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Does the Church Have a Duty to Protect Her Own Cultural Heritage?

The following article is adapted from a larger document co-authored by Peter Kwasniewski, Izabella Parowicz, Joseph Shaw, and Piotr Stec, defending the proposition that the Traditional Latin Mass counts as a supreme example of intangible cultural heritage that deserves international recognition and legal protection. Those who wish to read the full document will find it here, with all the internal citations as well. The section we are sharing concerns the Magisterium’s repeated recognition of the importance of protecting the Church’s heritage—which may read ironically, in light of what has actually transpired in the past six decades, but which remains nonetheless perfectly true in itself.—PAK

What legal and institutional framework has the Catholic Church given, if any, to the protection of what she recognizes as her own heritage? This is a question of more than academic interest, since it concerns both ethical responsibilities and legal requirements.

The Duty to Protect the Patrimony of Art and Architecture

In the Code of Canon Law, the mention of cultural goods (or, as they are sometimes called, cultural patrimony) appears in the broader context of the administration of ecclesiastical goods, whose supreme administrator and steward is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope (Canon 1273). Canon 1284 stipulates that all stewards of ecclesiastical goods must carry out their task with the diligence of a good steward, taking particular care of the following: (1) the goods entrusted to their care are in no way lost or damaged, taking out insurance policies for this purpose insofar as necessary; (2) the ownership of ecclesiastical goods is protected by civilly valid methods; and (3) the prescripts of both canon and civil law or those imposed by a founder, a donor, or legitimate authority are observed and no damage is allowed to come to the Church from the non-observance of civil laws.

In contrast, it is difficult to find references in the Code of Canon Law to the Church’s intangible cultural heritage and the need for its protection. One such rare reference—a fairly generic one—is Canon 214, which stipulates that “the Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescripts of their own rite approved by the legitimate pastors of the Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life so long as it is consonant with the doctrine of the Church.” It may be logically concluded that approved rites, understood as heritage, must be protected so that the faithful attached thereto can benefit from them.

With regard to the Church’s tangible heritage, at the 21st session of the General Conference of UNESCO in Belgrade in 1980, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage considered it “desirable that the Vatican City be protected under the World Heritage Convention and therefore recommended that, in conformity to the article 31 thereof, an invitation to accede to the Convention be addressed by the General Conference of UNESCO to the Holy See.” The inscription of the Vatican City, in recognition of its role as a witness to a history of two millennia and to a formidable spiritual venture, on the World Heritage List was made during the eighth session of the World Heritage Committee in Buenos Aires, October 29–November 2, 1984. In 1990, the Holy See and Italy jointly and successfully applied for an extension of the Historic Centre of Rome site on the World Heritage List. Following the World Heritage Committee’s recommendation expressed as early as 1980 for the Historic Centre of Rome to be inscribed on the list, the list of properties has since started to include the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

Following the inscription of the Vatican City on the World Heritage List, the Church began to devote more space in her documents to the need to protect this heritage, recognizing the great pastoral potential of Christian art and architecture,[1] as well as their role in carrying out the work of evangelization.[2] Church documents relating to cultural heritage and its protection definitely focus on material, i.e., tangible, heritage. The Pontifical Commission for Preserving the Patrimony of Art and History was established under the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus within the Congregation for Clergy in 1988. The Commission absorbed and took over the tasks of other previously existing organizations, such as the Central Pontifical Commission for Sacred Art in Italy, established by Pius XI in 1924, and the Pontifical Commission for Church Archives in Italy, established by Pius XII in 1954. It had the task of acting as a curator of the artistic and historical patrimony of the whole Church, with this patrimony including “in the first place, all works of every kind of art of the past, works that must be kept and preserved with the greatest care” (Art. 100). In particular, documents and materials (Art. 101) and movable objects (Art. 175) are to be kept, if necessary, in museums, archives, and libraries (Art.102). The Constitution directed the Commission to work closely with the Congregation for Seminaries and Educational Institutions and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in order “to make the people of God more and more aware of the need and importance of conserving the artistic and historical patrimony of the Church” (Art. 103).

Subsequent documents have emphasized the need for bishops and priests to make “a renewed effort… regarding the conservation of these goods and their cultural and pastoral valorization, and an awareness of their role in the work of evangelization, the liturgy, and the deepening of the faith.”[3] When, in his Apostolic Letter Inde a pontificatus on 25 March 1993, Pope John Paul II renamed the aforementioned commission the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church, he also included material objects among this heritage: “works of art, historical documents, books and everything kept in museums, libraries and archives.” The Commission, in its 1994 letter to religious families, defined the scope of heritage to be protected as follows:

from majestic cathedrals to smaller objects; from the marvelous works of art of the great masters to the smaller expressions of the poorer arts; from the most penetrating literary works to the apparently arid financial registers which follow step by step the life of the people of God.

