Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Considerations on Catholic Culture
CRUSADE Magazine, July/August 2001, p. 23-27 (*)
What is culture? The question has received a variety of responses, some inspired in the study of literature, others in philosophic or social systems of every kind. So complicated are the contradictions surrounding this term and another related to it—civilization—that international congresses of professors and other learned men have met especially to define them. As usually happens, much discussion shed little light on the subject.
It is impossible in the space we have here to mention all the theses and arguments of the various currents, to affirm and justify our own thesis, and afterwards to treat of Catholic culture. We can, however, seriously consider the subject, taking the term culture in the thousand modes in which it has been clothed by the language of so many peoples, social classes, and schools of thought. We begin by showing that in all of them, “culture” contains an invariable basic element, the refinement of the human spirit.
At the heart of the notion of refinement is the idea that every man has in his spirit qualities susceptible of development and defects that can be restrained. Refinement, then, has two aspects: one positive, signifying the growth of what is good, and the other negative, the removal of what is bad.
Many current ways of thinking and feeling about culture are explained in light of this principle. Thus, we do not hesitate to recognize as cultural a university, a school of music or acting, or even a chess club. These entities or social groups directly seek the refinement of the spirit, or at least pursue ends that in themselves refine the spirit.
We also recognize that a university or any other cultural institution may work against culture, however, as happens when, because of errors of any kind, its action deforms the spirit. One could affirm this, for example, about certain schools that impress upon their students disdain for everything philosophical or artistic. A person whose state of spirit moves him to adore technology as the value supreme and the only foundation of the soul, to deny every certainty not derived from laboratory experiment, and to scornfully reject everything beautiful is, without a doubt, suffering from a deformation of spirit. Deformed also would be the spirit that, moved by an inordinate philosophical appetite, were to deny any worth to art, poetry, or even more modest activities that also require intelligence and culture, such as technology. We would say that universities which form their students according to some of these false orientations exercise an anti-cultural action or propagate a false culture.
In this current sense, fencing is recognized as an exercise of a certain cultural value, for it supposes physical dexterity, vivacity of soul, and elegance. But it would be contrary to common sense to attribute any cultural value to boxing, which, aiming heavy and brutal blows at the very face of a man, is inherently degrading to the spirit.
Culture and instruction
At first sight and in the general understanding, the distinction between instruction and culture is less clear. But, things being well analyzed, one sees that such a distinction exists and rests upon a solid foundation.
A person who reads a great deal is generally considered very cultured, at least as compared with another who reads little. And, between two who read a lot, the one who reads more will be seen as the more cultured. As instruction in itself refines the spirit, it is natural that, all else being equal, one who is better-read is considered more cultured. The danger of error in this proposition arises from the fact that many people inadvertently simplify notions and end up considering culture a mere consequence of the number of books read. It is a flagrant error, for reading is advantageous not so much in the quantity as in the quality of the books read, and principally in function of the quality of the one who reads and the reason for which he reads.
That is, reading, in thesis, instructs—in the sense of merely providing information. But a person well-read and instructed, or as it may be, a person informed of many facts or notions of scientific, historical, or artistic interest, may well be less cultured than another with a lesser store of knowledge.
The mouse library (Der Bücherwurm), by Carl Spitzweg, 1808-1885)
Instruction only fully refines the spirit when followed by profound assimilation resulting from sound reflection. And for this reason, he who has read little but assimilated much is more cultured than he who has read much but assimilated little. For example, a museum guide is usually quite informed about the exhibits he shows visitors, but, not infrequently, he is little cultured. He limits himself to memorization and looks not to assimilation.
How one acquires culture
Everything a man learns with the senses or intelligence exercises an effect over the powers of his soul. A person may free himself more, less, or even entirely from this effect, according to the case, but in itself each measure of knowledge acquired tends to exercise an effect over him. As we already said, cultural action consists in accentuating all the effects that refine and in curbing those that do not.
Well understood, reflection is the first of the positive means of action. Much, much more than a bookworm, a walking encyclopedia of facts, dates, names, and texts, the man of culture ought to be a thinker. And for the man who thinks, the principal book is the reality before his eyes, the author most consulted is himself, while the other authors and books, albeit precious elements, are clearly subsidiary.
