In his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II makes the claim that “since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be ‘healed, ennobled and perfected.’”
The Intellectual Backstory
Like many statements in ecclesial documents, one needs to know the intellectual history behind the statement above—the “backstory” as it were.
Here part of the backstory is the Romantic-era approach to the subject of culture, including the idea that every national group has its own culture and that each and every national culture is equally of value. In other words, it is a typical Romantic argument that no one culture is superior to another, all are of equal value.
Many people unreflectively adopt something like the Romantic approach because they have a memory of one particular culture (or anti-culture) trying to assert its superiority using tanks and aircraft bombers and gas chambers.
A Catholic theology of culture is, however, radically different from the Nazi ideology of culture. The Catholic vision has absolutely nothing to do with conceptions of racial superiority. Genetics has nothing to do with it. The Catholic conception is all about grace and how some human practices are more or less open to grace than others and thus some cultures are superior or more noble than others because they are more open to grace than others.
Since Catholics believe that all human beings are made in the image of God, whether they are born in one of the culturally sophisticated suburbs of Paris or in a village somewhere that has yet to obtain Wi-Fi, they all begin their lives with the same status before the throne of the Holy Trinity. In this sense the Catholic faith is both universal and egalitarian. Baptism does not recognize class distinctions. Once a person has been baptized they are a member of the Royal Priesthood. As the Orcadian Catholic writer George Mackay Brown poetically explained in his short story “The Treading of Grapes,” in heaven Christ will address his friends with the royal titles Prince and Princess. However, what Catholics do with the gift of their baptismal graces will have an impact upon their own nobility or lack of it, and upon their social practices and their culture. Those who are the most saintly are the most ennobled. As Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote:
Those who withdraw to the heights to fast and pray in silence are the pillars bearing the spiritual weight of what happens in history. Theirs is a freedom and nobility which cannot be caged and put to use. Theirs is the first of all aristocracies, source and justification of all the others, and the last yet remaining to us in an unaristocratic age.
The Three Different Senses of Culture
In the German language there are three different words for what is often covered by the single word “culture” in the English language. There is Kultur, which is similar to the English word civilization; Bildung, which is similar to the English concept of self-development or education; and Geist, which is similar to the Greek word Ethos, often used in English to describe the spiritual or ethical character of an institution.
When Redemptoris Missio speaks of the need to heal and ennoble certain cultures, it is referring to all three senses of the concept represented by the different German words, but especially the first two of these senses: culture as civilization and culture as self-development.
Civilizations are built on principles that value different goods. Some civilizations value technological development, others trade, others literature and music, others cultic practices and any number of other permutations and combinations. Civilizations are also built around social traditions, which are a special kind of practice. For example, in many pre-Christian cultures there are traditions to mark the arrival of puberty and the change of the seasons. In every civilization there have been traditions about mating and family life.
The Sycamore Tree
When Christian missionaries encounter new cultures understood as civilizations, they have to make decisions about what practices and traditions are consistent with Christian revelation and what practices and traditions need to die before a Christian culture can be born. Often the areas that most need healing are those relating to the worship of pagan deities and those pertaining to sexual intimacy. In Africa, for example, polygamy is sometimes an issue; in Latin America and parts of Polynesia the worship of pagan idols remains an issue. These social practices cannot be grafted onto Christianity.
There are, however, other practices that can be ennobled. Their core meaning can be kept intact and raised to something higher without loss of the original meaning. One concrete example of this is the Polynesian practice of greeting the Gospel by playing music on seashells. Melodies are played that were previously used to herald the arrival of a king or similar dignitary.
There have been two moments in the Church’s history when the question of how to heal and ennoble a culture have been immediately relevant. First, in the early centuries of Church history when Europe was a network of pagan settlements, and more recently, with the opening of the Far East, Latin America, and the island nations of Oceania to European missionaries.
Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was, referred to St. Basil the Great’s metaphor of a sycamore tree to describe pagan culture. In relation to such cultures he argued that “the Gospel is a slit, a purification that becomes maturation and healing” and as such cuts in the bark of the tree must occur in the right place, at the right time, and in the right way. Moreover, he emphasized that the necessary transformation cannot come from the tree itself or its fruit, but must come from the intervention of an outside dresser—from the Church mediating the revelation of Christ.
The International Theological Commission, in its 1988 document Faith and Inculturation, expressed the idea in the following paragraph:
In the “last times” inaugurated at Pentecost, the risen Christ, alpha and omega, enters into the history of peoples: From that moment, the sense of history and thus of culture is unsealed and the Holy Spirit reveals it by actualizing and communicating it to all. The Church is the sacrament of this revelation and its communication. It re-centers every culture into which Christ is received, placing it in the axis of the “world which is coming” and restores the union broken by the “prince of this world.” Culture is thus eschatologically situated; it tends towards its completion in Christ but it cannot be saved except by associating itself with the repudiation of evil.
In different cultures the need to repudiate evil will take different forms.
St. John Paul II argued that Western culture is currently at a crossroads between what he called a civilization of love and a culture of death. A culture or civilization that condones such practices as abortion and euthanasia and threatens to interfere in the private lives of couples, imposing criminal penalties for the conception of more than a certain number of children, is a culture of death. It is a culture closed to the good of life and to love as the generating force of life. It’s not a noble culture or a high culture but a degenerate and oppressive culture.
