Cultures et foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y fe - 3/1995 - Documenta
The Holy See
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In the course of a visit to Ukraine between 12th and 18th June 1995, Cardinal Poupard met with leaders in the fields of faith and culture, including the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences and the Mohilana Academy. On 16th June he delivered the following lecture in Kiev.




I am aware of the great honour of being with you today, and I thank God that this visit has been possible - at long last! My very presence here in the Ukraine is a humble symbol of a new moment in history: it would have been almost impossible when I was first appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982. Therefore I want to express my great gratitude for the kind invitation of His Excellency, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Franco, and I thank all the others who have prepared this occasion and made it possible.

I come also with profound respect for the sufferings of Christian believers during the recent decades of oppression and persecution of the faith. I come with awe to this country of thousands of martyrs under Stalinist communism. I come most of all with hope to be able to contribute, in some small way, to the pastoral unity of the various Christian traditions, as you all face a new cultural situation for evangelization. As the Holy Father wrote only last month, in his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen, and speaking of Eastern Christian traditions in particular, "we must realize that the proclamation of the Gospel should be deeply rooted in what is distinctive to each culture and open to convergence in a universality which involves an exchange for the sake of mutual enrichment" (Orientale Lumen, § 7, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 3 May 1995).

In the light of that vision of ancient roots, of new openness and of enriching dialogue, I want to ponder with you the theme of religion and culture in this contemporary situation. And I propose to divide my reflections into three sections: remembering some of the great modern philosophers of religion and culture; identifying the new consciousness concerning culture that was born with the Second Vatican Council; and pausing on some of the challenges in the field of faith and culture as we move together towards the Third Millennium.


Our Christian history of interaction between faith and culture did not begin in this century. It began as early as the Acts of the Apostles, with such classic moments as the decision to reach out to the Gentiles or St Paul's option to speak positively of Greek religious sense on the Areopagus. It is important to evoke the adventure of Church history as a long story of finding different languages to express the saving truth revealed to us in Christ and thus of embodying tradition for different peoples and cultures and situations. This is all the more urgent because "today we often feel ourselves prisoners of the present. It is as though man had lost his perception of belonging to a history which precedes and follows him" (Orientale Lumen, § 8).

An Older Generation of Cultural Reflection

In this sense I want to spend some time initially on some twentieth-century precursors of our contemporary understanding of faith and culture. In the decades before the Second Vatican Council there was considerable reflection on this area among Catholic intellectuals. In order to recall the richness of those decades, I single out three principal thinkers who represent different countries of Western Europe: Christopher Dawson from the United Kingdom, Jacques Maritain of France, and Romano Guardini who unites in himself Italy and Germany.

All these thinkers were powerfully aware both of the long history of Christian culture and of how religion and culture had belonged together in the great civilizations of the world. "In all ages the first creative works of a culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end" (Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture, Sheed & Ward, London, 1948, p. 50). Therefore a culture that lacks a spiritual or religious dimension does not deserve to be called a "culture" at all: if, in Dawson's words, it does not seek to integrate "every side of human life in a living spiritual community", it may even "become the enemy of human life" and the destruction of true humanity (ibid., p. 215).

We have seen two main forms of this destructiveness in the history of this century. Only a month ago we remembered the defeat of Nazi anti-humanism. But for you that defeat was succeeded by another tragedy and another attempted destruction of faith and culture - through the atheist anti-humanism of Leninism-Marxism. For all their lip-service to the idea of "culture", their attempt to kill the religious dimension of life was part of a totally distorted understanding of humanity, and this false "anthropology" lay at the root of their failure in every other field including culture (cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Centesimus annus, 1991, § 13).

A Judgement on the Tragedy of Marxism

In this respect Maritain had also judged the so-called humanism of Marxism to be a "tragedy of culture" because it wanted to "bring to birth an entirely new humanity from a radical atheism": but this was a terrible "nightmare" from which history would sooner or later awaken (Jacques Maritain, Humanisme Intégral, Aubier, Paris, 1936, pp. 38-39, 69). The very fact that I am here today, and the fact that you yourselves are seeking to re-create an "integral humanism", are proof that, thank God, the terrible nightmare is indeed over, and we are again awake to the need for a genuine encounter between religion and culture, in order to meet the calls of God in this delicate moment of history.

A sense of historical memory was a central source of wisdom for these writers. Thus Dawson looks back at the first millennium and its confrontation between Christian culture and various barbarian tribes, and he stresses that this interaction was not one of easy "assimilation and permeation, but rather one of contradiction". He adds, however, that the key influence for converting those barbarians was not so much "a new doctrine" as "a new power" visible in the lives of saintly monks (Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Sheed and Ward: London, 1950, p. 33). In those remarks we can find an inspiration also for today's challenges: the memory of the past invites us to face the element of conflict with our culture but to meet it, not with anger or violence, or with doctrine alone, but rather with the costly response of Christian witness and even of sanctity. That is one crucial lesson from the first millennium.

