Joseph Ratzinger, upon receiving the St. Benedict Award in Subiaco, Italy, on April 1, 2005, maintained, “Our greatest need in the present historical moment is people who make God credible in this world by means of the enlightened faith they live…. We need men whose intellect is enlightened by the light of God, men whose hearts are opened by God, so that their intellect can speak to the intellect of others and their hearts can open the hearts of others. It is only by means of men who have been touched by God that God can return to be with mankind. We need men like Benedict of Nursia, who, in an age of dissipation and decadence, immersed himself in the uttermost solitude. Then, after all the purifications he had to undergo, he succeeded in rising again to the light.”[1] Drawing from these words, we can say that we also need women and men who draw upon the living well of the Logos within the liturgy to transform culture. Modern culture needs the witness of St. Benedict and disciples of Benedictine thought (or followers of a “Benedict option”) to learn about authentic inculturation.

St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547), writes Roland Millare, “is rightly called the Father of Western Monasticism. He might also be called the Father of Inculturation. For this future father, having left the city of Rome and its worldly allurements, found God in the country. After gathering around himself other like-minded men, he set down his famous Rule, a formula for cultivating God-centered living that would eventually serve as the basis of other monastic houses, themselves the seed bed of Western culture for years to come.”

St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) is rightly called the Father of Western Monasticism. He might also be called the Father of Inculturation. For this future father, having left the city of Rome and its worldly allurements, found God in the country. After gathering around himself other like-minded men, he set down his famous Rule, a formula for cultivating God-centered living that would eventually serve as the basis of other monastic houses, themselves the seed bed of Western culture for years to come.

What was the Rule’s secret? In fact, it was no secret at all, for both Benedict’s own name—“to speak well,” bene dicere—along with his Rule’s opening line say it all: “Listen, my son, with the ear of your heart.” This speaking well and heart-felt listening focus on nothing other than the Reality of all realities: the Logos. Because he and his future orders were based on the Logos, the Benedictine cultus—and the West’s culture—was planted, grew, and reached to the heavens. It is fitting, then, that in our own day Benedictine Father Cassian Folsom, Pope Benedict XVI, and Benedictine Father Virgil Michel, three sons of Benedict, speak so well of the restoration of our culture, which is based upon the Christian cultus, and is itself rooted in the heart of the Trinity, upon the Logos.

For example, in his article, “Cultus, Culture, and Counterculture: An Enlightened Monastic Response to Our Secular Dark Age,” published in the May 2019 Adoremus Bulletin, Father Cassian highlights the clear etymological relationship between the words “culture” and cultus (“worship”).[2] In light of this connection, he makes the case that culture is formed by the celebration of the liturgy. An authentic Christian culture will only come to fruition when there is an appreciation, an understanding, and a reverence for the celebration of the sacred liturgy, which is the source of what fellow Benedictine Virgil Michel (1890-1938) refers to as a “true Christian spirit.” In this regard, Michel has a shared sacramental worldview with another “Benedict,” Joseph Ratzinger, for whom the sacred liturgy (cultus) is also foundational for an authentic Christian culture.[3] Indeed, each of these “Benedicts” come to the same conclusion: the liturgy of the Logos is the essential ingredient in any culture that aspires to become truly Christian.

Benedictine Virgil Michel contends that culture “implies human improvement of nature, but for the purpose of greater realization of the possibilities of nature…, the application of human endeavor and of reason to the natural abilities of man for the development of the best that is in him.” The work of faith, of course, “cultivates” nature unto a supernatural end in God, where a “new heavens and a new earth” live forever (Revelation 21:1).

The liturgy, Michel insists, insofar as it is the source of the “true Christian spirit,” is also the source of renewal of culture, a point which Michel makes with the help of a clear and concise syllogism: “Pius X tells us that the liturgy is the indispensable source of the true Christian spirit; Pius XI says that the true Christian spirit is indispensable for social regeneration. Hence the conclusion: the liturgy is the indispensable basis of social regeneration.”[4] In other words, social regeneration cannot take place without the liturgy. Ratzinger also reaches this conclusion, although, whereas Michel emphasizes the notion of the “true Christian spirit,” Ratzinger highlights the idea of “logicizing,” which can take place in the life of the individual participating in the liturgy. The liturgy in Ratzinger’s view is intended in part for “the ‘logicizing’ of my existence, my interior contemporaneity with the self-giving of Christ. His self-giving is meant to become mine, so that I become contemporary with the Pasch of Christ and assimilated unto God.”[5] Hence the liturgy is essential for the authentic renewal of culture, which cannot come to fruition apart from the faith.

