Benedict XVI on Bach

In a report on his message to the 2021 Bach Festival, Benedict XVI was somewhat misrepresented by the Catholic News Agency. According to CNA, “Benedict’s message said: ‘The faith that produced this music and which Bach, as a musician, loyally served, is now extinguished and continues to have an effect only as a cultural force.'”

As is clear from the whole paragraph from which this sentence is extracted, the remark quoted is the pope’s gloss on the concept Kulturchristentum, not a statement of the pope emeritus’s own viewpoint:

Schon die Tatsache, daß es von Sendern aller Welt übernommen worden wird, zeigt, daß es den Raum der an Jesus Christus glaubenden christlichen Gemeinde weit überschreitet und vielfach nur als kulturelles Geschehen wahrgenommen wird. Auch innerhalb der christlichen Welt spricht man im Zusammenhang mit der großen Musik des Glaubens von Kulturchristentum und will damit sagen, daß der Glaube, der diese Musik hervorgebracht und dem Bach als Musiker treulich gedient hat, inzwischen erloschen ist und nur noch als kulturelle Kraft weiterwirkt. Diese Reduktion mag man als gläubiger Christ bedauern, aber sie trägt auch ein positives Element in sich. Denn es bleibt bestehen, daß etwas als Kultur angenommen wird, das Frucht gläubiger Begegnung mit Jesus ist und diesen Ursprung für immer in sich trägt.

The very fact that it will be picked up by broadcasters the world over indicates that it goes beyond the realm of Christian communities who believe in Jesus Christ and frequently will be perceived solely as a cultural event. Within the Christian world, too, one speaks, in relation to the great music of faith, of “cultural Christianity,” [a term] meaning that the faith which yielded this music and which Bach loyally served as a musician has since become extinct and continues to have an effect only as a cultural force. As a faithful Christian, one may regret this reduction, but it also has a positive aspect. For it remains so that what is taken up as culture is the fruit of a faithful encounter with Jesus, and this origin is borne within it forever.

Kulturchristentum is a concept that emerges from the work of German cultural historian Wilhelm Gössmann. It refers to the idea that Christian art has gradually but essentially become dechristianized since the eighteenth century. Accepting this premise, popular and populist forms of Christian renewal within the Church have tended to shy away from a Christian cultural patrimony seen as merely “culturally Christian,” and have, conversely, sought to adopt and christianize the popular culture, seen to be a more promising arena for genuine, contemporary encounters with faith.

While the Catholic Church since Vatican II has accepted its diminished cultural hegemony and has engaged anew with other faiths and global cultures (a reform of, in the Church’s term, its catholicity ad extra) and has furthermore adopted and adapted the forms of vernacular and popular culture to the inner life of the Church (ad intra), it should come as no surprise that Rome has constantly reaffirmed the Christian cultural patrimony—especially that of Europe, and increasingly of global Christendom—and even given it “pride of place.” Within the Church, this has often been decried, or at least privately lamented, by those who would read Vatican II with a hermeneutic of discontinuity: on this view, the continued cultivation of Gregorian chant and Palestrina (and even Lutheran Bach) are empty antiquarian gestures not solely indifferent, but actually inimical to living the faith in the present day.

But the “positive aspect,” to which Benedict XVI draws attention in his Bach Festival message, would have Christians consider that the old and the new are not two things but one—a living tradition encountered afresh in each generation. For the pope emeritus, the Church is not so much an island in a sea of “mere” Kulturchristentum (itself, presumably, a mere puddle in comparison with the vast secular waters beyond), but is rather a nexus at which faith and culture interpenetrate. Kulturchristentum is not the domain of dead faith, an arena from which faith has retracted or been purged. Rather, it is the penumbra of living, active faith. The mystery of faith is worked out and lived through human culture. Kulturchristentum is the cultural domain shared by believing Christians and culturally Christian non-believers; it is a domain where Christian ethics still holds its powerful normative sway, and where, indeed, Christian doctrine is understood and, as it were, sensed, even if incompletely or incredulously. On Benedict’s view, Kulturchristentum is not separate from the Church, but an outgrowth of it, the environment it created for itself for the sake of its own mission.

This theological-cultural interpenetration is frequently encountered in Benedict’s writings, especially on the liturgy, and in the official documents of his pontificate. For example, the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (July 2007), which broadened permission to celebrate the Mass using pre-Vatican II liturgical books (i.e. the so-called “traditional Latin” or “Tridentine” Mass), explained the rationale for doing so by pointing to the fact that there is no intrinsic conflict between those older liturgical forms and the post-Vatican II rites, and that Rome has “from time immemorial, so too in the future” handed on “both the Catholic faith and the treasures of worship and culture” in order to “enrich the faith and piety, as well as the culture” (emphasis added). “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too” (Letter of Benedict XVI to the Bishops on Summorum Pontificum). This principle motivates and explains the Church’s demonstrable interest in conserving the culture of the Roman-European past as well as its openness to see its faith afresh by the light of the cultures of all peoples in the present. A seldom remembered point, relevant in this connection, is that this same motu proprio also granted permission for priests to use superseded postVatican II liturgical books as well. There is so such thing as an out-of-date cultural expression of faith.

Just as Christian faith has shaped culture, so too does the way that people—Christians and non-Christians alike—living their lives within a Christian culture, shape their values and credos. This, an extrapolation of the lex orandi, lex credendi maxim, is the premise upon which is founded the so-called via pulchritudinis, which seeks to evangelize through dialogue forged in a shared (we could say “dialectic”) experience of beauty. We can all agree that Bach is beautiful; “in this sense,” the pope emeritus says—and he must have in mind something like Thomas Aquinas’s definition of objective beauty, namely that which has integritas (wholeness), consonantia (proportion), and claritas (radiance or splendor); which is simply to distinguish, but not to detract, from the importance of subjective beauty experienced “in the eye of the beholder,” what later aesthetic theory calls taste—”in this sense, [that] precisely those who share Bach’s faith can rejoice and be thankful that through his music, the atmosphere of faith, the figure of Jesus Christ, lights up even where faith itself is not present” (emphasis added). The pope is not saying Christians should rejoice in a shared aesthetic experience in the concert hall because it can provide an opening for proselytization at the drinks bar at intermission. No, the shared experience of beauty is already in itself a foretaste of communion in faith. Despite their unbelief, non-believers who rejoice in Bach’s glorious music experience something of the divine glory that it emulates: Bach’s music (or Messiaen’s, to take another characteristic example), by dint of the composer’s prerogative to determine the meaning of his own utterance, becomes for the pope “something akin to the ‘pleasing aroma’ that emanates from Christ (cf. 2 Cor 2:14f). It has no missionary intention; the ‘pleasing aroma’ is present for its own sake, without [further] purpose, and precisely by this means does it spread ‘God’s glory.'”

This, finally, is more or less the opposite of what the pope was made out to say by CNA.