Change a culture and you change a society

October 2, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 551-564

As a youth, Karol Wojtyla was an actor. He was largely uninvolved in the political trials facing the Polish nation under Nazi occupation. The future pope took a longer-term view. He believed the way to change society is to change its culture.


Some believed that out of fear of the Nazis, Wojtyla ran from political involvement or armed resistance. Papal biographer George Weigel sees it differently:

"The evidence makes it clear that Karol Wojtyla deliberately chose the power of resistance through culture, through the power of the word, in which the conviction that the 'word' (and in Christian terms, the Word) is that on which the world turns" (Witness to Hope, p. 66).

Wojtyla's reflection deepened still further and brought him eventually to the conclusion that it was through the priesthood that he could have the greatest effect on his nation's culture and thus on the nature of society. He never surrendered his view that the moral culture is the foundation of society. Improve that culture and you will strengthen society.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church discusses four areas in which the laity can witness to the Church's social teaching – service to the human person, service in culture, service in the economy and service in politics.

However, the Compendium devotes the vast bulk of its reflection to two of those areas of service – service in culture and service in politics. This article will reflect on the laity's opportunity to build a better society by serving as cultural workers.

A country's culture is determined by the same factors as human growth. We need to be healthy intellectually, socially, physically and spiritually. When one pillar collapses, the person is in disarray. So too with society.

However, having dealt with the other aspects elsewhere, the Compendium focuses on the intellectual aspects of culture. It treats the spiritual aspect of culture as the main trunk, while the other aspects flow from it. "The separation of faith and daily life (is) one of the most serious errors of our day," it notes (n. 554). Life must always be rooted in spirit and truth.

"The social and political involvement of Catholics has never been limited to the mere transformation of structures," it continues (n. 555). Christian involvement takes place at the foundation of culture "that receives and listens to the reasoning made by faith and morality."

The Christian involvement in culture is an educational one. "The commitment to the educational formation of the person has always represented the first concern of Christian social action" (n. 557).

In that perspective, it seems odd that this section on cultural workers does not talk about education through schools, Catholic colleges or parish-based learning. Rather, the Compendium zeroes in on the media as the leading cultural institution.


The Church's contribution to the media - not just mass media, but also presumably the arts - is "a long tradition of wisdom, rooted in divine revelation and human reflection" (n. 560). This tradition of wisdom can help save humanity from atheism, permissiveness and consumerism, three factors which undermine a healthy culture.

The Compendium quotes none other than Pope John Paul who said, "The Church's culture of wisdom can save the media culture of information from becoming a meaningless accumulation of facts."

Indeed, in an information age, when we seem to be almost drowning in a sea of facts, the search for wisdom has been left anchored in the harbour.

But as well as stirring that search, the media should serve as "possible and powerful instruments of solidarity." When the media exist to "serve greed and covetousness," certain aspects of human suffering can be completely ignored (n. 561).

The media has the possibility of telling us the tales of people who suffer from poverty, exploitation or disease, both locally and globally, and to tell us of those who work to overcome those ills. When this happens, the media becomes a powerful instrument of solidarity.

The media and other cultural institutions have the task of leading people out of their own tiny spheres of existence into caring for a wider world. They can move us to solidarity with others and to enter into the wisdom of the ages. In doing so, they enrich the culture.

Most beneficial social change is not an overnight transformation of societal structures, but rather the baby steps taken to deepen our moral knowledge and behaviour, and to expand our care for others.

Without this tiny, almost imperceptible, social change, the transformation of structures can come to naught.


"The ethical dimension of culture is a priority in the social action of the laity," says the Compendium (n. 556). Karol Wojtyla was one who understood that at an early age. His lifelong dedication to uplifting the ethical culture has helped to make the world a better place than it would otherwise be.

Our devotion to this task may well have similar results.