The Culture of the Incarnation
A more theological name for a civilization of love is that of a culture of the Incarnation, that is, a culture built on the principle that Jesus Christ is the center and purpose of human history. Related to this principle is the idea that all of creation has been marked by the form of the Trinity. Relating these ideas to that of a theology of culture, Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. wrote:
First, a culture should be conscious of transcendence as its true origin and goal, and this we call culture’s tacit “paterological” dimension, its implicit reference to [God] the Father. Second, the forms which a culture employs should manifest integrity—wholeness and interconnectedness; clarity—transparency to meaning; and harmony—a due proportion in the ways that its constituent elements relate to the culture as a whole. And since these qualities—integrity, clarity, and harmony—are appropriated in classical theology to the divine Son, the “Art” of God and Splendor of the Father, we can call such qualities of the beautiful form the specifically Christological aspects of culture . . . And thirdly, then, in the Trinitarian taxis, the spiritually vital and health-giving character of the moral ethos of our culture yields up culture’s pneumatological dimension, its relation to the Holy Spirit.
The work of ennobling a culture is thus a two-stage process. First, one must eliminate certain idolatrous practices associated with paganism. Secondly, one can begin to foster practices that have transcendence as their origin and goal as well as practices that manifest integrity, clarity, and harmony and practices that are spiritually vital and health-giving.
In a book on the methods of evangelization to be found in Patristic thought, Christian Gnilka wrote that the “Christian religion is not a mere thought structure, it not only regulates cultic intercourse between God and man, it encompasses all of life.”
There is therefore really no practice that cannot be ennobled in Christian life if it is consistent with the true, the beautiful, and the good. For this reason, there are many elements of Christian cultures across the world that could be said to be ennobling in the sense of affirming a person’s status as a member of the Royal Priesthood and leading its members into a deeper participation in things that are true, beautiful, and good.
Truth, Beauty, and Goodness
Truth, beauty, and goodness are known in philosophical parlance as transcendental properties of being. It is possible to take each one of them separately and think of how the culture of the Incarnation has ennobled human beings by bringing them into contact with a particular transcendental.
If we begin with truth, it is an historical fact that the institution we call the university is a Christian institution. The earliest universities were foundations of bishops, popes, and Christian monarchs. There would be no Oxford or Cambridge or Sorbonne without the Catholic Church. Even the academic gown is a development of clerical dress worn by monks. The seas of academic robes and bonnets of different shapes and colors that appear on graduation days is a visible symbol of the interior ennobling that takes place when a culture sets its sights on truth.
At Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge there are three ceremonial gates, known as the Gates of Humility, Virtue, and Honor. When students join the college, they process through the Gate of Humility, and when they graduate they process through the Gate of Honor. This is a tradition that celebrates the process of ennobling that occurs as students submit themselves to three years of study in pursuit of the truth. In the meantime, as students go about the ordinary affairs of college life they regularly pass under the Gate of Virtue.
Yet another institution that developed out of Christian culture is the hospital. While military hospitals existed in Roman times, it was only with the advent of the Christian era that civilians were cared for in hospitals. This is an example of the ennobling of culture by a link to goodness.
Other elements of Christian culture are even more obviously ennobling. It’s hard to imagine Europe without Gothic cathedrals, monasteries, polyphony, and Gregorian chant. It’s also hard to think of a world without feast days such as Christmas and Easter Sunday, Epiphany, the various Marian feasts, and St. Patrick’s Day. These are elements of a Christian culture associated with ritual and celebration. They ennoble our social and liturgical life and are linked to beauty.
Finally, the graces of the Incarnation through the Sacrament of Marriage have greatly ennobled human love and created the culture of Catholic family life. Arguably, no institution on earth quite exhibits so much nobility as a fully functional Catholic family. Even Goethe described the sanctity of marriage as a cultural achievement of Christianity of such inestimable value that it must not be given up “at any cost.”
In each case of a Christian practice that ennobles the human person and the surrounding culture, the true, the beautiful, and the good will all be present in unity, though one or other may be dominant. For example, the pursuit of truth may dominate in a Christian university, the goodness of loving care in a Christian hospital, and the presence of beauty in a Christian liturgy. In every one of these institutions and their practices, the “shadow” transcendentals will also be working alongside the dominant or most obvious transcendental.
The culture of the Incarnation is the highest culture in the world, the one in which the human person and the social practices are most ennobled or ennobling. No other religious framework outside of Christianity has anything like the concepts of grace, redemption, and sanctification, each of which is directly linked to the ennoblement of human beings and the cultures they create.
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia). She was a member of the Ninth International Theological Commission and one of the two Ratzinger Prize winners for 2020.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994), 125.
 Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005), 46.
 International Theological Commission, “Faith and Inculturation” (1988), no. 28, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_....
 Aidan Nichols, Christendom Awake: On Re-Energising the Church in Culture (London: Gracewing, 1999), 17.
 Christian Gnilka, Chrêsis: Die Methode Der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der Antiken Kultur (Basel: Schwabe & Co Verlag, 1993), 1.