But there are other ways in which Michel’s and Ratzinger’s thoughts are commensurate regarding this question of liturgy and culture. Drawing upon the thought of Romano Guardini, the primacy of the logos over ethos (which Guardini examines in the final chapter of his The Spirit of the Liturgy) is a hermeneutical key to understanding the unique vision of Ratzinger’s theology of liturgy and its relationship to culture. The logos (“word,” “meaning,” or “reason”) of a culture forms or directs the ethos (“habit,” “custom” or “moral values”) of individual people within a given society. In a sacramental worldview, the authentic Christian logos is best defined as a communio and selfless love is its corresponding ethos. To reframe this within the language of Michel’s work, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ (logos) is the source of the true Christian spirit in her celebration of the liturgy (ethos). This dynamic relationship between logos and ethos is essential as we develop the link between faith and culture, define Christian culture, and offer nuance to help us better understand the term “inculturation.”

Faith and Culture

Let us examine, then, how faith and culture are related in the works of Michel and Ratzinger. In his work Truth and Tolerance, Ratzinger emphasizes that religion is the essential element of a “definitive culture.”[6] Ratzinger reiterates this point by writing, “faith itself is cultural” in that it is “creating culture and is culture.”[7] Michel contends that culture “implies human improvement of nature, but for the purpose of greater realization of the possibilities of nature.”[8] Further, Michel asserts that culture is “the application of human endeavor and of reason to the natural abilities of man for the development of the best that is in him.”[9] The work of faith, of course, “cultivates” nature unto a supernatural end in God, where a “new heavens and a new earth” live forever (Revelation 21:1).

Both Michel and Ratzinger would agree with the English historian Christopher Dawson, who argues, “We cannot separate culture from religion any more than we can separate our life from our faith. As a living faith must change the life of the believer, so a living religion must influence and transform the social way of life—that is to say, the culture.”[10] Faith by its very nature orients natural human culture towards its final end in God, and a culture separated from religion is a dying culture because it has lost contact with its authentic source of life: Jesus Christ.

The Church as a whole, writes Joseph Ratzinger, “must, for the sake of God, strive for the best, for from the very nature of the liturgy, by an inner necessity, comes a culture that becomes a standard for all secular culture.”

The current challenge faced in contemporary society is a culture which chooses to ignore the sacramental view of reality—the lenses of faith—in favor of a merely materialistic worldview. Again, both Michel and Ratzinger recognize this danger. For Michel such a worldview empty of the transcendent reduces reality to an “unchristian naturalism” and materialism.[11] This type of naturalism, which rejects the transcendent or the supernatural, Ratzinger sees as the great difficulty of the 20th century—what he describes as a “crisis of sacramentality.”[12] The majority of people in modern culture have, in Ratzinger’s estimation, “grown accustomed to seeing in the substance of things nothing but the material for human labor—when, in short, the world is regarded as matter and matter as material—initially there is no room left for that symbolic transparency of reality toward the eternal on which the sacramental principle is based.”[13] In other words, there is only room for an immanentization for all created reality with no possibility for the transcendent to enter into that reality. In the end, the only way to reorient modern culture is to recover the true Christian spirit, which Michel and Ratzinger insist begins by recognizing the sacramental liturgy as the ultimate source of cultural renewal.