The Natural Unity of Religion and Culture

The second millennium evolved its different and rich interaction between faith and culture. In this whole period "nowhere is the dynamism of Western religion more strikingly manifested than in the indirect and unconscious influence it has exercised on the social and intellectual movements which were avowedly secular" (Dawson, ibid., p. 16). Even the rise of science in the seventeenth century would not have been possible without the Christian sense of responsibility for creation and of the intelligibility of the world as a gift of God. A sense of spiritual community and continuity survived even the painful divisions between Christians and the challenges of the Renaissance. Even today, after the ravages of the revolutionary period and the evils of ideologies, such ancient cultural roots in faith, even if threatened in many ways, remain our deepest memory and potential unity.

Challenges and Hopes in the Modern Context

Those experts of an earlier generation were also conscious of new problems within the emerging situation of modernity and modernization, and in particular how traditional values of culture were under threat from an urbanized society and its new instruments of communication and control. Thus, Romano Guardini, in his famous series of Letters from Lake Como, written between 1923 and 1925, voiced worry at the death of an older organic culture due to the rise of the technological and "mass culture of our day". In his darker moments he sensed that "the battle for living culture has been lost", but then with more hope he began to realize that "our age is not just an external path that we tread; it is ourselves" (op. cit., Ressourcement edition, William Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, USA, 1994, pp. 63, 80, 81).

Guardini's conversion from a pessimistic reading of reality to a more hopeful one remains relevant for our response to the seemingly outer situations that surround us. They are in our hands. This culture is always a creation of human freedom and can be transformed with human imagination, creativity and most of all through a new formation of people. What we need is a new education of adults "for authenticity, simplicity, soberness, brotherliness", so that they can once again be in relationship with their true feelings and deepest hungers (ibid., pp. 91-92). In this way, Guardini concludes, what can seem like a situation of disaster can become one of new promise. Let me end this section with the last words of those letters, which express the real ground of hope: "I do not know what else to say except that from my heart's core I believe that God is at work. History is going forward in the depths, and we must be ready to play our part, trusting in what God is doing and in the forces that he has made to stir within us" (ibid., p. 96).


The older approaches to the theme of religion and culture were rooted in certain assumptions that have evolved within Church thinking of more recent decades. The key insights of those great authors remain valid, and yet our contemporary horizon concerning culture is no longer exactly the same as theirs. For instance, they tended to think of culture as unified, largely unchanging and normative: in other words, they interpreted the word "culture" in a high or classical sense to emphasize the unifying ideals of education, of society, and of a whole tradition of thought, spirituality, and artistic creativity.

The Vatican Council's New Understanding of Culture

It is one of the significant moments in the statement on culture in the Second Vatican Council when it recognizes explicitly that there is more than one approach to understanding culture today: as well as meaning "all those factors by which man refines and unfolds his manifold spiritual and bodily qualities", expressing and communicating the wisdom of human history, the Council also recognized a contemporary significance for culture, more "sociological and ethnological", and also allowing for a "plurality of cultures" (Gaudium et Spes, § 53).

A whole chapter is devoted to the theme of culture in Gaudium et Spes, a section that retains all its relevance even thirty years later. In terms of Church history it marks an important opening to a more flexible understanding of culture, and one that has been the basis for much reflection in the Church during these decades. The Council's "modern anthropological" approach to culture represented something "quite different from the classical elitist understanding of culture" (Paul Poupard, The Church and Culture: challenge and confrontation, St Louis: Central Bureau CCVA, USA, 1994, p. 5). This newer approach is more descriptive, more historical and more appreciative of diversity of cultural expressions.

Thus the Church has come to see culture as uniting at least two major dimensions: certainly, it includes the more conscious level of artistic and intellectual growth, but it also includes the more ordinary level of lived culture, those "new forms of living" including "mass culture, from which arise new ways of thinking, acting" and of social communication (GS, § 54). From this more contemporary point of view, "culture is a specific horizon which a person acquires through identifying consciously or not with a precise human community", and which offers its "representation of the past and its vision of the future". (Paul Poupard, "Culture et inculturation: essai de définition", Seminarium, Rome, XXXII, 1992, 19).

