CounterEconomics

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CounterEconomy/10 - They prayed silent and beautiful prayers with their tears, kisses and hands

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 07/05/2023

Where is the love of God, however embryonic, crude, raw, obscured, hidden underground and not out in the open as it may be, for therein is the heart however wounded of man; and it is thought that therein is God, and therefore piety
Giuseppe De Luca,
Introduction to the Italian archive of the history of piety (Introduzione all’archivio italiano della storia della pietà), p. XXI

The path of CounterEconomy ends here today, with the great female subversion of popular piety. It is also the end for this third Sunday page.

Theological metaphors are indispensable and dangerous. In the face of my criticism, many readers and some theologians have reiterated these past few weeks the need for economic-commercial metaphor to understand the Christian revelation. Because it can be found in the New Testament and even St. Paul uses it.

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In fact, in the First Letter to the Corinthians we even find the word price: «You were bought at a price» (1 Corinthians 7,23). A phrase, that among other things was beloved and very "dear" to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who put salvation "at a high price" in contrast with "cheap" convenient salvation. Other metaphors can be found in Paul's letters, however, among these a sport related one: «Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?... Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air» (1 Corinthians 9, 24-26). However, no one, ever thought while reading these sports images that boxing or running were essential or necessary to explain Paul's theology. Nor has any theologian (yet) ever thought of describing Christian life or the Church as an athletic race or a boxing fight, where "only one gets the prize". Instead, the sports metaphor has been used partially without ever really pushing it all the way. Surprisingly, however, what has never been done with sport is still being done with the economy, which is much more loved by theologians than by economists. Some theologians have fallen so in love with economics that they do not only use it in a general and partial sense; they use it in its entirety and imagine "the economy of salvation" as an exchange of equivalents, as an actual business contract - Jesus paid the price, his own blood, to purchase salvation from his Father. Biblical metaphors, on the other hand, are the dawn of discourse, its beginning. The other half must remain unsaid, in order not to end up imprisoned by language: only partial metaphors work, because, being incomplete, they leave a free space between the mystery of God and our theological ideas. Metaphors that are exploited to the end devour the mystery that they would like to reveal.

These past few weeks, we have encountered, here and there, the theme of popular piety. As Don Giuseppe de Luca, who wrote the most beautiful pages on piety, said, «in Christian life pietas thus conceived coincides, not so much with asceticism or mysticism, nor so much with devotion or devotions, as it does with “Caritas”» (Introduction to the Italian Archive of the History of Piety, p. XIII). Piety would thus be a matter of love, of agape. As it indeed has been, perhaps the greatest there ever was.

Without the immense movement of piety, for example, we would not have developed the infinite number of social works, hospitals and schools in Catholic countries: «While the large colleges educated the nobility and the wealthy great bourgeoisie, the popular schools, from Calasanz to De la Salle, looked after the common people. Together the charitable works "de fonte pietatis" arose» (Introduction to the Italian Archive of the History of Piety, p. LXI). The hugs and kisses offered to church statues became hugs for men and women of flesh and blood. Even if, as De Luca points out, all major processes end up generating their share of undesirable effects: «From the 17th century onwards there has been an ever-growing effort to help the indigents, orphans, sick people and invalids. To the point of inducing the suspicion that such a large amount of charity could very well end up crushing the concept of justice in the hearts of men, which have always had very little room for it. It is much more pleasing to be generous than just» (ibid). In modern Europe, we have seen many different views on the reasons for helping the poor. On the one hand, we have the pastors, saints and benefactors who set up institutions of assistance with the aim of ensuring that those in conditions of poverty would soon be able to emerge and be free from them. On the other hand, we have those mentioned by De Luca, who were less concerned with poverty and saw aiding the poor as a good work for the salvation of the rich: «God could have made all men rich, but he wanted the poor so that the rich would have the opportunity to redeem their sins» (“The life of Saint Eligius”, quoted in B. Geremek’s The Mercy and the gallows. History of Poverty and Charity in Europe, 1986, p. 9). This is an idea that has reached Catholic faith in modern times: «The poor will be saved by patiently suffering their poverty and patiently asking for help from the rich. The rich will find how to redeem their sins by bringing compassion towards the poor... For the rich it is an indispensable duty to give alms to the poor because their salvation depends on it» (Sermons of the Cure of Ars, Vol. 1, p. 77). Thus, this vision of piety has the tendency, in good faith, to perpetuate the division between rich and poor.

The other idea of ​​how to aid the poor was instead that of the pawnshops of the Franciscans called, not surprisingly, Monti di Pietà. In the age of the Counter-Reformation, the Monti di Pietà also experienced a decline. They were no longer linked to the Franciscan world and the friars became the chaplains. Starting from the seventeenth century the Monti gradually became extinct; those that survived were transformed into pawnshops with residual or assistance functions (I thank Fra Felice Autieri for this piece of information).

Nevertheless, popular piety was something much greater than these already great things. Greater because it was something small, tiny. The books of piety, written by bishops and theologians, recounted an idea of ​​a distant, severe God, wholly concerned with preparing the tribunal for the final judgement. Popular catechism taught people that the «purpose of man» was «to serve God» in view of a future salvation (Spiritual exercises for nuns/Esercizi spirituali per nunne, Il Buon Pastore, Lodi, 1911, p. 20). The «purpose of woman» was then derived from the purpose of man: «God created woman to console Adam» (p. 28). For the nuns, who obviously did not have an Adam, the goal had to be further evolved and thus became «to save the souls of others», in particular (in that Institute) the souls of girls: «What purpose did God have in creating so many poor girls? To ensure Paradise for them» (p. 43). Religion transformed into inhumanism, where the love of God generated a lack of love for human created things.

In this religion wholly oriented towards the "things up there", popular piety became an immense collective exercise of subversion, a path of salvation for the "things down here". In its own way, it was a wonderful hymn to life. Those statues with the stupendous faces of Mary and Jesus, those images of male and female saints who looked very much like them, and their sons and daughters, those baroque churches populated by cherub-angels and by an infinity of baby-Jesus more numerous than the actual crucifixes, were the true protagonists of the other religion of the people, they were the different and good face of God - piety was the popular Counter-Counter-Reformation, it was the subversive and mild response of women to the over clericalization of religion.

90 or 98% of the people, especially those from the countryside, mountain areas ad villages, could not read prayer books, nor did they have the money to buy them. Those things were for educated people, for the priests, perhaps even for the nuns and sisters who were the great victims of the Counter-Reformation, mortified by a non-biblical faith wholly oriented towards the paradise of souls which transformed the land of their monasteries into a hell for the body. Nevertheless and herein lies the checkmate of Providence, the common people, especially women, were actually protected by their illiteracy and thus remained (almost) immune from that theology that was too divine to be human as well.

Not knowing how to read books and educated prayers forced them to invent their own prayers, and they were stupendous. Every now and then, they would end up being captured by the ancient rites of the evil eye and magic that we have talked about. However, in many other instances, they invented their own words and images to talk to God: and the spectacle of popular piety was born, which was a great place of freedom, especially for women in a world that remained one of servitude for them. They went to Church, and they pretended to answer the incomprehensible prayers and the Latin expressions of the priests, but different, whispered, words and sounds came out of their hearts and from their mouths. And, above all, they cried: they wet those statues with all their tears until they consumed their colours, wood and stucco. They prayed with their tears and above all with their kisses and hands. Beautiful silent prayers made of caresses and kisses, with gnarled and black hands which, however, knew how to truly touch the statues of the saints, of the Madonna, and above all of the angels and the cherubs, kisses and caresses that they never received from anyone at home, because they were too terrestrial to be religious. And in those beautiful angels they saw their too many stillborn children, their children who had flown away, children and young boys and girls. Thus, they defeated those absurd theologies which, in order to raise God, had bring down men and women. Moreover, they transformed the praises of the Madonna (“Woman of Paradise” by Jacopone da Todi) into beautiful songs to their dead children: «My child, my lovely lily, my baby with joyful eyes, child of a dark mother, child of disappearance, poisoned child, my baby: who do I cling to? You have forsaken me, my child, for you hide from my bosom, oh you are nursed» (quoted in De Martino, Death and ritual mourning/Morte e pianto rituale, p. 341).

The Catholic faith is still alive, even if gravely ill, above all thanks to these women of the people who humanized it with their piety, with their kisses and their caresses, saving it with their transgression: «The Virgilian golden branch is pietas» (De Luca, Introduction to the Italian Archive of the History of Piety, p. LXVI). Thus, with their hands and their kisses, they truly touched God, and they wrote their beautiful popular "kerigma", different from those of catechism, but with the smell and fragrance of life and bread: «Christ was sown by the Creator, he sprouted, he was harvested, bound in a sheaf and he was brought to the threshing floor. There he was threshed, sifted, ground, put in a furnace and after three days taken out and eaten like bread» (quoted in De Martino, Death and ritual mourning, p. 343).

This brief series on the Economy of the Counter-Reformation ends today, and the long season of my third Sunday page, lasting over ten years, ends here as well. A wonderful adventure: I saw angels ascending and descending the heavenly ladder, I learned the Bible (fifteen books of the Old Testament with commentary), charisms and vocations. I discovered a different economy and perhaps even a God who is closer to the heart of the poor. We learned together in a tenacious weekly journey, which despite everything never stopped. A collective journey that began thanks to the risky and perhaps prophetic trust shown by Marcus Tarquino, who had the courage to entrust the biblical comments to an economist. And together, today we close, we must close, it could not be any other way, because this work was a real work in tandem, from the choice of the subjects to the titles and subtitles of each article, all revised by him down to every comma. Best of wishes to the new director, Marco Girardo. May he be able to continue the show of creative faithfulness in the "Avvenire" in the season that ends today. In cases such as this, a heartfelt thank you is mandatory; nevertheless, it is always too little and never enough. A part of the story has come to an end, but the story goes on.

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CounterEconomy/10 - They prayed silent and beautiful prayers with their tears, kisses and hands

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 07/05/2023

Where is the love of God, however embryonic, crude, raw, obscured, hidden underground and not out in the open as it may be, for therein is the heart however wounded of man; and it is thought that therein is God, and therefore piety
Giuseppe De Luca,
Introduction to the Italian archive of the history of piety (Introduzione all’archivio italiano della storia della pietà), p. XXI

The path of CounterEconomy ends here today, with the great female subversion of popular piety. It is also the end for this third Sunday page.

Theological metaphors are indispensable and dangerous. In the face of my criticism, many readers and some theologians have reiterated these past few weeks the need for economic-commercial metaphor to understand the Christian revelation. Because it can be found in the New Testament and even St. Paul uses it.

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And the women saved God

And the women saved God

CounterEconomy/10 - They prayed silent and beautiful prayers with their tears, kisses and hands By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 07/05/2023 Where is the love of God, however embryonic, crude, raw, obscured, hidden underground and not out in the open as it may be, for therein is the heart ho...
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CounterEconomy/9 - The analysis of the civil and economic effects of the Counter-Reformation continues.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/04/2023

"There has often been cases of true piety with false theology. As Galileo observed, one does not learn how to play the organ from those who know how to make them, but from those who know how to play them. Theologians make organs, but playing them something else altogether. Even the most unlearned of Christians could manage it better."

Giuseppe De Luca, Introduction to the Italian archive for the history of piety (Introduzione all’archivio italiano per la storia della pietà), p. LIX

The Christianization of the feasts of nature, the affirmation of holy intercessors and of a harsh theology, and the simple strength of fidelity to God, the God of life.

«What about those in each region claiming their particular patron saint? One makes toothache go away, another one assists pregnant women, yet another one recovers stolen objects, and there is one that saves you from shipwrecks, while the mob almost attributes more powers to the Virgin than to the Son». These are the words of the great Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (In Praise of Folly, § 40), written in 1509 while Luther was elaborating his Reformation, to which Erasmus did not adhere. No one listened to Erasmus. More than four centuries later, today the following can be read: «There is a hill, not far from the Pollino, with an arboreal cult that the people here call "Ndenna". It takes place in mid-June in Castelsaraceno. On the first Sunday of the month, the beech tree destined to wear the groom's clothes (the “Ndenna”) is cut down. The following Sunday, the pine tree, the 'cunocchia' that will be the bride, is chosen. And finally, Saint Anthony blesses the union» (Domenico Notarangelo, The Paths of Piety/, I sentieri della pietà, 2000).

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This Lucanian festival of the "Ndenna" is an expression of the Catholic development of nature festivals. "Planting May" was an ancient European tradition, still present in Basilicata (Accettura) and also in various areas of central Italy. Until the Middle Ages, on the night of May 1, young men would plant branches and flowers in front of girls' homes. However, «towards the end of the sixteenth century the Christianization of the rite began, inviting people to direct homages and floral offerings to Mary instead». Then, starting from the eighteenth century, the flowers on the altars of the Madonna underwent a further development «transforming themselves into spiritual "living flowers": small sacrifices offered in homage to the Madonna throughout the month of May» (Ottavia Niccoli, Religious life in modern Italy, 2004, pp. 181-182). This is how the “maggio mariano” ("May of Mary") with the "fioretti" (spiritual "living flowers") was born. Lovely and beautiful traditions, but... it is not easy to understand what the Madonna has to do with those ancient rites of lovers and small offerings of flowers for girlfriends. A link can always be found, of course. A different choice could also have been made, nevertheless: leaving the ancient cults of fertility and harvests alone, not fighting them as Luther did, but calling them "folklore", considering them popular traditions without wanting to bring them into Christianity - the problem with the 'Ndenna' festival it is not the marrying of trees but the presence of Saint Anthony. Something similar to what was done with the Italian figure of the so-called Befana (an old woman who delivers gifts to children throughout the country on Epiphany Eve), who was not made into "the wife of the three kings", but was left outside the crib, right there next to it, could also have been done with the ancient traditions.

