Culture: the Soul of a Nation

An Interview With Dr. John Haas 

Culture: the Soul of a Nation

An Interview With Dr. John Haas 

By John Mallon

John Haas is one of my favorite people on the planet. He is a man of boundless, unbelievable energy and enthusiasm, not to mention goodness, kindness and intellect. A former Episcopalian clergyman, he is president of The National Catholic Bioethics Center and the International Institute for Culture (IIC) in Philadelphia. The following interview took place in the summer of 2000 in Eichstätt, Germany, during a three-week seminar held by the IIC, to which he graciously and generously invited me. John is a real theologian’s theologian—orthodox and joy filled. Anyone interested in Catholic Culture should look into the IIC. This interview was originally conducted for Inside the Vatican magazine, but somehow, in the shuffle, didn’t make it in. Here it is published for the first time on johnmallon.LIFE

John Mallon: Dr. Haas, what are the history, purposes and goals of the International Institute for Culture?

Dr. John Haas: I set up the institute in 1988 in response to the Holy Father's many calls for the re-evangelization of culture. I wanted to do my small, modest little part. I was deeply impressed by the fact that The Holy Father was constantly calling for the re-evangelization of culture in all of his papal addresses, homilies and encyclicals. I thought the programs of the institute would be one way we could look at the way the faith has shaped our respective cultures and how our different cultures help determine the way the faith is expressed and articulated. Through such programs we could learn from the past to work more effectively towards evangelization in the future

You hold a yearly seminar in Eichstätt in Bavaria, but also in Mexico, is that right?

Yes, that's correct. Actually, I was very concerned in the early and mid 80s about the influence of liberation theology, which was really an alien ideology, which had made its way into the Church under the guise of being Catholic. It was fundamentally Marxist. When I was working for the National Bank of Mexico I saw hundreds of Catholic seminarians and priests coming to Latin America to learn Spanish but being shaped and formed by liberation theology. They were coming back to the States and really carrying out a kind of cultural subversion through this liberation theology, and it was just going throughout the whole Church. 

The Holy See was very concerned about this, as you could see in the two instructions they had issued on liberation theology. My initial initiative was to try to counteract the influence of these liberation theology language schools. So I set one up myself in Puebla, Mexico. Usually when I encounter people who don't understand the real significance of liberation theology, I just tell them that I wanted to have a language program that acknowledged and recognized the truth of our Catholic tradition in which seminarians would be able to continue receiving formation as seminarians while they were at the language school. So the program has daily Mass, daily recitation of the rosary, morning prayer, evening prayer, daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, so the men continued to receive solid spiritual formation while they were learning Spanish. 

The program in Mexico is just for seminarians to learn Spanish so they can work with the Spanish speaking people in the United States, and help them to retain their faith, and actually to help them evangelize effectively in the United States as well. We were losing so many Spanish speaking Catholics to the Protestant sects, and they really needed help in staying true to their faith and receiving pastoral care in their own language in the United States, so that was a big impetus in the program in Puebla. And fortunately liberation theology is no longer a significant movement so that people can now more readily learn true Catholic social teaching.

Now, why Eichstätt in Bavaria? Why did you pick Eichstätt for a seminar?

There are a number of reasons, but there's a very simple, prosaic, pedestrian reason. I was looking for a place to hold the seminar and I visited a number of sites in Europe. I wanted above all to find an area with a still vibrant catholic culture. At the time Prof. Dr. Nikolaus Lobkowicz, an old friend and former president of the University of Munich, was the president of the Catholic University of Eichstätt. When I came to look at it and to consider it, I frankly just thought it was absolutely ideal; in terms of its size, its strong Catholic character, and its centuries long commitment to the faith. And It was one of the sites of the initial evangelization of Germany. So it was kind of exciting to consider having a program in re-evangelization in a site that was so important in the initial evangelization of the Germanic peoples. But I think the biggest factor was its vibrant, living Catholic culture that just manifests itself in so many beautiful ways. 

What do you try to accomplish in Eichstätt?