The Challenge of Complexity

I am speaking of a new consciousness concerning culture that has come to the fore within the Church in these post-conciliar years. We have become aware of the complexity of influences that surround us all in this modern world. There are hundreds of definitions of culture available and it is not my business to add to them. Instead I mention a spontaneous remark of the Holy Father, speaking without a text at the University of Riga during his 1993 visit to Latvia, when he described culture "as everything that moulds the human person and the community in which he lives" (L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 15 September 1993, p. 15). You will find more elaborate treatments of culture but that one phrase gives us an excellent entry into a contemporary consciousness of culture.

On the one hand "different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence" (Centesimus annus, § 24). On the other hand culture today is often a question of context, of a network of influences surrounding us, as the Holy Father suggested. It its more traditional sense culture was a matter of human achievement and creative expression. That remains a zone of continuing and crucial interest for the Church: "Thanks to culture a person lives a really human life. Human life is culture . . . Culture is that through which people, as human, become more human" (John Paul II at Unesco, Paris, 2 June 1980).

Apart from that sense of culture as creative growth, we have become conscious of another more receptive dimension of culture, especially in the world of images and life-styles that is so omnipresent today. Therefore this second aspect has become a focus of pastoral concern, because this more passively received culture, even in its trivial forms, has a major impact on how people face or do not face questions of meaning and value and ultimately of God.

Inculturation and Evangelization: Biblical Foundations

In other words we are increasingly conscious of the complexity and challenge of contemporary cultures and of the many ways in which faith can be influenced, negatively or positively, by these cultures. Perhaps like St Paul in Athens our first reaction tends to be negative (Acts 17: 16). But we are invited, like him, to discern what can be "seeds of the Gospel" in every cultural situation. It is in this spirit that the Holy Father has spoken in every continent of the need to inculturate the Gospel and to evangelize the many cultures of today.

These two tasks go hand in hand, as they did even in St Paul's ministry on the Areopagus. Inculturation highlights a challenge to faith, a need to be sensitive in reaching out to people in their deepest languages. Thus St Paul praised the religious sense he saw around him and quoted the wisdom and poetry of the Greeks (Acts 17: 23, 28). Evangelization of cultures involves, however, a challenge to those cultures, a call to conversion, a need to purify what may be dehumanizing and to transcend what may be blocking the fuller vision of God. Hence St Paul goes beyond the horizon of Greek wisdom by revealing a new knowledge of God through One who was raised from the dead (Acts 17: 31).

There are other rich Biblical foundations for what today we call "inculturation of the Gospel" and "evangelization of culture". They could be summarized in the light of some of the great realities of the faith: Creation, Incarnation, Paschal mystery, Pentecost.

All culture, in its best sense, is an exercise of human freedom and human creativity, and to use this gift is to echo the Creator and the responsibility given to us by God for the earth and for history.

All genuine interaction of faith and culture is inspired by the Incarnation which was itself cultural. Therefore the believer is called on to embrace and enter into diverse human realities in imitation of the Lord Himself. This is at the heart of the missionary adventure of Church history.

But this dialogue of faith and culture should not be too innocent. Just as Jesus suffered at the hands of a distorted culture, including a religious culture that lacked real openness to God, so too the encounter between Church and culture today must involve transformation of the culture by the gospel. This is parallel to the transformation of the Resurrection, emerging from darkness into light.

The explosion of grace that is Pentecost continues when "the incultured Church is called to evangelize herself and to become the active messenger of the salvific design of God" (Paul Poupard, The Church and Culture: challenge and confrontation, St Louis: Central Bureau CCVA, USA, 1994, p. 22).


Rooted in our memory of Christian history and its long appreciation of culture, but awakened in recent decades to a new consciousness of the complexity of culture in today's world, we come naturally to face the challenges of a pastoral encounter between faith and culture today: in other words, we are called towards a project, a vision of how to dialogue with and respond to the culture or cultures that surround us all. In this direction what in practice has the Church done and encouraged? And what challenges remain for each local Church, including of course your own particular situation here?

The Role of the Pontifical Council for Culture

The very existence of the Pontifical Council for Culture, of which I am President, is evidence of the Holy Father's desire to create such a response, and to stimulate local churches to do the same.

The Council originated, by a personal initiative of the Pope, in 1982. But for a brief introduction to its field of work, I refer to the opening words of the 1993 document of refoundation, when the Pope spoke personally about this whole area: "Since the beginning of my Pontificate . . . I have wanted to develop the Church's dialogue with the contemporary world. . . the privileged area of culture [is] a fundamental dimension of the spirit, which places people in a relationship with one another and unites them in what is most truly theirs, namely, their common humanity". The very existence of such a Pontifical Council is intended to serve the Pope's repeated conviction that "the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but also of faith" (The Motu Proprio, Inde a Pontificatus, 25 March 1993, Atheism and Faith, Vatican City, XXVII - 2, 1993, p. 84).

