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Catholic Culture for True Humanism


"Faith in Jesus Christ who is "the way, the truth, and the life' (Jn 14,6), calls Christians to exert a greater effort in building a culture which, inspired by the Gospel, will reclaim the values and contents of the Catholic tradition" (Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life, n. 7).

We must ask how does the substantial and obviously non negotiable identity of believers (that doesn't allow for opinions and differences) relate to "the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions ... what best corresponds to the needs of the common good" (ibid., n. 3) (a freedom that leads fatally to a pluralism of behaviour and to divisions among brothers of the same faith in their public action)?

The question is concrete, unavoidable, and does not have an easy solution.

The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the passage quoted, seeks the correct determination of the problem by using among other things the idea of "culture".

In the modern world, "culture" is a very much used and almost mythical term, even if all do not always assign to the term the same conceptual content. In this way, normally, we need to define the term before we can use it.

For the purposes of our discussion, let us say right away that, whatever may be the meaning that from time to time we want to use (at least among those more commonly accepted and used), the existence and legitimate uderstanding of a "Catholic culture" is incontrovertible. It is in the duty of safeguarding the "Catholic culture" that we find the reply to the question we deal with.

It means that it is not enough to guarantee the obligatory identity of the Christian who is involved in politics that he maintain in conviction an acceptance of the Creed, respect the sacramental life, not oppose the obligatory character of the commandments of God. It is necessary to remain firmly and actively faithful to that "culture" which in the last analysis is in a homogeneous way derived, within the Church, from Christ and his Gospel, the "Catholic culture".

Besides the Note warns us "the presentation of the fruits of the spiritual, intellectual, and moral heritage of Catholicism in terms understandable to modern culture is task of great urgency today, in order to avoid also a kind of Catholic cultural diaspora" (n. 7).

First definition of culture

To give substance to these affirmations of principle and a useful articulation of the argument, we can briefly show how the principal understandings of "culture" in the idea of "Catholic culture" find response and plausibility.

The original meaning (still present today) comes from an image taken from the world of agriculture: "culture" is used to indicate the "cultivation of the human person" above all in his interior reality. Already Cicero spoke of the "development of the soul".

In turn, the disciples of Jesus never forgot that, aoccording to his teaching, the Father is the first and truest "cultivator of the human person" (cf. Jn 15,1) since every anthropology is genuine and enlightening to the extent that, at least objectively, even if not always intentionally, it refers to his plan in which the only Son made man, crucified and risen, is the "archetype" of all humanity. For this reason, the Second Vatican Council was able to assert in a universal way that "only in the mystery of the Word Incarnate is the mystery of the human person revealed" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

In this perspective we can understand why within Christianity we find the highest and most motivated humanism. Already classic antiquity could proclaim: "Many things are wonderful in the world, but the human person surpasses them all" (Sophocles, Antigone, chorus of the first stasm). Christianity accepts and assmilates Greek humanism, and transfiguring it, transcends it to give it meaning, even in the case of the first and immediate finality of visible things, as we gather from what St Ambrose wrote: "The human person is the peak and the compendium of the universe, and the highest beauty of the whole of creation" (Exameron, IX, 75).

A recognizable and characteristic anthropology is an eminent and characteristic part of "Catholic culture". It is an anthropology that certainly can at least partially be in agreement with another humanist vision provided that it be sound and founded on real values - wherever they are found - of truth, justice, beauty which feed and adorn the human soul: with which we can say one "is cultivated" (as the classic world intuited). But it can never be identified or even assmilated to a vision of the human person that effectively contradicts or is removed from the "archetype" of humanity which is "the man Jesus Christ" (cf. I Tm 2,5).

The real existence of the "archetype" allows and imposes the duty to defend the person from every manipulation and from every enslavement, enrolls every believer in the fight to combat every attack on the living image of the Saviour of the universe in whom we have been predestined.

Obviously the "Christian cultivation of the human person", if it is not to remain just an abstract affirmation of principle, should have the means to achieve its own goals and particularly in the formation of the young generations. The Catholic involved in politics should never forget it.

Second definition of culture

During the 20th century, another and different conception of "culture" became widespread and prevalent. In it "culture" comes to mean a collective system for evaluating ideas, actions, events and therefore an ensemble of "models" of behaviour. Every "culture" understood this way presumes a "scale of values" proposed and accepted within a certain human group. For this reason we can speak of a "positivist culture", an "idealist culture", a "Marxist" or a "radical culture".

That there is a "Christian culture" in this understanding that for the believer is necessary and non-negotiable, could only be denied by someone who wants to reduce Christianity to an extrinsic folklore or to a pure fact of conscience without impact on the external witness or on life.

In this field the disciple of Jesus will be able to rejoice at times over unsuspected agreements with unbelievers, in the defence of an ethical principle or in a practical choice. Further, he will listen with respect and with sincere interest to the opinions of all because he does not forget that, as St Thomas repeated often, "Every truth by whomever it is said is from the Holy Spirit" (I-II, q. 109, a. 1 ad 1).

More often we have to register - especially when we deal with substantial problems that touch on the nature and dignity of the human person - disagreements and incompatibility. It is very difficult that they will agree on the same scale of values, who on the one hand, affirm and, on the other, deny the divine plan of the origin of the universe. The same is true of those who affirm and those who deny eternal life beyond the doorway of death, of those who affirm and deny the existence of an invisible world beyond the varied colourful and transient scene of what appears. The believer dedicated to public life will have to confront with open eyes, serenity and firm conviction the inevitable tensions between the different "cultures" that in fact coexist in a pluralist society.

Undoubtedly, living in a culturally multiform humanity and having to behave in public affairs according to the obligatory dictates of the democratic method, the believer will often be led to a will for mediation and to a quest for practical positions that can be shared by all; absolutely shared by the majority, hopefully in a way that will allow an effective practice. Politics, we are used to saying, is the art of the compromise. The Note of the Congregation offers careful reflections so that such "compromises" may be held acceptable by an upright conscience.

In every case, one must pay attention not to extend - in the effort to arrive more easily and quickly at practical solutions - the attitude of mediation (that can be admissible in the "political moment") even to the "cultural moment", for the expense of an identity that cannot ever be endangered.

Third definition of culture

There is a third meaning of "culture" that from the language of the ethnological disciplines spread throughout the second half of the 19th century. "Culture" is all that is expressed by a particular race and recognized as specific to it: its mentality, institutions, forms of existence and work, customs, inventions and creative genius. In this sense one can speak of an "African culture" or a "rural culture", etc.

In this understanding does a "Catholic culture" exist? It exists because a Catholic people exist and should exist despite the view of those who think that there is no longer any Christian society nor that there should be any. Today's Christian society may be a social minority, different from what was the case a century ago, but this is not a reason why it should be less alive and less clearly identifiable. And it will not be defined as a reallity that is devoid of continuity in time, without premises and without roots; nor as something that is purely intellectual, without any relevant social manifestations. What is not operative in the social order and cannot ever be present there, little by little loses its relevance in the consciousness of simple and ordinary persons and in the end dies out.

Moreover, the act of faith - by its intrinsic dynamism cries out to invest and transform the whole human person in all his dimensions, not only personal but also familial and social.

In the two thousand years of our history, many distinctive contributions to the elevation of the human person and many of the more noble and valuable fruits of the spirit in all fields (philosophy, literature, figurative arts, music, law, etc.) bear very clearly the signs of the Christian vision.

Among the tasks of the Catholic who is involved in politics is that of protecting, making known and appreciated, at the service of a true humanism, our immeasurable "family treasure".

Card. Giacomo Biffi
Archbishop of Bologna