You are here

Faith Must Become Culture: John Paul II’s Legacy to Intellectuals and Scientists

During my work alongside Pope John Paul II, as the Director of the Holy See Press Office, I was often asked what could account for the tremendous hold his pontificate had on public opinion? In order to answer this question, several aspects of Karol Wojtyla’s rich and varied personality must be mentioned: He was a pastor, but he was also a communicator, multilingual intellectual, laborer, poet, philosopher, and a witness to the history of the communist domination in Eastern Europe. At present, in the days leading up to his beatification a mere six years after his death, the response to this question seems even more extraordinarily clear: Pope John Paul II greatly attracted people because he was, and is, a saint. It is at base a simple response, one which would not have been appropriate to announce years ago but which today the Church has seen fit to proclaim.

Pope John Paul II made himself understood by everyone in his sincere and real interest in each person he encountered. Those of us who accompanied him closely during his trips and gatherings with great masses of people realized that John Paul II never saw them in terms of crowds but rather as individual persons. “The Pope only knows how to count to one,” he said on one occasion, referring to his desire to treat each person as unique and singular, a desire that manifested itself, for example, in how he planned his schedule, and in his desire to personally greet those present at an event whenever possible. Without a doubt even those in the intellectual and cultural world perceived his desire for a direct, personal rapport, a world in which he had a sincere and particular interest up to the very end of his pontificate. Whenever he addressed those in this sphere, he had the capacity to translate theories and general analysis into exhortations that placed the human person, every human person with his or her aspirations towards the truth and spiritual values, at the center of human culture and human progress, yet without devaluing the legitimate seeking after material goods.

Others elsewhere have already commented upon Pope John Paul II’s rich contribution to intellectuals, artists, and scientists. Here I would just like to put forth some brief considerations on a phrase, or a concept, that John Paul II often employed: “Faith must become culture.” He loved to repeat this phrase and at times expounded upon it: “Faith that does not become culture is not wholly embraced, fully thought, or faithfully lived.” In 1982, speaking at Bologna’s historical athenaeum, he affirmed that, “The Church needs the University so that the faith can be incarnated and become a lived culture.”

The rapport between faith and science, between the Christian message and scientific knowledge, is delicate and susceptible to varying analyses. Even John Paul II’s thought regarding this rapport can be explained and considered in diverse ways and varying levels of profundity. Here I would simply like to suggest that in his exhortations regarding faith becoming culture there is something fundamentally held in common with his view of the rapport between faith and science. The proclamation of the Gospel, in order to be received and understood, must be inculturated. In order to be meaningful for those engaged in scientific research, Christianity must know how to speak the scientific language in addition to the Gospel language. Christianity should know how to recognize in science that which has brought its language about, in the present as well as the past, and in this way new horizons will be opened up. Yet we are not speaking here of a kind of “strategy” similar to an approach one might adopt in order to gain favor when adventuring into a new, or even hostile, country. Rather, it is a necessity for the faith to become culture. In drawing together the ties it shares with every other kind of search for the truth, including the implications of its rapport with them—and science is one of these kinds of searching for the truth—the Christian faith can be better thought, better lived, and better received. A faith that is unable to demonstrate how it enters into the life of man, and into his work and discoveries, is a weak faith. In slightly different words, yet along an analogous train of thought, we find this same idea in the current Pope Benedict XVI when he loves to insist on presenting Christianity as the religion of the Word and the friend of reason. He goes on to say on various occasions that the true God could not be a God without reason; he could not be a God who we set aside and relegate to parentheses, or a God who contradicts reason.

John Paul II’s expectation that faith become culture is at base that which renders comprehensible the meaning behind certain stances that at his time could have been considered uncommon or progressive, such as, for example, the desire to reexamine what really happened in Galileo’s case, or assuming the theory of biological evolution as a fact to be grappled with in theological thought, or permitting the garb and musical instruments of the African people to be used during liturgical ceremonies at St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In essence culture, and particular cultures, cannot be asked to be open to the faith and evangelization if the faith itself does not demonstrate the capacity to inform each culture it seeks to encounter. A true synthesis between faith and culture makes equal demands on each of them; yet, at the same time, the Christian message transcends each culture, since the Church that announces Christ does not introduce or impose any single culture or race. In John Paul II’s thought, the rapport between faith and culture is often presented as circular or reciprocal. The fact that the faith is not identified with a specific culture is precisely that which permits it to become culture, to be inculturated.

The sizeable meeting of the world’s religions in Assisi in 1986, which many media interpreted as an event that broke with the entire theological tradition that preceded it, was in reality a manifestation of the way in which John Paul II intended the rapport between the Christian faith and culture to be, in this case the rapport between the Christian faith and religious cultures. The Christian faith must know how to present itself as the fullness and fulfillment of man’s religious seeking and, therefore, as the fulfillment of all the religions on the earth, if they authentically and sincerely promote the religious dimension of human beings. And, in order to do this, it must in the first place listen to them. Just as Christianity is not identified with any specific culture, so then it cannot identify itself with any specific religion; rather, precisely for this reason it is able to gather up and make its own that which is true and good in every religion, or better yet, that which is true and good in authentic human religiosity. This is in accordance with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra aetate, a teaching that John Paul II addressed well.

Only six years have passed since the death of Pope Wojtyla, now Blessed John Paul II. There will be plenty of time and opportunity to study the message of his pontificate at length and to consistently deepen our understanding of it. That which we have already delved into, however, is more than sufficient to convince us that his pontificate, which brought us into the third millennium of Christianity, also introduced us to a new way of conceiving of modernity and gave us a more profound way of understanding the rapport between faith and culture. This is one of the most beautiful legacies that he left to intellectuals and scientists, one which benefits us all.

© 2011 Interdisciplinary Documentation of Religion and Science.

Eng. transl. by Laurie Malashanko.