From the outset the Pontifical Council has tried to serve this vast horizon, aware that if faith does not become culture, it "has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not faithfully lived out" (John Paul II, Letter to the Cardinal Secretary of State, 20 May 1982. To foster this deep encounter the Pontifical Council has entered into collaboration with international organizations and cultural institutions throughout the world. It has organized many international conferences on questions of evangelizing cultures and inculturation the gospel, on issues of freedom and identity, and on the values operative in contemporary society. In 1994 it held its Plenary Assembly on "Speaking of God to People Today" and at present it is actively researching, with the help of many institutes around the world, for its Plenary Assembly of 1997 on the theme "Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture" (Cultures and Faith, Vatican City, II, 3, 1994, p. 179). It has worked, in cooperation with other Vatican dicasteries, on a document on the presence of the Church in university culture (The Presence of the Church in the University and in University Culture, Vatican City, 1994), and also an anthology of Church statements concerning new religious movements, another surprising phenomenon of our culture. It is actively involved with Catholic Cultural Centres in many countries, seeking to be a channel of contact and communication between them (See Cultures and Faith, Vatican City, I, 2, 1993).

Catholic Cultural Centres

I want to pause for a moment on the importance of such Centres. Through a research project carried out at the Pontifical Council for Culture, we have become aware that there are hundreds of Catholic Cultural Centres in the world, with a vast diversity of focus among them. As you will understand immediately, such centres, whether small or elaborate, are becoming vital vehicles for the inculturation of cultural reflection for specific situations. In the Pontifical Council for Culture in Rome we deal with matters at a relatively general level, inevitably so. But the real action is at local level and it is here that the pastoral fruit will show itself. Hence I cannot emphasize enough the importance of concrete reflection on culture as a way of preparing and serving the new evangelization of people today.

Relevance for the Post-Communist Situation

As a visitor I do not dare comment on your particular context nor on the complexity of the situation that the Church experiences here in the Ukraine. I am here to learn and I am delighted to listen to your experience and hopes. But from my knowledge of other areas of the whole post-communist world I am convinced of the special relevance of culture for Christian faith in these years of change. You lived with a boring but cruel ideology for decades. Now you are in a situation of delicate and difficult adaptation. Indeed I notice that the Belgian periodical, Revue des Pays de l'Est changed its title in 1993 to Transitions. In such a period of transition, ideology is replaced by images, especially by the Westernized images of superficial and consumerist happiness. "In so far as the new external freedoms can go hand in hand with a spiritual void, the gift of freedom can shrink into mere drifting, individualist and egoist. The danger is that a crude ideology of Marxism may be replaced with a more attractive but equally dehumanizing ideology of Liberalism" (Paul Poupard, What will give us Happiness?, Veritas, Dublin, Ireland, 1992, p. 61)

This is perhaps your new cultural danger and cultural battle-field, and not simply yours. In every part of the world, whether poor or rich, we are acutely aware of the image revolution brought about by television, and indeed of the cultural worries that arise concerning the manipulation of human imagination in trivial ways. Without entering into the details of this particular debate, I want to take it as a classic challenge as to how believers can wisely discern the dominant culture around them. If there is one simple lesson that we learn from church history it is that difficulty does not mean disaster and that a seeming crisis can also purify faith.

Discerning a culture of images

Faced with the image culture of today, there are at least three alternative reactions by believers. One temptation is to scapegoat it, or to see nothing of good. Indeed such a wholesale rejection of culture can go hand in hand with a certain nostalgia for old ways of church or for a religious control over society. But genuine "tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges" (Orientale lumen, § 8).

An opposite temptation is an "indiscriminate pluralism", which embraces everything, or else resigns itself by saying that all resistance is futile. Between these extremes of rejection and innocence lies the key challenge for faith before the image world of today: to "enter into critical dialogue with contemporary cultures, accepting what is sound, opposing what is faulty and attempting to supply what is lacking" (Avery Dulles, "Narrowing the Gap: Gospel and Culture", Origins, 17 March 1994, p. 679).

This means discernment in order to serve that evangelization of cultures which is a constant call of the Church today. Where will this new meeting of the gospel and contemporary culture find its roots? Where will people learn to distinguish what is sound what is deceptive in this culture of images? In a recent book the Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth reminds us of a traditional answer: "Neither collectivism nor individualism seems to have worked" but there is a forgotten and essential root called "community" which is "as potent a factor in the life of society as either the individual or the State". And of all forms of community, the family is most important for growth in faith and as a defence against false images of life (Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1995, p. 56). The family is indeed the natural place for lived discernment and for deepening roots. It is the seedbed of genuine culture and the protection against trivializing forms of anti-culture. And Rabbi Sacks connects this everyday battle of family values with the vast drama of our responsibility to build a culture worthy of ourselves as children of God: "In the beginning God created the world as a home for humanity. Since then He has challenged humanity to create a world that will be a home for Him. God lives wherever we treat one another as beings in His image" (ibid., p. 11).