“Books and parchments” as well as the role of libraries were specifically mentioned in another 1994 letter of the Commission, about ecclesiastical libraries, drawing upon the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council from 7 December 1965, n. 58. In his address to the participants at the First Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church in 1995, Pope John Paul II defined cultural goods as

first of all the patrimony of painting, sculpture, architecture, mosaics and music, put at the service of the mission of the Church…, the wealth of books contained in ecclesiastical libraries and the historical documents preserved in the archives of the ecclesial communities [as well as] the literary, theatrical and cinematographic works produced by the mass media.

In 2000, the Pope drew attention to the importance and need for local churches to make appropriate use of their own cultural heritage.

The Commission’s 2001 circular letter The Pastoral Function of Ecclesiastical Museums mentioned “the cultural treasures of the Church” and “cultural goods [as] an expression of historical memory,” i.e., “works of different generations [whose] artistic value reveals the creative capacity of artists, craftsmen and local guild traditions that have been able to imprint on what is visible their religious experience and the devotion of the Christian community.” The importance of handing down the Church’s own patrimony of cultural goods is emphasized (1.1):

In the cultural patrimony of the Church, we find the immense art-historical patrimony disseminated around the world. It owes its identity to the use by the Church it was created for and this end should not be forgotten. For this reason, the Church needs to work on strategies designed to appreciate and present the art-historical patrimony in all its richness. Even when pieces have fallen into disuse, for example, because of liturgical reform, or because they are too old to be used, the pieces should be placed among the goods in use in order to show the interest of the Church in expressing in a variety of styles her catechesis, worship, culture and charity.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II stressed the necessity of an “effective collaboration with administrations and civil institutions in order to create together, each according to his/her own competence, effective working synergies to defend and safeguard the universal artistic heritage.”

The pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and the pontificate of Pope Francis (to date) have not been rich in documents on the Church’s cultural heritage. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI, by his Apostolic Letter Pulchritudinis fidei, closed the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, transferring its tasks and activities to the Pontifical Commission for Culture, due to the convergence of the roles of the two bodies. However, a statement by Pope Francis on the occasion of a conference on the sad issue of decommissioning places of worship should be quoted. The Pope noted that cultural heritage is

part of the sacred liturgy, of evangelization and of the exercise of charity. In fact, [it is] in the first place among those “things” (res) that are (or were) instruments of worship, “holy signs” according to the expression of the theologian Romano Guardini (1930)—“res ad sacrum cultum pertinentes,” according to the definition of the conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (122).

Noting further that “ecclesiastical cultural assets are witnesses to the faith of the community that has produced them over the centuries, and for this reason they are in their own way instruments of evangelization that accompany the usual tools of proclamation, preaching and catechesis,” the Pope has thereby encouraged the formulation of a theological discourse on cultural heritage.

The Duty to Protect Intangible Goods such as Liturgical Rites

With regard to the protection of the intangible cultural goods and, in particular, the rite of the traditional Latin Mass, the relevant references are far less explicit in the Church documents. The last firm regulation can be found in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated by Paul VI on 4 December 1963. Article 4 of the Constitution states:

In faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.

Article 36 (1) of the Constitution stipulated that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” apart from the exceptions laid down by particular laws. Furthermore, Article 114 of the Constitution provided that “[t]he treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” and urged bishops and other pastors to take care of the musical education of the faithful so that they can actively participate in liturgical singing. Finally, the Constitution (Art. 129) directed that care be taken to educate clerics in the history and development of ecclesiastical art, so that “they will be able to appreciate and preserve the Church’s venerable monuments, and be in a position to aid, by good advice, artists who are engaged in producing works of art.” How ironic these words appear in light of the number of irreplaceable high altars that were destroyed after 1963, at the command of clerics, and in spite of Cardinal Lercaro’s express instructions to the contrary!

The circular letter regarding the cultural and pastoral training of future priests in their upcoming responsibilities concerning the artistic and historic heritage of the Church stressed the perennial tradition of the Church to “perceive the promotion, the custody, and the valorization of the highest expressions of the human spirit in the artistic and historic fields as an integral part of her ministry,” adding that “this constant attention of the Church has enriched humanity with an immense treasure of testimonials of human ingenuity and its adhesion to the faith. This constitutes a conspicuous part of the cultural patrimony of humanity.”

