Report of Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture

Author: Cardinal Paul Poupard

Report of the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture

Cardinal Paul Poupard
President of the Pontifical Council for Culture


At the end of the work of our Plenary Assembly on Christian faith at the dawn of the new millennium and the challenge of non-belief and religious indifference, these are the principal conclusions:

— Non-belief is not increasing in the world. It is a phenomenon that is seen primarily in the Western world. The cultural model it inspires spreads through globalization and exerts an influence on more or less all cultures. However, nonbelief cannot be considered a specifically Asian, Latin-American, African or Muslim phenomenon.

— Militant atheism is in regression and no longer has much influence on public life, except in those regimes where an atheistic political system is still in force.

— On the contrary, religious indifference as well as practical atheism are growing. Agnostics and non-practising believers account for a large part of society and indeed, live as though God did not exist and with no reference to religious values: "Perhaps God does not exist but it doesn't matter; in any case we can get along very well without him".

— Atheism and non-belief, phenomena that seemed to have something rather masculine and urban about them and to be found particularly among those with an above-average culture, have changed their profile and now seem to be connected more with a lifestyle. Consequently, non-belief is increasing among women who go out to work.

— The dwindling number of regular church-goers can be seen everywhere. This observation, however, does not mean that non-belief is on the increase. Rather, it points to a transformation in religious practice and in the way of believing: believing without belonging. This phenomenon implies the detachment from any specific religious confession of a religiously disposed person who rejects every form of institutional structure.

— Everywhere there is a new, growing spiritual quest, rather than a religious one, that is not a return to the traditional faith. Science and modern technology have not done away with the religious sense, yet they are unable to satisfy it.

— There is no globalization of nonbelief, but a disenchantment with the traditional religions, as regards both adherence to their doctrinal and moral content and religious practice.

— At the same time, the crisis of faith among young people is counterbalanced by the witness of other youth whose evangelizing power has been as it were "potentiated" by the fruitful initiative of Pope John Paul II. By bringing to the Church the fresh vigour of youth, the World Youth Days have given her a new face that shines out in the secularized culture. As has been said: "Young people must be taught to swim against the tide".

In our anthropocentric culture which precipitates a cultural weakening of faith, only a clear, public affirmation of the Gospel Message, lived without compromise in the Christian communities and joyfully received, can give the right response to the often stifled cries that are nonetheless always latent in the depths of the conscience. A witness from Vietnam challenges us: "Only when our faith is strong can we share it with others".

We are reunited in the joy of fraternal communion and in the common desire to respond, in new or renewed ways, to the challenges of our time. This is a matter of helping the whole Church, by means of concrete proposals, to take the Good News to the heart of the cultures of this vast world at the dawn of the new millennium. The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharistic Bread broken at the same table and the sharing of pastoral concerns have invited us to turn our hearts to Christ, the Redeemer of man, and ask him with renewed fervour to hasten the time of his coming.

In this common hope we are preparing ourselves to express our communion with the Holy Father, reaffirming our faithful devotion to the mission entrusted to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Plenary proposals

During the discussions, in the effervescence of ideas that took shape from the mosaic of cultures on five continents, we singled out seven proposals during the debates:

— The importance of witnessing to the joy of being a person loved by God;

— The need, reasserted by apologetics, to account with gentleness and reverence for the hope that is in us (I Pt 3:15);

— To reach out to the city dweller with a public presence in social debates;

— To put the Gospel in touch with the forces that form culture;

— From school to university, to learn how to think;

— When confronted with a secularizing media, dispersive scepticism, intolerant liberalism and pluralism that levels everything out, to react against the tacit acceptance of the prevalent culture with a new and joyful presentation of Christian culture;

— To show non-believers, indifferent to the question of God but who believe in human values, by means of the living example of believers and of faith communities, that "being" means "being religious", and that men and women find their human fullness in following the message of the Gospel of Christ, the Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, crucified and risen, the infinite and inexhaustible source of beauty, truth and love.

According to the Apostle John's vision in the Prologue to his Gospel: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Jn 1:5). This is our conviction. The light of Christ's Gospel cannot be imprisoned, and the darkness that sometimes gathers on the horizon of a secularizing and secularized culture is not strong enough to overcome this light.

This is the task of evangelization: to give all people the possibility of contemplating the splendour of the Face of Christ. It is also the great challenge that troubles us: a considerable number of our contemporaries do not manage to see this light. The reasons are complex and many, and it is up to us to discern and remedy them.

Thus, we have identified a range of different categories of non-believers: those who are so through indifference, those who explicitly reject religion and Christianity in particular, and also those who are in search of light but fail to believe despite their awareness of an inner call to transcendence.

In this world of non-belief, the influence of a certain more or less organized "elite", including non-believers, agnostics and anti-Christians, must not be overlooked and demands a pastoral response suited to every situation.

The reasons for the lack of perception and even at times rejection of enlightenment are various, complex and rarely original. The cultural context, with the changes of the modern, the post-modern and the complex phenomenon of globalization, weighs very heavily on persons rendered frail by a culture centred on the subject and his needs.

The disintegration of society produces a phenomenon of fragmentation that counterbalances individualization taken to extremes. The social bond that in the past was based on religion is losing its firm hold in many societies that are moving away from their traditional culture. Thus, people find themselves losing their bearings on uncertain, shifting, quicksand-like terrain.

