Fr. Michael Carvill, John Cavadini, and John Zucchi

The True Frontier of Human Dignity

Fr. Michael Carvill, John Cavadini and John Zucchi discuss The Religious Sense at the 2023 New York Encounter.
Vincent Petruccelli

“I always think of going down to collect the mail. Looking at the pile of envelopes, there is a little expectation: might there be a letter there that changes everything?” It is a surprising example to use for such a weighty topic as the religious sense, so much so that when Fr. Michael Carvill said it, the audience burst out laughing. However, as Fr. Michael and the other speakers would insist over the course of the conversation, the experience of human expectation is so strong as to pervade the entirety of life, pushing us to continually search for that thing that will “change everything.”

On the occasion of the publication of a new edition of The Religious Sense, New York Encounter 2023 proposed a conversation on the book with Fr. Michael Carvill, priest from Broomfield, CO and the current National Responsible of Communion and Liberation in North America, and John Cavadini, director of McGrath Institute for Church Life at University of Notre Dame, moderated by John Zucchi, professor of history at McGill University and the English translator of The Religious Sense.

The conversation began with the most basic question: what is the religious sense? Fr. Michael offered a two word definition: structural expectation. The religious sense is structural because it is an inborn, universal aspect of the human person, just like the eyes or the nose. It is in every human being. And the religious sense is expectation, Fr. Michael also explained: when we engage in reality, we perceive a dynamic force within ourselves, which is “a search, a thirst, a wanting, to discover something”, a waiting which evaluates or, so to speak, “rates” the things one comes across.

Dr. Cavadini’s answer focused on reason. He described reading the book on an airplane and being moved to tears by the final section, which extols the great dignity of man’s natural openness to revelation, even if he can in no way foresee or manipulate it. In his reading, the professor posed this as the core of the religious sense: reason is aware of questions that it cannot answer, aware of desires for which it cannot procure satisfaction. The religious sense, then, is reason’s openness to the transcendent, which, as he explained using a paradox, would be irrational to deny as a possibility.

At this point, as well as later in the conversation, Dr. Cavadini brought up the Virgin Mary. Noting that she shows up in The Religious Sense only at the very end, he explained that Mary is the prototypical example of the religious sense which, by its nature, remains open to the possibilities of God’s mysterious action. In the face of things that seem impossible for man, the Blessed Mother had a heart capable of maintaining the natural openness toward the fact that “all things are possible for God.” As Dr. Cavadini said, “The whole book is saying that the religious sense, when it is unblocked, leads to a readiness” for salvation, even if that salvation seems impossible.

Fr. Michael was then asked to explain more keywords of the Religious Sense: namely, experience and correspondence, words whose importance is almost rivaled by their vague usage, as John Zucchi stated in the question. First of all, Fr. Michael stated that Fr. Giussani in this work “restores experience to a real dignity by observing and helping us to perceive that it is the emergence of the real to our human knowing.” The paradigmatic example of experience, he said, is Peter at Capernaum, who states, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Peter answers Christ’s question using the method that Jesus had offered to him: what he had seen and come to know in years of living with Christ. Experience, Fr. Michael concluded, is not something that remains at a surface-level, but is “the completed work of encounter with reality”, which produces knowledge.

Dr. Cavadini contributed to the answer about the word correspondence. He said that he is often faced with students who do not find God to be interesting. And, given their common idea of God as an old man sitting ethereally on a cloud, he added that “they are right to not be interested. Who would?” He also told of another thought experiment he uses with his students: he tells them to think of Godzilla, and then asks: Is he big enough to call God? Receiving no’s, Dr. Cavadini then asks: what if we double him? Quadruple him? The answer remains no, no matter how big he gets. It is simply not an attractive idea of God, as it has nothing to do with the desires within them. In this way, he shows them that something is not great because of the addition of finite parts, but because it is transcendent. For it is that transcendence that they sense could promise a satisfaction that goes beyond any temporary satisfaction.

Towards the end, the conversation arrived at the theme of the encounter, encapsulated in the question from the title of the event: who am I? Zucchi asked the two speakers if we can really ask about our true identity without engaging the religious sense. For both, the answer was a resounding ”no”. Fr. Michael listed a series of striking questions that life provokes in everyone: Why is the world so beautiful and enticing? Why does it touch me, beckon me, entice me? Why do I want to live forever? Why am I sad when I have to turn away from something beautiful? And who gives it to me? We cannot but engage reality in this way, Fr. Michael said. And when we do, we cannot but “perceive the real as responsive to us” and ultimately, as a gift. Dr. Cavadini added that “the religious sense is a sense that the answer to our questions is transcendent and is mystery.” But what if that mystery were to reveal itself as a person, a Father, as someone who says “I love you”? This, he said, “opens me to an identity that I could not have imagined for myself.”

Both speakers showed that study of this book is not an isolated philosophical interest (although, as Fr. Michael stated, the book is of lasting intellectual importance) but is a dramatic and important tool for living well. When all ideas about the good life come from the common mentality, which proposes only the familiar and the expected, then, Dr. Cavadini stated beautifully, we “sell our birthright for a mess of pottage”: we give up our inborn desire for something that exceeds us and, retreating from the drama, give in to a “conspiracy”, to use Fr. Michael’s phrase, that shelves “the drama of what it means to be human.” Instead, as shown in the pages of the Religious Sense and in the witness of the two speakers who have grappled with its content in their own lives, accepting the adventure of the religious sense is the only fully human life, the true “frontier of human dignity” as Fr. Giussani himself wrote.