Conversion of Culture

By Peter A. Kwasniewski

Originally published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, vol. 107, no. 9 (June 2007).  This version has been slightly edited.


Today, there are many people who are interested in studying the social doctrine of the Catholic Church; there would be even more, if this “best-kept secret” were more openly taught and more vigorously implemented. When students or friends have asked me what steps should be taken either to learn this area of doctrine or to pass it on to others, I like to say that the first step of all is to ask, or to encourage others to ask, those fundamental questions that come before any particular treatment of any particular problem. What kind of presence are Christians supposed to have in the world around them? What kind of influence are they supposed to have on the cultural life of the community to which they belong? Put differently, what is the basic relationship between “secular” society and the Christians who dwell in it as citizens, receiving certain goods from it, of course, but also—and one hopes more energetically—giving to it something that it would otherwise lack, to its own imperilment?

As Catholics blessed with one great teaching pope after another, from Leo XIII down to Benedict XVI, we turn to the Chair of St. Peter for answers. Of the many appropriate places we could look, one of the best is Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi of 1975, on “Evangelization in the Modern World,” which was a seminal text for the pontificate of John Paul II. For Paul VI, the question of Christianity in the world comes down to this: the willingness of Christians, in spite of all opposition and setbacks, to continue patiently and courageously in bearing witness to Christ and to his Gospel, in living according to his teaching, and in translating this teaching as well as they can into the rhythms and structures of everyday life—not excluding, but neither being identified with or collapsed into, politics and political society as such. We have seen both errors in our time: the error of the liberation theologians, who took their inspiration from Marx; the error, in a different way, of classical liberals, who speak as if the flourishing of markets and the extension of technological benefits to as many people as possible were an answer to the human predicament, a sort of secular Gospel that has power to liberate man from ignorance and vice. In contrast, as if announcing the main theme of his document, Paul VI writes: “[W]hat matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures—not in a purely decorative way, as it were, by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots” (§20). He continues:

The kingdom which the Gospel proclaims is lived by men who are profoundly linked to a culture, and the building up of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing the elements of human culture or cultures. . . . The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel.

In pursuit of his topic the pope speaks about the role of the laity in the (modern) world—a major theme of Vatican II but one that is still surprisingly and sadly neglected in the contemporary Church, where “involvement” has too often been construed as parish busy work, clericalization, rather than brave interventions and concerted efforts in the cultural spheres proper to the non-ordained. Paul VI understood what was demanded of the lay faithful:

Lay people, whose particular vocation places them in the midst of the world and in charge of the most varied temporal tasks, must for this very reason exercise a very special form of evangelization. Their primary and immediate task is not to establish and develop the ecclesial community—this is the specific role of the pastors—but to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and there-fore of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded. (§70)

In this passage Paul VI echoes the call of Vatican II’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, which called for an intensive involvement of lay Catholics in every aspect of social life—against the dominant contemporary conception, traceable to the Enlightenment, that religion is a purely private affair that should not make waves in the public square. (Religion is like a hat or a coat; you take it off and hang it at the door before going inside the offices of government or business.) On the contrary, the vocation of the Christian is to seek to transform the world by the energetic exercise of moral and theological virtues, not in pure solitude, as a hermit might do, but in society, and as a public activity and witness. The authentic teaching of the Council was not to separate still further the State from the Church (“equivalent to the separation of human legislation from Christian and divine legislation,” as Leo XIII succinctly put it1), but to encourage the laity to infuse the spirit of the Gospel into all temporal realities.2 Gaudium et Spes §43 exhorts the laity to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city. Apostolicam Actuositatem was still more precise. In §7, the Fathers first recognize the “intrinsic value” of temporal realities, then note how easily they can be perverted to the grave harm of mankind, and finally issue a call to Christians, especially the laity, to transform the temporal order ac-cording to the Gospel—without, needless to say, aspiring to a simple fusion of temporal and spiritual societies, as has occurred historically in a number of ways: the Caesaropapism of Byzantium, the Erastianism of some Western nation-states, the Gallicanism and Josephinism of the Enlightenment. Surely modern Christians have tended towards the opposite extreme, the divorcing of personal conviction from public life, which is a perilous attitude ceaselessly opposed by Catholic social teaching.3 The conclusion in Apostolicam Actuositatem §7 is unequivocal:

The whole Church must work vigorously in order that men may become capable of rectifying the distortion of the temporal order and directing it to God through Christ. Pastors must clearly state the principles concerning the purpose of creation and the use of temporal things and must offer the moral and spiritual aids by which the temporal order may be renewed in Christ.

