John Paul II’s Core Teaching on Culture (1979–1980)

John P. Hittinger

Karol Wojtyła was destined to become an advocate for beauty and culture on the day he was elected to the papacy on October 16, 1978. As a man of great cultural sensitivity—an actor and author, a scholar and professor who probed the anthropological and ethical dimensions of culture, a pastoral priest and bishop ministering to educators and artists, a Polish patriot who keenly appreciated the role of culture in sustaining Polish identity—he relished the opportunity to make his first bold proclamation: “Open wide the doors for Christ . . . the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development.”1 The impact of the Church on economic and political systems during his papacy is very well documented and celebrated. Perhaps lesser-known are his tremendous efforts to open the doors of the domains of culture and civilization, doors that were shut tightly against the message, and man, of the Gospel. Nevertheless, his youthful dream of an “Athenian Poland,” more perfect than Athens because of the “boundless immensity of Christianity,”2 resounded often in many different climes, places, and cultures during his long pontificate. Inculturation and the Christian transformation of culture was the theme of one of his fourteen encyclicals, Slavorum apostoli (1985), a brilliant but often neglected work. Culture was also a constant topic in many of his encounters with university students, faculty, and administrators, but also in meetings with political leaders, international groups, and, of course, artists. In 1983 he founded the Pontifical Council for Culture, having given almost a hundred talks on culture during the first five years of his pontificate (almost twenty per year).3 His dedication to culture and the work of artists found a culminating point twenty years later in his Letter to Artists (1999), toward whom he felt “closely linked by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly marked [his] life” (1). He reaches very far back, over sixty years, when, in German-occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyła joined a group of actors who met in basements and kitchens to rehearse long passages from great Polish literature. In the Letter to Artists he extols works of art for revealing “the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture” (2).

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