However, the choice of applying religious hybridization to the ancient natural rites, quite understandable in itself, ended up having a high cost, linked to the great theme of the cult of saints. The Council of Trent corrected the magical excesses, but reaffirmed the theological and liturgical legitimacy of the ancient intercession of the saints, who continued their role as mediators and protectors of everything from saving crops from hail to sore throats. A growing group of intercessors thus formed between the Trinity and the people, intermediate steps that were supposed to favour and simplify the attainment of our prayers: «God sees our needs and could therefore provide directly: but divine wisdom is pleased to communicate its gifts through intermediaries» (Proceedings of the Council of Trent, Session XXV, 1563). Thus, the idea of ​a ​God too distant to be reached directly by us lowly creatures starts to grow. Thanks be to God, however, there are saints, perceived as mediating creatures, because they are both a bit similar to God and a bit similar to us, and therefore understand both (Latin people have always loved the idea of demi-gods: it is no coincidence that the temples built in honour of Hercules were among the most widespread ones). Hence, the Catholic religion became a religion of God and saints, an explosion of religious biodiversity, a spiritual forest inhabited by an infinity of beings where everyone performed their function in the ecosystem of worship, giving life to a perfect "religious division of labour". Too bad that, in the meantime, too many of us have forgotten that God became man precisely to reduce the mythical distance between heaven and earth. In my country, male and female saints were often more present than the Trinity, also due to the fact that people need to survive amidst hunger and disease, perichoresis is a luxury that many people cannot afford.

However, there is something else that needs to be said in order to understand the great love for the saints - because it really was love: it was the greatest love story of the Counter-Reformation. Turning to the saints was made almost necessary by the development, in the Baroque period, of a frightening anthropological pessimism. If we are mere "nothing", moral grubs, how could we personally ever address that God, who becomes all the more distant in heaven the more we sink into the depths of the earth? Indeed, during this time, the idea that the "objective" of human life was the salvation of the soul and the sole love of God, and therefore the contempt for the natural joy of the body, for the pleasures of life, was established: «You were not born to enjoy but only to love your God and save yourself forever... therefore the deal of all deals, the only important and necessary one, is to serve God and save your soul» (G. G. Giunta, Manual of sacred prayers/Manuale di sacre preci, 1830 , Naples, p. 20). A theology in which in order to raise God it is necessary to lower man, in order to exalt the divine it is essential to first despise that which is human. Thus, God becomes a bizarre Father figure, who enjoys the annihilation of his creatures and who is only happy when we tell him: «You are everything, I am nothing». Theologies that are light-years away from the Bible, both from the Old and New Testaments, where "The glory of God is man fully alive" (St. Irenaeus), and from a Jesus, who told us: «I have come that they may have life and have it to the full» (John 10,10). This life, not just the future one. Instead, the Baroque age was the time in which the search for paradise (or purgatory) transformed present life into hell for too many.

The growing distance that had arisen between Catholics and the reading of the Bible made us forget that the gods who feed on their faithful are called idols, while the God of revelation is entirely on our side, every day he "cheers" us on so that we can fully flourish as people. Instead, the following can be read in those manuals: «If you do not have sufficient courage to seek humiliations, at least do not flee those that present themselves before you: consider them all as a sign of the singular goodness that God has for you» (J. Croiset, Exercises of piety for all the days of the year/ Esercizi di pietà per tutti i giorni dell’anno, 1725, p. 35). The God of Jesus transformed into a being who sends us humiliations, who humiliates us to make us humble, and who has therefore forgotten a most fundamental human law: the best way not to make people humble is to humiliate them. Consequently, and most coherently with this particularly inhuman vision of God, the pursuit of mortification became the main path to follow: «The more we apply ourselves in seeking to mortify ourselves, the more we will move forward in perfection» (Diario spirituale/Spiritual Journal, anonymous author, Naples, Jovene, und, p. 93).

As for the civil and economic consequences, it should come as no surprise that the social practice of recommendation has been incredibly widespread and varied in Catholic countries. Ranging from the consolidated practice of those who in order to obtain a favour from a powerful but distant person, try to go through a closer mediator (“to have friends in high places/someone looking over you from above”), to those who have to apply for a certificate with local authorities and first asks themselves “Who do I know in that office?”. A particular version of mediation, which meant that a culture of civil and political subsidiarity never really developed, even in Catholic countries (despite the fact that subsidiarity is a pillar in the vision that has become the social doctrine of the Church), because this mentality of obligatory intermediate steps only reinforce the sacral vision of human hierarchies, which is anti-subsidiary. More in general, the idea of ​​intercession also fuelled the concept of prayer as a request, as a deal made with heaven, where we turn to the saints and therefore to God above all, to ask him for something that he has not already given us. Thereby, nourishing the ancient economic relationship with the spirits and gods: meanwhile the prophets and Christ drove the merchants out of the temple to let us know that their religion is not a trade with God.

One more thing must be added to the costs, however, something of perhaps even greater importance. This form of Christianity that became a new flowering of the natural religiosity of the Mediterranean people is encountering enormous difficulties with post-modernity, because it risks sinking together with the ancient mythical religiosity that it has incorporated and "christened". We must not forget that the resurrection of Christ was not one of the many miracles and magic of the ancient world, but their end: the secular time of that which is "holy" began with the death of the "sacred". However, as a result of wanting to speak to everyone in everyone's language back in the day, today Christianity runs the risk of speaking (almost) to no one in a language that has become (almost) incomprehensible to everyone.

Yet there is also good news. Despite that theological contempt for human life, despite an incredible disesteem "for all things down here", and hence also for work and the economy, Catholics have managed to give life to wonderful businesses, to work well, to give birth to sons and daughters, to be happy sometimes, to love people, individuals and all of humanity. Although life was made quite difficult for them, they made it. Because people never really believed in an image of God reduced to those conditions. They had good instinct, especially women, which led them to ask God to become something different, something else. Popular piety was also a subversive practice, rebellion against a version of God who had turned into an enemy of human happiness – something we will take a closer look at in the next article. This is also present in some passages of these Manuals of devotion: «O Eternal father, Judge and Lord of our souls, whose justice is incomprehensible! Since you commanded, O Lord, that your most innocent Son pay our debts, look, O Lord and Father, at such tremendous agony. Cease, O Father, your indignation» (Exercises of mercy/Esercizi di pietà che si praticano nella Ven. Chiesa del Gesu Vecchio, Rev. D. Placido Baccher, Naples, Stamperia Reale/Royal Printing House, 1857, p. 191).

«Your justice is incomprehensible... Cease, O Father, your indignation» stupendous prayer of a people who chose to play the part of Cyrene: they voluntarily placed themselves under a theological cross that was much too heavy, for both men and God, in an attempt to relieve that unbearable weight: «Father, cease your indignation, we do not understand your justice». They did not understand that theology, but they did understand God, the God of life. Thus, they learned how to really pray by asking God to save God: they prayed to God for God, not for themselves. They learned the heart of the Bible without ever having read it, and then they filled the churches with paintings of crucifixes with the Father in the back supporting his son in his arms and weeping with him. Because they knew that the "job" of any father and mother is to unpin their children from their crosses, not putting them there. They did everything possible and impossible to save God in their hearts. And they succeeded.

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CounterEconomy/9 - The analysis of the civil and economic effects of the Counter-Reformation continues.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/04/2023

"There has often been cases of true piety with false theology. As Galileo observed, one does not learn how to play the organ from those who know how to make them, but from those who know how to play them. Theologians make organs, but playing them something else altogether. Even the most unlearned of Christians could manage it better."

Giuseppe De Luca, Introduction to the Italian archive for the history of piety (Introduzione all’archivio italiano per la storia della pietà), p. LIX

The Christianization of the feasts of nature, the affirmation of holy intercessors and of a harsh theology, and the simple strength of fidelity to God, the God of life.

«What about those in each region claiming their particular patron saint? One makes toothache go away, another one assists pregnant women, yet another one recovers stolen objects, and there is one that saves you from shipwrecks, while the mob almost attributes more powers to the Virgin than to the Son». These are the words of the great Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (In Praise of Folly, § 40), written in 1509 while Luther was elaborating his Reformation, to which Erasmus did not adhere. No one listened to Erasmus. More than four centuries later, today the following can be read: «There is a hill, not far from the Pollino, with an arboreal cult that the people here call "Ndenna". It takes place in mid-June in Castelsaraceno. On the first Sunday of the month, the beech tree destined to wear the groom's clothes (the “Ndenna”) is cut down. The following Sunday, the pine tree, the 'cunocchia' that will be the bride, is chosen. And finally, Saint Anthony blesses the union» (Domenico Notarangelo, The Paths of Piety/, I sentieri della pietà, 2000).

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Cyrenians under a much too heavy cross

Cyrenians under a much too heavy cross

CounterEconomy/9 - The analysis of the civil and economic effects of the Counter-Reformation continues. By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 30/04/2023 "There has often been cases of true piety with false theology. As Galileo observed, one does not learn how to play the organ from those who kno...
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CounterEconomy/8 - Beyond the theology of sacrifice-merit and the commercial vision of God

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in the Avvenire 23/04/2023

"The avulsion of Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church was a much deeper disaster than that of the Eastern schisms."

Giuseppe de Luca, Introduction to the Italian Archive for the history of piety

Unfortunately, the age of the Counter-Reformation also generated a dangerous view on pain, which ended up creating a lot of damage in Catholic people, especially in women.

The Bible revealed a God who was different from the natural gods to us. It did not choose to recognize the religious sentiment that already existed in the world by giving new forms to ancient fertility, death and harvest cults and rites. Instead, the Bible and later the first Christians did everything they could to save the novelty of their God. They defended and guarded him to the point of calling all other gods "idols". And every time the people of Israel produced an idol in biblical history, it did so because it could not keep up with a God that was too different and consequently wished for a "god like all other peoples", a simpler god, approachable, within their reach and of incense. Hence, the people made golden calves and the prophets destroyed them. Even the prophets knew that there was a certain mysterious presence of the one true God in the nature cults: «The heavens declare the glory of God» (Psalm 19). While they were perfectly aware of this, they were even more aware that they absolutely had to distinguish the God who came and reached to us "from heaven" from the cults that try to reach him "from the earth", or the strength of the earth would have devoured the fragile novelty from the sky. Holding the mystery of God very high furthermore served to hold our dignity very high, and for three thousand years, it has continued to repeat to us: "You are not made in the image of an idol".

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However, the evolution of medieval and modern Christianity differ in part. In its encounter with the people of Europe, it often tolerated that the people continued their natural rites of the fields, that they cultivated their local spirits, and that they "baptized" the previous existing cults with Christian names. Hence, Christian Europe was born. Thus, while biblical humanism had tried to free men and women by emptying the world of all its spirits and demons, Christians left it inhabited by angels, saints and demons, hoping, perhaps in good faith, that this substitution would be enough to free human beings from the fear of death and the pain.

With Humanism and the end of the Middle Ages it became clear to many that the Roman medieval Church was in urgent need of a general reform (suffice to think of the theses of Erasmus of Rotterdam). Luther's Reformation changed and complicated these plans. The reaction of the Catholic Counter-Reformation blocked that first season of internal renewal and produced a restoration precisely on the aspects most criticized by Luther which, and here is the point, were really those most in need of a true reform. Consequently, the ancient mixed practices (the cult of saints, devotions, indulgences, vows, relics etc.) became a distinctive trait of the Catholic Church. Herein lies the root of many of our evils.

Let us have a closer look at the great theme of sacrifice. A theme that was also present in ancient religions and cults, it is part of the repertoire of natural religions. Luther fought a widespread and intense battle against the idea of seeing mass as a sacrifice: «Mass is the opposite of sacrifice» (Luther’s Collected Works, 6, 523-524). In addition, to criticizing the Eucharist as a sacrifice, Luther also refuted the ancient idea that mass was the repetition of the sacrifice of the cross. The Catholic reaction here was very strong indeed. Sacrifice became a pillar of its theology, liturgy and piety: «A true bride of Christ, who lives a life of sacrifice, is such an incredible display of superhuman beauty before God» (D. Gaspero Olmi, Lent sermon for nuns/Quaresimale per le monache, 1885, p. 12).

Thus, the cross of Christ created our crosses: «The crosses come from God. The crosses are necessary because God has established it so. True penitents are always crucified» (ibid., p. 26). Because Jesus «sacrificed his heart in Gethsemane, he sacrificed his honour in court, he sacrificed his life at Calvary» (ibid., p. 291). The following can be read in a devotional manual for women: «This is God's purpose in afflicting us: He wants affliction not only to serve to purify our past sins, but also to improve our lives» (G. Fenoglio, The real mother of a family/ La vera madre di famiglia, 1897, p. 250). The three vows taken by nuns were also understood as «the three nails» of the cross, and their virginity as a «sacrifice of the body made to the Lord» (Spiritual exercises for the Dominican nuns of the monastery of Saints James and Philip of Genoa, Rome, 1821 , p. 70). Thus, the offering of pain to God united with the sufferings of Christ, Mary and the saints became the most flourishing oikonomia in Latin countries in the era of the Counter-Reformation and with it it a crazy proliferation of the most painful forms of penance, especially in female monasteries.

