The Apostolica Sedes, or Holy See, considers itself a promoter and guardian of art and culture. From its beginning and even in times of persecution, works of art were used to adorn places of worship. Religious freedom in the fourth century led to the birth of a characteristically Christian art, which found its expression in religious buildings and their decoration.
In the Middle Ages, the Church, especially in Rome, became the guardian and vehicle to promote ancient cultural heritage. Old works were copied and the arts were taught in monasteries. Universities, typically European creations, were set up within the Church structure.
Following the period of Enlightenment, a rift developed between the Church and culture.
With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church shifted its focus from a classical, humanist concept of culture to one that focused on its anthropological dimension. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) devoted a chapter to the Church’s relationship with culture and cultures.
Since 1965, the Holy See has been very aware of the importance for the Church of dialogue with contemporary culture and of its relationship with different cultures. In the Vatican Museums, Paul VI created a collection of contemporary art and in his exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (1975), he drew attention to the need to evangelise culture. This awareness, together with a rich personal experience, led Pope John Paul II to create the Pontifical Council for Culture in 1982, with the aim of providing the Holy See with an instrument capable of fostering the Church’s dialogue with people and institutions from the world of culture and cultural policy.
In the field of culture, Pope Benedict XVI has maintained continuity with the policy of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and is fostering dialogue between the Catholic Church and contemporary culture. The Holy See is also actively engaged in inter-religious and intercultural dialogue.
Main features of the current cultural policy model
The principles underlying the Church’s cultural activities may be summarised as follows:
- the human person as the heart of culture. Culture is defined in relation to human beings, and all cultural activity is both from and for people. Culture is a springing forth of human potential. Pope Benedict XVI recalled, on the occasion of the colloquium “Culture, Reason and Freedom” (May 2005), with words borrowed from John Paul II’s 1980 speech at the headquarters of UNESCO: “in the cultural field, man is always the first fact: man is the prime and fundamental fact of culture”;
- the common basis of all cultures. “Different cultures are but different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. It is precisely here that we find one source of the respect that is due to every culture and every nation. Every culture is an effort to ponder the mystery of the world and in particular of the human person. It is a way of giving expression to the transcendent dimension of human life. The heart of every culture is its approach to the greatest of all mysteries, the mystery of God” (John Paul II, Address to the United Nations, 5 October 1995);
- openness to transcendence. “When they are deeply rooted in experience, cultures show forth the human being’s characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent. Therefore they offer different paths to the truth, which assuredly serve men and women well in revealing values that can make their lives ever more human” (John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 70);
- cultural change. “Inseparable as they are from people and their history, cultures share the dynamics which the human experience of life reveals. They change and advance because people meet in new ways and share with each other their ways of life. Cultures are fed by the communication of values, and they survive and flourish insofar as they remain open to assimilating new experiences” (John Paul II, Fides et ratio, 71);
- the Gospel and culture. “The Gospel, and therefore evangelisation, are certainly not identical to culture, and they are independent in regard to all cultures … Though independent of cultures, the Gospel and evangelisation are not incompatible with them; rather they are capable of permeating them all without becoming subject to any one of them” (Paul VI, Evangelii nuntiandi, 20);
- promoting the study of philosophy. “Sharing this concern and encouraging fruitful collaboration among the professors of various Roman and European athenaeums, I wish to address a particular invitation to philosophy professors to continue with confidence in philosophical research, investing intellectual energy and involving new generations in this task” (Benedict XVI to participants at the Sixth European Symposium for University Professors, 7 June 2008); and
- faith, culture and the Orient. “This method of combining all the arts, the intellect, the heart and the senses, which came from the East, was to experience a great development in the West, reaching unparalleled heights in the miniature codices of the Bible and in other works of faith and art that flourished in Europe until the invention of printing and beyond (…). The need to involve, in the experience of faith, not only the mind and the heart, but also the senses through those other aspects of aesthetic taste and human sensitivity that lead man to benefit from the truth with his whole self, mind, soul and body”. This is important: faith is not only thought but also touches the whole of our being. Since God became Man in flesh and blood, since he entered the tangible world, we must seek and encounter God in all the dimensions of our being. (Benedict XVI, General Audience, 3 June 2009).
Cultural policy objectives
The Holy See is a signatory of the European Declaration on Cultural Objectives (Berlin 1984) and adheres to the European Cultural Convention since 1962. It sees the declaration as a major step to generate a common awareness among policy makers for concerted action in the cultural sphere. The values incorporated in the document inform the action plan of the Holy See.
From the 19th century to the present day, the Catholic Church has been building a body of doctrine on social life and the fundamental issues of human life. These commitments include the freedom of every human being, respect for each individual and the struggle against all forms of discrimination.
The objectives of the Holy See’s cultural policy are contained in the foundational letter of the Pontifical Council for Culture (1982):
- the Council undertakes appropriate initiatives to promote dialogue between the faith and cultures, and between different cultures. It follows up on initiatives generated by various Church institutions and collaborates with bishops’ conferences;
- it participates in meetings to examine ways to establish a dialogue with those who do not believe in God or profess no religion, whenever they are open to sincere collaboration;
- it monitors and co-ordinates the work of the Pontifical Academies, while respecting the autonomy of the latter in their respective research programmes, promoting interdisciplinary research and making their work more widely known;
- it co-ordinates the participation of the Holy See’s cultural institutions in the work of the dicasteries;
- it promotes dialogue with bishops’ conferences so that the whole Church may benefit from the research, initiatives, achievements and creations that allow local Churches to establish an active presence in their own cultural environments;
- it collaborates with Catholic international, university, historical, philosophical, theological, scientific, artistic and intellectual organisations, and promotes co-operation between them;
- it monitors (in a way appropriate to it and taking account of the authority and expertise of other curial bodies in this field) of the activities of international bodies-especially UNESCO and the Council for Cultural Co-operation of the Council of Europe-and ensures the effective participation of the Holy See in international congresses on science, culture and education;
- it monitors cultural policies and activities of governments throughout the world;
- it encourages dialogue between the Church and cultures on the level of universities, research centres and organisations of artists, researchers, scholars and other experts, and promotes meaningful meetings in and for these cultural spheres; and
- it hosts representatives of culture interested in learning more about the activities of the Catholic Church and offers them a place for meetings and dialogue in Rome.