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Meeting with University Professors and Men of Culture in Coimbra

1982, May 15

On 15 May 1982, a meeting took place at the University of Coimbra in Portugal between John Paul II and the representatives of the intellectual circles of the country. The Pope begins his discourse by greeting and thanking the Rector of university, noting both the university’s and the country’s strong Catholic devotion. Emphasizing the significance of culture in shaping a human person, John Paul II remarks on Portugal’s admirable work of civilization and evangelization throughout the centuries. The social and cultural changes everywhere, marked by the predominance of technology, open new paths for the diffusion of culture, but also open man to new challenges. The Pope ends his address by referring to the vocation of knowledge and its special fulfillment in the university. He leaves his audience hope if they commit themselves seriously to a deep renewal of culture in the light of a healthy anthropology.

Culture is for the improvement of mankind and development of cooperation among peoples

Rector Magnificus of the University,

Professors and Students of this University,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a moment of great joy for me to be here at this university, one of the most ancient in Europe and closely linked to events of the Church. From is very beginnings placed under the protection of God and the Most Holy Virgin, with the passage of its history it has also assumed a formal commitment to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary Most Holy. For this reason I feel pulsating here a long tradition of Marian devotion raised to the highest level of the national culture.

I greet particularly the Rector Magnificus, who has welcomed me. I greet the teaching staff, the professors, visiting lecturers and assistant professors and scholars, the dear students and all those who make up the community of intellectual work in this famous university. I greet with deep feeling all people of culture of this noble nation who are present or represented here.

Recognizing the value of your work for the benefit of man, I come to this meeting with respectful esteem, recalling the long years in which I worked in the same university environment and the happy moments which my presence there offered me. We are all convinced that first with intelligence, and only later with work, can a new civilization be shaped, in harmony with the aspirations and the needs of our era. The first task is yours, men and women of culture, namely, to project it for days to come, basing yourselves upon the inestimable values of your cultural tradition and the immense richness of the Portuguese soul. I am here as a friend who opens his heart with confidence in an attitude of encouragement and communion for the same problems.

Centuries-old Portuguese culture

You well know how grateful the Church is to culture and how much she respects its encouragement. The Church is greatly interested in culture since she well knows what it means for man. The human being, in fact, could not fully develop, both on an individual and social level, if not through culture.

This seems obvious if we consider that culture, in its deepest reality, is nothing if it is not the special way a people has of cultivating its own relations with nature, among its members, and with God, so as to reach a truly human level of life, and a “common life style” which characterizes a specific people (Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 53).

The Portuguese culture occupies a place of honour among the various cultures. It is a centuries-old culture, rich in very precise characteristics which clearly distinguish it from other peoples. It expresses the personal way of the Portuguese of “being in the world”, their own conception of life and their religious meaning of existence. It is a culture forged with the passage of eight centuries as a nation, and enriched by the multiple and prolonged contacts which Portugal had during its history with the most diverse peoples of the various continents.

It pleases me to recall at this moment that admirable work of civilization, along with that evangelization, that the Portuguese achieved throughout the centuries in all those parts of the world which they reached. In this area of contacts with new worlds and on this level of culture, how can we not recall Luis de Camoes and his “Lusradas”, rightly considered one of the principal works of world literature. I wish also to recall the noteworthy contribution that your country, with its discoveries, has made to the development of science. Among the many names we could include, I limit myself to mentioning Pedro Nuñes, the inventor “Nonio”, and the doctor and naturalist Garcia de Horta. Also in the field of the arts, this meeting of civilization materialized in your unmistakable “Manuelian” style.

Of man, from man and for man

Culture is of man, begins from man and is for man. Culture is of man. In the past, when one wanted to define man, almost always one referred to intelligence, freedom or language. Recent progress in cultural and philosophical anthropology demonstrates that it is possible to obtain a no less precise definition of human reality by referring to culture. This characterizes man and distinguishes him from other beings no less clearly than intelligence, freedom and language. In fact, these other beings do not have culture, are not authors of culture; at most they are the passive receivers of cultural initiatives realized by man. In order to grow and survive, they are gifted by nature with certain instincts and specific traits both for survival and for defense. On the contrary, man, instead of having these things, possesses reason and his hands, which are the organ of organs inasmuch as with their help man is able to equip himself with tools with which to pursue his goals (Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 75, a. 5).

Culture comes from man. He receives freely from nature a group of abilities, talents, as they are called in the Gospel, and with his intelligence, his will power and with his work, he must develop them and make them bear fruit. The development of his own talents, as much on the part of the individual as on the part of a social group, with the aim of perfecting himself and subduing nature, builds up culture. Thus in cultivating the land man puts into effect God’s creative design, by cultivating knowledge and the arts, he works to elevate the human family and to arrive at the contemplation of God.