How was it possible to transform the Gospel into a religion of suffering and pain? How were we able to believe the deception that Jesus’ God of Love was a "consumer of human pains", that the firstfruits he liked the most were our sufferings? The Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, was well aware of that divinities who love the blood of their children are called idols. The biblical God, the God of Jesus, is not an idol because he does not consume the pain of his sons and daughters, because he does not want to increase it but reduce it. Hosea and Jesus, who were well aware that the logic of sacrifice and that of hesed and agape are incompatible, keep repeating to us "I want mercy, not sacrifice". The biblical God does not love sacrifices because he loves us. Sacrifice is an ambivalent word even in human relationships - it is wrong for me to read your love for me as your willingness to sacrifice yourself - but it is very dangerous indeed when used to refer to our relationship with God, because we will thereby transform him into an idol.

The following can be read, once again, in the Spiritual exercises for nuns: «I have lost the merit of so many fasts, of so many mortifications... oh how unhappy I am» (ibid., p. 71). Sacrifice is in fact associated with a theology of merit, another word fought over by the Reformation (and therefore much loved by the Counter-Reformation). Sacrifices serve to create and increase merits: «But the greatest advantages for those who love this virginal virtue are reserved for the next life. Virgins will be happier in paradise» (Lent sermon for nuns, cit., p. 79). Earthly life therefore becomes a sort of eternal gymnasium where we have to suffer in training to deserve possible future victories while competing in the Elysian Fields.

From this point of view, the Counter-Reformation did not generate the idea of God as our liberator and first "Goel" (Job, Ruth), the bondsman who raised his hands to save us from the avoidable pains of the earth. That idea of God served to complicate life for men, and even more so for women. Religious life was presented as a long and constant sacrifice in order to deserve heaven, under a constant vision of hell: «Let each of you now be taken to that most painful prison, where rebellious souls are held. It will hear the screams, the yearnings and the desperate cries.

With this oh so gloomy image before your eyes, each of you will now begin to meditate…” (Spiritual exercises for nuns, cit., p. 124). Pain was encouraged because it was the "divine currency" with which to earn merit for ourselves and for others: «Among the great goods that confession produces, the first is pain. Confession being a process, where the penitent is the offender and the Priest is the judge» (ibid., p. 128). And so, the message of the gospel of reciprocal love, gratuity and compassion increasingly remained in the background of a sorrowful theology and practice, which has was never entirely become outdated. Marco, the nephew of a colleague of mine, got stuck on the day of his first confession just as he was reciting: "because by sinning I have earned your punishments".

Many of the names commonly chosen for baby girls in Catholic countries these past centuries are rather telling: Dolores, Mercedes, Addolorata, Catena, Crocifissa, and the names of female Congregations in the age of the Counter-Reformation: sisters being victimised, crucified, enslaved, humiliated... Thus, Catholics have too often experienced a God who was on the wrong side, who wanted their suffering on this side perhaps so that he could reward it on the other side. Today, Catholic theology has finally distanced itself from the theology of expiation and from the sacrificial interpretation of Christ's passion: «Otherwise there is the risk of not directing one's gaze in the right direction of the mystery of God» (Giovanni Ferretti, Rethinking sacrifice in an evangelical way/Ripensare evangelicalmente il sacrificio, 2017). The logic of sacrifice must be transformed into a logic of gift, its direct opposite because it is completely gratuitous.

In the meantime, however, the Catholic Church would also need a true purification of its memory, above all for what was allowed to happen in female monasteries and convents. We belatedly apologized to Galileo Galilei, there are tens of thousands of victims, who have been waiting too long for our collective apologies, after the solemn and heartfelt apologies of Saint John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, to which I here add my own. Sorrows do exist in the world and human civilization must do everything to reduce them, and God - the God revealed in Jesus Christ - is the first one to want it. When pain arrives, we need to live it in the best ethical and spiritual way possible, but never think or say that God is the one who sends it to us or likes it.

The civil and economic implications here are also considerable. The idea of meritocracy was born in the United States and was then exported everywhere. It was born in an environment of a distinct Calvinist nature, and therefore anti-merit, which secularized merit and transformed it into an economic category. However, it should not surprise us that the countries that are the most enthusiastic about meritocracy are Catholic: today's Italy has even included the word "merit" in the name of its Ministry of Education. Thus, theology based on the combination of sacrifice-merit produces a commercial vision of God and of life. The more you sacrifice, the more you will achieve. God becomes a passive accountant of debts and credits and gratuitousness-grace leaves the scene in a Pelagian world where we save ourselves by gaining merit with the currency of suffering. There is more, however.

Linking the category of merit to the idea of sacrifice has produced the idea that true virtue requires sacrifice and suffering and that true merits are what will earn us heaven or purgatory. Hence, the most valuable rewards for sacrifice are not wages, but base money.

From here, arriving at the conclusion that occupations that were largely female - such as school, healthcare, services, the work of consecrated women - should not be paid too much, because otherwise money would reduce the purity of the "sacrifice" and its true merits, was quickly done: « The fruit of riches is to despise them. The primary intention of God in granting riches is that we derive merit and interest for the next life» (G. Fenoglio, The real mother/La vera madre, cit., p. 248). The great theme of the excessive and asymmetrically distributed weight carried by women returns. In Nietzsche's The Joyful Wisdom, the madman announces, with a desperate cry, that "God is dead" and that "we have killed him". We find ourselves in a civilization that has decreed the death of God; we see examples of this every day. Nevertheless, there may be a light within this night, which I would like to express by whispering a question: What if the "dead god" was that god who was too distant from the hearts of men and women? If so, what if this death brings the dawn of a resurrection?

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CounterEconomy/8 - Beyond the theology of sacrifice-merit and the commercial vision of God

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in the Avvenire 23/04/2023

"The avulsion of Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church was a much deeper disaster than that of the Eastern schisms."

Giuseppe de Luca, Introduction to the Italian Archive for the history of piety

Unfortunately, the age of the Counter-Reformation also generated a dangerous view on pain, which ended up creating a lot of damage in Catholic people, especially in women.

The Bible revealed a God who was different from the natural gods to us. It did not choose to recognize the religious sentiment that already existed in the world by giving new forms to ancient fertility, death and harvest cults and rites. Instead, the Bible and later the first Christians did everything they could to save the novelty of their God. They defended and guarded him to the point of calling all other gods "idols". And every time the people of Israel produced an idol in biblical history, it did so because it could not keep up with a God that was too different and consequently wished for a "god like all other peoples", a simpler god, approachable, within their reach and of incense. Hence, the people made golden calves and the prophets destroyed them. Even the prophets knew that there was a certain mysterious presence of the one true God in the nature cults: «The heavens declare the glory of God» (Psalm 19). While they were perfectly aware of this, they were even more aware that they absolutely had to distinguish the God who came and reached to us "from heaven" from the cults that try to reach him "from the earth", or the strength of the earth would have devoured the fragile novelty from the sky. Holding the mystery of God very high furthermore served to hold our dignity very high, and for three thousand years, it has continued to repeat to us: "You are not made in the image of an idol".

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What if it was a dawn of resurrection?

What if it was a dawn of resurrection?

CounterEconomy/8 - Beyond the theology of sacrifice-merit and the commercial vision of God by Luigino Bruni  Published in the Avvenire 23/04/2023 "The avulsion of Protestant Churches from the Catholic Church was a much deeper disaster than that of the Eastern schisms." Giuseppe de Luca, Introduc...
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CounterEconomy/7 - We should remember that God is above all agape and love, never «do ut des»

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 16/04/2023

"The relationship between the taranta and Saint Paul was an extremely confused and contradictory one, in which Saint Paul, protector of the tarantati to whom grace was implored, coexisted with the Saint Paul who began the tarantate to punish sins and faults, and the Saint Paul-taranta exorcisable with music, dance and colours"

Ernesto de Martino, The Land of Remorse

The analysis on the cultural-economic effects of the Counter-Reformation continues. The serious effects of the commercial version of grace in the world of conceiving religion and civil life.

Religions are the first tool with which human beings have tried to defeat death, they are the great ordeal to make what is naturally not immortal. They are therefore the result of a great collective desire for the metamorphosis of death into something valuable, and sacrifice is the medium that ideally should operate this admirable alchemy. Thus, when plants or animals, destined by their nature to die, are sacrificed in the ritual, they leave the natural mortal order and enter a divine immortal one – herein lies the sense of the etymology of sacrifice: "to turn sacred". By killing life against nature on the altar, it is made immortal. This is also an explanation behind human sacrifices in ancient times: when offered to the gods they died sacrificially against nature and hence they no longer died in nature. Thus, «man constitutes himself as a prosecutor of death in the very bosom of natural dying» (E. De Martino, Magic, Ritual, Lament/ Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico, p. 236).

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Ancient man saw nature die a partial but not definitive death, because the cycle of the seasons made what died in autumn "resurrect" in spring, and this suggested to him that somewhere something similar had to happen to men as well: «An old Dinca song laments that while the sun rises, passes and yet returns, and so does the moon, only man is born, passes and never returns» (De Martino, ibid). By giving living things to the gods, they leave time and enter eternity - we do not understand the ancient theology of consecrated life without this transformation and divinization of the gift of life, nor do we understand the profound meaning of mourning, that is, "procure for the deceased that second cultural death which avenges the scandal of natural death» (De Martino, ibid.)

With Christianity, however, something new broke into the world. Christ also overturned the logic of ancient religions: it is no longer we who offer our mortal gifts-sacrifices to the ruling divinity asking to make them immortal. In the Eucharist, that living synthesis of Christ's passion-death-resurrection, it is Jesus who, by giving himself to us in the form of bread, makes us share in the divinity. It is no longer our gifts that die in order to live forever, but it is God who by dying-rising gives us something true of his own immortality. The Eucharist is therefore the anti-sacrifice, it is the final word on the sacrificial logic, the good charis, a beautiful gratitude. It is all absolutely free because it is free from the commercial sphere. Herein lies the humanism of Christianity. In the practice of the Catholic tradition, however, especially starting from the Counter-Reformation, this absolute dimension of gratuitousness did not establish itself in the culture-worship of the people. People continued to interpret religion from a sacrificial perspective, where no grace is free: «'If you don't accept the hen, grace does not apply, and the child will be born blind'. "Grace is free," said Don Paolo. “Free graces do not exist,” replied the woman» (Ignazio Silone, Wine and bread). The Catholic reaction to Protestants' salvation by "grace alone" reinforced and amplified the religion's idea of ​​"works" by which one must "deserve" salvation. Grace is not perceived as unconditional gratuity: someone has to profit from it, it must be earned.

Hence, even confession and consequentially the Eucharist were interpreted within the realms of a relationship of exchange between man and divinity. When reading the "Catechism of Pius X" (from 1905) for example, we immediately understand that the narrative of confession leads to interpreting penance as the price to pay to obtain the grace of forgiveness and therefore communion-Eucharist. The conditional nature of the absolution naturally places it in a juridical-economic-commercial context of do ut des: one of the «fruits that a good confession produces in us is the grace of God», which «makes us capable of the treasure of indulgences», indulgences which are too easily interpreted as the price to pay for «the remission of a temporal penalty» (Catechism, § 9). The Eucharist is therefore not perceived as a free gift, but as a response to our good works - grace does not work if we do not find ourselves in a state of grace first.

This contractual perception and narrative of grace as God's response to our meritorious works has produced much wider effects than just the interpretation of confession or sacramental life. Effects that are already very important in themselves, if we think of how deeply rooted approaches such as "I pay and then buy" to the sacraments still are in Catholic people. Naturally, theologians have said many other things regarding these narratives as well, things that made them more complex and in part even refuted them, but they did not generally reach the people.

Gratuitous-grace is therefore truly the central theme here. Because gratuitousness is precisely what prevents religions from being experienced merely as magic and superstition. Magic is the expression of man's eternal desire to take possession of the sacred, manipulate it and use it to his own advantage through words, gestures and thoughts. For millennia, the experience of the sacred has been the human reaction to the tremendum (Mircea Eliade), to the need to understand and try to manage forces that human beings perceived as supernatural and uncontrollable. The essence of magic is the sacred without gratuitousness, experienced entirely within an aspect of exchange – the economy was born from the world of magic and not vice versa. For this reason the Bible (especially regarding the prophets) has always been ruthless with the world of magic and divination, which it interprets as serious forms of false prophecy and idolatry.

From its earliest times, the Church has always had to contend with magic and superstition. Popes, priests, councils and theologians, therefore, have done and written a lot to protect the novelty of Christianity from the archaic forms of the sacred, in particular from magic. The Renaissance experienced a strong return of magical and esoteric practices on all levels. Before the Reformation, there had been authoritative interventions by top-level theologians and philosophers (from Erasmus of Rotterdam to Boccella, Querini, Giustiniani and Fregoso), who denounced the use of images of Christ, the Madonna and the saints used for various forms of magical rites with regards to rain, lightning, calamities, or for fertility. Those magical and idolatrous tendencies, which were already very present in the Middle Ages, were therefore growing in the sixteenth century and risked becoming a real epidemic - «My Saint Paul of the tarantate».

The Protestant Reformation was a traumatic and decisive event in this area as well. That internal process of criticizing magic and superstition underwent if not a total arrest (the condemnation of astrology continued, for example with Sixtus V), certainly a downsizing and a slowdown. The criticism of Luther and the reformers was in fact also centred on the idolatry and paganism of Catholic countries, accused of cultivating the adoration of fetishes (statues) and images in the "simple people", in a popular form of piety seen as superstition. This great and global Protestant attack on Catholic worship produced two main effects in the Catholic world: (a) a defence, by reaction, of the legitimacy of many forms of mestizo popular piety and religiosity, limiting itself only to the condemnation of grave excesses; (b) criticizing popular piety became a sign of heresy by those who did it. A third, equally decisive, element, was added to all of this.