In 1997, at the Second Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, Pope John Paul II stressed that the work of this Commission was to animate ecclesial communities culturally and pastorally, so that they would value the many forms of expression that the Church has produced and continues to produce at the service of the new evangelization of peoples. The Pope pointed out that “it is about preserving the memory of the past and protecting the visible monuments of the spirit through meticulous and continuous work of cataloguing, conservation, restoration, care and defense” (emphasis added). The 1997 circular letter on the pastoral function of church archives, although focusing on the documentary heritage, contains important formulations on the importance of the pastoral transmission of “historical memory constitut[ing] an integral part of the life of every community” (1.3). The transmission of this memory and its preservation belong primarily to the sphere of intangible cultural heritage.

In 1999, a circular letter on the urgent need to inventorize and catalogue the Church’s cultural assets was issued. Including works of architecture, painting, sculpture, as well as furniture, furnishings, liturgical vestments, musical instruments, etc., in the heritage, the document stated (perhaps without full awareness of the logical implications?) that

the uninterrupted cultural and ecclesial function that characterizes these goods is the best support for their preservation. It is enough to think how difficult and costly it becomes for the community to maintain structures that have lost their original purpose and how complex the choices to identify new ones are. (emphasis added)

The letter further called for “contextualized conservation,” which can only be understood as the possibility of experiencing tangible cultural heritage in its original intangible context. The words of John Paul II’s address to the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church can be read in a similar vein. The Pope noted that

worship has always found a natural ally in art, because monuments of sacred art have a catechetical and cultic significance in addition to their intrinsic aesthetic value. It is therefore necessary to make the most of them, taking into account their liturgical “habitat,” combining respect for history with attention to the current needs of the Christian community and ensuring that the artistic-historical patrimony at the service of the liturgy loses nothing of its eloquence.

He also stressed the need to further nurture the legal protection of this heritage among the various ecclesiastical institutions and civil authorities, in a spirit of cooperation with the various state authorities, while appreciating the help of associations that protect, preserve, and enrich cultural assets, as well as voluntary groups.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II, when addressing the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, also mentioned sacred music and theatre among a “storehouse of historical-artistic articles.” The Pope stressed the need to secure the legal protection of this heritage “through appropriate guidelines which take into account the religious, social, and cultural needs of the local populations.”

The highest manifestation of concern for the protection of the TLM in Church documents in recent decades was the 2007 Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum by Pope Benedict XVI. Although the notion of “heritage” or “cultural goods” is not mentioned, the Holy Father, citing the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (3rd ed., 2002), emphasized the importance of an unbroken tradition in transmitting the faith in its integrity, in accordance with the ecclesiastical rule stating that the law of prayer (lex orandi) corresponds to its law of faith (lex credendi). Noting that “it enriched… the culture of numerous peoples,” and invoking the authority of St Gregory the Great, who ordered the definition and preservation of the liturgy of the Mass, Pope Benedict established the conditions for the nurturing of this “treasure of worship” and for making it more widely available to priests and the faithful.

Two years later, Pope Benedict applied the same logic to the liturgical heritage of Anglicans who wished to be reconciled to the Holy See. In the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009) III, he made the provision “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.” This led to the authorization of a special liturgical form which incorporated elements of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The Apostolic Constitution Praedicate evangelium promulgated by Pope Francis on 19 March 2022 put an end to the existence of the Pontifical Commission of Culture. Instead, its functions, and those of the Congregation for Catholic Education, are merged in a new Dicastery for Culture and Education. The Culture Section within the newly created Dicastery has, among other things, the task of “enhancement of cultural heritage” (Art. 153 § 2). It

offers its assistance and cooperation so that diocesan/eparchial Bishops, Episcopal Conferences and the hierarchical structures of the Eastern Churches may protect and preserve their historical patrimony, particularly documents and juridical instruments concerning and attesting to the life and pastoral care of ecclesial entities, as well as their artistic and cultural heritage. These should be kept with the utmost care in archives, libraries, and museums, churches and other buildings in order that they be available to all interested parties. (Art. 155).

It “seeks to ensure that diocesan/eparchial Bishops, Episcopal Conferences and the hierarchical structures of the Eastern Churches enhance and protect local cultures with their patrimony of wisdom and spirituality as a resource for the whole human family” (Art 155 § 2).

The Special Case of Sacred Music

References to the Church’s patrimony of music in the documents mentioned above illustrate a particular problem with the proposed program for the preservation of cultural heritage. One could think of the preservation of music in terms of printed scores, to be kept in archives, whether physical or electronic, but such preservation fails to respect the place music has in cultural life. To be preserved, music must really be performed, and performed for its intended purpose. The preservation of the Church’s music in this sense, as an integral part of liturgical celebrations, was stressed in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (see nn. 54, 112–14, and 126).

