by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What initially interested you in pursuing a career in Theology?
Massimo: I come from a Catholic family that was wearing its Catholicism lightly, that is, in a confident relationship with mainstream Italian culture. Like most teenagers in Italy in the late 20th century, Catholicism was important to me but in an unconscious way, except for the fact that the most important experience in my youth was in the Catholic boy scouts –the largest Catholic youth organization in Italy. It all came to maturation when I was 19 and I was asked to be the leader for a group of 12-16 yo. We did not have a priest helping us with catechesis, so we lay people had to do everything. I started studying theology by myself, and at the same time, I had started to go to the University of Bologna, where at the time there was a very strong tradition of studies on Church history and ecclesiology.
I was in the right place at the right moment. On top of that, I started college in the fall of 1989, exactly at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. History was changing quickly and that was not lost on those who were studying history, religion, and politics at the University of Bologna. Moreover, in the early 1990s, I was discerning a monastic vocation: I spent a lot of time with monks (mostly Benedictine). Theology became part of my life before considering it for a future as a lay theologian.
Gordon: You are a prolific author, how many books have written? Are you currently working on a new book? If yes, on what subject?
Massimo: I have written ten books (in Italian and in English, translated also in other languages), and I am currently finishing the manuscript of the book on Pope Francis’ ecclesiology of globalization, and co-editing the new “Oxford Handbook of Vatican II”, and starting to co-edit a new series on global Catholicism with a first volume that will explain the need of a series of studies on the global dimension of the Church with an approach that is both historical and theological. I try to go back to studies in Church history, but theological and ecclesiological issues keep coming back to my desk…
Gordon: You have published books and articles in several languages. In which languages are you fluent?
Massimo: Italian and English have become my preferred languages for academic work. But I can manage also in Spanish, French, and German, and I can understand Portuguese. In high school in Italy I took five years of Latin and Greek: after that, you are not afraid of anything… One thing that I always tell my students (especially graduate students) is that being fluent in more than one language makes a lot of difference for academics, especially for theology and in particular for Catholic theologians in the global Church of today.
Gordon: When were you appointed Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University and what are some of the courses that you teach?
Massimo: I started teaching at Villanova in the fall semester of 2016 after seven years at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis - St. Paul. I teach the introductory course to theology “Faith Culture and Reason”, two undergraduate courses on American Catholicism and politics, and on Vatican II; two graduate (Ph.D.) courses on “Foundations in History” (for theologians) and on the theology of Vatican II. I also teach a Ph.D. seminar on Catholicism and political modernity.
Your Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Lecture at the University of South Carolina on October 7, 2013, on the relationship between Catholics and politics, there was a debate between some Catholics moral theologians. What was the debate about and what were the primary disagreements?
Massimo: The core of the debate is about the Catholic view of the state and of government in the USA. In American Catholic theology there is a recent intellectual tradition that says – I am summarizing here - that Catholics should withdraw or deny, because of their Catholicism, every legitimacy to the state and government because of the secular nature of government. This is not just bad because it has bad consequences on those at the margins of our society that rely on the social safety net provided by the government. It is also a mischaracterization and an “Americanization” of Catholic social teaching, where the state has a key function for the “common good”.
Gordon: Politics has become extremely polarized in the United States. How has racism contributed to this political divide?
Massimo: I think racism has never gone away from our society, but it has become more visible in this last decade. It is part of the responsibility of Christians and of Catholics to fight this because racism in the Western world has also theological roots. Ignoring the problem of racism is contributing to the political divide.
Gordon: How do European Catholics view the polarization within the Catholic Church in the United States?
Massimo: The situation of the US Church has no parallels in other churches, especially in Europe, where society is more secularized but also less polarized; the Church in Europe is weaker but less divided. This is something I try to explain in my work to both sides of the Atlantic, and it is not easy. The transatlantic “God gap” has grown bigger in the last few years; it’s a more interconnected world, but also more divided culturally.
Gordon: What responsibilities do we as individuals we have to address and resolve this polarization?
Massimo: Catholics with a role of leading intellectuals have a role in trying to make simple cases a bit more complicated because the reality is not black and white, conservative or liberal. But this is a very tough time for nuance and subtlety in American Catholicism. It is one of the consequences of the sexual abuse scandal.
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.