The Church of the Counter-Reformation did not want to lose the relationship of control that it had with the "simple people" left at the mercy of their beliefs. Thus, it made its "pastoral" choice with the Council of Trent, which was also very different from the Protestant one. While, in fact, Luther's catechism was addressed to fathers of families, the pastoral reform of the post-Tridentine church was centred on the newly educated parish priests (Paolo Segneri) created by the new seminaries and the new religious orders. Books and documents were consequentially written for parish priests and well-trained religious persons who, in turn, had to form and prepare the simple people. The "political" choice of Trent was to train the educators, a second or third level mediation and pastoral care. Images, harmless nursery rhymes and litanies that were easy to memorize in the vernacular or in dialect (I still remember my grandmother's), were created for the benefit of the "simple people". The shepherds were formed, not the flock made up of the illiterates, the poor, the little ones, the women, the ignorant, the brutes, the boors – the institution of family is not even mentioned in the documents of the Council of Trent.

An important consequence of this choice was the inevitable paternalism in treating the "simple people". The natural consequence of paternalism is always a certain level of infantilism, that is, interpreting the relationship of the clergy with the faithful as that of fathers with their children - and when the stupendous evangelical reality of being the "children of God" becomes being the "children of the parish priests", the sense of God’s different form of paternity and of being his offspring is easily lost. In this context, mestizo/mixed or totally superstitious devotional practices were merely seen as "children being children" and therefore tolerated, as parents tolerate when children talk with their dolls. Children allowed to play within the realms of a minor religion, considered harmless in view "salvation" (the only thing that really mattered) and theologically harmless. Many good things were also done "for" the poor, as we will see in the coming articles, but rarely "with" the poor (because to do things with the poor you must first recognize them as adults). However, unlike children who above all live on gifts, the religious experience that the Catholic people had was dominated by an idea of ​​God who when he does not intervene to free us from illness and poverty, it is due to our wickedness. The creation of oceans worth of guilt and fear, while those in charge of its management advised everyone to offer their pain to God. As a result, remembering, in this oikonomia, that God was above all agape and unconditional love became difficult indeed – and, in fact, many ended up forgetting it altogether.

Thus, while theologians continued to discuss the concepts of grace and conscience, the infant people cultivated their innocent popular piety, developing a "religion" of consumption. They continued to invoke the same ancient spirits, the only thing they had really changed was their names, sometimes not even the canopy used for the procession in their honour. At this point, we should not be surprised that once religion in a disenchanted world lost its ability to satisfy the taste of its consumers, these Catholic people, educated for centuries in a faith as children of lesser gods, passed without any delay from the sanctuaries to the shopping centres, from the evil eye to scratch cards, from the old (and serious) saints of the churches to the new "saints" of entertainment and new emotionally based sects.

One last note. The "simple people" occasionally had authentic spiritual experiences, because, thanks be to God, the free voice of the Spirit blows wherever it wants and the Spirit is the "father of the poor", it loves them very much. The history of Catholic countries, including its economic and political history, could have been different, however, if, while the educators were being trained, an attempt had been made to treat the poor as adults - because the poor are not children, they are not even "simple": they are only poor.

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CounterEconomy/7 - We should remember that God is above all agape and love, never «do ut des»

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 16/04/2023

"The relationship between the taranta and Saint Paul was an extremely confused and contradictory one, in which Saint Paul, protector of the tarantati to whom grace was implored, coexisted with the Saint Paul who began the tarantate to punish sins and faults, and the Saint Paul-taranta exorcisable with music, dance and colours"

Ernesto de Martino, The Land of Remorse

The analysis on the cultural-economic effects of the Counter-Reformation continues. The serious effects of the commercial version of grace in the world of conceiving religion and civil life.

Religions are the first tool with which human beings have tried to defeat death, they are the great ordeal to make what is naturally not immortal. They are therefore the result of a great collective desire for the metamorphosis of death into something valuable, and sacrifice is the medium that ideally should operate this admirable alchemy. Thus, when plants or animals, destined by their nature to die, are sacrificed in the ritual, they leave the natural mortal order and enter a divine immortal one – herein lies the sense of the etymology of sacrifice: "to turn sacred". By killing life against nature on the altar, it is made immortal. This is also an explanation behind human sacrifices in ancient times: when offered to the gods they died sacrificially against nature and hence they no longer died in nature. Thus, «man constitutes himself as a prosecutor of death in the very bosom of natural dying» (E. De Martino, Magic, Ritual, Lament/ Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico, p. 236).

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The poor are just poor

The poor are just poor

CounterEconomy/7 - We should remember that God is above all agape and love, never «do ut des» By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 16/04/2023 "The relationship between the taranta and Saint Paul was an extremely confused and contradictory one, in which Saint Paul, protector of the tarantati to ...
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    [title] => The religion of consumption, and beyond
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CounterEconomy/6 - Despite all the errors, faithfulness to the Resurrection can and knows how to resist among us

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 09/04/2023

"Piety is to religion what poetry is to literature: it is its highest peak ... with one difference, however, because while few are poets, everyone can be pious."

Giuseppe de Luca, Introduction to the history of piety (Introduzione alla storia della pietà)

The age of the Counter-Reformation is also an important time because with it liturgy became a "spectacle" distant from the people and this would greatly influence Latin economic culture.

The Resurrection is the centre of Christian faith. However, it has not always been the centre of popular Catholic piety. The history of Christianity has known many "eclipses of the Resurrection". A particularly long and decisive one took place during the age of the Counter-Reformation. The premise was that the Middle Ages had created its form of civilization by distinguishing monastic life from civil life. The common imagery of the Middle Ages as entirely Christian speaks the truth only when looking at the monasteries and the abbeys and those parts of the world that the monks and nuns managed to influence. Christian culture was essentially a monastic affair and belonged to the urban elites. However, most of the people who lived in small towns, in the countryside and in the mountains knew very little of the Christian faith, and their religious practices were substantially the "pagan" ones - Latin, Celtic, Saxon, Piceno... with some Christian influences, often limited to new names for ancient rites, spirits and deities. From this point of view, Christianity was not the mass culture of the Middle Ages.

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With the Reformation, the medieval distinction between the monastery and the people disappeared. After Luther, Protestant regions began to shut down the monasteries and tried to turn them into cities. Ora et labora emerged from the abbeys and became the ethical law of the entire Protestant civilization in a secular liturgy. The monks of yesterday became the "workers" of the new day and work (labora) incorporated prayer (ora) within it. That medieval dichotomy was overcome even in the Catholic world. With the Counter-Reformation, the people experienced a new and unprecedented religious protagonism. However, here religion ended up occupying work: the "monks" of yesterday became the new devotees and piety invaded work. Thus, while Northern Europe began to invent capitalism, in the Catholic South work, the great medieval legacy of artisans and merchants, was instead absorbed by a devotion that progressively filled people’s entire life. The creation of a "Europe of the devout" (Louis Châtellier) was an intentional religious and social project of the Council of Trent, a very ambitious plan. The bishops and the Pope became aware of the essentially pagan state of a large part of the "Christian" population. Thus began a new popular action in Europe, and soon in the other continents as well. An enormous and impressive project: the great diffusion of Catholicism in the modern world is the result of the counter-reformist popular refoundation.

The first and fundamental strategy of the project of the Council of Trent was to "baptize" the mestizo religiosity of the countryside and of the people. In the Baroque period, the Catholic Church did something similar to what the Christians did with respect to the Greco-Roman world in the first centuries, taking much of the existing religious practices and building the new religion upon them. Similarly, the new orders, bishops and parish priests trained in these seminaries resemanticized all the sacred material that they found. Thus, the Baroque culture was born. Centuries of an explosion of sacred images, of newsstands at crossroads, of patron saints in every village and of patron saints of every area and moment of life. And thanks to the new, finally popular cult, Christian culture was born - every mass culture is born from a cult, including the capitalist cult. Religion proceeded to cover all the spaces and all the moments of life, liturgy was no longer a prerogative of the monks alone but became people’s very life. Space and time were in fact marked and taught as sacred space and time. Places (urban and rural) were marked by an infinity of symbols and family time became a simplified form of the "liturgy of the hours". Sacred time pierced the human horizon encroaching on the cult of Purgatory and its "souls", who now became highly present inhabitants of the new world.

Everything changed. With Humanism (at least after Giotto) churches were also decorated with earthly scenes, with images of city women and men next to Christ and the saints. With Baroque art, however, the themes represented became increasingly celestial (Mary glorified), and the churches were flooded with myriads of angels. The Promised Land became the afterlife, angels become the ideal of man: «And now take a look at those who find themselves on the ladder: they are men with the hearts of Angels, or Angels with the bodies of men» (Francis de Sales, Introduction to the devout life). In a homily on Easter day at the end of the seventeenth century, the great Jesuit preacher Paolo Segneri, famous for his dialogues with skulls, proclaimed the following: «Let this miserable body suffer, macerate itself, mortify itself, and with even more horrible limbs destroy itself; how lucky it is! Wheat must flourish, nor could it flourish again if it did not wither" (Lenten holidays of Father Paolo Segneri, 1835, p. 233) - and this was the Easter sermon: I leave it to the reader to imagine the one read on Good Friday!

This long dark night of humanity and the body naturally resulted in an explosion of the exaltation of death, of thousand brotherhoods, of suffrage companies and of the veneration of relics. Some of these practices were already present during the Middle Ages, but now they were no longer a matter of the urban or noble elites: true popular piety had been born. The only life that mattered was the future one. The cult of the dead became more important than the cult of the living. Luther's well-known phrase on Roman Christianity - «a religion of the living at the service of the dead» - truly became a reality during Baroque civilization. It was the eclipse of the Resurrection on this earth. Christian life was predominantly built around pain, interpreted and theorized as the «currency most pleasing to God». A form of "Catholicism of Good Friday" was born, sometimes taking place on Saturday, but never arriving to Sunday, and a Christianity without Sunday easily becomes inhuman, where God is no longer the biblical God who liberates men but their consumer, like an idol. No religion can be a friend of God if in order to raise God it needs to lower man, if to increase love for God it demands an increase in human pain.

Hence, it is not surprising that between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Ways of the Cross developed in the Catholic world, and with them a whole proliferation of images, paintings, holy cards, folders, chapels and holy mountains. The vital and spiritual energy of the people was thus oriented towards non-generative devotional practices, in some ways harmless, but in others dissipative and toxic, which did not end up helping either religion or society, moving away from the good news of the agape of the Nazarene.

Moreover, here we find another fact that appears rather paradoxical with interesting consequences for the economy. While the spiritual life of individuals became increasingly centred on penance, on the culture of guilt, on the pain necessary to deserve purgatory... the collective liturgies instead became more and more emotional. Perhaps as an unconscious form of compensation, when those penitent, mortified and oppressed by cilices, ropes and the terror of death as they were, arrived at the church or took part in a procession, all their senses were solicited and satisfied: the sense of smell (incense), touch (the statues to be touched), hearing (music and songs), sight (paintings, relics, shows or spectacles) and taste (the Communion bread). Processions (Corpus Domini), pilgrimages, masses, the Via Crucis were sensory explosions in a world dominated by pain and skulls. In Good Friday theology and churches, the liturgies were pleasurable bodily experiences. The body so despised and devalued by theology and in confessionals, was caressed by the liturgy. The flesh chastised in private consoled itself (a little) in public.

Nevertheless, it is precisely here that a delicate but necessary topic insinuates itself. The liturgy, especially Mass, increasingly took on the form of a spectacle for the lay faithful, where the priest, sacramentally and spatially separated from the people, "produced" a good (the Eucharist) which the Christians "consumed" without participating in the its production and without having to actively co-generate it. The faithful became consumers of the liturgical good, because this was the concrete experience that people had. Unlike the Protestant world, where the Holy Supper is generated by the community (not by the minister), over time the Eucharistic liturgy of the Counter-Reformation created (one factor among many) a culture of consumption, which from religion naturally extended to both economic and civil life. Thus, citizens tend to expect "bread" from above without feeling the need to co-generate it (one only need to think of our culture of taxes or welfare). Thereby, strengthening our Italian tendency to compete with others through consumer goods, therefore generating a positional, rival and envious culture, which is the socio-economic disease of our country to this day.

Therefore, we were not very surprised when we made an empirical study together with some colleagues (A. Smerilli, V. Pelligra and P. Santori) on how Protestant countries and Catholic countries reacted during lockdown to the liturgies that were made available online (The gnostic pandemic, 2022). The data revealed a Catholic world less concerned than the Protestant one about abandoning Mass in person. Perhaps, the legacy of centuries of "show masses" lived as experiences of consumption are still active in our religious and social chromosomes. Just as it is not surprising that to this day countries with a Catholic tradition far outnumber the predominantly Protestant countries for the time "consumed" in front of the TV (source: OfCom, UK).

This is only one part of the story. The other side tells us that people are greater than ideologies. As a child, I remember an incomprehensible prayer being recited during funerals. When I grew up, I discovered that it was the famous Dies Irae: «Dies Irae, dies illa solvet saeculum in favilla...». My people from Ascoli had transformed it into: «Diasilla, Diasilla, secula in secula, sparkle: I beg you, Jesus, my Jesus of great sorrow». My old folks did not understand Latin or the theology contained in it, but they understood the "great sorrows" of Jesus and Mary very well because they were their sorrows too. Thus, in a spectacular religious world, they actually cried before the images, which were covered in blood and real tears. And who knows what they were thinking in their hearts as they touched the statues or during the Via Crucis. I think they prayed differently, transforming the Dies Irae into «my Jesus of great sorrow» every day.

