erasing clouds

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Freedom of Information

by anna battista

The latest hospital visit of Pope John Paul II, to the Gemelli Hospital in Rome, revived the debate about his possible retirement and about the choices left to the Catholic Church if he becomes permanently incapacitated. Giovanni Avena, editor of independent Italian magazine Adista, talks about how the magazine was born, religious information in Italy and the repressions of John Paul II's Papacy.

The first impression you get from Giovanni Avena is that he is a quiet and reserved man who talks with extraordinary calm even when he describes the events that took him to become the editor of Adista, the one and only independent Italian magazine and site devoted to religious news. Just a few years ago Avena was a parish priest in Palermo, Sicily, in an area with a strong Mafia presence. He started fighting against the Mafia from a psychiatric hospital where men, women and children, deemed dangerous for themselves and for the others, were literally imprisoned and left to languish. "The conditions they were living in were terrible, they were basically secluded, so I decided to transfer the heart of the parish from the church in the psychiatric hospital," Avena remembers, "in this way, the so-called mad people hospitalised there could have met the world outside the hospital, could have gone out of the hospital, and, possibly, would have been reintegrated in the environment outside the hospital."

Avena's efforts though, started bothering the Christian Democrat party and the Mafia, two entities which were very close in those times, both were indeed the dominant powers inside the hospital. "They started harassing and threatening us, till Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo told me that I couldn't have kept on working in the hospital, unless I limited myself to bring there a bit of charity and compassion and a few smiles, instead of analysing those situations that had become unbearable, utterly unbearable". Avena's voice turns into a whisper, as if remembering is too painful for him. In the end Cardinal Pappalardo asked Avena to leave the parish, which he did to go to Rome. Here, Avena realised Catholics needed to be properly informed not only on religious activities and themes, but also on issues such as Mafia. In the 80s Avena started working for Adista. "I felt there was this need to provide information, but there was also the need to create new consciences inside people", he explains.

Adista was founded in 1967, after the Second Vatican Council, and in its early days it concentrated on politics, without neglecting ecclesiastical issues. Gradually, though, towards the mid-to-late 70s, Adista started looking in depth at ecclesiastical information. Adista's mission was and still is to inform the Catholics and the Italian society on religious issues from a lay point of view. "After the Council, Italian Catholics started feeling the need to free themselves from the Catholic hierarchy's oppression," Avena explains. "There was a group of left wing Catholics who were quite committed to ecclesiastical communities, but they were also uncommitted towards those political obligations to which Catholics were submitted then, obligations that imposed Catholics to live their political experience under one and only party, the Christian Democracy. This was a moment of liberation, a moment of spiritual and faith maturation, because when faith is liberated from the obligations of politics is a purer faith, a faith that answers better to the needs of society."

The weekly Adista has its own site ( and its own news program, downloadable from the internet. The magazine is divided in three parts, all of them colour-coded: the blue Adista contains the news of the week, the green Adista secret and censored documents, the red one features articles and essays translated from the international press. The readers of Adista, Avena assures, are constantly in touch with them. "Most of our readers are Catholics and lays, tired of living a religious and ecclesiastical experience hidden behind priests and bishops' cassocks, under the nightmare of obedience, with the fear of sin. Our readers are Catholics who are looking for a way to liberate themselves from these things and among them there are also many priests, nuns and a few bishops who more or less openly follow this trend because they are convinced that this is the right path to follow, though, unfortunately, in this ecclesiastical system dominated by Cardinal Camillo Ruini's position they can't freely express themselves"

Though Avena believes in and supports freedom of expression, he recognises that this concept doesn't always apply to the media and to religious information in Italy: the means of communication are suffering from the influence of tycoon and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, while religious information is subject to the Vatican. "In Italy we live in a state of emergency for what regards information, because democracy is in danger," Avena states. "The Berlusconi government doesn't do much apart from repressing and putting aside those people who freely express their ideas and generally intimidating people on television, radio and in the press. Religious information conforms itself to this: in Italy we have the catholic daily Avvenire, then we have various other publications which are rather parochial and aren't brave enough to come forward and say that religious information wants to liberate itself from the trammels of society."

In Italy there is also the so-called "lay religious information," produced by Vaticanists, who, according to Avena, are very much enslaved to the information system and to the people who take care of religious information, such as Joaquín Navarro-Valls, and the circle of Cardinal Ruini. "Italian Vaticanists are inhibited," Avena claims, "they are not free at all, that is why they only give information about the Pope leaving aside all the other religious realities which are quite alive and interesting. This Pope seems to obscure everything because everything revolves around him, everything refers to him."