The same document defines the “apostolate in the social milieu” as “the effort to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures of the community in which one lives” (§13). Catholics are urged to take an active interest in the reconstruction and perfection of civil society according to unchanging principles, so that citizens may be prepared for receiving the Gospel (§14).

The avowed goal of the Christian is to win souls for Christ; the goal of the Catholic is to make the world Catholic. The believing Christian, impelled by the Spirit of truth and of love, must be restless and pained as long as the world around him is not Christian in its attitudes and appearance, its desires and deeds—and all the more pained to the degree that it is opposed to the mind which is in Christ Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:5). It should come as no surprise that the Pope who convened the Council, Blessed John XXIII, was urging the Church to do just this in his 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra, promulgated on the eve (as it were) of the Council that he hoped would underline, clarify, and inflame the missio ad gentes:

The laity especially must not suppose that they would be acting prudently to lessen their personal Christian commitment in this passing world. On the contrary, We insist that they must intensify it and increase it continually. . . . The Church today is faced with an immense task: to humanize and to Christianize this modern civilization of ours. The continued development of this civilization, indeed its very survival, demand and insist that the Church do her part in the world. . . . In conducting their human affairs to the best of their ability, they must recognize that they are doing a service to humanity, in intimate union with God through Christ, and to God’s greater glory. . . . To search for spiritual perfection and eternal salvation in the conduct of human affairs and institutions is not to rob these of the power to achieve their immediate, specific ends, but to enhance this power. (§254–§257)

Blessed John Paul II convened an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in November and December 1985, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II and to focus, in particular, on the correct reception and interpretation of the Council.4 In the Synod’s Final Report we read:

From this paschal perspective, which affirms the unity of the cross and the resurrection, the true and false meaning of so-called aggiornamento [updating] is discovered. An easy accommodation that could lead to the secularization of the Church is to be excluded. Also excluded is an immobile closing in upon itself of the community of the faithful. Affirmed instead is a missionary openness for the integral salvation of the world. Through this, all truly human values not only are accepted but energetically defended—the dignity of the human person, fundamental human rights, peace, freedom from oppression, poverty, and injustice. But integral salvation is obtained only if these human realities are purified and further elevated through grace and familiarity with God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. (Part D, §3)

And in the same part, we read further:

Jesus Christ declared the poor blessed (Mt 5:3; Lk 6:20) and he himself wished to be poor for us (2 Cor 8:9). Besides material poverty there is a lack of liberty and of spiritual forms of poverty, and it is particularly grave when religious liberty is suppressed by force. The Church must prophetically denounce every form of poverty and oppression, and everywhere defend and promote the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. This is above all the case where it is a question of defending human life from the time of its very beginning, of protecting it from aggressors in every circumstance and of effectively promoting it in every respect. . . .
The salvific mission of the Church in relation to the world must be understood as an integral whole. Though it is spiritual, the mission of the Church involves human promotion even in its temporal aspects. For this reason the mission of the Church cannot be reduced to a monism, no matter how the latter is understood. In this mission there is certainly a clear distinction—but not a separation—between the natural and the supernatural aspects. This duality is not a dualism. It is thus necessary to put aside the false and useless oppositions between, for example, the Church’s spiritual mission and diakonia [service] for the world.

