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’” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, no. 54).
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.