We usually have about 50 people from ten or so countries living and worshipping together for three weeks with lectures from some of the leading Catholic scholars in the world. We study and reflect on Catholic culture and consider how we might evangelize culture in our own day.

Are there any other particular programs the Institute offers aside from the Puebla and the Eichstätt programs?

Haas: Well, not many since this is an avocation–a personal apostolate. I take my summer vacation and use it to do the program. however, I have arranged some lecture tours in the United States through the Institute. For instance, I provided a lecture tour for His Imperial and Royal Highness the Archduke Karl von Hapsburg to talk about his efforts towards about the reunification of Europe; but on a Christian basis rather than just on a secular, materialist basis. 

I'm also working on a documentary on the life of the great Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper. I did the last interviews with him shortly before his death and I have seven hours of top grade filmed interview. I had a first rate German television crew go to Münster with me and we taped seven hours of interviews with Pieper and with some of his close associates and friends. So I hope to edit that and make a documentary about his life.

That will be available through the Institute?

Yes. The Institute also sponsored a magnificent performance of Monteverdi's Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. It was held on in 1999 on the eve of the feast of the Immaculate Conception at the National Shrine of the Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. There were almost 50 vocalists and instrumentalists under the direction of Thomas Hetrick of Baltimore. A single generous patron underwrote the concert, which was truly wonderful and a beautiful act of love offered to the Blessed Mother.

What specifically do you mean when you use the term "culture?"


Most Americans see that term in a very narrow sense as referring to such things as painting, ballet and symphony concerts, but it really has a much broader meaning. I like the one that the Holy Father himself used when he visited Los Angeles and referred to culture as "all that which reflects the soul of a nation." So it refers to a nation's laws and social institutions such as marriage, as well as art, literature, music and the other human achievements that most people usually associate with culture.  The fact that the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that a woman has the Constitutional right to kill her child, or to have her child killed even as it is being born (partial-birth abortion) says a great deal about the culture of the United States. It's a real reflection of our soul as a people, as is the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton. So those are also aspects of culture.

This would even include, for example in Eichstätt, even architecture, the economics, agriculture...

Oh, very much. Again, it includes all the higher achievements and activities of a people. In the United States we had this architecture known as functionalism where form follows function. There was no beauty to it, no transcendence to it at all. It was purely functional, purely pragmatic, which is exactly what the American people tend to be: very pragmatic, utilitarian, efficient–get it done as quickly as possible. Of course that produces a very sterile architecture and nothing that lifts the human soul and inspires us. 

Yet, we can see the magnificent soaring architecture of the gothic cathedral here in Eichstätt, and the incredibly playful and colorful Baroque architecture, decoration and decor, as well, but those are styles that lift people up and take them beyond themselves and point to something higher and more magnificent.

How would you explain the relationship between the New Evangelization and Culture itself? How do they relate?

It's a broad question. Re-evangelization has to take place in very significant ways through cultural means. Because we are "rational bodies" as the Holy Father says, we can't help but give external expression to our deepest beliefs and our most cherished values and our highest aspirations. 

By virtue of what we are as rational bodies these expressions take some kind of concrete form. It can be anything from music to architecture, and painting. We have to fill those expressions of the culture of a people with the Gospel, with the love of Jesus Christ, so that they don't reflect a nihilistic spirit that doesn't believe that life means anything. You can think of the type of music that you encounter on MTV, or a lot of this rap music which just appeals to the most basic animalistic lower instincts in us as animals. That reflects an understanding of the human person held by the people who produce that so-called music. 

But we have to be writing, composing and performing beautiful, elevating, lofty music that truly reflects what we believe about the human being as being transcendent and ultimately ordered to a life of glory with God. We have to do that everywhere: in our painting, sculpture, our architecture, our novels and our poetry. That's why it's necessary in our day for Christians–Catholics really, to be the leaven that permeates society so those cultural institutions do begin to reflect the mind of Christ, that they begin to transform a society according to the mind of Christ. When we begin to transform the Supreme Court then we'll realize that we've really begun to accomplish something!

Well, that raises another issue: a town like Eichstätt has an extraordinary and beautiful Catholic culture, but what about the United States or a culture like the United States? Is it possible to have a Catholic culture in a pluralistic and increasingly relativistic modern society?