Turning now to John Paul II himself, I think we can make some further progress in understanding how the Church understands her role vis-à-vis temporal realities, including the political realm and its elements (rights, constitutions, laws, leaders, democratic process, etc.).
The question comes down to this: Are the laws and customs of the State, are the cultural practices of the people, supposed to reflect and embody Catholic truth, or not? It is evident that the answer can only be yes, for if the faith is vibrantly and courageously lived, then it is not only possible but likely that a large number of citizens or statesmen will become imbued with the Faith, and this will tend to affect for the better their practical judgments and way of life. If they tried to remain totally “neutral” in their public lives and practised the faith only in private, they would play the hypocrite, and give the lie to their beliefs. The Catholic politician cannot “leave his faith behind” in his decisions; he must continually view temporal realities from the eternal and divine perspective of his faith. If we accept St. Thomas’s definition of reason as a participation in the eternal law—that is, in eternal wisdom, the mind of the Creator Himself—then even to judge “according to natural law” is, in fact, to apply the divine measure to human realities.5 Failure to do this is not just an incidental failure, it is the total failure of prudence, above all of political prudence. A ruler cannot be a ruler at all, let alone a good one, if he is not seeking always to judge and legislate the affairs of temporal life according to unchanging principles. The Catholic position is simply that such principles may and should include supernatural principles as well as natural ones. The Catholic position rejects any understanding of politics that would remove or relativize fixed natural principles, by making the will of a majority, or the will of a dictator, the source of right. Fascist Germany, contemporary France, the United States in its liberal drift, are no different in this fundamental way: each has let what is right and wrong be determined by the will of man, whether by electorates or by unchallenged leaders. Far from being “pre-Vatican II,” this position is exactly what one finds in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.6
Although he recognized the “healthy secularity” of the modern state as did Pius XII before him, John Paul II was not a simple secularist, for otherwise he could not have continually demanded that states and societies make due efforts to preserve and promote man’s integral good, which transcends the order of material creation and life in this world. Yet seemingly he did not draw the Leonine conclusion that, since religion (taken in the Thomistic sense of the offering of public worship to God) is the first and highest moral virtue, the State has a solemn obligation to promote precisely this virtue and its exercise. Perhaps, like Pius XII, he was too anxious about the incompetence of the modern State to legislate well in regard to the highest conditions of human flourishing. And who could blame him for being skeptical? In one of his homilies, John Paul II spoke as follows:

Some of these systems [viz., ideological and economic systems succeeding one another in the last two centuries] also presumed to relegate religion to the merely private sphere, stripping it of any social influence or importance. In this regard, it is helpful to recall that a modern State cannot make atheism or religion one of its political ordinances. The State, while distancing itself from all extremes of fanaticism or secularism, should encourage a harmonious social climate and a suitable legislation which enables every person and every religious confession to live their faith freely, to express that faith in the context of public life and to count on adequate resources and opportunities to bring its spiritual, moral and civic benefits to bear on the life of the nation.7

What can we make of this, particularly the italicized portion? Does it not seem to rule out, from the start, a “Catholic confessional state” or a state that is moving in that direction due to the laudable efforts of its Catholic citizens?
The main point John Paul II is making here is one that the pope’s own teacher and model, St. Thomas Aquinas, taught first: a citizen’s practice or profession of religion cannot be dictated to him, imposed on him, or otherwise coerced. In that sense, the Catholic faith could never be a “political ordinance.” It could be, however, and should be, a socially privileged reality. What would this look like in practice? Things like keeping businesses closed on Sundays and holy days,8 forbidding hospitals to perform unethical practices, forbidding doc-tors to prescribe contraceptives, appointing that parliament or congress must open and close with prayer led by a priest, stipulating that proposed legislation be evaluated by the council of bishops, and so on. It is less clear whether or not the modern State, even if predominantly Catholic, would be within its rights to prohibit the construction of a mosque or even of a Protestant church. In any event, a strong case can be made for the minimum obligation of the State to protect “natural religion,” in such a way that atheism and all its expressions (e.g., literature arguing for a purely materialistic process of evolution) as well as metaphysical absurdities (e.g., Mormonism; polytheistic pagan religions) could be prohibited tout court, with no provision being made for their public exercise, since in them the intellect is denying first principles, and so cannot be said, in any way, to be pursuing truth.
Let us go back for a moment to Paul VI. Among the messages Paul VI wrote for specific audiences at the end of Vatican II stands a message addressed “To Rulers,” read out, like the others, on December 8, 1965. It captures extremely well the post-conciliar approach to politics. Its apparent minimalism (“we only ask…”) can only be read as deft rhetorical strategy, for two reasons: first, a position of “maximum minimalism” is certainly contradicted by the Magisterium of the Church, even in Dignitatis Humanae itself (by “maximum minimalism” is meant that the Church must always ask for, and choose, the least possible social presence and influence, being content with a mere absence of persecution—clearly an absurdity); second, if the demanding message it contains were truly implemented, it would lead necessarily to the conversion of society and to a Catholic regime, and so would undermine the “autonomy” of the secular. Nevertheless, it has a certain consistency as a temporary mechanism, that is, for so long as the Church does not occupy the privileged position rightfully and fittingly hers.
Here, then, is that message, which was read out on December 8 by Cardinal Liénart of Lille, assisted by Cardinal Alfrink of Utrecht and Cardinal Colombo of Milan. Its unfamiliarity to most people and the exceptional importance of its content warrant quotation in full:

At this solemn moment, we, the Fathers of the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, on the point of disbanding after four years of prayer and work, with the full consciousness of our mission toward mankind, address ourselves respectfully and confidently to those who hold in their hands the destiny of men on this earth, to all those who hold temporal power.
We proclaim publicly: We honor your authority and your sovereignty, we respect your office, we recognize your just laws, we esteem those who make them and those who apply them. But we have a sacrosanct word to speak to you and it is this: Only God is great. God alone is the beginning and the end. God alone is the source of your authority and the foundation of your laws.
Your task is to be in the world the promoters of order and peace among men. But never forget this: It is God, the living and true God, who is the Father of men. And it is Christ, His eternal Son, who came to make this known to us and to teach us that we are all brothers. He it is who is the great artisan of order and peace on earth, for He it is who guides human history and who alone can incline hearts to renounce those evil passions which beget war and misfortune. It is He who blesses the bread of the human race, who sanctifies its work and its suffering, who gives it those joys which you can never give it, and strengthens it in those sufferings which you cannot console.
In your earthly and temporal city, God constructs mysteriously His spiritual and eternal city, His Church. And what does this Church ask of you after close to 2,000 years of experiences of all kinds in her relations with you, the powers of the earth? What does the Church ask of you today? She tells you in one of the major documents of this Council. She asks of you only liberty, the liberty to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love her God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life. Do not fear her. She is made after the image of her Master, whose mysterious action does not interfere with your prerogatives but heals everything human of its fatal weakness, transfigures it and fills it with hope, truth and beauty.
Allow Christ to exercise His purifying action on society. Do not crucify Him anew. This would be a sacrilege, for He is the Son of God. This would be suicide, for He is the Son of man. And we, His humble ministers, allow us to spread everywhere without hindrance the Gospel of peace on which we have meditated during this Council. Of it, your peoples will be the first beneficiaries, since the Church forms for you loyal citizens, friends of social peace and progress.
On this solemn day when she closes the deliberations of her 21st Ecumenical Council, the Church offers you through our voice her friendship, her services, her spiritual and moral forces. She addresses to you all her message of salvation and blessing. Accept it, as she offers it to you with a joyous and sincere heart, and pass it on to your peoples.

This message sums up the approach of Paul VI; John Paul II followed the same line. In a letter to the Pontifical Council for Culture, he famously stated: “A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived.” Now, is not the way a people organize and govern themselves politically an immense aspect of their culture, one that is particularly influential over all other aspects of culture?9 Is this not, then, prime missionary territory to be entered and converted? And if this domain is converted, will it not mature into something like . . . Christendom, in the model depicted by St. Thomas Aquinas?10 In Ecclesia in Oceania (2001) John Paul II wrote: “It is vital that the Church insert herself fully into culture and from within bring about the process of purification and transformation” (§16). “It is the fundamental call of lay people to renew the temporal order in all its many elements. In this way, the Church becomes the yeast that leavens the entire loaf of the temporal order” (ibid., §43). “The Christian concept of marriage and the family is being op-posed by a new secular, pragmatic and individualistic outlook which has gained standing in the area of legislation” (ibid., §45). The implication of the last text is that the natural and even the Christian concept of marriage ought to attain, or regain, authoritative standing in the area of legislation. This is something John Paul II consistently demanded, confident that he was asking the State to undertake a task essentially within its competence—indeed, a basic requirement for the survival and prosperity of the people. As John Paul II has said in his 1984 Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, (§8): “More than ever, in fact, man is seriously threatened by an anti-culture which reveals itself, among other ways, in growing violence, murderous confrontations, exploitation of instincts and selfish interests.” And in his address to the same organ-ization in 1992 he said (§9):