A while back, in occasion of Pope John Paul II's 25th Papacy anniversary, Adista defined this pontificate as "25 years of repression". Two more years have passed, and the position of the magazine hasn't changed: Avena claims he does agree with the words of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng who a while back defined the Pope as a "mediaeval, anti-reformation, anti-modern paradigm of the church...who tried to convince the whole church to join him in re-establishing this mediaeval papacy."

"Something else must be added to Küng's words," Avena states, "and that's the element of plain and daily repression of this papacy against whatever kind of renewal stirrings might have existed either in the Second Vatican Council, in a theology faculty, a parish or a diocese. The Vatican Council was a sort of great fire for the Church, but this Papacy, this Pope and the men he put in the right places, put the fire out. Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who was a right wing man and had taken part to the Second Vatican Council, said, when it ended, that to repair the damages done by the Council, the Church would have needed at least 50 years. This was his prophesy, but this papacy shortened the times and only took 25 years, in this span of time, the Council was silenced and tramped upon."

When the Pope celebrated his 25 years of papacy and the international press was singing his praises, Adista published a report in which it listed name by name, case by case, all the repressions made in the world by the Pope. The list includes theologians, religious institutes, bishops, priests and nuns from all over the world. "We thought that some readers might have wanted to realise how this Pope, apart from organising great media shows, has also repressed many people", Avena says.

One of the many repressions of this Papacy was activated against the theology of freedom, a Catholic current that started in Latin America and that highlights the values of social and political emancipation in the Christian doctrine. Recently, right before the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, a group of theologians who supported this doctrine organised a meeting and came to the conclusion that from now on, the theology of freedom will always be present in all the next social forums. "The theology of freedom was slaughtered by the Catholic hierarchy," Avena explains, "Those few Italian theologians who had a sense of freedom looked up with sympathy to this doctrine and tried to apply it to the schemes of pastoral theology and of research in Italy. Then two documents arrived, one penned by John Paul II, the other by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who scared those who supported the theology of freedom and, little by little, this branch of theology that met the interests of many people -- because it didn't only refer to the liberation from the oppressions in various countries of Latin America, but it also implied the liberation of the consciences, of the morals and of the dogma, from the oppression of the Catholic hierarchy -- was suppressed."

The Pontiff's health conditions, are stirring many discussions about who will be John Paul II's successor and what will happen to the Church after his Papacy, but Avena claims it's still impossible to foresee the future. "This Papacy has upset all the traditional schemes, it's difficult to say what will happen after it because there are no aggregations yet," he explains. "In the previous conclave there were the easy aggregations; for example, when Wojtyla was elected there was an agreement between Europeans and Americans to choose an anti-communist, and who better than a Polish Pope could guarantee this anti-communism?"

Avena thinks that the division of religious power and political power is still possible, it simply depends from the single individuals, as an example he analyses a comparison between Rocco Buttiglione, the erstwhile Italian EU commissioner, and Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, and Opus Dei supporter. According to Avena, the Ruth Kelly case is not as serious as Buttiglione's. "The Opus Dei militants act with more tact, intelligence, cunning and perhaps with a bit of hypocrisy," he states, "on the contrary Buttiglione's case is rather crude, because he simply wanted to impose a double engagement, keep up with his obligations of militant catholic and, at the same time, keep up with his obligations of politician. Buttiglione's followers in Italy are as crude as him, while the neo-conservatives are even worst than that because they feel the need to have a contact with the religious realities in George Bush's way."

Avena warns, though, that the Opus Dei and in particular the Opus Dei education offered by a few schools all over the world can be very repressive. "The education offered in Opus Dei schools is hard and heavy," Avena says, "the subjects upon whom this education is inflicted, become what I would call victims, who uniform themselves because they don't have any reactive capacities in front of religious problems, in front of God, the Church, the precepts and obedience. The Opus Dei education tends to inculcate the fear of God, so subjects get used to it and renounce to their personality, their conscience, their freedom, becoming the armies of that kind of religious ideology. When The Opus Dei education is so hard there can be also another effect, a reaction by the people who leave it and reveal horrible things about it, as it happened in the case of Maria del Carmen Tapia, secretary of Opus Dei founder Josè Maria Escrivà de Balaguer."

To conclude our chat we go back to talk about Adista, which Avena would like to see one day becoming a proper press agency. "We don't have many financial resources," Avena says, "so we can't make long term projects, yet, every year, if there are enough subscriptions, we make yearly projects, and carry on producing information." Avena doesn't seem to have any doubts about Adista staying open: he underlines that the magazine he directs is the only one of its kind in Italy and that it doesn't have any master, be it lay or ecclesiastical. "Our masters are the readers since we live on subscriptions," he explains, "in almost 40 years of activity we never closed, we never stopped publishing, not even for a week, so if there is such a rich past, there will also be a rich future with our readers who, I believe, don't want to lose the kind of information we supply."


this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright © 2005 erasing clouds