I may be wrong in this, but I'm convinced that every society has a dominant culture. We talk about pluralism, but there's some worldview that's going to be the dominant one. Even though you have a plurality of beliefs, ethnic groups, nationalities and so forth, there will be an overarching, guiding worldview or vision of man. It's just going to happen. Otherwise you're just going to have chaos. 

The question is what that overarching worldview is going to be. Is it the Catholic one? Or is it a godless, materialistic, pragmatic utilitarian view as we currently have in the United States? We don't need that kind of world vision in order to allow for pluralism. 

We heard a little bit during this program about the great Catholic dynasty of the Hapsburgs. There was an overarching Catholic vision of the world but it made provision for the Jews, the Muslims, the Croats, the Serbs and for many other nationality groups. In fact, nations had their own legislatures within the empire but it was the Holy Roman Empire. Even as it acknowledged the Christian Gospel as being the highest revelation we have of God, it still respected the religious beliefs and practices of other people. 

I believe the same thing can be true in the United States. You can actually have a Catholic nation in the United States that will respect the beliefs, values and the national heritage of all kinds of people. It's a modern myth that the only worldview that can provide that is a utilitarian secularist, materialist, godless one. It just isn't true. There are enough examples in history that it's not true.

To take it a little further, you sometimes hear people in Europe say that Europe has the culture and the architecture and so forth, but Americans are a more religious people, although predominantly Protestant or Evangelical Protestant. I know some European Catholics who are a little envious that more people in the United States claim to be Church-going and practicing. How does that fit with what you're saying?

You can't generalize, of course, because when we're talking about Europe, or even when we're just talking about Germany, we're talking about everything from Hamburg to Frankfurt to Eichstätt. You will find regions within Europe and within Germany which are themselves highly secularized and materialist where you don't find much in the practice of religion. 

I think the same is true in the United States, which is an enormous country. But look at the northwest, where a very, very small percentage of the population attend church. Compare that with Tennessee where you have a lot of Southern Baptists who go to church every Sunday. It's a regional thing. When you average that out for all of the United States it's going to look like a greater percentage of Americans are practicing their faith, but there are still regions in the United States that are virtually devoid of religion. Just as in Europe there are areas where the Catholic faith is still intensely alive and being practiced. 

For example, you were at the Mass at the cathedral today, which was absolutely packed for the feast day of St. Willibald and the priests' jubilee. The people sang so beautifully, at this Haydn Mass performed by this youth choir and orchestra–I mean, you'd pay hard earned money to try to go find something like this in the United States and here you just go to Mass, and the cathedral was packed. 

It was beautiful enthusiastic singing. So again, I think it depends on where you are. I think it's dangerous to generalize. Besides, what I think we ought to do is build on our strengths. Wherever we find the practice of the faith try to find out what's contributing to it and then see if we can't spread that to our respective countries where it's not the case.

This year's Eichstätt trip featured a visit to Prague. The Catholic culture there is still very much in evidence despite decades of communist rule. Now they're rebuilding with tourist dollars, which I don't think anyone would begrudge them. Is there a danger that the Catholic culture there will become a relic or a mere shell with the architecture as simply a tourist attraction? How can Catholic culture be preserved as some of the negative aspects of materialism and capitalism come in along with the good that it brings rebuilding the societies?

These situations are so complex because even though you see magnificent expressions of the faith in Prague that came out of the Catholic reformation, it's a city that's been swept by heresies more than once in its history. There was an iconoclasm where great works of art and statues were destroyed. It was the home of John Huss, and the 30 years war started there. So it hasn't been an unequivocal Catholic stronghold in the way Eichstätt has been. So even before it fell to communism it was somewhat ambivalent in its Catholicity because before communism came the pillar with the Blessed Mother on top was destroyed–before the communists came to power–by Republicans, that is, those who were fighting for a republican form of government. 

