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  • "Religion and Culture" and "Faith and the Renewal of Society" in Christopher Dawson and Pope Benedict XVI
  • R. Jared Staudt (bio)

Culture first found a place in the Church's magisterial teaching during the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes in particular contains an entire chapter on culture.1 The document strongly states that "it is a feature of the human person that it can achieve true and full humanity only by means of culture, that is, through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature. Whenever, therefore, there is a question of human life, nature and culture are intimately linked together."2 The importance placed on culture by Vatican II ensured its place in the writings of the pontiffs following the Council.3 A particularly important moment in the promotion of culture as a central facet of the Church's life came with Blessed John Paul II's establishment of the Pontifical Council for Culture. He gave nearly annual addresses to the Council from 1983 to 1999, during which he deepened Vatican II's teaching on culture by placing it centrally within the task of the New Evangelization. The following demonstrates John Paul's firm conviction on the crucial role of culture: "On the eve of the Third Millennium, the apostolic mission of the Church commits her to a new evangelization in which culture assumes fundamental importance."4 And further: "A faith that does [End Page 31] not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived."5 Thus, a further investigation of culture and its significance has been placed by the Church as a central task today. In order to take up this challenge, I will explore the importance of culture for the Church and theology today by examining the connections between the thought of Pope Benedict XVI and the historian of culture, Christopher Dawson.6

Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) has consistently focused on the themes of religion and culture throughout his scholarly career, themes that formed the very basis of Christopher Dawson's career as a historian, social scientist, and lecturer in Catholic Studies. Though there are many links between their thought, to my knowledge, Benedict does not make any explicit reference to Dawson in his writings.7 Nevertheless, Dawson's thought provides compelling depth to Benedict's account of culture and religion, and furthermore climaxes in a theme very dear to Benedict: the spiritual renewal of Western civilization. Dawson engaged in a project of cultural history that began in the very origins of culture and stretched throughout history until what he saw to be a defining moment within our own time. Dawson recognized that Western civilization embarked on a new and dangerous project by explicitly eliminating religion from culture. Without religion to provide a moral vision, he warned that the West faced an overwhelming threat in the rise of a powerful and uncontrolled technocratic civilization. His thought provides the background necessary to bolster Benedict's call to recognize the necessary role that religion plays in any culture and more specifically the need for the Christian faith, in relation to reason, to renew the waning, secular West. This article will examine their common ground in these areas and offer concrete suggestions on how Dawson can provide assistance in the Church's task of cultural renewal. [End Page 32]

I. Religion and Culture

Though both Dawson and Benedict predominantly focus on a renewal of Western culture through a return to its Christian roots, to turn immediately to this point would be to move too quickly. The foundation for this focus is based more foundationally on their view of the general relation between religion and culture, of which Christianity's role in the West is a particular example. Therefore, we must begin by examining the phenomenon of religion and its relation to culture in both Dawson and Benedict.

The Nature of Religion

Turning first to the nature of religion, both thinkers agree that human nature is intrinsically ordered toward something beyond itself. Dawson sees religion as a "recognition of a superhuman Reality of which man is somehow conscious and towards which he must in some way orient his life."8 This ordering creates a...


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