A splendid Sicilian song, in which Maria leaves the house on the morning of the passion to look for her son, also reminds us of this. She meets a blacksmith and begins a wonderful dialogue (translated): «“Oh dear master, what are you doing at this hour?”. “I make three nails especially for the Lord”. "Oh dear master, do not do them, at this time I will pay you for the day and the labour". "Oh dear Mother, I cannot, or they will put me in Jesus' place". As soon as Our Lady heard this answer, she turned the world, land and sea upside down».

We have saved ourselves from partial and wrong theologies because men – and women, above all - have known how to make religion say things that it neither wanted nor was able to say, thereby turning the world, earth and sea upside down. And so, with their infinite sorrow-love, they resurrected their religion a thousand times over, and continue to do so to this day. Happy Easter.

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CounterEconomy/6 - Despite all the errors, faithfulness to the Resurrection can and knows how to resist among us

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 09/04/2023

"Piety is to religion what poetry is to literature: it is its highest peak ... with one difference, however, because while few are poets, everyone can be pious."

Giuseppe de Luca, Introduction to the history of piety (Introduzione alla storia della pietà)

The age of the Counter-Reformation is also an important time because with it liturgy became a "spectacle" distant from the people and this would greatly influence Latin economic culture.

The Resurrection is the centre of Christian faith. However, it has not always been the centre of popular Catholic piety. The history of Christianity has known many "eclipses of the Resurrection". A particularly long and decisive one took place during the age of the Counter-Reformation. The premise was that the Middle Ages had created its form of civilization by distinguishing monastic life from civil life. The common imagery of the Middle Ages as entirely Christian speaks the truth only when looking at the monasteries and the abbeys and those parts of the world that the monks and nuns managed to influence. Christian culture was essentially a monastic affair and belonged to the urban elites. However, most of the people who lived in small towns, in the countryside and in the mountains knew very little of the Christian faith, and their religious practices were substantially the "pagan" ones - Latin, Celtic, Saxon, Piceno... with some Christian influences, often limited to new names for ancient rites, spirits and deities. From this point of view, Christianity was not the mass culture of the Middle Ages.

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The religion of consumption, and beyond

The religion of consumption, and beyond

CounterEconomy/6 - Despite all the errors, faithfulness to the Resurrection can and knows how to resist among us By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 09/04/2023 "Piety is to religion what poetry is to literature: it is its highest peak ... with one difference, however, because while few are poe...
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CounterEconomy/5 - And the society of "civil merchandising" gradually became a permanent job

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  02/04/2023

"Search as you might, you will never find any other idea in the Counter-Reformation than this: that the Catholic Church was a highly salutary institution, and therefore to be preserved and strengthened."

Benedetto Croce, History of the Baroque age in Italy (Storia della età barocca in Italia)

We must start by looking precisely at the age of Counter-Reformation if we want to understand the differences between Nordic, Protestant and our form of capitalism.

We know perfectly well that it is difficult to understand capitalism without going through the Protestant Reformation and its "spirit". We are somewhat less aware of the fact that we also need to look at the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as the theological, social, ethical and pastoral forms of the Catholic response to Luther's Reform had very important effects in the way of understanding and doing business in Italy and in other Catholic countries, as we will see in the coming pages.

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Luther's Reformation was the most serious and important crisis in the history of Christianity, its effects were much heavier and more pervasive than those of the first West-East schism were. The Church of Rome saw a concrete possibility of its own dissolution in what was happening in Germany. That revolt did not only feature heresy and a schism: there was a radical criticism of the form that Christianity had assumed in the Roman and Italian Church which in Luther’s eyes was seriously wrong, at times even diabolical. The popes and many bishops understood the enormous theological and ethical significance of that German crisis and were greatly frightened. A radical defence strategy arose from this fear on all fronts, which, it must be said was highly effective, even if the human cost was very high. The Inquisition, the Jesuits and other new religious orders, as well as private aural confession, the index of forbidden books, the return to the past, the Council of Trent, the renewal of priestly training and the evangelization of rural dwellers were all powerful means and part of this defence. On a purely theological level, Luther had attacked some of the main pillars of the ecclesial building. The claim of salvation by "grace alone" and not by works, undermined the whole practice and market of indulgences, pilgrimages and jubilees, which had developed during the last phase of the Middle Ages and were also the fulcrum of the functioning political and economic life of the Roman Church.

The Counter-Reformation was therefore above all a reaction, and this "reactionary" nature conditioned its entire theology and practice. Thus, while conscience and its free examination were at the centre of Luther's reforming action, the counter-reforming action was focused on the role of ecclesiastical authority and its criteria of truth external to the person, based on objective hierarchies of merits and of faults. Born from the primary need to refute the new heretical doctrines to block their spread, the season of the Counter-Reformation resulted in an extraordinary creation of a series of sins, prohibitions, anathemas, and therefore in a complex system for identifying the symptoms of error and of heresy nestled in the human soul, sometimes even without its knowledge. The external forum was managed by the Inquisition, while the internal forum was managed by the confessors, two complementary forums that became the main instruments of that catholicity.

Then there is an ethical aspect that continues to seem paradoxical. If it is true that the theology of the Counter-Reformation was a reaction to that of the Reformation, we would also have expected a reaction to the radical Augustinianism of Luther (a former Augustinian monk) and to his anthropological pessimism, and therefore a greater trust in the moral capacities of men, in the Catholic world. If only for the sake of consistency with Thomas, who in the meantime had become an absolute point of reference for Catholicism and who, compared to Augustine, had a more positive outlook on human nature and on our capacity for good despite the original sin. Instead, when we read up on the theology and practice of the Counter-Reformation we find an exasperation of the culture of guilt, a pastoral action based on the management of sins through a great diffusion in the masses of the sacrament of private confession of very detailed sins in terms of "type and quantity" and thus multiplied to infinity. We also find a revival of Purgatory, a general anguish in view of Hell, as well as macabre dances and baroque churches filled with skulls and skeletons.

If we then start leafing through the "Manual for Confessors" (I have collected several), which began to multiply (reaching as far as Vatican II) from the mid-sixteenth century, we will most probably be amazed by the spectacle of a whole constellation of sins, which had become their very own science, making the collections of Roman and medieval canonists pale in comparison. Guido De Ruggiero wrote about this: «Morality becomes a matter of a mechanical classification of each single case in the appropriate class, and the question regarding the more or less exact suitability of one in the other takes the name of scruple, forming a kind of fictitious moral aura around the merely peripheral action, devoid of any intimacy... Hence, the creation of specialized guides, directors and confessors, capable of orienting an individual in the fantastic labyrinth». An «exceptional legalistic ability is developed, to adapt the case to the law and perhaps, sometimes, to evade it». Faced with a Reformation that denied any extrinsic spiritual direction of consciences and conceived penance (which nonetheless remained in Luther) as a total renewal of life, «the casuistry mentality of the Counter-Reformation instead reaffirms the sacramental character of confession» whose application became increasingly frequent during the course of the year (De Ruggiero, Renaissance, Reform and Counter-Reformation, Laterza, 1947, pp. 198-199).

The diffusion and intensification of aural confession was therefore a central step. The new confessor created by the new religious orders of the Counter-Reformation was formed by theologians (especially the Jesuits) and passed under the jurisdiction of the bishops – previously, confession was almost monopolized by Franciscan and Dominican monks and friars. The confessor became the "doctor of the soul" who must be capable of recognizing the moral illness beyond the always imperfect anamnesis of the penitent-patient: «The devil uses a thousand ingenuities to make confession more difficult... So you shall open communication with a penitent individual as follows: “You have heard bad speeches and have had bad thoughts, have you not?”. If he or she deny them, take their negations as affirmations. Go on and say two or three more times: "You have lingered with pleasure on these bad thoughts, have you not?" Even if they say no, continue…» (Abbot Gaume, Confessors’ Manual, p. 49). Much attention is given to the treatment of recidivist sinners: «How can one absolve a penitent sinner used to saying bad words six times a day or even more than ten times a day? He said that almost once a day every eight days and … has he not relapsed more than three times during those eight days? Etc. etc.» (Abate Gaume, Manual for confessors, p. 269).

Hence, when it comes to the confession of a merchant and workers of various types, it is important for us: «If a merchant comes, ask him if he charges more when selling on credit, and if retail merchandise can be charged more... If a tailor comes, ask him if he worked during holidays to finish the clothes without any extraordinary reason, if he kept the scraps of the fabrics, and if it is a near occasion for him to sin when taking the measurements of women... If a barber arrives, enjoin him to find a woman who knows how to style people’s hair, because women will never turn to a man to have their hair styled, Etc. etc.» (A. Gaume, Manual for confessors, pp. 160-161). The parish priests then had to create parish lists with the "non-confessed" (those who did not confess). Everyone in church could see who left the confessional without doing communion, so sins that remained non-absolved ended up leaving the strictly internal sphere becoming a public fact and knowledge.

It is not difficult to understand,therefore, how this use of confession fueled a tendency towards developing double standards, a systematic recourse to lying and not telling the truth. Penitent individuals were strongly encouraged not to tell the truth to their confessors, in part because the confessional was the last offshoot of the Inquisition: «He told me that when one goes before the confessor one must only say what one wants him to know and then expect a Jubilee because one’s sins are forgiven» (Donna Olimpia Campana, Modena, 1600, quoted in A. Prosperi, A passive revolution (Una rivoluzione passiva), p. 275).

Thus, finally we arrive at the matter of economy. In order to stem the deleterious effects of the freedom of conscience not mediated by the clerics, the Council of Trent forcefully reaffirmed the ancient economic and financial prohibitions that Scholasticism had overcome between the 1200s and 1500s. The moralists went out of their way to find usury in those contracts (exchange letters, commendations, insurances…), which had been invented by the merchants to avoid the formal prohibition of usury. More than three centuries worth of civilization and economic and juridical wealth went up in smoke in those confessionals and Italy and the Latin countries consequently found themselves with a more backward economic-financial set of ethics, compared to that of the Franciscan friars who had worked so hard to establish that not all loans were usurious in nature.

This proliferation of controlling measures and casuistry of sins ended up producing a series of highly relevant phenomena. A distance and mutual distrust was created between the business world and the Church. The merchants continued to give alms to the Church, financing processions and patronal feasts and they went to confession once a year by telling the priest what they could say. They remained within the enclosure of the church but sent their wives and daughters to actual religious services (thus, the "feminization" of the Catholic Church was born). The double economic and civil morality was strengthened: that of the things that can be said to the authorities, and that of the other things that you do not tell anyone. The idea arises from the impossibility of respecting all the complex and infinite laws of economic and social life, where only those who tell part of the truth can truly survive and where only stupid people would tell the whole truth - «Taxes? I pay them, of course I do, a little: paying all of them is impossible», an entrepreneur told me a few days ago.

Hence, people lived and worked in an ordinary state of imperfection, while that very same religious and social system that offered closure. The Church was aware of the impossibility of implementing those individual control mechanisms, due to failures both on the supply-side (the priests were not well-prepared enough) and on the demand-side (the faithful). Therefore, that same Church decided to introduce or resume ordinary and extraordinary plenary indulgences, jubilees, holy years, pardons and pilgrimages that served to erase unconfessed sins. This is the very deep root of the Catholic "culture" of amnesties: private sins and lies that were paid for in public with instruments designed and desired by the very institution that was suffering the transgressions.

Finally, another equally serious side effect was the estrangement of the profession of being a merchant from that ars mercatoria that had made Italy great until the Renaissance. Why should I carry out a job, already risky in itself, which is regularly examined in its smallest religious details, which enjoys a bad reputation ("dung of the devil"), forcing me to tell lies every day, even to God? I had better dedicate myself to the liberal professions (lawyer, notary), better yet, a military or ecclesiastical career, and best of all, public service. Something similar to what happened to the theology happened to Catholic economy: why risk being condemned to the stake by being a theologian, better devote yourself to music or the arts, or to economic science, as did Antonio Genovesi, who after being condemned as a theologian became the first European economist in 1754.

Thus, the Italy of "civil merchandising", which had served to make our municipal cities stupendous, gradually became the Italy of permanent employment.

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CounterEconomy/5 - And the society of "civil merchandising" gradually became a permanent job

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  02/04/2023

"Search as you might, you will never find any other idea in the Counter-Reformation than this: that the Catholic Church was a highly salutary institution, and therefore to be preserved and strengthened."

Benedetto Croce, History of the Baroque age in Italy (Storia della età barocca in Italia)

We must start by looking precisely at the age of Counter-Reformation if we want to understand the differences between Nordic, Protestant and our form of capitalism.

We know perfectly well that it is difficult to understand capitalism without going through the Protestant Reformation and its "spirit". We are somewhat less aware of the fact that we also need to look at the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as the theological, social, ethical and pastoral forms of the Catholic response to Luther's Reform had very important effects in the way of understanding and doing business in Italy and in other Catholic countries, as we will see in the coming pages.

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The Catholic spirit of the market

The Catholic spirit of the market

CounterEconomy/5 - And the society of "civil merchandising" gradually became a permanent job By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  02/04/2023 "Search as you might, you will never find any other idea in the Counter-Reformation than this: that the Catholic Church was a highly salutary institution...
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CounterEconomy/4 - Biodiversity is also a fundamental law in doing business and consultancy

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/03/2023

"No one frees anyone, no one frees himself: men free themselves in communion."

