Considerations on Catholic Culture – Continued

November 26, 2020

By Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira


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.

Coffee and tea service (déjeuner chinois réticulé) 1855–61, Sèvres Manufactory, France. For More about Tea and Etiquette, click the picture.

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.

Catholic culture

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.


Non-Catholic cultures

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.

God giving Moses the Ten Commandments painted by João Zeferino da Costa.

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.

(*) 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.

CRUSADE Magazine, July/August 2001, p. 23-27;  also taken from Crusade Magazine May/June 1996, p. 4-6.



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