The challenge of the 21st century is to humanize society and its institutions through the Gospel; to restore to the family, to cities and to villages a soul worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. . . . The Christian leaven will enrich living cultures and their values and bring them to full flower. In this way, hearts will be penetrated and cultures renewed by Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6) who “has brought complete newness by bringing Himself,” as Irenaeus of Lyons wrote (Adv. Haer., IV, 34, I).

In his own words again: “Freedom is fully exercised only through the acceptance of the truth and love which God offers to every person. For Christians this is an immense challenge to witness to the love of the one who has set us free—Jesus Christ, the source and the fulfilment of every culture” ibid., §8). In all these texts and many more besides, John Paul II was repeating and elaborating on what the Fathers of Vatican II had said in Apostolicam Actuositatem: People of God, men and women of the Church, do your utmost to bring the Gospel into the world, transforming culture in all its elements, including the economic and political!
But then what? If the popes, bishops, clergy and faithful of the Dark Ages had decided at one point to give up their quest for a Christian society—“It’s awfully depressing, all these plagues and barbaric tribes and crumbling buildings and seedy politicians, why don’t we just forget all about justice and peace in this world, which is a rotten place anyhow, and flee to the forests”—I daresay the Middle Ages, the Age of Faith and Chivalry, of Cathedrals and Summae, would never have been born. Tempted by discouragement in the face of evil, we must learn the same lesson: If we truly love Christ, then we will love and long for Christendom, which is the flowering of His grace in this vale of tears. This means we will do everything we can, as individuals, to make this world more welcoming to Christ, to His Church, to His saving Gospel and to its sanctifying power. And this will be the only long-term solution to our short-term problem: the want of seriously Catholic statesmen. It is a want that only faith, hope, and love, working against all odds, can supply, and not before many grains of wheat have first fallen into the ground and died (cf. Jn. 12:24). “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth . . . For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:6, 9).


1. Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, Letter to the Bishops and Faithful of France (1892), §28. See also Leo’s encyclical on the Christian Constitution of States, Immortale Dei (1885).

2. See Thomas Storck’s Foundations of a Catholic Political Order (Beltsville, MD: Four Faces Press, 1998), and his The Catholic Milieu (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987).

3. For a recent iteration, see the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, November 21, 2002.

4. The Final Report is an example of what Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of reform” over against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” (Address to the Roman Curia, December 22, 2005).

5.  As many magisterial texts declare, the Church is the guardian and interpreter of natural law in its purity; without giving ear to her teaching, it would be impossible for a State to follow “natural law morality” consistently and stably.

6. So much so that the encyclicals immediately generated a predictable reaction from liberals: “John Paul II is turning back the clock to the preconciliar days!” See the article “Democracy under the Care of a Guardian” (


8. Something John Paul II expressly calls for in, for instance, his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini of May 31, 1998.

9. It is obvious that people can organize themselves politically in evil ways, in anti-Christian ways (see Discourse to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture, 1990). Does it not follow that Christians may and must organize themselves in good ways, in ways expressly Christian?

10. I have in mind Aquinas’s opusculum On Kingship, where he argues in favor of a hierarchical society ruled by a Christian prince, himself subject to the Pope and the priests of the Roman Church. Over against this “consecrational Christendom” Jacques Maritain and Charles Journet attempted to articulate what a “secular Christendom” might look like, but I am not convinced they did not create a chimera, a contradiction in terms.