers are, as Leo XIII wrote of us in the brief, Sapienti consilio "united in a community of life and study." I myself as director am a part, with added responsibility, of a work which is radically collegial. Our journal is therefore the expression of a community of scholarship, which is open to the world and to contributions by the Jesuits of five continents.

Thus, it is a journal that is called to offer a spiritual vision of reality, which is lived by the religious who work in the editorship of the journal. Our treasure is the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola. This spirituality, which has forged saints, scientists, intellectuals and those involved in formation throughout the ages, has for its principle inspiration a very simple criterion: "Search for and find God in all things" as St. Ignatius writes.

A broad approach to culture using plain language

The complexity and fragmentation of modern life requires effort to understand and recompose fragmented knowledge. From the editorial of the first issue of 1850 our journal has interpreted its Catholicity thus: "La Civilta Cattolica would not be Catholic, that is, universal, if it were not able to engage with every form of public life." Thanks to the multiplicity and breadth of the subjects treated, our readers are able to become familiar with numerous debated and timely issues. Above all, they will have the materials and stimuli to form a personal opinion, thanks to the incisive, but not overly complex or articulated, analysis.

However, we do not intend simply to follow and comment upon cultural events or pre-formulated reflections. As much as possible, we want to look ahead, anticipate the tendencies and phenomena, foresee their impact, and keep the attention of our readers alert. Thus, we intend to respond to the appeal that Benedict XVI made to us in February of 2006 when he received us in private audience: "La Civilta Cattolica, to be faithful to its nature and to its task, will not fail […] to renew itself continually, reading correctly the signs of the times." It is precisely in this sense that we recognize ourselves well in a definition made by Mons. James I. Tucek of Dallas in the 1960s. At the time of the Council he was in Rome as head of what is now the Catholic News Service and called us: "A dignified, but hard punching magazine."

Openness to the international dimension

Today, openness to the international dimension is much more prominent than in the past. A journal of culture is less identified with a particular nationality. Today, to comprehend reality, a broad and pluralist perspective is necessary. For some years now, the writers of the journal — all Jesuits — have come from various nations and continents. Thus, La Civilta Cattolica has a more international profile. We feel the need to offer the journal to a greater number of readers in different languages. So we have welcomed the proposal to launch an English edition of La Civilta Cattolicawhich stands side by side now with the editions in French, Spanish, and Korean. English is the most international language and therefore it represents well the perspective which the journal wishes to have. I'm grateful to UCAN and Father Kelly SJ for taking the responsibility of the English edition seriously.

Clearly this multilingual dimension will not leave the identity of the journal unchanged because, having readers in other languages, the examples of other countries and cultures will become part of the heart of the journal as never before. And this will be our way of living faithfully today the request of Pius IX to our predecessors in his brief Gravissimum supremi, when he asked them, regarding their writings,  "to disseminate and diffuse them widely in all nations."

 The specific mission for today

Pope Francis said on the occasion of the publication of the 4,000th issue of La Civilta Cattolica: "And what is this specific mission? It is that of being a Catholic magazine. But being a Catholic magazine does not simply mean that it spreads Catholic ideas, as if Catholicism was a philosophy. As your founder, Father Carlo Maria Curci, wrote, La Civilta Cattolica must not 'seem like something from the sacristy.' A magazine is truly 'Catholic only if it has Christ's gaze on the world, and if it transmits it and witnesses to it.'"

Thus, for La Civilta Cattolica to be faithful to the church essentially means responding to the appeal of the pontiffs, in particular Pope Francis, to the Society of Jesus in its entirety. In the audience granted to the Jesuits of the journal three months after his election, the pontiff, taking up again the mission which his immediate predecessors had conferred upon the journal, relaunched and enriched it in meaning. The pope expressed the key words of this mission thus: Dialogue, discernment, and frontier.

This dialogue builds on the capacity to "collect and express the expectations, desires, joys, and dramas of our time, and to offer the elements for a reading of reality in the light of the Gospel." In fact — contrary to what is often thought — the important spiritual questions are more pressing than ever, but someone must interpret and understand them." It is not, therefore, a matter of choosing either God or the world; rather it is always God in the world, the God who works to bring it to fulfillment.

For this reason, we need a discernment that "seeks to recognize in the human and cultural situation the presence of God's Spirit, the seed of his presence already sown in events, in sensibilities, in desires and in the heart's profound aspirations and in social, cultural and spiritual contexts." From here starts our quest in all the fields of knowledge, art, science, and political, social, and spiritual life.

The pontificate of Pope Francis has its heart in the discernment. Many people believe that the pope has all the clear, distinct ideas, and they wonder where he wants to take the church. Many think he has a clear starting point and a clear destination, and they wonder about his strategies and objectives. There is nothing wrong about this way of thinking, and yet it is not the dynamic of Bergoglian thought, and of the action which it is capable of generating.

The pope has a clear idea of context, of the starting situation. However, the road that he seeks to travel is truly open for him; it is not contained in a road map written a priori: the path opens up as one travels it.

As he said in a letter to priests on July 29, 2007, we must be careful that the horizon does not come so close as to become a fence. The horizon must be truly open. This is the space of the discernment and is the space open to our work as writers of La Civilta Cattolica. We don't want to interpret the pope: He doesn't need interpreters! We want to accompany this pontificate, helping people to follow Pope Francis, to go with him.

And to accomplish this task we must stand at the frontiers, not in the rearguard. The frontier is the place of the Jesuits in general: The most difficult and extreme fields, the crossroads of ideologies, the social trenches, the places where the burning exigencies of men and women confront the perennial message of the Gospel. The temptation to avoid — Pope Francis said – is that of "domesticating the frontiers: It is essential to go out to the frontiers but not to bring frontiers home to touch them up with a little varnish and tame them."