Christian Culture

But what is necessary for a truly Christian culture? Dawson argues, “The only true criterion of a Christian culture is the degree in which the social way of life is based on the Christian faith. However barbarous a society may be, however backward in the modern humanitarian sense, if its members possess a genuine Christian faith they will possess a Christian culture—and the more genuine the faith, the more Christian the culture.”[14] An authentic Christian faith, Dawson notes, will view culture from a sacramental perspective, seeing the spiritual potential of every material aspect of culture. By contrast, Michel says, the secular worldview “necessarily makes material progress an end in itself.”[15]

In a Christian culture, Michel contends, “the material is always the sign and instrument of spirit.”[16] When the material is the ultimate end, then it comes as no surprise that utility, mechanical artificiality, and even ugliness reign in contemporary music, art, and the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated. In a similar vein, Ratzinger writes, “[T]he Church as a whole must, for the sake of God, strive for the best, for from the very nature of the liturgy, by an inner necessity, comes a culture that becomes a standard for all secular culture.”[17]

Although Ratzinger makes this statement in relationship to sacred music, it can easily apply to all forms of the ars celebrandi. The celebration of the liturgy in many contemporary parishes takes its cues from the culture, whereas the liturgy should take the lead in forming and renewing culture—an authentic inculturation of the faith.

Authentic Inculturation

In his work, Ratzinger has emphasized that there is a need to inculturate the faith into contemporary culture if a Christian culture is to survive.[18] Although Michel’s work predates explicit treatment of the term inculturation, he and Ratzinger once again show remarkable agreement when it comes to understanding the basis for true inculturation—whether through what Michel calls the “Christian spirit” or through Ratzinger’s notion of “logicization.” But because there is some confusion about the ends and means of inculturation, there is also an equal and corresponding need to define (or redefine) inculturation, so the liturgy does not become the means of promoting one’s own individual culture but a true expression of Christian culture.

The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah notes that when “we really understand the meaning of the term ‘knowledge’ as penetration of the Mystery of Jesus Christ, we then possess the key to inculturation, which is not to be presented as a quest or a claim for the legitimacy of an Africanization or Latin-Americanization or Asianization of Christianity instead of a Westernization. Inculturation is not the canonization of a local culture or the decision to settle in that culture at the risk of absolutizing it. Inculturation is an epiphany of the Lord, who breaks into the most intimate recesses of our being.”[19] In practice, inculturation within the liturgy has often reduced worship to a cultural variety show highlighting the use of music, language, instruments, or dances from varying cultures. In light of Cardinal Sarah’s definition, authentic inculturation will allow the liturgy to be celebrated in a manner that its authentic cosmic and eschatological symbolism will become clearly evident so it can reorient a culture, and especially our own Western culture, drowning in the deep and deceptive waters of mechanistic autonomy.

Like Sarah, Ratzinger stresses the cosmological symbolism of the liturgy as a corrective against the anthropocentric tendency (“self-made world”) within modern culture: “Today we are in the midst of a crisis in the anthropocentric view of the world, a crisis that pervades the whole of man’s self-made world. At such a time we need to rediscover (and indeed we are rediscovering) the significance of creation.”[20] Consequently, Ratzinger argues, we “need to be reminded that liturgy involves the cosmos—that Christian liturgy is cosmic liturgy. In it we pray and sing in concert with everything ‘in heaven and earth and under the earth’ (Phil 2:10), we join in with the praise of God and a sign of the mystery of Christ for the assembled community.”[21]

Through the celebration of the liturgy we not only anticipate the omega of the eschaton—that is, Christ’s second coming—but we can witness the alpha of God’s original plan for creation. Without these alpha and omega points to human history, the predominance of the materialist ontology results in a view of the world as simply self-made by man’s autonomous ethos, which precedes from the logos of technē. Ratzinger argues, “God’s creation and ‘nature’ are having to defend themselves against the limitless pretentions of human beings as creators. Human beings want to understand the discovered world only as material for their own creativity.”[22] In the celebration of the liturgy, as the Church joins in the worship of the entire cosmos, the truth—God’s centrality in all of reality—that has been neglected comes to foreground: all of creation has its origin in the Creator.

According to the Pope Emeritus, in the presentation of the gifts on the altar we recognize creation’s indebtedness to God explicitly with these words prayed by the priest: “fruit of the earth,” “fruit of the vine,” and “work of human hands.”[23] The bread and wine have been made by the human person, but first they are fruits of creation; as such, bread, wine, and even human work find their origin—their alpha—in the Creator. Now, too, these gifts will become transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. This sacramental transformation is also symbolic of the omega—the coming cosmological transfiguration of the eschaton.[24] Michel, of course, would welcome the future pope’s reflections on the point. Recall that Michel’s own view of culture’s purpose: the “greater realization of the possibilities of nature.”[25] Could merely natural bread, water, and wine attain such a supernatural end without God-and-man’s liturgical cultivation, that is, cultus?

