Rémi Brague: Culture Is the Hub of John Paul’s Thought

The French philosopher who won the Ratzinger Prize in 2012 discusses the legacy of St. John Paul II on the occasion of the opening of a new cultural institute bearing his name in Rome.

Rémi Brague
Rémi Brague (photo: Courtesy photo)

The first centenary of St. John Paul II’s birth was an occasion for the whole Catholic world to remember the extraordinary contribution that his pontificate brought to the Church, as well as the decisive influence he had on the political stage of his time. As tributes to his work and testimony of life were pouring in from many parts of the world, his precious legacy will be further immortalized by the establishment of a new cultural institute housed by the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), where he once studied.

The St. John Paul II Institute for Culture, which will also be an academic chair, will offer an in-depth study of the teachings of Karol Wojtyła “as a starting and continuous reference point in reflecting on current problems facing the Church in the modern world.” Each annual curricula will include lectures from prominent intellectuals coming from around the world, and a scholarship program will be also established for young scholars.

Among the most famous lecturers for the 2020-21 academic year will be Rémi Brague, who delivered the inaugural address for the launch of the institute, on the afternoon of May 18.

Brague, who will teach Christian anthropology of culture at the new institute, is a French philosopher and historian of philosophy and professor emeritus of medieval and Arabic philosophy at the Sorbonne. He is the recipient of a number of awards, including the prestigious Ratzinger Prize, in 2012. While discussing the polyhedral dimension of John Paul II’s legacy, Brague explains that the deep evolutions of the Western societies over the past three decades have by no means tainted the relevance of his teachings.


You’ve given a virtual lecture at the inauguration of the St. John Paul II Institute of Culture at the Angelicum in Rome. Is there any particular culture emerging from his pontificate? What is, in your view, the particular essence of his teachings?

You’ve driven the nail home when you spoke of culture. Culture is the hub of John Paul’s thought. He has not promoted a new kind, or style, of what you call it, of culture. Cultures or would-be cultures swarm in our present world. You can hardly throw a brick without your hitting one. I mentioned alleged cultures because you can’t possibly create a culture out of whole cloth. Cultures are the result of an age-long process of sedimentation, acceptance and handing over of what we received from a tradition.

John Paul did something deeper and probably more relevant, more apt in any case, to cope with the challenges which we have to face. He emphasized the decisive part played by culture for humankind, and especially for people who want to lead a civilized life. I mentioned, in the short opening speech you alluded to, the fact that Poland, John Paul’s native country, had survived two partitions for one century and a half, thanks to its culture: its language, faith and folklore.

In my opinion, however, his greatest merit is that he laid the stress on the struggle between two cultures. It is funny that, of the two phrases he coined, the first, “culture of life” should be a tautology and the second one, “culture of death,” an oxymoron. Every culture fosters life and helps it to flourish. The opposite phrase is contradictory because the reality that it captures is itself self-defeating.


In your opinion, could we say that his pontificate changed the face of Catholicism, as many people claim?

He certainly would hate to enter historical records as the man who changed the face of the Catholic Church. He simply wanted to make this face more shining, more convincing — not in order to sell it better, but because he was convinced that faith in Christ is good for humankind at large. The cleaning up he began is far from being completed; his successors plied the broom, too. We shall have to wait till the Last Day for wheat and tares to be neatly separated. Be that as it may, John Paul had the pluck to make several momentous steps: a new relationship to our roots in the faith of Israel; the courage to confess past crimes and to beg pardon; the courage to beard communism by exposing the lies which were its only basis.


The recent controversies surrounding the new policies implemented at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences suggest that, for some religious leaders, the Polish Pope’s teachings on family and sexuality are dated. Yet many students of this institute stepped up to defend this endangered heritage. What considerations did this controversy give to you?

I followed this story from afar, to be most concrete, from the other side of the Pond. Yet I have many friends on this side who are deeply committed to what the institute was originally meant to do, and who even belonged among its founding fathers, in particular Stanislaw Grygiel and David Schindler. They feared a high jacking of sorts by people for whom John Paul’s teachings were what you Americans call passé.

What is true is that the present-day mores of many people, supported by the administrations of many countries, recede ever farther from a sound attitude toward the body, the sexual divide, the simple fact that we have to beget children if our country, nay our species, is to survive.

Defending respect for the body, respect for women, respect for life since its inception till its natural death is not, or should not be, specific to the Church. What the Church stands for is humankind at large. Some present-day practices lead in the long run, by the inner logic of their development, to death. Now, the Church is not there only to bless hearses. It should warn people of the dangers which loom ahead.


In the same way, an international conference gathering prominent conservative personalities on the theme “Is the freedom of nations still desirable?” recently questioned the relevance of the spirit of political and economic freedom instilled by John Paul II in his time, namely in a world still grappling with the communist project. Some commentators today perceive this approach and vision as being unsuited to the current social, economic and political realities of the world. What do you think?

“Liberalism” is a slippery word; first, because its color changes when crossing the Atlantic — a “red shift” occurs when it travels westbound; second, because, although political liberty and the free market belong together, it is not enough to get the latter for the former automatically to arise.

As for freedom, it is a dangerous catchword, too. By and large, we mistake it for the fact of being left alone, at the beck and call of our fads, even if they are dangerously stupid. This is the way kids of 6 or 7 years conceive of freedom. Giving free rein to consumerism boils down to generalize this childish idea. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once spoke ironically of modern man’s “right to serfdom.” True freedom is free access to the Good. What threatens us is not too much freedom but, on the contrary, a perversion of freedom, which gives it too puny aims.


John Paul II’s famous “Don’t be afraid,” pronounced during his homily for the inauguration of his pontificate, in 1978, sounds particularly appropriate in these times of pandemic, as the West is suddenly faced with finiteness, that so many people have simply ignored so far. What lessons should we learn from this message of hope?

To be sure, the newly elected Pope meant his famous sentence to be understood in the broadest way. He probably thought of the communist terror which was rampant under Brezhnev. But I guess he had in the back of his mind the cold feet we get when we think of what a real conversion to Christ would involve. Unlike English, which has only one word, “hope,” my French mother tongue distinguishes espoir, the upbeat wager of an unexpected improvement of our situation, and espérance, one of the three so-called theological virtues, besides faith and charity.

I can’t stand “optimism,” the naive idea that things will turn out to have positive results, regardless of whether we act in an intelligent way or paint ourselves into corners.

The pandemic we experience at present shows, still on a smaller scale than, say, the Spanish Flu or the Black Death, that what we call “mortal questions” actually deserve the name and are a serious thing. Our civilization has been playing footsie with death for some decades already. Highbrow people deconstruct while average people abort. It is as if death were our last, hidden god. The very fact that we hush it up, that we don’t call it by name, gives evidence of its being some pagan mumbo jumbo. With this pandemic, death is taking us at our word: You’re on!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                Register Europe correspondent Solène Tadié 

writes from Rome.