The Italian philosopher and priest Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797-1855), who supported the Risorgimento, was one of the few churchmen of his day who endeavored to lay a philosophical and theological foundation for Roman Catholic involvement in national politics.
Antonio Rosmini-Serbati was born at Rovereto on March 24, 1797. After the usual studies, he was ordained a priest in 1821. Up to his time and for some time after, the Church forbade Roman Catholics in Italy to take part in national politics. Rosmini's studies led him to consider in what way Catholics could actively engage in politics, social reform, and the study of science without having to renounce the principles of their faith. He perceived that the educational methods of the Roman Church and its presentation of doctrinal matters were not suited either to the minds or to the tempers of his contemporaries. He also saw great deficiencies in the training of the clergy.
In 1828 Rosmini-Serbati established his Institute of Charity (Rosminians) at Monte Calvario near Domodossola. He modeled it on the Jesuit order, whose devotion to the Church and multifaceted activities he admired; it was approved by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839. The institute was established in England by Father Luigi Gentili, and there it played a part in the revival of Catholicism.
At this time the two major forces with which the Roman Catholic Church contended were nationalism and philosophic idealism. Nationalism was to change the face of Europe within a hundred years. Philosophic idealism supplied Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with the bases of their theories and influenced the scientific thought of men such as Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. To Rosmini's credit, he understood the importance of both movements. But in trying to change the minds of his contemporaries, he was like a man with his shoulder against a mountain.
The election of Pope Pius IX in 1848 seemed providential to Rosmini. The new pope was known as the "pope of progress" because of his liberal views. When war broke out between Italy and Austria in 1848, Pius declared the papacy to be neutral because of its universal significance for all men. By this time Rosmini was known for his views. The Piedmontese government empowered him to negotiate a settlement with Pius. Rosmini wrote an account of this mission called Della missione a Roma … negli anni 1848-49 (1881). Pius soon changed from his earlier liberalism to a hard-core conservatism, and Rosmini fell into disfavor. He was attacked, his teachings were declared suspect, and he had to retire from all active participation in public life and teaching.
Rosmini's philosophy and teaching were based on an adaptation of current idealism. He placed at the center of his system what he called "ideal being." This was a hybrid sharing traits of the Neoplatonist ideal of Renaissance thinkers and the abstract Kantian idea of the unknowable Ding-an-Sich. Rosmini held that the "ideal being" was a reflection of God to be found in every man. He rescued the Kantian idea from its unknowability by declaring that not only was it most knowable but that it was the foundation of all else: the rights of the individual and man's concepts of truth and logic, and of his political and legal system. He expounded his theories in a series of books: Maxims of Christian Perfection (1830); New Essay on the Origin of Ideas (3 vols., 1838); Theodicy (1845); and Psychology (1850). His political thought was expressed in his Of the Five Wounds of the Holy Church and The Constitution according to Social Justice (both 1848).
When Rosmini fell into disfavor, Pius IX had all his works examined for possible error. But on examination by the Roman Congregation of the Index, they were declared free from error. Rosmini died on July 1, 1855.
Further Reading on Antonio Rosmini-Serbati
Biographical studies of Rosmini-Serbati include Giovanni Battista Pagani, The Life of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (Eng. trans. 1907), and Claude Richard Harbord Leetham, Rosmini: Priest, Philosopher and Patriot (1957).
Additional Biography Sources
Ingoldsby, Mary F., A short life of Antonio Rosmini, 1797-1855, Stresa, Italy: International Centre for Rosminian Studies, 1983.
Leetham, Claude, Rosmini: priest and philosopher, New York: New City Press, 1982.