That is a good vision with which to enter on the year of special celebration that is announced here in the Ukraine. Concerning these great jubilees Pope John Paul II has recently expressed his desire that intellectual reflection on history should now serve both towards Christian unity and towards apostolic energy in facing modern challenges (Letter to Cardinal Lubachivsky, § 6, Letter to Bishop Semedi, § 4, L'Osservatore Romano, 5 May 1995, p. 6). In this period of gratitude and prayer, I also hope that the theme of culture will have a prominent place. Because as the Holy Father has often said, the dialogue of faith and culture is a "vital area in which the world's destiny is at stake at the approach of the third millennium" (The Motu Proprio, Inde a Pontificatus, 25 March 1993, Atheism and Faith, Vatican City, XXVII - 2, 1993, p. 84).

The challenge which I offer to you today is to build new local bridges between faith and culture in fidelity to the past, but even more to serve the future. I am thinking of culture in its many dimensions. There is culture in the deep sense of spiritual creativity and intellectual life. There is also culture in the newer sense of the complex convergence of influences on people now. Our pastoral service of faith calls us to discern and reflect on culture in all its aspects.

Yours has been a rich Christian history, and a deep and unified culture. I recall the strong words of Dmitrij Stepovik when he spoke in 1991 at a Symposium which the Pontifical Council for Culture organized on "Christianity and Culture in Europe": the fact that Ukraine had preserved a unity of culture through the difficult centuries was a "miracle" rooted in Christian faith (Dmitrij Stepovik, in "Christianstvo i kul'tura Ukrainy: itogi i perspektivy", in "Christianstvo i kul'tura v Evrope", I, Vybor, Moskva, 1992, p. 62).

Through the intercession of Saint Vladimir, may that miracle bear fruit again in the contemporary situation! That is my prayer. May you be faithful to your memories, by seeing how they can best be translated into the emerging cultures of today and tomorrow. In this way, may God show to us all the marvellous "opportunities for announcing the message and proclaiming the mystery of Christ" (Col. 4:3).


La conférence donnée par le Cardinal Paul Poupard à Kiev sur «Religion et Culture dans le Monde contemporain» se divise en trois parties. La première, consacrée à la «mémoire», considère la façon dont les penseurs catholiques, tels Maritain, Guardini et Dawson ont perçu les relations entre foi et culture comme une unité naturelle qui traverse l'histoire. La seconde partie, «conscience», examine la pertinence du concept plus anthropologique de culture, tel qu'il a émergé du Second Concile du Vatican et esquisse le fondement biblique de l'inculturation. La troisième partie, intitulée «projet», propose une réflexion sur les défis pastoraux rencontrés par l'Église dans sa réponse à la culture contemporaine. Ici sont expliqués le but du Conseil Pontifical de la Culture, l'importance des Centres Culturels Catholiques à travers le monde, et - tenant compte des mutations survenues dans le monde post-communiste - le nécessaire discernement de la nouvelle culture de l'image.


La conferencia pronunciada por el Cardenal Paul Poupard en Kiev, sobre «Religión y cultura en el mundo contemporáneo» , se divide en tres partes. La primera, dedicada a la «memoria», considera el modo en que algunos pensadores católicos —como Maritain, Guardini y Dawson— han entendido la relación entre fe y cultura; a saber: como una unidad natural que recorre la historia. La segunda parte, de la «conciencia», examina cómo es necesario adoptar un concepto más antropológico de cultura, como el que emplea el Concilio Vaticano II; y bosqueja el fundamento bíblico de la inculturación. La tercera parte, titulada «proyecto», propone una reflexión sobre los desafíos pastorales con que se encuentra la Iglesia en su respuesta a la cultura contemporánea. Se trata en particular de la finalidad del Consejo Pontificio de la Cultura, de la importancia de los centros culturales católicos a lo largo del mundo, de las transformaciones que ha sufrido el mundo postcomunista, y del discernimiento que exige la nueva cultura de la imagen,




El pasado 24 de julio de 1995, el Santo Padre ha nombrado Consultor, «ad quinquennium», al Rvdo. Mons. Lluis Clavell Ortiz-Repiso, Rector Magnífico del Ateneo Romano de la Santa Cruz.