The world was created as part of God’s plan, and consequently it must be transformed by his sacrificial love. Explicitly, Ratzinger contends that the plan of providence includes the divinization of all creation “That is why St. Augustine could say that the true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed humanity, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). This is the purpose of the world. That is the essence of sacrifice and worship.”[26] The transformation of the created order in its entirety is a part of God’s plan. Continuing his remarks on divinization in God’s vision for the world, Ratzinger maintains, “the goal of worship and the goal of creation as whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love.”[27] Ratzinger makes the implications of the close relationship between creation and worship clear: “But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history.”[28]

The origin and goal of creation is one and the same, communion with God. Therefore, worship and creation share this same goal. Because of this connection, there is a clear need to make the symbolism of the cosmic and eschatological nature of the liturgy clearer through the various ars celebrandi. Only in this context, for example, can we fully appreciate Ratzinger’s repeated emphasis on the need for the celebration of the liturgy ad orientem throughout his writings:[29] facing creation’s sun orients us to the Father’s Son.

Subsequently, the liturgy can assist in helping people to see the divine plan for the cosmos, which ultimately is recreated in Christ. The world has been created by the Logos of God and we are called upon to worship according to the Logos (cf. Romans 12:1). Revealing this same plan unfolding in time yet transcending time, the letter to the Ephesians provides insight into the recapitulation of all creation in Jesus Christ: “For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”[30]

As St. Paul notes, the Incarnation is already a realization of God’s plan for creation as Jesus’ human nature is united with his divine nature. That plan is once and for all but continues to unfold today so that, at the Incarnation, the Logos incarnatus forms the foundation for a Christian culture, which is the fruit of an authentic inculturation. In Cardinal Sarah’s view, “Inculturation is God descending and entering into the life, the moral conduct, the cultures and customs of men so as to free them from sin and to introduce them into the Trinitarian life.”[31] Hence full participation in the liturgy is itself a form of inculturation that allows the person to share in the supernatural life of grace. Likewise, although Virgil Michel does not use the term “inculturation,” when speaking about the transformative power of the liturgy, in Michel’s view the liturgy is the “ordinary school of the development of the true Christian, and the very qualities and outlook it develops in him are also those that make for the best realization of a genuine Christian culture.”[32] Through the individual’s genuine embrace of Christ, in other words, the culture to which the individual belongs also wholeheartedly embraces Christ.

Virgil Michel saw culture as the “greater realization of the possibilities of nature,” the supreme example of which is the Catholic Mass. Could merely natural bread, water, and wine attain such a supernatural end without God-and-man’s liturgical cultivation, that is, cultus?

Inculturation of the Logos

In discussing evangelization, Ratzinger employs an image that is attributed to St. Basil the Great.[33] Alluding to the prophet Amos and his image of the sycamore tree (see Amos 7:14), Basil maintains that this tree is a symbol for the pagan culture of his time because “it offers a surplus, yet at the same time it is insipid. This comes from living according to Pagan customs. Alone, the sycamore tree and its fruit are incapable of bringing about their own transformation.” However, Basil notes, “When one manages to slit” open the sycamore’s fruit (representing for Basil the pagan world) “by the means of the Logos, it is transformed, becomes tasty and useful.”[34]

In a similar manner, Ratzinger argues, “The Logos itself must slit our cultures and their fruit, so that what is unusable is purified and becomes not only usable but good…; ultimately only the Logos himself can guide our cultures to their true purity and maturity, but the Logos makes us his servants, the ‘dresser of sycamore trees.’”[35] The Logos can lead the liturgy and ultimately cultures to their authentic end, which is communion with God in Jesus Christ.

Both Ratzinger and Michel consistently demonstrate that the transformation of the person and the culture cannot be realized by humanity’s efforts alone, but by the true Christian spirit which we receive through participating in the sacred liturgy. Thus, while inculturation itself may be a relatively recent term, students of liturgy examining the “Christian spirit” which informs authentic inculturation can only benefit from a study of Virgil Michel and Joseph Ratzinger as two minds very much in tune with the mission of the Church to spread the Gospel today as yesterday. By this study, today’s efforts continue the work begun centuries ago, work given a special grace through the life and work of St. Benedict. Listen with the ear of the heart to the Logos; speak clearly the life-giving Word of the Father; and let the Christian cultus cultivate a Christian culture.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, Trans. Brian McNeil (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 52-53.

