Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi had a problem.

It was spring 2008, and the Italian prelate had served as president of the Pontifical Council for Culture for little more than six months. Pope Benedict XVI had appointed his longtime friend to the position with the understanding that Archbishop Ravasi would step up the Vatican’s efforts to engage in a dialogue about faith and reason with the world’s cultural leaders.

The reason for that dialogue was simple. According to Richard Rouse, who represents the Council in English-speaking countries, like Pope Paul VI, Pope Benedict recognized that the rift between the Gospel and the culture is “the great drama of our times.” And like Pope John Paul II, the pontiff knew that “the future of man depends on culture.”

But in many places around the world, Rouse continued, the Church sees “Catholics in Catholic cultures becoming cultural Catholics in secularizing cultures.”

The further away culture moves from the Gospel, the more culture becomes not man’s friend, but his enemy, inhibiting him from growing and flourishing. And when that happens, said Rouse, “we should call it by some name other than culture.”

The recognition, he added, that “the Gospel has the power to go to the very core of culture and purify it,” was the driving reason behind Pope Benedict’s desire for the Pontifical Council for Culture to begin a more active engagement with cultural leaders — including non-believers and non-Catholics. 

Dearth of dialogue

Which brings us back to Archbishop Ravasi’s problem.

After only a short time in office, the archbishop had made good progress on several fronts. The Vatican boasted well-developed ties with intellectuals, artists and politicians throughout Europe, Africa and Latin America, and was moving forward in their discussions.

But, in North America, nothing was happening.

For various reasons, the council had next to no ties with the cultural leaders in the United States and Canada. The contacts had simply not been developed. And until that happened, no dialogue could move forward.

At that point, Archbishop Ravasi brought in Max Bonilla, vice president of academic affairs at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. He knew that Bonilla and the university had worked with the council before, and he hoped Bonilla could help him come up with a plan to begin in the United States and Canada what had already begun elsewhere.

“The archbishop knew, because of the importance of American society in the world, that a dialogue had to take place,” Bonilla told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Series introduction

Over the next several months, a plan gradually took shape. A series of high-level events would be held at universities and cultural institutions across North America. The events, as they envisioned them, would bring Catholic intellectuals together with representatives from the secular culture, and would focus on various “hot button” issues, such as the arts, the sciences and the dignity of the human person. The series would bear the name, “From Sea to Shining Sea: Faith and Culture in North America.”

More than a year and a half after the plan was first discussed, the first “Sea to Shining Sea” event took place in early December at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Unlike future events, however, this was more of a planning meeting than conference, with a select group of Catholic laity and a half-dozen bishops and cardinals meeting primarily behind closed doors. Two Vatican officials were also in attendance — Richard Rouse and Msgr. Melchor Sanchez de Toca y Alameda, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Over the course of the three-day meeting, Pontifical Council for Culture members from North America — including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, retired Bishop William Friend of Shreveport, La., and Bishop Glen Provost of Lake Charles, La. — mapped out a series of future meetings on the arts, political life, science, music, secularization, atheism, economics and other topics.

Two sessions of the conference — lectures by Rouse on the role of culture in the New Evangelization and by Msgr. Sanchez on the Church’s relationship with the sciences — were open to the public.

According to Bonilla, future events will follow a similar format: Each will have a private component as well as a public component. Private discussions will be by invitation only, whereas public lectures will be open to general audiences.

Those events, which Bonilla said will take place over the next five years, are intended to promote “a deep dialogue that can really shape the culture.”

“What we want is a very respectful conversation that takes into account the serious and reasoned opinions of both believers and unbelievers,” he said. 

Cultural rift

The reason for that conversation, said Msgr. Sanchez, is that “right now, we’re in a state of mutual impoverishment. The Church and the faithful remain apart from what is happening in the world of mainstream U.S. culture, and the world of culture isn’t receiving the living stream of the Gospel. The Christian vision of man and society isn’t shaping what the culture does.”

Explaining the consequences of that separation, he continued, “The Church needs great artists because we need to be creating. Likewise, if artists aren’t close to religion, their art is impoverished. It’s not dealing with the big questions. This is true in many other fields as well, especially science. They have a need for reflection that goes beyond data and can help them grapple with who man is and what the limits of science are.”

Over the next several months, the event organizers will finalize plans for the second event in the “Sea to Shining Sea” series then announce both where and when it will be held. Several archbishops and organizations have asked to host events, and many details are yet to be finalized.

Msgr. Sanchez, however, believes that Archbishop Ravasi’s problem is well on its way to being solved.

“The United States has enormous influence around the world. In the areas of entertainment, science, philosophy, art, economics, politics, what happens here has a global impact. These conferences will help the Church be more present in the places where culture is being created.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Pope Benedict on Faith and Culture (sidebar)

— Excerpted from Pope Benedict XVI’s Nov. 19, 2009, address to the pontifical universities of Rome