To get to your question and the real task at hand, the first auxiliary bishop of Prague after the fall of communism, met with us one year to tell us about the efforts they're undertaking to catechize the people and baptize those who hadn't been baptized during the communist years. It's just going to take a lot of time, hard work and sacrifice and a slow building up again. But I think they will be using most of the same techniques that have been used in the United States, but in their own unique way, with things like catechesis, formation and retreats. 

A lot of Catholic movements are making their way to Prague, and Eastern Europe generally, to help with the restoration of the faith there. At the Institute the way we get most of our attendees from Eastern Europe are from contacts that I have in Eastern Europe who have gone there to help rebuild the Church after the fall of communism.

So you have more Eastern Europeans coming each year?

Usually it's about the same number. We usually have a couple from Czech Republic and a couple from Lithuania, somebody from Hungary, Poland, Romania... We have a representation from the major Eastern European countries.

Is there anything you would like to add or stress or reflect on from this year's trip? There was so much.

Yes, there was so much!

There was the Corpus Christi procession through Eichstätt...

One of the things that always amazes me is how a place like Eichstätt can teach so much about the faith in a non-didactic way. You mentioned celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi–that just taught us so much about the faith of the people. For example, the Benedictine nuns and how they prepared for our Lord coming to their altar during the procession and so forth. 

The bishop of Eichstätt, Walter Mixa, kept talking about the fact that Jesus Christ was going to be walking through the streets of Eichstätt; and that He was going to be walking in front of the bakery and the butcher shop and the car rental shop and the cell phone shop–and that it was Jesus Himself who is walking through our streets. He kept repeating that. And you could see the response of the people. The town was transformed into a place of worship. You could almost hear a pin drop. 

That teaches so much in a non-didactic way. It shows what is most important to a people. You could have twenty lectures on the history of the feast of Corpus Christi and where it came from, but you wouldn't even begin to have imparted the significance of the Corpus Christi feast that was accomplished by simply sharing in that. This was also true of our pilgrimage up the hill to the Marian shrine of Frauenburg, that overlooks the town, or our excursion to the Benedictine monastery in Weltenburg, right on the Danube, where the monastery brewery had the beer vat with the shield on it that says, "To Jesus through Mary" in Latin! It would have a made a Southern Baptist swoon!

There were a number of Protestant participants who were deeply impressed by the Corpus Christi procession, which is an example of what you're talking about.


Would you say a word about your main job?

My principal position is that of president of The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston which is the chief Catholic center in the United States in dealing with the moral issues arising through developments in medicine and the life sciences, and it is the only one I know of that is formally and publicly committed to doing all of its work in accord with the magisterial teachings of the Church. It's very exciting work; we have a lot of international contacts with it as well. That fully consumes my professional life and work. As I said, I do this work with the International Institute for Culture as a personal apostolate during my vacation time.

Now that I've reached "advanced years" I've got enough contacts around the world that I'm able to draw on old friendships to bring together some of the leading Catholic intellectuals from around the world. And I've always received wonderful help from the Church. For example, when Cardinal Pio Laghi was the apostolic nuncio to the United States, he was very, very supportive of both of my programs, especially the one in Pueblo, teaching Spanish to Catholic seminarians. Cardinal Ratzinger has been very supportive of both programs but he had a particular affinity towards this more intellectual one, just by virtue of his own personality...

And his nationality...

And his nationality, as well, as he had been Archbishop of Munich. He often provided suggestions for the Eichstätt trip. 

A number of bishops, I understand have participated in your Puebla Spanish Language immersion program, is that correct?

Yes, I've had three American bishops participate. One went through the regular program and I arranged private one-on-one programs for the other two including Archbishop Chaput of Denver. I'll also do it for the rector of the seminary in Denver. 

In conclusion, on the topic of culture, what do you do in a culture where people are injecting categories such as "sexual preference" as deserving recognition on par with ethnic, religious or national origin? How do you maintain a Catholic culture when things inimical to Catholicism are forced into the equation?

But that precisely is the challenge in our day. We must remake these cultures so that they do reflect the mind of God, which can be seen even in the natural order of things. We can do that by remaining true to our faith and by preserving inherited Catholic customs and practices.

© 2000, 2007, 2020 by John Mallon