Culture is for man. He is not only the creator of culture, but he is also its principal beneficiary. In the two meanings, fundamental to the formation of the individual and to the spiritual formation of society, culture has as its aim the realization of the person in all his dimensions, with all his abilities. The primary objective of culture is the development of man as man, man as person, or rather, each man as a unique and unrepeatable example of the human family.

Understood in this way, culture embraces the totality of the life of a people: a set of values which animates it and which, being shared by all its citizens, unites them in one “personal and collective conscience” (Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 18). Culture also embraces the forms through which these values are expressed and depicted, in other words, the customs, the language, art, literature, institutions and the structures of the society as a whole.

Deeper understanding of truth, beauty

So, man, as a cultural being – as you know, ladies and gentlemen – is not prefabricated. He must build himself with his own hands. But according to which plan? What model, if one exists, must he have before his eyes? Throughout history proposals for such a model have not been lacking. And here, as is well known, appears the importance of philosophical anthropology.

In order to be valid, a cultural plan cannot fail to give first place to the spiritual dimension, that that dimension which concerns the growth of being, more that the growth of having. In this regard, allow me to recall what I said to the representatives of UNESCO: “Culture is that through which man, as man, become more man, and even more, has more access to ‘being’. The fundamental distinction between what man is and what he has, between being and having, has its foundation here too.  All man’s ‘having’ is important for culture, is a factor creative of culture, only to the extent to which man, through his ‘having’, can at the same time ‘be’ more fully as a man, become more fully a man in all the dimensions of his existence, in everything that characterizes his humanity” (Discourse at UNESCO, 2 June 1980, no.7). The objective of true culture, therefore, is to make a person of a man, a fully developed spirit, capable of reaching the perfect fulfilment of all his faculties.

Historically, every society, every nation, every people has attempted to draw up a human plan, an ideal for humanity, generally attributing primacy to values of the spirit.

And the Church, as is known, also possesses a plan for mankind, revivified and proposed by the Second Vatican Council. In full accord with the results of philosophical and cultural anthropology, the Council affirmed that culture is an essential constitutive part of the person which must, therefore, be stimulated by every means.

They are the words of the Council itself: culture must tend toward the perfection of man, who, “working in the fields of history, philosophy, and cultivating the arts, can greatly contribute toward bringing the human race to a deeper understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, to points of view having universal value” (Gaudium et Spes, 57).

Culture from the Church’s standpoint

In proposing her ideal of humanity, the Church does not pretend to deny the autonomy of culture. Indeed, on the contrary, she nourishes greater respect for it, as she nourishes greater respect for man. She openly defends free initiative and autonomous development for both. In fact, since culture immediately derives from the rational and social nature of man, it constantly needs the right freedom and legitimate independence to act according to its own principles in order to develop. Rightly, provided it always protects, as is obvious, the rights of the individual and of the particular and universal community, culture needs inviolable space, demands to be respected and to be able to maintain relative exemption from political and economic powers (Cf. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Const. on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, no. 59).

However, history teaches us that man, just as the culture that he constructs, may abuse the independence to which they both have a right. Culture, just as its author may submit to the temptation to claim for itself absolute independence before God. Man and culture may even reach the point of turning against him. This realization is, for us who enjoy the happiness of faith in God, a sorrowful one.

The Church is aware of this reality. It is – you well know, ladies and gentlemen – part of a perennial battle between good and evil. And the Church is called, but its nature, to point out good and to cure and root out evil. She has received from Christ the mission of saving man from evil, concrete man, historical man, man with all his being exterior and interior, individual and social, spiritual, moral and cultural. And part of the way for fulfilling this mission of the Church’s is to foster culture, both as a spiritual basis and as social information.

Therefore, from the Church’s standpoint culture is not something which remains extraneous to faith, but can receive deep and beneficial influences from it. Nevertheless, we must not consider the relationship of culture to faith as being purely passive. Culture is not only the subject of redemption and improvement, but it can also be the promoter of mediation and collaboration. In fact, God, revealing himself to the Chosen People, made use of a particular culture; Jesus Christ, Son of God, did the same thing, his human incarnation was also a cultural incarnation.

“Similarly the Church living during the course of time in various circumstances, has used the resources of different cultures in its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ, to examine and understand it more deeply, and to give it better expression. This appears particularly in the liturgy” (Ibidem, no. 58).

In our times, without surrendering its tradition, but conscious of its universal mission, the Church attempts to enter into dialogue with different forms of culture. She is concerned with discovering what unites the magnificent patrimony of the human spirit. Although harmony between culture and faith is not always realized without difficulty, the Church does not desist from seeking to draw closer to all cultures, to all ideological contents and to all men of good will.

