JP2 Lecture // George Weigel: “John Paul II, the Primacy of Culture and the Contemporary Culture Wars”

On Wednesday, November 29, another lecture was held in the series of JP2 Lectures organized by the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at the Angelicum. The lecture, entitled “John Paul II, the Primacy of Culture and the Contemporary Culture Wars,” was given by Professor George Weigel.

In his lecture, George Weigel relied primarily on the reflection about the role of culture in society expressed by John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus. In it, the Pope outlined three crucial components of a free and virtuous society in a post-Cold War reality. These are: a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture. It is in the latter that he saw as the key to the entire structure. Culture is what gives a society the ability to steer political and economic forces in the right direction. For societies deprived of the beneficial influence of culture – or influenced by a culture guided by values that distort human dignity – turn against man and threaten to destroy the social fabric. The Church, in caring for the society in which it operates, must therefore also be concerned about the vitality of culture.

John Paul II’s views in this regard were strongly influenced by Polish history – both events he witnessed himself, such as the experience of two totalitarianisms, as well as earlier history, most notably the agony and partitions of Poland starting in the late 18th century. It was due to the vitality of Polish culture that the aforementioned acts of violence, aimed not only at Polish statehood, but also at the very existence of the Polish people, did not result in the destruction of the nation. It was the values deeply rooted in the culture and, thanks to it, transmitted from generation to generation, that shaped people’s consciences, prompting them to resist, which often required courage and willingness to take the greatest risks. George Weigel also recalled the first papal pilgrimage to Poland, during which John Paul II reminded his fellow countrymen, living in a lie maintained by the communist authorities, what authentic culture is all about. The fruits of this lesson were the “Solidarity” movement and the bloodless revolution of 1989.

George Weigel then moved on to the second part of his speech, in which he reflected on the modern phenomenon of “culture wars.” The concept itself is nothing new. It was already used by Otto von Bismarck to justify, among others, actions targeting the Catholic Church. According to Professor Weigel, the central issue of the modern “culture wars” is the approach to the possibility of shaping human nature. One side of the confilct declares human nature to be unlimitedly malleable, while those who are closer to Christian or classical anthropology argue that it holds innate and unchangeable truths.

According to George Weigel, the former side does not recognize a field for dialogue with the latter, seeking total control of the discourse. This was foreseen by Karol Wojtyła, who, even in his earliest writings, strongly emphasized the need to defend Christian, personalist anthropology against what he saw as the greatest spiritual threat to modern man – the deconstruction of the very notion of “human nature,” the reduction of the person to an extrinsically controllable bundle of needs and desires.

How should, then, the Church be engaged in these struggles? Professor Weigel noted that many Christians resist the very notion of a “culture war,” seeing it as unnecessarily antagonistic, and stressing that Christian universalism does not allow for such contextualization of the issue. The speaker, however, argued that the Church, faced with a culture setting itself in stark opposition to Christian anthropological and social teachings, has no choice but to become counter-cultural; it needs to show people the way to noble truths about themselves, and to the salvation in Christ. The Christian mission, Weigel concluded, is therefore in its essence a rescue mission. In this situation, to be called a good soldier of the culture war is commendable for a Catholic – all the more so since John Paul II was one himself, avant la lettre so to speak.