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed

We can learn valuable lessons for the life of our organizations and communities (even those with an idealistic motive) and learn how conflicts can truly be resolved from genetics.

Biodiversity is a fundamental law of life, and therefore also of economic life, businesses and consultancy. Fundamental in every area, biodiversity becomes truly decisive when we enter the world of Organizations with an idealistic motive, that is, realities born from our greatest passions that aggregate our collective dreams. In many respects, these organizations resemble all other human realities, but are different when it comes to other fundamental aspects dimensions, sometimes very different.

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A basic premise. Science has discovered that the human species has almost all its genetic material in common with other higher primates (about 98%), but ours is also organized differently. The organization depends on the genes and how they are expressed, regarding mutations and chromosomal "rearrangements". From this perspective, we are almost equal to chimpanzees, but it is in that "almost" that many of the essential things required to understand what homo sapiens really is, and therefore our culture, language, relationships, conscience, ideologies and faith, are concentrated,. The 1 or 2% in these phenomena are very large, almost infinite numbers. Because the bio-diversity between species and intra-species depends above all on how the same letters of the alphabet (i.e. DNA) are combined into words (genes) which, together with the empty spaces between one word and another, become sentences ( the chromosomes) with which the speech of every single living being is composed, in continuous evolution. Furthermore, epigenetics teaches us that many changes in living beings are due to the interaction of the genome with the environment, which causes a different expression of the organism's genes without modifying the DNA sequences - perhaps Lamarck with his "giraffe neck" was more correct than my science teachers realized.

Using this powerful genetic metaphor (and hence, to be applied as such), many human organizations also share almost all of their DNA. However, if those who study organizations were limited to the analysis of the organizational genetic sequence, they would come to the conclusion that human organizations are (almost) all the same. However, even here, the differences that really matter are not really found in the DNA sequence - that is, in the organizational charts, flow charts, job descriptions, formal governance, division into units, offices, tasks. Because seen from this "genetic" perspective, organizations end up seeming too similar, we are not able to see their life, but only its traces, we are not able to grasp the diversity that we should identify - we are in fact much more complex than our genetic code and program.

All this is true for every individual and collective human reality, but it becomes decisive in the case of institutions with several centuries of history, created by founders who act as the custodians of a charism, hence, born from ideals and other motivations than those of "business as usual". Thus, it becomes clear that the first mistake to avoid when a consultant approaches these realities, all the same and at the same time different, is obvious: not stopping at mere DNA analysis, even when it has highly advanced tools and techniques at its disposal, if it does not wish to end up confusing humans with macaques. When you enter the world of idealistic organizations, biodiversity increases many things: they have a very long history in general (the duration of the process increases the variations), they are related to a unique and unrepeatable charism and they have undergone a series of "replications" and "mutations" in time and space. Good accompaniment and help processes therefore take a long time and tend to be both difficult and delicate, and develop according to a necessary set of phases.

The first one is Auscultation. Organizational subsidiarity, which is always essential, is vital here. A profound auscultation of problems, projects and dreams is required to try to discover the solution that is often already written in the organization’s story and its people. Therefore, be very wary of those consultancy companies that begin this first phase - the most delicate one - by sending a few new hires equipped with questionnaires and abstract models, who should arrive at a diagnosis of the critical issues in one or two weeks. The general golden rule here – in order to understand a problem you need to listen to all the people involved – is a vital step in an idealistic organization. The biblical logic of the "last" is the only good and applicable logic. In the Bible, in fact, the solutions to many crucial episodes in the history of salvation come from those who have been "rejected" and excluded from the organizational charts, and from those excluded from the formal sequences of the community "genomes". David is sought and found by the prophet Samuel in the fields, outside the circle of brothers selected by his father. Jacob and Abel were second-born sons and in the transmission of the promise that reaches Mary from Adam over time, we find both adultery and incest, hence, many children and heirs who were born where they should not have been born. In general, salvation does not come from the great and powerful but from a "small remnant". Therefore, following this logic means taking the words of the "little people" very seriously, dedicating time to the information that comes from the organizational periphery (the concierge, the cleaning staff, the bellhops...). Something deemed necessary also according to the rule of Saint Benedict: «We said to consult the whole community; because very often it is to the youngest that the Lord reveals new and better solutions» (Chapter III).

The second phase is Mutation. The most important differences between organisms are often due to mutations generated by replication errors in gene sequences. If those approaching a community have an idea of ​​"health" or normality, they treat mutations as errors to be corrected in order to align themselves with the abstract model and inevitably end up mistaking health for disease, because the words of that charism, of that history, of those people with different kinds of "vocations" can hide in those "replication errors". This does not mean that every error-mutation is always evolutionarily positive in idealistic and charismatic communities. Recessions can also be found here, sometimes they can even serious, but it is necessary to be able to identify them, without calling any variation from the dominant paradigm a pathology. In part, because we must not forget a decisive characteristic of the managerial culture generally induced by large-scaled consultancy: isomorphism, i.e. the leveling of diversity and the standardization of organizational forms. In addition, as is the case every time a dominant paradigm asserts itself, the dissonances from the paradigm are defined as "anomalies" and then expelled - until the anomalies become too many and the paradigm enters a crisis (T. Kuhn). Counseling methods and protocols can easily become a "Procrustean bed" that cuts off all "limbs" that do not fit into the fixed measures established by the paradigm. And generally what is amputated in such operations is precisely that 1 or 2% of diversity, where the ideal legacy is almost always concentrated, i.e. the different words and the prophetic choices of the past and sometimes even those of today. Those that are passionate about paradigms love averages and medians, but fear peaks and extremes, which are essential, however, to charisms and ideals.

The third phase: The voids. When constructing a sentence, letters are not the only thing that counts, not even the single words or just the verbs. As in the DNA sequences of a cell, in organizational and community genomes the voids, the non-activated traits, the blank spaces between one letter and another count as well. In ideal and spiritual stories and realities, non-choices, non-words, non-victories and non-facts are very important indeed. The most important sentences must be read starting from their voids or empty spaces, as in the case of our most important relationships, where the truly decisive words often tend to be the ones we do not say. Like a poem that can neither be written nor truly understood without its moments of silence or music that cannot truly exist without its pauses, the most beautiful passages of our community talks and discourses are those interrupted by a lump in our throat, while biting our tongue not to say the words that we would have liked to say, or sometimes even should have said. These decisive voids are usually not easily detected by DNA analysts and therefore never marked on their sheets. Thus, a word is mistaken for another word, becoming something else. Speeches and argumentation end up being turned upside down and we lose the thread of important sentences and of life.

The fourth stage is Waste. Another fundamental law of life is waste. The Sower of the Gospel sows the seed even in the most improbable places, among thorns and rocks, because he wants part of them to reach a patch of good soil, but then he is sometimes surprised to see that the seeds can sprout even among thorns. Many consultancy cultures have greater efficiency, a rationalization of processes and the optimization of procedures as their main objectives. Operations that are 98% good, but often fall right into the 2% trap. Because some secrets and mysteries of idealistic organizations can only be understood if we leave the logic of efficiency behind and instead embrace that of waste. If we are capable of wasting time in unproductive but necessary relationships in order not to lose our soul, invest energy in places that we know will never produce a return, only to then sometimes, even moved, see that bread gone to waste return: «Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return» (Ecclesiastes 11,1). You can die of efficiency, anywhere; in the realities born out of our highest ideals, the ideology of efficiency does not kill immediately, but it changes the organism day after day, slowly making it become something else.

Finally, the last phase: The body-to-body/in person encounter. When, an idealistic organization asks for subsidiary help from counselling, more than anything else it should fear the outsourcing of its relationships and management of emotions. Spiritual and ideal communities consist of relationships. Even when it comes to education or healthcare, it is still a question of relationships, and nothing works as it should if its relationships are not in order, if its relationships are not kept clean. Hence, if I experience a deep conflict with one of my managers, this can lead me talk to two, five different consultants, and maybe sometimes it even ends up being useful. Eventually, however, I have to talk to him, or her directly, and if this moment never presents itself because it keeps being shielded by a host of consultants, the conflict will not be resolved, but will only be postponed for a few months or weeks, and might even get worse. A good consultant can listen to my cries and complaints, but I will not get out of my hole until I am able to cry and complain in front of and together with the person in question as well, because in fact, the relationship with him or her is what hurts me.

In the end, consultants are essentially mediators. Mediation belongs to two great families: that of mediators who get between the parties, push them away so as not to let them touch and hurt each other; and that of mediators who instead bring distant parties closer and eventually disappear to let them meet and touch (the Crucifix is the icon of this). Both forms of mediation are needed in social and economic life, but idealistic organizations will end up shutting down if the second kind of mediators are missing. Because in these different kinds of organizations no one can or should stop us from a body-to-body in person encounter. In fact, if that is allowed to happen, we may gain time and efficiency, but we will also severely deplete that spiritual capital that is essential for living and growing. We progressively lose that "small remnant" of difference and one day we may find ourselves inside the same terrible change of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

This (enthralling) first part of CounterEconomy ends here. Starting from next Sunday, we will begin to scrutinize the age of the "Catholic Counter-Reformation", in search of the other roots of the spirit of the economy of our country and of Europe.

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CounterEconomy/4 - Biodiversity is also a fundamental law in doing business and consultancy

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/03/2023

"No one frees anyone, no one frees himself: men free themselves in communion."

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed

We can learn valuable lessons for the life of our organizations and communities (even those with an idealistic motive) and learn how conflicts can truly be resolved from genetics.

Biodiversity is a fundamental law of life, and therefore also of economic life, businesses and consultancy. Fundamental in every area, biodiversity becomes truly decisive when we enter the world of Organizations with an idealistic motive, that is, realities born from our greatest passions that aggregate our collective dreams. In many respects, these organizations resemble all other human realities, but are different when it comes to other fundamental aspects dimensions, sometimes very different.

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It's that two percent that counts

It's that two percent that counts

CounterEconomy/4 - Biodiversity is also a fundamental law in doing business and consultancy By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 26/03/2023 "No one frees anyone, no one frees himself: men free themselves in communion." Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed We can learn valuable lessons for ...
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    [title] => The chastity of counselling
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CounterEconomics/3 – Once again on the latest attempt that the market is making to resist the wind of vanitas

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 19/03/2023

"What scares me most is the suffering that rolls through the world like a steamroller. I care little about guilt, little about justice, little about truth, little about beauty: I do care about suffering."

Sergio Quinzio, An attempt to bridge the abyss (Un tentativo di colmare l’abisso)

The consultant's departure from the scene at the end of the process is part of its excellence. In the book of Daniel, there are precious indications on how to interpret the visions of others without becoming their masters.

The environmental, financial and military crises of the beginning of this millennium risk making us underestimate or forget a no less serious triple crisis: of faith, of great narratives and of generating. A world that no longer awaits paradise, without collective narratives and without children, no longer finds sufficient meaning to live and therefore to work. Why should I work if I no longer hope for a promised land (up in or below heaven), if I have no one who expects a better present and future from my work? The world of work has never created or exhausted the meaning of work. Once upon a time, it was family, ideologies, religion that gave work its first meaning. The factory, the fields or the office reinforced that sense which, however, was born outside of it. Work is grand, but to be seen in its grandeur it must be looked at from the outside, from a door that opens onto the outside. Without this large space, the work room becomes too narrow, its roof too low for that infinitely sick animal called homo sapiens to be able to stay there for any longer period of time without asphyxiating.

[fulltext] =>

Our Constitution is built on work because work was built on something else. The economy is registering a growing unease in the sphere of work: but when will we understand that this work related unease is first and foremost an existential unease generated by this triple famine? «Where has God gone?… I wish to tell you! We killed him – you and I! We are all his killers!… Are we not wandering in an infinite nothingness?» (F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science). That mad man cries out the death of God in the «marketplace», since «many of those who did not believe in God were gathered right there». In the marketplace, the herald of God's death «caused great laughter» (The Gay Science, 125). The merchants laughed; perhaps because they hoped that that "super-man" needed to live in a world without God would be homo economicus, thanks to his new capitalist religion. However, the merchants who were laughing yesterday are now realizing that that infinite nothingness is devouring the economy itself. Consulting is the latest attempt that the market is making to resist the wind of vanitas. Because no superman has yet appeared on the horizon line of this earth without gods, instead, we have seen an increasingly fragile and lonely man. Suffering, hidden by the funny mask of hedonism.

Last time we left the concept of the consultants while reflecting on the matter of subsidiarity. One last step is still missing: a good subsidiary consultancy must know how to leave at the right time. Having finished his work, a consultant must know how to withdraw, disappear, exit the process in order not to transform the link into a bond, favouring the autonomy of those who he has helped. However, since there is also a dimension of potential conflict of interest in consultancy, (the assistance is also invoiced and paid for), the exit is never easy or guaranteed. Thus, sometimes, the relationship of assistance lasts a bit too long and therefore risks becoming perverted. The non-exit is often desired by the "client" who during the process of assistance has progressively developed a relationship of dependence on his assistants. Thus the precious art of the consultant (who deals with people and relationships) and of the assistant lies in his or her ability to disappear, to let go. Becoming less and less necessary overtime, until he is no longer needed – this final uselessness should be his explicit objective, herein lies his excellence. On the other hand, when the passage of time increases the need for the consultant, the consultancy in question is actually failing and the risk of manipulation increases: from being an aid in discerning problems and their solutions, the consultant becomes the one who decides and governs: though he once came in to serve, he now ends up commanding.