Communicating the Gospel

We have already stressed that the Gospel proclamation avails itself of the triple path of the true, the good and the beautiful, which are as many places in which various factors can cast a dark pall over spirits, preventing them from perceiving the splendour of Light. Philosophical and moral relativism that generate pragmatism and cynical hedonism, dim and distort the gaze of men and women and eclipse it, often without their knowledge. Even the perception of beauty sometimes becomes a specialized skill that requires an appropriate training for both clerics and lay people.

To enable the light to break through the darkness, it is important to re-establish the mind's fundamental orientation to the truth, to ensure that it is not merely content with a worldly horizon. Indeed, if this can satisfy natural curiosity, it cannot quench the thirst for truth and the desire for contemplation that are inherent in the depths of the human mind. Limited rationality imprisons in a suffocating atmosphere the men and women and society that it claims to set free.

We recognize the immense benefits of science and encourage scientists to persevere in their research for the good of the human being and never against him. We are conscious of the effort that is needed in the Church to help scholars, by means of a dialogue that inspires confidence, to put their research under the sign of Wisdom, that is, to recognize the need to be guided by an ethic that can distinguish by means of natural law what is and what is not good for the human person.

Quest for the good

At the same time, it is a question of opening people's hearts in their quest for good in order to help them discern what can ennoble human life and be a radiant source of happiness for themselves and others. As we have stressed, in the context of globalization we are witnessing a crisis of the collective rather than of the individual.

Moreover, at the same time and paradoxically, there is still a strong demand from our secularized societies for the "social" rites of the Church, whereas there is a worrying decline in the reception of the sacraments of daily life. This demonstrates the importance today of the traditional mystagogical process of Christian initiation that accompanies the transmission of faith with its sacramental and liturgical celebrations.

The journey of love is the journey of the Gospel; it is the journey towards holiness where the witness of a life enlightened by the splendour of grace makes it possible to understand how beautiful it is to be Christian.

As we well know, this journey of love, which chose the path of Calvary and the humble acceptance of suffering as the way to Redemption, is contrary to the mirages of the media culture. The initiation to this path takes place in the family. At the heart of the challenge of non-belief, the pastoral care of the family is thus a priority. In addition to this, the witness of a Church-family of God, to use the phrase coined by the Synod of Bishops for Africa, is of capital importance.

Lastly, it is a matter of reawakening the sense of beauty, as we have had many opportunities to emphasize, and its capacity to reflect the splendour of the truth in the heart of society: the truth about the human being and the truth about God.

A short time ago an agnostic wrote to me: "Although I have ceased to believe in God, I have never turned my back on the Church. The reason for this attachment lies in sacred art, and perhaps in pure and simple art. All these splendid works that express a truth whose messenger, I believe, the Church must continue to be, prevent me from surrendering to the fascination of materialism and from listening to the beguiling song of the sirens of fashion".

This confession reminds us of the words of St Augustine: "We cannot but love the beautiful". The language of beauty opens hearts to the truth, and in its most perfect form overcomes the peculiarities of cultures and the divisions of history.

The Church has received the light of the Gospel from the Lord to communicate it to men and women of all cultures. For 2,000 years, she has not ceased to build bridges to enable the inhabitants of the earthly city to discover Christ, alive in his members.

The personal dialogue in which I learn about the other, who he is and what he bears within him, together with the dignity of his unique quest and the renewal of the apologetic that takes our contemporaries' questions into account, is like the railings of bridges that enable us to welcome our brethren, listen to them and discuss in depth a fundamental problem, especially in order to rouse the indifferent.

The Gospel truth is inexhaustible and suffices to satisfy all the expectations of men and women in the course of the millenniums. We must act in such a way as to reach the minds and touch the hearts of those who are remote.

The light of the Gospel is given to us to transform our lives as Christians and Pastors of the Church. A holy life is the best possible transmitter of light.

This explains the urgent need for profound renewal in the Church, with the search for a true culture of holiness in our particular Churches.

It is a question of the authenticity of witness: the saint knows that he is not a source of light. He loves it with all his or her might and, with evangelical patience, witnesses to it as a poor person who practises what he preaches.

The scandal of division and its relationship to the challenge of non-belief and scepticism with regard to the Gospel of the Beatitudes urge us to be firmly committed to ecumenical dialogue. The desire for unity is the fruit of charity lived, which is itself a way of spreading the truth.

On this journey of holiness, prayer is the life-breath of Christians. It is our duty to remember non-believers in our daily prayers. It is also our duty to implore the grace of God so that he will enable us to witness credibly to the beauty of the Gospel, and that this witness, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will move the hearts of the nonbelievers and the indifferent.

Our Plenary Assembly has taken place beneath the gaze of The Holy Trinity of Rublëv: we see the silent dialogue of the three divine Persons in which each one is wholly present to the other in a vortex of tender, accepting and unifying love. The icon is suffused with divine light, which the artist has allowed to shine on the Tabor of contemplation.

Perhaps the interpretation of this incomparable work and meditation upon it reveal to us the secret of our Plenary Assembly: it is the mystery of the Church-Bride who draws her joy from contemplation of her Beloved, in order to pass it on to her children and show them a way to enlighten cultures under the tender and merciful gaze of the Blessed Trinity.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
21 April 2004, page 6

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