A simple definition of culture is all that enhances the human mind. However, there remains the question of what a Catholic culture is. Indeed, Catholic culture is the highest expression of culture.
Culture becomes grounded on solid foundations when it contains precise notions about man’s perfection, especially the powers of the soul or how it relates to the body. Culture involves the means to attain perfection, the obstacles along the way and other such matters.
The Role of Religion and the Church
Note that culture, thus conceived, must be nourished by the doctrinal sap of the true Religion. This Religion teaches us what the perfection of man is, how to attain it, and how to face obstacles.
Thus, Our Lord Jesus Christ is the ineffable personification of all perfection. He is the embodiment, the sublime model, focus, sap, life, glory, norm and charm of true culture. True Religion is the only basis for true culture.
As the dew naturally forms from the healthy and lively atmosphere of the dawn, so also perfect culture can only be born from the spiritual atmosphere created by the coexistence of deeply Catholic souls.
This conclusion can be reached in other ways.
The Contemplation of Eternal Truths Enriches Culture
In a normal culture, everything that we see with the eyes of the body or the perception of the soul can influence and enhance us. Thus, God filled the universe with natural wonders so that by considering them, the human soul can improve.
However, those realities that transcend our senses are intrinsically more admirable than sensible ones. If contemplating a flower, star or drop of water can improve or enhance us, how much more can contemplation of what the Church teaches about God, His angels and saints, Paradise, grace, eternity, Providence, hell, evil, the devil, and so many other truths!
The Church Is the Highest Ideal of Culture
God’s masterpiece is the Holy Catholic Church, the image of Heaven on Earth. Thus, the consideration of the Church, Her dogmas, Sacraments and institutions is a supreme element of human improvement. Imagine a man born in some underground mine who had never seen the light of day. Without this light, he would lose a precious and perhaps vital means of culturally enriching himself. Culturally, those who do not know the Church lose much more than sunlight. Indeed, the sun is nothing but a pale figure of the Church.
However, there is more. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. The infinitely precious Redemption of Our Lord Jesus enabled grace to circulate in this body. Grace raises us to share in the life of the Blessed Trinity. By opening the gates to the supernatural order, the Church provides us with an incomparable cultural element by which we can progress.
Therefore, the Holy Church of God contains the highest ideal of culture.
And Non-Catholic Cultures?
Can people develop authentic culture outside the Church? We need to make some distinctions.
No one can deny that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese possessed authentic and admirable elements of culture. However, it is undeniable that the Christianization of the classical ancient world provided it with a much higher level of culture.
Saint Thomas teaches that human intelligence can, of itself, know the principles of the moral law. However, we easily fall away from the knowledge of that law as a consequence of Original Sin. Thus, God needed to reveal the Ten Commandments.
Furthermore, no one can durably practice the moral law in its entirety without the help of grace. Although grace is given to all men, Catholics receive superabundant graces in the Church. Thus, Catholic peoples are the ones who manage to practice all the Commandments.
Human society only reaches a normal state when most of its members observe the natural law. Consequently, although non-Catholic peoples can reach admirable levels of culture, they are always seriously flawed in some key points. These flaws take away the integrity, and complete regularity of their cultures, which are necessary presuppositions for all this is excellent or simply normal.
The article above is from Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira’s 1954 lecture at the Jesuit Seminary of São Leopoldo, Brazil. It has been adapted slightly for publication.
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