Another essential dimension of good consultancy and organizational accompaniment is once again suggested by the Bible, in the Book of the prophet Daniel, the great dreamer and interpreter of dreams. Dream interpreters in the ancient world were a profession on the crossline between art and science, at the service of those in power above all. They were seen as bringing order to an unfamiliar and menacing world. One day, Daniel has a "difficult" dream - the one about the mysterious "son of man", a figure dear to Jesus (Daniel 7,13-14). He has a vision in a dream – note that vision is one of the great words of counselling. However, this time Daniel fails to understand the meaning; he gets agitated and becomes upset, and hence he asks for help from an angel-interpreter: «I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me. I approached one of those standing there and asked him the meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things» (Daniel 7,15-16). Although he is an interpreter of dreams, his own and those of others, Daniel now needs the assistance of a third party, another interpreter - the same situation is then repeated in the next chapter (8).

The need "of an interpreter for the interpreter" tells us something important. Dream interpretation has a relational and ternary nature. From being binary (A-B), a good relationship of assistance and accompaniment must, in fact, become ternary (A-B-C), because the opening of the relationship to a third party (C) protects the interpreter from becoming the master of the dreams he is interpreting. The third is the possibility of the interpreter’s chastity. However, for this opening to be activated, the interpreter needs to feel the "disturbance", because he feels his own insufficiency in the face of the dream. The greatest danger is the lack of this awareness of need, when the counsellor never feels or no longer feels the need to ask for help from an external "angel". Good subsidiary advice is therefore a relationship open to a third party. This is the biblical foundation of supervision, which is mandatory in many forms of counselling today – though not all. When the interpreter does not in turn have another interpreter, the relationship tends to close in on itself into a binary relationship, something that is always dangerous but especially serious with particularly difficult visions, which remain sealed because the "two" has not become "three".

The Book of Daniel, a great manual for dreamers and interpreters, contains another particularly interesting episode. At the beginning of the story, King Nebuchadnezzar has a mysterious dream. In fact, he is so agitated by it «and he could not sleep» (Daniel 2,1) because he did not know how to interpret it. He thus summons all the soothsayers and haruspices of the kingdom, but none of them succeeds. Also, a curious and decisive detail: the king does not tell the interpreters the dream that needs to be interpreted, he asks them to narrate it. Why? He had not forgotten it. No, he had a different reason. If the king revealed his dream, Babylonian culture possessed sophisticated handbooks of oneiromancy which deconstructed dreams into their essential elements and thus always produced a response. The dream would have been explained by the technique; the king, however, wanted something more, he felt that technique alone was not enough for that different and special kind of dream. The king was therefore afraid that his dream would be manipulated by the experts and technicians, who exercised great and seductive power over the sovereigns – all interpreters are fascinating as they are repositories of mysterious knowledge. He therefore wants a guarantee that his interpreter is being honest, and in that world being honest meant being a messenger of God: therefore being a prophet, that is, someone moved by gratuitousness, by vocation and not merely by profit and power. Finally, Daniel, a true prophet, arrives «During the night the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision» (Daniel 2,19).

For many ordinary consultants techniques are enough. However, some kinds of discernment and interpretation require a combination of both technique and vocation to truly work and be "free". In these rare but decisive cases, interpreting the recounted vision is not enough; we have to guess it before having it retold to us. Here, the dream itself becomes the necessary third party. This is relevant in those very complex and delicate situations where the very existence of the institution or of the community is at stake. In these cases, the consultant is required to make spend an extraordinary amount of time, resources, energy and face the risk of failure, choices that are not only justified in terms of the contract and the fee, an expenditure that goes beyond any ordinary small costs. It soon becomes clear that trying to solve the case will take much more than what is usually done. Thus, we can decide to quit early on or not to start all; but we can also decide to stay, and by staying we reveal our vocation, telling ourselves that there is a greater honour in it than the fee, that we are interested in being in the world and not just being in the market. These choices almost always remain hidden from the "customers", but are kept deep in the wine cellar of the heart. Sometimes, however, someone does notice, and that deep, slow and timeless kind of listening makes the other party understand that we are not working merely with technique. Techne joins psyche and competence joins the soul. Furthermore, when the other party understands that we are also working by vocation, a different quality of trust is born in him/her and he lets us enter the secret rooms of his dreams, where the key to the solution of his interpretation can often be found. Some things can be said to the experts or technicians, a lot is said to the soul, but everything can be divulged when technique is applied together with the soul.

However, there is something more. That dialogue between Daniel and the angel-interpreter takes place during a vision. The exegete of the dream can be found within the dream itself. In many cases, it is possible, and perhaps even good, for the interpreter to find himself outside of the dream, therapeutic distance is often very important – sometimes it is good for the interpreter to be "awake" while we are dreaming. Nevertheless, in some different kinds of dreams and visions, the interpreter must find himself within our very dream; the angel must be someone who knows us intimately because he finds himself within the same experience, a character in a shared vision. Sometimes we cannot decipher our problems because the interpreter is too close; other times, often when it is crucial, the explanation of our vision can be found right at home, yet we seek it far away. When moving from for-profit companies to the civil economy, even arriving at religious communities, in order to understand some "visions", the kind that leave us sleepless during many nights for many years, the interpreter must stay inside. Here the only good therapeutic distance is equal to zero. These interpreters know the vision before we tell them about it because it is their vision too.

A consultant who approaches an idealistic non-profit organization from the outside, which generally does not belong to their charismatic dream, must be well aware of being an "angel" outside the dream. He or she then has to spend a lot of time and energy trying to daydream, trying to get inside that nightly vision without actually being there. Then, after a long time spent in mild silence, he needs to say a few words as if he were that angel while aware that he is not. Remembering and reminding everyone every day, until the end, that he is not the interpreter that they really need. It is from the awareness of this fragility that his true usefulness can arise.

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CounterEconomics/3 – Once again on the latest attempt that the market is making to resist the wind of vanitas

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 19/03/2023

"What scares me most is the suffering that rolls through the world like a steamroller. I care little about guilt, little about justice, little about truth, little about beauty: I do care about suffering."

Sergio Quinzio, An attempt to bridge the abyss (Un tentativo di colmare l’abisso)

The consultant's departure from the scene at the end of the process is part of its excellence. In the book of Daniel, there are precious indications on how to interpret the visions of others without becoming their masters.

The environmental, financial and military crises of the beginning of this millennium risk making us underestimate or forget a no less serious triple crisis: of faith, of great narratives and of generating. A world that no longer awaits paradise, without collective narratives and without children, no longer finds sufficient meaning to live and therefore to work. Why should I work if I no longer hope for a promised land (up in or below heaven), if I have no one who expects a better present and future from my work? The world of work has never created or exhausted the meaning of work. Once upon a time, it was family, ideologies, religion that gave work its first meaning. The factory, the fields or the office reinforced that sense which, however, was born outside of it. Work is grand, but to be seen in its grandeur it must be looked at from the outside, from a door that opens onto the outside. Without this large space, the work room becomes too narrow, its roof too low for that infinitely sick animal called homo sapiens to be able to stay there for any longer period of time without asphyxiating.

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The chastity of counselling

The chastity of counselling

CounterEconomics/3 – Once again on the latest attempt that the market is making to resist the wind of vanitas By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 19/03/2023 "What scares me most is the suffering that rolls through the world like a steamroller. I care little about guilt, little about justice, l...
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CounterEconomy/2 – The Gospel teaches us to multiply loaves and fish, not business schools.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 12/03/2023

"God is the God of silence, because only God's silence is the condition of risk and freedom."

Andrè Neher, The exile of the word

This principle Is behind and recalls the basic laws of many human relationships, including corporate relationships and the art of consultants, who should act only by the end of a long process of listening.

Some serious errors in the relationship between companies and their consultants have to do with subsidiarity, a word absent in business school manager training courses, and generally also distant from the theory and practice of the various forms of consultancy. Subsidiarity is the first word of every good community and society. It is essentially an indication of the order and priorities of action when more than one intervention is required to manage a problem and the actors are at different distances from the problem that needs to be solved. The recommendation of the principle of subsidiarity is actually simple: the first person who must act and be listened to is the one closest to the problem, and all the other actors must intervene only afterwards to help ("subsidizing") those who are closest to the situation to be managed. The best-known applications of the principle of subsidiarity are the political ones (vertically and horizontally), so well known in fact, that we end up forgetting that subsidiarity has a much wider scope.

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The origin of subsidiarity can be found in the philosophies of Aristotle and later in that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. However, subsidiarity can be found as far back as in the Bible, where the first to apply it is God himself in his relationships with men and women. Because he does not replace their responsibility but "helps" (supports) them to realize their vocation, and then steps aside, silently withdraws (Tzimtzum), retires and leaves the scene - this is also the meaning of the "seventh day” of creation and the Shabbat (Genesis 2,2). He is the God of the "second line", of the "last resort", who intervenes only after we have done everything we could on our part to solve our problems. So much so that in some biblical books - from Esther to the Canticle, from Ruth to Ecclesiastes - the direct action of God is almost absent, to make room for those of men and even more so of women. In fact, there is something feminine about subsidiarity. The God of the Bible accompanies us without taking our place, because, unlike idols, he does not abuse his power, he uses it in a subsidiary way.

The Bible also contains many episodes in which subsidiarity is explicit. One such episode concerns the construction of Solomon's temple. At a certain point, the responsibility for the work passes from the priests to the workers, to «the masons and stonecutters», and «the money… was paid to the workers» (2 Kings 12,12-14). The management of the production process was thus taken away from those who were more distant and with fewer skills (the priests) and handed over to the workers, those closest to the work - also reminding us that without subsidiarity we would never have secularism, but only clericalism. Subsidiarity is also present in the Gospels, in particular in the great story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish: «His disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away… But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five - and two fish”» (Marc 6,35).

The disciples turn to Jesus to solve the problem, but he responds with a perfect synthesis of subsidiarity: give them something to eat yourselves. The first solution that comes to mind for the disciples is the market (money), but Jesus invites them to "look closely" at each other first: how many loaves do you have? An here come the five loaves and the two fish, which, in John's version, are offered by a boy, a "last one", still in line with the subsidiarity of the Bible which usually starts with the last ones to solve a problem (David, Jacob, Mary…). Jesus therefore intervenes with subsidiarity. That "but" that is often repeated in this Gospel passage says a lot about subsidiarity: it is an order that must be created by "opposing" the spontaneous action of things, because the first reaction is not one of subsidiarity (we tend to turn directly to the most powerful).

This biblical and evangelical kind of subsidiarity contains a real grammar and an ABC. Its first root is a cognitive dimension; it concerns knowledge. Whoever finds himself inside a problem or whoever is closest to him, has the duty-right to make the first move, because he possesses a different knowledge, in a certain sense superior to that of whoever is "outside" the problem or in any case more distant (the distance can take various forms). It is not the only knowledge involved, but it has to come first, if we want to be serious about people. Those who are inside their own problems have a different and necessary access to reality. Because reality has its own force of truth, expressed by a phrase much loved by Pope Francis: «Realities are more important than ideas» (Evangelii gaudium, 233), that is, the idea that one who is far from a reality develops about it. The principle of subsidiarity in education tells us that an educational intervention must start from what the young person (each person) is and already knows. Any action that comes from outside must be subsidiary to the pre-existing reality, because no one is too ignorant to know at least something already and no one is too young to not already be something before being formed or educated. A good synthesis of this is the well-known phrase by Robert Baden Powell: «Ask the boy», start with him-her if you want to solve his or her problem.

Another area is poverty. In a situation of poverty-misery, we must start from what that person or community already knows how to do, from the riches they already possess, and interpret our intervention as subsidiary to whatever they already are, have and know. Here we come to understand, therefore, what the ethical dimension at the root of subsidiarity really is: the esteem for what you already are and not just for what you are yet to be. This esteem is the first step of the solution, because «only you can do it, but you cannot do it alone», I once heard Bishop Giancarlo Bregantini repeat. This is what the biblical God does with us, being subsidiary because he esteems us for what we already are and then calls unto us to become what we are yet to become: he calls to us and tells us to "get up" or "come out" starting from what we already are. Finally, the episode of the loaves and fish tells us something about the subsidiary relationship between the market (the two hundred denarii) and the gift. If you can use a gift to resolve a situation in a community, do not use the market or, in its positive version, the market is good if it helps the gift, but bad when it replaces it.

Thus, we now arrive at the issue of companies and their consultants, with a reasoning that can also be extended to those who play an accompanying role. What does taking subsidiarity seriously really mean here? What should a consultant do, i.e. someone who enters into company relationships and therefore into the management of people's emotions? The first implication of the principle of subsidiarity concerns what happens before the consultant is even called: give away yourself to them to feed upon. Hence, the question: have we already figured out where our few loaves and fish are? Because if these are not found (and they are always present), there is no material (the res) for any external intervention. However, this first step is almost never executed, or we simply stop at the "two hundred denarii", without ever finding the "boy", so when the external consultant arrives the "miracle" does not happen, due to the lack of subsidiarity, not in the consultant, but in those calling him.

After this phase, the logic of subsidiarity prompts the consultant in question to take the reality that needs to be solved very seriously, because that is where the principle of the solution can be found. Therefore he has to devote a lot of time to the narrative aspect essential in any process of discernment (counselling should essentially be an aid to discernment). People must then be put in a position to be able to talk about their life, their problems, their doubts and their dreams. Thus, the consultant must know how to waste time, a lot of time, and even before that, he must train and develop his listening skills, perhaps the most difficult art to learn and to teach in this time so dominated by too much background noise. Listening to people's hearts must become so profound, as to transform both the speaker and the listener. This is why the young Solomon, who before becoming king asks God for only one gift, «a discerning heart» (1 Kings 3,9), is the "protector" or "patron saint" of every consultant.