Social and cultural changes everywhere

It is well known by all of you, ladies and gentlemen, that the conditions in which man lives today have undergone deep changes in the social and cultural fields, more or less everywhere; to such an extent that it seems permissible to speak of “a new era in human history” (Ibidem, no. 54). The development and progress of civilization, marked by the predominance of technology, open new paths for the diffusion of culture, preparatory to the immense advancement of the natural, human and social sciences and for the wonderful perfection and coordination of the means of communication.

Therefore, I believe that we are all filled with joy, for very good reason, and that we feel deeply grateful to the scientific world and those who play principal roles in it.

But this very wonderful progress, in which it is difficult not to glimpse the sign of the authentic greatness of man, does not fail to cause some concern. And not rarely the question arises in our minds: does this progress, whose author and promoter is man, leave on earth a human life which is in all its aspects “more human”? Does man, as man, favoured by all this progress, become better? I mean: does he appear and does he behave spiritually more mature, more aware of his dignity, more responsible, more open to others – in particular, to the weakest and neediest – and, finally, more willing to help others? (Cf. Enc. Redemptor Hominis, 15.)

There seems to be no doubt today that modern culture, the soul of western society over the centuries, and because of this, in large measure also of other societies, is undergoing a crisis: already it does not appear as the principal animator and unifier of society, which in turn appears to be disunited and in difficulty with regard to assuming its mission of making man grow spiritually in every aspect of his being. This loss of vigour and influence by culture seems to have at its base a true crisis. The sense of truth has suffered a serious blow from every direction. If we observe well, it is basically a question of a metaphysical crisis, which is followed by the loss of value of the word, whose deprecation has its origin in a certain uncertainty and distrust between peoples.

Man asks himself in anguish: “Just who am I?” The objective view of truth is often replaced by a more or less spontaneous subjective position. Objective morality gives way to an individual ethic in which each person seems to posit himself as the norm for behavior and to want to be required to be faithful solely to this norm. And the crisis deepens when effectiveness assumes the function of value. As a result, manipulations of every sort arise and man each time feels more insecure, with the impression of living in a society that seems to be lacking in convictions and ideals and to be confused with regard to values.

Vocation to knowledge

In the exercise of the mission which by mysterious design of Providence has been entrusted to me, in the apostolic pilgrimages I make throughout the world, I am always animated by the desire to be the bearer of a message and to collaborate, with the humble, but for me inevitable, part as far as I am able, that an authentic meaning of man may prevail in minds and hearts as a meeting point of all good wills with a view to building a world which is ever more worthy of man.

Centres and men of culture have prominent places in the process of this convergence of good wills. In fact, it is a question of mentally acting upon individuals and spiritually animating society. And in this, influential roles may be played not only by institutions such as the Church which I represent here, but also the centres and structures intended for the creation and promotion of culture. Thus, universities come into the picture. And you know my feelings of great esteem and respect for the responsibilities which I acknowledge that universities have in today’s world.

They are for me one of those places of work, perhaps the principal one where man’s vocation to knowledge, just as man’s constitutive bond with truth as the end of knowledge, becomes a daily reality, becomes in a certain way the daily bread for those who attend them and for many others desiring knowledge of the reality of the world that surrounds them, and the knowledge of the mysteries of their humanity (Discourse at UNESCO, 2 June 1980, no. 7).

Ladies and gentlemen, Intellectuals and men of culture of Portugal, the situation may seem desperate, precursor of a “New Apocalypse”. But, in reality, it is not so. For mankind of the year two thousand, a solution and many reasons for hope surely exist. It is enough that all men of good will, above all, those who profess faith in Christ, commit themselves seriously to a deep renewal of culture in the light of a healthy anthropology and in the light of the principles of the Gospel.

I believe that you are already animated – and these are also the good wishes that I express to improve man’s aspect and that you have an authentic sense of the human being in your noble work. You have in your traditions so many indications, so many elements of universality, of openness to other peoples, of esteem and sensitivity for noble sentiments. It would even seem that over the centuries that importance given to the heart instead of the intellectual constructions. It may be said that the civilization which Portugal spread throughout the world kept the human person in special consideration. Having investigated this, I allow myself to repeat here an appeal which I believe is known to all.

“Open to the saving power of Christ, the vast fields of culture, of civilization, of progress. Do not be afraid. Permit Christ to speak to man” (Address after election to the Papacy, 17 October 1978), in Portugal as well. For Portugal and for you I wish every happiness.

Source of the English text: Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition, 1982, July 5, pp. 6-7.