[2] See Adoremus Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 7 (May 2019): 1; 4-5.

[3] On the affinity between Ratzinger and Michel, see this author’s article “The Spirit of the Liturgical Movement: A Benedictine Renewal of Culture.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, 17.1 (Fall 2014): 130-154. This article offers a fuller development of parallel themes in their respective writings on the liturgy.

[4] Virgil Michel, “The Liturgy: The Basis of Social Regeneration,” In Orate Fratres 9 no.12 (1935): 545.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, ed. Michael J. Miller, trans. John Saward, Kenneth Baker, S.J., Henry Taylor et al., Collected Works 11 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 34; cited henceforth as JRCW 11.

[6] Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, Trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 59.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Michel, “Christian Culture,” In Orates Fratres 13 (1939): 296.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Christopher Dawson, “The Historical Reality of Christian Culture,” In Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson, Ed. Gerald J. Russello (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 1998), 54.

[11] Michel, “Christian Culture,” 299.

[12] JRCW 11:153.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Christopher Dawson, 4.

[15] Michel, “Christian Culture,” 302.

[16] Ibid.

[17] JRCW 11:132.

[18] Ratzinger notes, “It is therefore ever more strongly emphasized today that in order to survive, faith must inculturate itself into the modern technical/rational culture. But then the question naturally arises: Can we refer to the civilization of technical unity as a ‘culture’ in the same sense as the great cultures that have grown up at different times and places in the life of mankind? Can faith be inculturated in one and in the other at the same time? What identity could it then still have at all?” (Truth and Tolerance, 58).

[19] Robert Cadinal Sarah (with Nicolas Diat), The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, translated by Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 225-226.

[20] JRCW 11:391

[21] Ibid.

[22] In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990), 81.

[23] Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum caritatis (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007), 92.

[24] Commenting on the insight that Teilhard de Chardin offers for the Eucharist, Ratzinger posits, “The transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the christological ‘fullness’” (JRCW 11:15-16).

[25] Michel, “Christian Culture,” 296.

[26] JRCW 11:15.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ratzinger’s commentary on worship ad orientem is a theme developed in The Spirit of the Liturgy and throughout his writings. See JRCW 11:40-51. Consistently, Ratzinger maintains the cosmic and eschatological symbolism of celebrating the liturgy ad orientem: “For the true location and the true context of the eucharistic celebration is the whole cosmos. ‘Facing east’ makes this cosmic celebration of the Eucharist present through liturgical gesture. Because of the rising of the sun, the east – oriens – was naturally both a symbol of the Resurrection (and to that extent it was not merely a christological statement but also a reminder of the Father’s power and the influence of the Holy Spirit) and a presentation of the hope of the Parousia. Where priest and people together face the same way, what we have is a cosmic orientation and also an interpretation of the Eucharist in terms of Resurrection and trinitarian theology. Hence it is also an interpretation in terms of Parousia, a theology of hope, in which every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ” (JRCW 11:389).

[30] Eph 1:10-11.

[31] Sarah, 226-227.

[32] Michel, “Christian Culture,” 296.

[33] Ratzinger cites Basil, In Is 9, 228 (commentary on Isaiah 9:10), PG 30, 516D/517A, cited in Christian Gnilka, Chrêsis: Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur, vol. 2 of Kultur und Conversion (Basel, 1993), 84-86. Joseph Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 46-47.

[34] Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, 46.

[35] Ibid., 47.

Roland Millare

Roland Millare serves as vice president for curriculum and program director of Clergy Initiatives (continuing education and formation programs for priests and deacons) for the St. John Paul II Foundation, Houston, TX, and as an adjunct professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas School of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary, Houston, TX, the University of Dallas, and the Diocese of Fort Worth. Roland earned a doctorate in sacred theology (STD) at the Liturgical Institute/University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He is the author of the book, A Living Sacrifice: Liturgy and Eschatology in Joseph Ratzinger (Emmaus Academic).