However, being able to listen to dreams is essential. It requires a rare and essential skill: knowing how to first recognize them as dreams and then interpret them. In fact, as the Bible still teaches us (which is the great code of dreams) dreams need an interpreter who in turn is a dreamer himself: Joseph (Genesis 41) and Daniel (Daniel 2), the two great dreamers, succeed in interpreting the dreams of others because they too knew how to dream. Thus, the most typical errors in consulting, even if reaches far enough to actually listen to the dreams of others, can be divided into categories: (a) those committed by those who do not recognize the "literary genre" of dreams and analyse them with the usual tools of the facts of waking life; (b) those by those who recognize them as dreams but, not being dreamers themselves, misinterpret it. What does being a dreamer mean when being a consultant? He or she must know the language of desires, ideals, passions, of the non-rational and the non-economic, all of which, economic life is also full of. The consultant must know them either because he or she has occasionally experienced them in his or her own life, or because, failing that, he or she has spent a lot of time studying them – this is also one of the reasons why there are no global consultants for all businesses and all problems, because no one knows all dreams. Without this expertise and experience of dreams, the consultant will stop at the envelope of the problems to be solved; only seeing the exterior or their appearance and the box they find themselves in. Thus, a consultant becomes truly excellent at his or her job when he or she manages to bring out the dreams that we have yet to tell anyone.

Hence, we can clearly see that the incompetence regarding dreams, which is always a serious matter, becomes decisive when counselling begins to enter non-profit organizations with an ideal objective and spiritual communities. The long-awaited "miracles" often do not happen because the consultancy tends to stop at a floor too low to see the sky, which is the true place of the greatest dreams. In these realities (to which we will return), failing to understand the dreams of the charism means failing to understand the heart of all problems. After all these initial delicate phases, only at this point and without trying to speed things up, the consultant can offer his or her necessary assistance, but... not even a moment sooner. Counselling is important and necessary, if and when, it comes in the right sequence of actions. And then, at the end of the process, the consultant must know when to leave, leave the scene to avoid transforming the help into constraint and dependence - but we'll talk about this next Sunday.

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CounterEconomy/2 – The Gospel teaches us to multiply loaves and fish, not business schools.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 12/03/2023

"God is the God of silence, because only God's silence is the condition of risk and freedom."

Andrè Neher, The exile of the word

This principle Is behind and recalls the basic laws of many human relationships, including corporate relationships and the art of consultants, who should act only by the end of a long process of listening.

Some serious errors in the relationship between companies and their consultants have to do with subsidiarity, a word absent in business school manager training courses, and generally also distant from the theory and practice of the various forms of consultancy. Subsidiarity is the first word of every good community and society. It is essentially an indication of the order and priorities of action when more than one intervention is required to manage a problem and the actors are at different distances from the problem that needs to be solved. The recommendation of the principle of subsidiarity is actually simple: the first person who must act and be listened to is the one closest to the problem, and all the other actors must intervene only afterwards to help ("subsidizing") those who are closest to the situation to be managed. The best-known applications of the principle of subsidiarity are the political ones (vertically and horizontally), so well known in fact, that we end up forgetting that subsidiarity has a much wider scope.

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The ABC of Subsidiarity

The ABC of Subsidiarity

CounterEconomy/2 – The Gospel teaches us to multiply loaves and fish, not business schools. By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 12/03/2023 "God is the God of silence, because only God's silence is the condition of risk and freedom." Andrè Neher, The exile of the word This principle Is behind...
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CounterEconomics/1 – A new series of articles on business, its organization and some of its infections.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 05/03/2023

"Along the way, I have acquired the conviction that our education suffers from an enormous deficiency regarding a primary need of life: to deceive ourselves and fall into illusion as little as possible."

Edgar Morin, Teach how to live

The tendency to outsource the management of relationships and emotions has taken root. A model that is also being exported to other sectors of society.

We are in the midst of a great transformation of business culture, which began in the last part of the 20th century and is now experiencing a season of broad consensus and great development. However, as so often happens in all great social processes, it is precisely at the moment of its maximum success that the signs of decline begin to emerge in this new corporate humanism, the first cracks that threaten and prefigure the possible collapse of the entire edifice. Without really realizing it, in the space of about half a century big businesses have gone from being seen as the paradigm of exploitation and alienation to becoming icons of excellence, merit, well-being and even human flourishing, and as such imitated and imported into all social spheres, up to and including, recently, the non-profit world and even spiritual communities.

[fulltext] =>

Let us start with a word that seems rather distant from the business world: frailty. Previous generations were able to pass the ability to face the difficulties of existence onto us and, despite many contradictions, they did manage to create an inner capital made up of religion, wisdom and popular piety and then the values ​​of the great mass ideologies which were also collective narratives on the meaning of life, pain and death, in people. This was because the cultures of yesterday were humanisms of imperfection and hence they placed the limits, the effort, the incompleteness and sacrifice at the centre, while happiness was experienced as a short interval between two long periods of unhappiness. Life was hard, poor and brief, and the art of character formation essentially consisted in turning that hard life into a possible and sustainable one, perhaps a bit better for the children without deluding oneself that it would turn out to be too much so. In the world of our grandparents, no one would ever have thought of educating young people in the culture of success, encouraging them to become "winners", because everyone knew that it would have been the perfect way to lead a life a frustrated and angry life. The game of life ended well if you brought home a good draw, in an eternal game of football.

With the passing of the millennium, we have quickly moved from the humanism of imperfection to that of the pursuit of happiness and success. “Away with the vanquished and the unhappy!” has become our new motto. We gradually and quickly forgot the ancient craft of living and the fatigue of democracy; instead, we fell in love with easy meritocracy, easy because it is imaginary. The end of the great ideologies and (in the West) the weakening of religion has brought about great anthropological changes. The moral world has ended and its vacancy has not yet been filled by anything new or equally robust.

Moreover, when true reality, even today, continues to make us face limits, lack of success and failure, which in fact have not disappeared merely because we have decided not to see them anymore, young people and now adults as well, find themselves deprived of the ancient virtues. Ancient virtues by now placed among the odds and ends of the company and then moved to the dusty old wardrobe, together with granddad's old hat and the coffee bean grinder.

This lack of ethical equipment manifests itself in every sphere of social life - family, politics, school - but it is not yet perceived in all its gravity. It will be, soon, when this relational and emotional unsustainability will become evident. However, when this frailty arrived in the sphere of big business, reaching and exceeding a critical threshold, something new started. Because in our liquid world a company is still something solid that lives thanks to collective action. It therefore needs employees capable of cooperative virtues that allow them to carry out complex operations that take place in the midst of conflicts, difficulties, frustrations and failures, where all emotions come into play and require specific education and maintenance to make a good life together possible and sustainable. For decades, for centuries, companies had never concerned themselves with the formation of the workers' character or their cooperative virtues; instead, they limited themselves to their professional and technical training. People entered the factory gates already equipped with a relational capital, which allowed them to cooperate with others, an art they had learned and re-learned day in and day out in their family, in their village, in the harvests, in the grape harvest, in slaughtering the pig, in processions, in funerals, in weddings and patronal feasts.

In fact, businesses in the 20th century grew thanks to the spiritual and ethical capital of their people and the crisis of that moral universe immediately became a crisis of the productive universe. Enterprises, businesses, anticipate the future; they know how to see beyond – this is also what speculation is all about. Thus, when the moral climate changed, the first place that experienced the subsequent crisis were the companies, especially the large and global ones, and they immediately tried to respond.

Their first response was the evolution of the old concept of management, which transformed the factory from a community into an artificial and rational place, where human relationships were tamed, "reduced" and operationalized so that they could be easily managed by the new managers, now conceived as leaders and no longer executives, transformed into the new protagonists of large companies. Human relations were simplified, but still managed within the company in a co-management divided between entrepreneurs and managers.

This new culture of corporate relations worked for two to three decades, while companies lived on by consuming the revenue of what was still left of the ethical capital that their workers had accumulated in the communities outside the company, without reproducing it within their walls anymore. Until, at the beginning of the new millennium, the last generations who were children of twentieth-century ethics left the stage, by which this capital of civil virtues was (almost) exhausted.

At this point, companies had to innovate again, and they looked for a new solution: to recreate the human resources they needed themselves. It is the third turning point: management understands that the necessary new ethical capital can still be found outside the company and that the managers themselves are part of the same frailty as their employees, although they would hardly declare it openly. Hence, they seek outside, but not in the old, traditional places of life and community – family, the Church, political houses and groups - which in the meantime were slowly but surely being abandoned or had begun emigrating to social networks. They understand that the resources in question are still out there, but now they are being offered by the market, a for-profit market that was already gearing up to produce and sell new professional figures who are fast becoming the real new protagonists of companies.

In fact, a highly bio-diversified forest is growing up around managers, made up above all of consultants churned out by large consultancy firms, together with occupational psychologists, managers of occupational happiness and well-being, practical philosophers of meaning, mission and purpose. Together with priests, nuns and transcendental meditation experts for accompaniment and training in corporate spirituality, not to mention the new figures of coaches and counsellors who present themselves as the profession of the future. Half a century ago, businesses were helmed by entrepreneurs; then came the managers and finally the consultants. Thus, a company of fifty employees finds itself populated by at least ten, fifteen or twenty of these various figures of assistance. The new ruling class is being assisted and supported and increasingly replaced by ancillary figures who are becoming the new kings and queens.

A sort of outsourcing of emotions is taking place, a contract with external agencies for the management of the maintenance, care and nurturing of human relations within companies. Managers are no longer able to manage the emotions and relationships of their employees, who are less and less endowed with essential virtues, with the traditional tools of old (hierarchy, coordination, incentives, unions), so a series of new external suppliers manage them on their behalf. The management of emotions is becoming something akin to managing the company canteen or cleaning. Furthermore, the more fragile the employees are, the more the demand for these relational and emotional services grows, as does the GDP. Partly because the presence of relationship professionals also performs the function of externally certifying and validating this new form of quality. A certification of the quality of the relationships within the company is now added to the certification regarding its financial statements, which serves to greatly reassure insecure managers.

Why – some might ask – would this be a problem? Everything evolves; everything changes. Why is it possible to outsource the maintenance of systems and not the maintenance of emotions? Actually, there are several problems in fact, and some are quite serious.

One important problem concerns the growing extension of these phenomena outside the corporate world. If, in fact, external contracts for the management of many aspects of human relations concerned only the world of large businesses or capitalist finance, it would still be something important but in any case limited to a sphere of life with a set of necessary typical features - such as sport or the army. However, this outsourcing of relationship maintenance is starting to extend, reaching non-profit organizations, communities and churches, in part because consulting firms are perceived as the "doctors" of every form of human organization, the technicians required to solve new problems. However, what would relationships within a spiritual movement or a religious community turn into, if those in charge delegated the management of many aspects of human relationships (crisis, fatigue, criticism...) to professionals outside the company? What would become of those relationships whose quality is the heart and root of the future? So, what aspects can be delegated outside the organization and which ones should necessarily remain within it, managed by our imperfections and efforts?

While necessary in certain specific cases, external figures can easily become a perfect form of immunity, a screen that those in charge use to protect themselves from the contagion of relationships and from the "wounds from others". Furthermore, while the world of large global business is already feeling the insufficiency of these external contracts (as we will see), non-economic organizations are only discovering these tools now, late in the game, and tend to see them as a great novelty of salvation. The phenomena of dumping towards the "poor" can be found in these cases too: let us be careful that the world of social affairs and churches does not soon become a new refuge market for consultancy companies looking for new markets because the old ones are running out...

Hence, in the next few weeks, we will ask ourselves further questions: where is the line between coaching and substitution in the relationship between managers and consultants? Are the external models and theories subsidiary enough, in other words, do they arise from listening and from the life that already exists within a given company before trying to improve it? What if an imperfect but internal relationship turned out to be more generative and human than a less imperfect but external one? Are we sure that the most important virtues can be created and cared for by the market or are they, perhaps, still to this day in need of that essential ingredient called gratuity?

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CounterEconomics/1 – A new series of articles on business, its organization and some of its infections.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 05/03/2023

"Along the way, I have acquired the conviction that our education suffers from an enormous deficiency regarding a primary need of life: to deceive ourselves and fall into illusion as little as possible."

Edgar Morin, Teach how to live

The tendency to outsource the management of relationships and emotions has taken root. A model that is also being exported to other sectors of society.

We are in the midst of a great transformation of business culture, which began in the last part of the 20th century and is now experiencing a season of broad consensus and great development. However, as so often happens in all great social processes, it is precisely at the moment of its maximum success that the signs of decline begin to emerge in this new corporate humanism, the first cracks that threaten and prefigure the possible collapse of the entire edifice. Without really realizing it, in the space of about half a century big businesses have gone from being seen as the paradigm of exploitation and alienation to becoming icons of excellence, merit, well-being and even human flourishing, and as such imitated and imported into all social spheres, up to and including, recently, the non-profit world and even spiritual communities.

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The Age of Frailty. And of consultants

The Age of Frailty. And of consultants

CounterEconomics/1 – A new series of articles on business, its organization and some of its infections. By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 05/03/2023 "Along the way, I have acquired the conviction that our education suffers from an enormous deficiency regarding a primary need of life: to dece...