Despite this, the reformed liturgy is only rarely accompanied by the Gregorian Chant, the most characteristic form of traditional liturgical music, and still less by the sacred polyphony that has been composed over many centuries up to the present and has received special recognition by the Magisterium as being suited to the rites. This reality was apparent very quickly. Pope Paul VI urged the preservation of traditional forms of music in their liturgical setting in a series of documents: his Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis of 1966, the Instruction Musicam Sacram of 1967, an Address to the Italian St Cecilia Association in 1968, and a letter addressed to bishops, Voluntati Obsequens, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in 1974.

These documents, however, were apparently in vain. The reformed liturgy was felt to demand a different kind of music, simple enough for performance without preparation by untrained Mass-goers, and modern in feel. Echoes of this view, indeed, can be found in official documents, giving the impression of a sort of insoluble dialectic. Pope Paul himself had admitted that the aims of the reform would precipitate the loss of Gregorian chant (at least to a large extent) in a General Audience Address in 1969, in which he admitted: “We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.” Later, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued an instruction which, apparently conceding the point that the Church’s great patrimony of music was unsuitable for liturgical use, made a provision for it to be performed in concerts instead.

Traditional Catholic liturgical music—not the least of the artistic treasures created by the Catholic Church over the centuries!—in this way illustrates a twofold problem. First, its preservation implies an “intangible” element: it is not enough for some record of it to exist, but it must be part of a cultural practice of performance. Second, because of the specific nature of the cultural context for which it was created, performance in a secularized setting is a far-from-ideal way to preserve it: this preserves only part of the intangible cultural practice which it represents, one might even say a shadow of it.

The preservation of Catholic sacred music can therefore only be fully achieved in the context of the continuing celebration of the ancient liturgy for which it was composed and to which it is perfectly suited. The same, in fact, can be said, not only of the liturgical items no longer in use (noted in passing above), but of the great places of worship which, like liturgical music, were designed and built with the ancient liturgy in mind. This point was made by no less a cultural commentator than Marcel Proust, who, writing in 1904, argued that France’s cathedrals would be “dead” if the liturgy for which they were designed were no longer celebrated in them: they would be “mere museum pieces and icy museums themselves.” The preservation of intangible elements of Catholic culture is, in this way, necessary to the preservation even of what seems most tangible of all: large architectural monuments.


The foregoing review of Church documents from the last sixty years on the preservation of ecclesial heritage has demonstrated that—with the few exceptions just noted—almost no mention is made of the concept of tradition (!) or other expressions of intangible cultural goods. The concept of Sacred Tradition as something demanding respect in and of itself, without the need for further argument or excuse, has largely fallen into oblivion, and has ceased to provide an umbrella of protection for all the richness of the intangible heritage of the Catholic Church.

In practice, it is easy to see that the Holy See is acting in flagrant contradiction to the principles of heritage protection: not only is it not promoting it as something valuable to the Catholic Church’s own cultural identity, but it is deliberately suppressing attempts by the members of the faithful and clergy attached to it to experience it precisely as a living heritage. The irony is poignant: many officials talk incessantly about the need for a “living faith,” a “living Church,” a “living tradition,” etc., but they blockade the real, continuing, vigorous, and invigorating efforts of laity and clergy to live—and thus to keep alive and well—the traditions that have marked Catholicism over its entire history, down to the present, while lending their support to dying and dead currents of progressivism that empty out not only the Church’s cultural heritage but also her theological and hagiographical patrimony as well.

Since the highest ecclesiastical authorities choose not to give proper protection to the consummate heritage that is the TLM, and even seem intent on suppressing it, the alternatives before the faithful are clear. They must work to get to know, love, practice, and pass on to future generations everything they can, in spite of official disfavor, spiritual abuse, and cultural genocide. They will find many friends and allies across the world who are similarly motivated and who are storing up goods and biding their time until the worst of the immediate Vatican II generation has vacated its posts.

Lastly, they will make appropriate use of the support of any secular institution that even partially shares their vision of the importance of intangible cultural goods—not to place their trust in princes (as it were), but to make common cause with people of intelligence, artistic cultivation, and good will. Who knows: perhaps this association will be able to draw certain secular admirers of beautiful things back to the origin and goal of all beauty, the Lord of glory Himself?


[1] See Ralf von Bühren, Kunst und Kirche im 20. Jahrhundert. Die Rezeption des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2008).

[2] See Pontifical Commission for the Conservation of the Artistic and Historical Patrimony of the Church, “Circular Letter Regarding the Cultural and Pastoral Training of Future Priests in Their Upcoming Responsibilities Concerning the Artistic and Historic Heritage of the Church,” October 15, 1992.

[3] Ibid.

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