Nevertheless, mere reflection is not enough. Man is not a pure spirit. Through an affinity that is not just conventional, there exists a link between the superior realities he considers with his intelligence and the colors, sounds, forms, and aromas he perceives through his senses. The cultural effort is only complete when man absorbs, through these sensible channels, the entire essence of the values his intelligence considers. Song, poetry, and art have exactly this as their end. And it is through an accurate and superior interrelationship with what is beautiful (rightfully understood, it is clear) that the soul entirely absorbs truth and good.
Last Judgment (Fra Angelico)
For a culture to be founded upon true principles, it is necessary that it contain exact notions concerning the perfection of man—be it in the powers of the soul or in the relations of the soul with the body—and concerning the means by which it ought to attain this perfection, the obstacles it may encounter, and so on.
It is easy to see that culture, thus understood, must be entirely nourished by the doctrinal sap of the true Religion. For it belongs to the true Religion to teach us in what man’s perfection consists, the ways to attain it, and the obstacles opposed to it. And Our Lord Jesus Christ, the ineffable personification of all perfection, is thus the embodiment, the sublime model, the focus, the vigor, the life, the glory, the standard, and the delight of true culture.
This is to say that true culture can only be based on the true Religion, and that only from the spiritual atmosphere created by the interrelationship of profoundly Catholic souls can the perfect culture be born, as the dew is formed in the sound and vivacious atmosphere of the early morning.
This is also demonstrated in the light of other considerations.
We said above that man is susceptible to the influence of all he sees with the eyes of the body or the soul. All the natural marvels with which God filled the universe are made so that the human soul, considering them, may refine itself. But the realities that transcend the senses are intrinsically more admirable than the sensible ones. And if the contemplation of a flower, a star, or a droplet of water can refine man, how much more the contemplation of that which the Church teaches us concerning God, His angels, His saints, paradise, grace, eternity, providence, hell, evil, the devil, and so many other truths? On earth, the image of Heaven is the Holy Church, God’s masterpiece. The consideration of the Church, her dogmas, her sacraments, her institutions, is for this very reason a supreme element of human refinement. A man born in the tunnels of some mine, who never sees the light of day, would lose a precious, perhaps even capital, element of cultural enrichment. He who does not know the Church, of which the sun is naught but a pallid figure in the most literal sense of the word, loses much culturally.
But there is more. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. In her circulates grace, coming to us through the infinitely precious Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ. By grace men are elevated to participation in the very life of the Most Holy Trinity. It suffices to say this in order to affirm the incomparable element of culture the Church gives us by opening the doors of the supernatural order.
Therefore, the highest ideal of culture is contained in God’s Holy Church.
Interior of the Mosque of Cordoba (Spain), today Catholic Cathedral
Can man develop a true culture outside the Church?
No one would deny that the Egyptians, the Greeks, or the Chinese possessed authentic and admirable elements of culture. However, it is undeniable that the Christianization of the classical world gave it much higher cultural values.
Saint Thomas teaches that human intelligence is able, of itself, to know the principles of moral law but that, in consequence of Original Sin, men easily deviate from the knowledge of this law, wherefore it became necessary for God to reveal the Ten Commandments. What is more, without the help of grace, no one can enduringly practice the law in its entirety. And though grace is given to all men, we know that the Catholic peoples, with the superabundant graces they receive from the Church, are those who do manage to practice all the Commandments.
On the other hand, a human society is only in its normal state when the greater part of its members observe the natural law. And from this it follows that if non-Catholic peoples are able to have admirable cultural attainments, their culture is always gravely lacking in some capital points, depriving it of integrity and full harmony, so necessary to all that is excellent or even simply normal.
Again, in the Church alone is found true and perfect culture.
Sainte Chapelle (upstairs) in Paris, built by Saint Louis IX, King of France, to house the Crown of Thorns placed on Sacred Head of Our Lord during the Passion
(*) Lecture on November 13, 1954 at the Central Seminary S. Leopoldo (Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil), at the invitation of Fr. Fritzen Leonardo, SJ, Rector of that House, and published in Catolicismo, n. 51, march 1955.