An academic professor, a jurist, a politician, a theologian and a priest, Giuseppe Dossetti still remains one of the most controversial figures – “a problem, a phantom, a myth, an obsession” – in the Italian history of the XX century.
Born in Genoa in 1913, he immediately moved with his family to a small town near Reggio Emilia, where his father worked as a pharmacist. Here, he was raised and educated towards a rigorous Catholicism, encouraged both by his mother and the local priests.
After graduating from school, he went on to study law at the University of Bologna, where he distinguished himself. His final thesis focused on canon law, and was entitled: ‘Violence in the canonical marriage’.
In 1921, he further pursued his studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, as a postgraduate student of Roman law. After spending some time as Assistant Professor and establishing himself as one of the most important Italian canonists, he was finally appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical Law at the University of Modena in 1942.
In the following years, from 1943 onwards, he entered the Italian Resistance during the fight against Fascism. He was subsequently drawn into politics: after the Italian Liberation of 25 April 1945, Alcide De Gasperi, the man who had founded Christian Democracy, chose him as Deputy-Secretary.
In 1946 he greatly contributed to the drafting – and therefore the extension – of the Italian Constitution. Two years after that, he was elected into Parliament and continued – albeit almost reluctantly – with his political career until 1952, when, after an internal scission in his own party, he decided to withdraw from politics altogether.
Having chosen to devote his time to studying, he founded a research institute in Bologna: the ‘Centro documentazione’ (‘Documentation centre’ – now known as ‘Foundation for the Religious Sciences’).
Upon the request of Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, Dossetti ran for mayor in 1956. In 1958, however, he resigned from the mayoral office (where he worked as a counselor) and was ordained Priest on 6 January 1959.
Don Dossetti retired into voluntary isolation until 1962, when Cardinal Lecaro invited him to serve with him at the II Vatican Council, where he was in charge of the regulatory framework. In 1968, Lecaro was removed from his position by Pope Paul VI for having too harshly criticized the Vietnam bombings in the name of God. It was a scandal, and Dossetti abandoned public life to go live in Jordan and Israel.
Years later, he would return to Bologna to retire in Monteveglio, in the monastery he had founded on top of Monte Sole…
There are some people, some men, some women, who seem to carry a great strength inside them, which lifts their spirits all the time, making them stand high above the everyday struggle. These men, these women, look ahead, over the crowd, and clearly see what their goal in this life is. To put it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s words, they have a “vision”; and not until that vision has become reality, do they stop fighting.
Giuseppe Dossetti’s vision saw the Constitution as the fundamental element to implement and preserve a country’s quality of life; it saw Catholicism and the Church as a way for people to communicate profoundly. He worked hard at one as much as at the other: at changing and protecting both the Constitution and the religion he believed in. He taught and practiced both political and ecclesiastical faith, even outside his own country.
Someone once told Dossetti: “You are tired of trying to make a revolution within the State, and you want to try to make a revolution within the Church.”
He definitely tried both, and left his mark: as a citizen, as a politician, as a clergyman.
Journalist Enzo Biagi described him as an indefatigable activist who had transformed into a wholly spiritual human being, who knew that prayer and meditation were better suited to his nature. He had almost lifted himself from the material and mundane, and while his “competitors” (never “opponents”) confronted him with realistic questions, his replies were more and more moralistic and spiritualistic, leaving his audience astonished and confused – and somewhat unanswered.
At the end of his life, between 1994 and 1996, he would rise again to defend the Constitution against the project of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right political party, proving how tireless a man may be when supported by a strong ideology.
In an endless “effort” to still contextualize him and his works, Dossetti’s life continues to be studied and inspire a sense of respect and mystery at the same time. He was perhaps one of those human beings who think – and feel – much ahead of their time, and cannot therefore be truly understood by the generations they immediately affected.
For those who knew him and those who didn’t but learnt about his life, he surely was an example of determination, intelligence and wisdom.
In thinking or wondering about our purpose in this life, we sometimes come across human beings who seem to shine of an almost divine light. When we look at them, observe them, we almost feel reassured, because there is a simple truth in their way of living that strips us of all the confusion and pretence of public life, clearing up the way ahead, leading us to find the inner meaning we carry inside but often end up ignoring. Giuseppe Dossetti was such a man; and I do not doubt even for one second that, whenever he must have thought about having possibly set an example, it is exactly this humble, private conduct in searching for a profound conversation between the self – within – and the divine forces of existence – without – that he would have loved to inspire in others.
Written by Edoardo Cippitelli
Edoardo Cippitelli is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: Italian magazine Epoca, Vol. XXXVII n. 473, 25 October 1959