Our task, therefore, is that of "accompanying […] the culture and social processes, and those who are living difficult transitions, even taking charge of conflicts." In reality this seems to be characteristic of the way Francis lives his ministry. Its fundamental dimensions are in its missionary and pastoral aspects. His most radical question is: How do we proclaim the Gospel to everyone, whatever his or her existential condition? His model is the encounter of Jesus with the disciples of Emmaus, and he asks pastors to accompany people standing beside them, even when men and women enter into the night, wandering aimlessly alone, as he said to the Brazilian Bishops in July 2013. The church is not only the "lighthouse" but also the "torch" that walks with men and women, giving light now before, now in the midst, now behind, so that no one gets left behind, as the pope said speaking to the Apostolic Nuncios.

In the audience celebrating the publication of 4,000th issue, Pope Francis gave us another set of three words: Restlessness, incompleteness, imagination — restlessness because an authentic faith always implies a deep desire to change the world. Incompleteness — because only a truly open thought can confront the crisis and the understanding of where the world is going. Imagination which helps us to understand that life is not a painting in black and white. It is a painting in colors. Some clear and others dark, some soft and others vivid. But in any case nuances prevail. And this is the space for discernment.

Why in Asia? Why in the Philippines?

Asia represents a land in which spiritual values are held in great esteem and where religious meaning is deep and in its DNA. It is also a land of strong tensions and conflicts of the religious, political and social order, a continent of peripheries and frontiers, in which its population is two-thirds young people and it is rich in energies.

It is therefore a continent in growth, characterized by a multiplicity, almost a mosaic of societies, cultures and religions. We must also recognize the region's growing geopolitical and demographic significance and of its constitution by numerous and diverse contexts resistant to essentialist definitions.

The pope loves situations where energies are expressed even in contradictory ways, where tensions need to be touched with the hand. He feels that his leadership is "played out" above all in these situations in flux. In Asia, Christianity also is always in the minority, and finds itself confronted with the other great religions and philosophies.

Asian contexts are also characterized by countless religious traditions in multiple and varied forms — ancient and new as well as great and small. Moreover, these religious traditions interact with one another and with traditional local practices. For example, one could point to multiple forms of Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity in the Asian landscape that have interacted with ethical traditions like Confucianism and Daoism as well as with local practices like shamanism and indigenous traditions.

Also, Asia has not experienced the dynamics — including politics — inherited from the Constantinian Empire or from Charlemagne. Asia has never experienced itself as a Christian societas. And in this sense it embodies the challenge of living and imagining Christianity in different historical forms from what we are used to in the West. On the other hand, Asia has known missionaries of exceptional valor, who very dear to the pontiff, like Francis Xavier, Roberto De Nobili, and above all Matteo Ricci, a Christian presence very careful about embodying himself in a culture, rather than imposing himself.

Finally we must not forget that, with Francis, of the 216 total cardinals, 21 are from Asia (excluding the Middle East), 14 of whom are currently electors in a conclave. They are therefore 11-12 percent of the total number of cardinals, in comparison to the churches in their countries where, except Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Korea, for the most part they do not exceed 2-3 percent of the population. Consulting the most recent statistical data of the Vatican Annuario, one discovers that Asian Catholics numbers 134 million, which is 3 percent of the inhabitants of their continent, but 11 percent of the Catholics of the world, therefore the same percentage as their Cardinals.

In particular, the pope, having touched Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, wanted to pastorally encourage the countries that have a higher percentage of Catholics than the rest of the continent. Catholicism, however, is even growing in other places, above all in China, India and Vietnam, where the growth is exponential. In the case of the Philippines, more than 80 percent of people are Catholic, with the number of annual baptisms exceeding that of Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined. This data tells us how much the geography of Catholicism is changing.

Concerning the Philippines, in particular, during the Mass at Rizal Park in Manilla on Jan. 18, 2015, Pope Francis' invitation to the church of this country to make itself missionary resounded strongly. The pope concluded his homily in this way: "May the Santo Nino continue to bless the Philippines and to sustain the Christians of this great nation in their vocation to be witnesses and missionaries of the joy of the Gospel, in Asia and in the whole world."  It appeared very evident on this trip how much Francis considers Asia the continent of the future for the faith. The Philippines, a country with a strong Catholic majority, has then a specific missionary vocation.

La Civilta Cattolica with its English version embraces this vision of Asia as a fundamental continent for the future of the church. It intends then to receive contributions and reflections from Asia and to put them into circulation for the good of the universal church. For our part, we intend to carry out a humble task to help and support the mission of your church by also providing contributions that come from the church of other countries and continents and making them known to you. It isn't an easy task. It is a task that sees the magazine as a "bridge" that allows the circulation of ideas and visions of reality in a dialectic between inculturation and universality.

Pope Francis said to us: "I hope that La Civilta Cattolica, also thanks to its versions in other languages, can reach many readers. […] I think above all of the educational formation centers and schools, in particular for the formation of teachers and parents. But also in centers of spiritual formation. I recommend circulation particularly in seminaries and formation centers. May the bishops support it. Its connection with the Apostolic See makes it, in fact, a unique magazine of its kind."

Today — thanks to the Liu Foundation and its generosity — this hope of Pope Francis came true, became real. I'm deeply thankful to you, bishops of the Philippines, because your support and feedback will help us to be a better review and will help us to spread our message more effectively and broaden our vision and our understanding of the church and of the world. 

You can see what appears in the English version of La Civilta Cattolica here.


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