The Church vs. The Culture: The Score Thus Far

Pundits from every background have suggested a plethora of quick fixes in response to the scandals that have afflicted the Church. The ordination of women,

an end to celibacy, changes in the structure of Church governance, “openness” to questions of human sexuality, and more “democracy” in the Church—we’ve heard them all. But these nostrums have little to do with the scandals and have instead been brought forth to advance already existing agendas in a time of perceived weakness in the Church.

Avery Cardinal Dulles writes that today, as always, “the Church must be herself, and must not strive to become what non-believers might like her to be” (First Things, August/September 2003). To this I would add that the Church should not strive to become what some believers might like her to be. As in every period of her life, the Church must reform herself to show the life of Christ that dwells within and to put aside that which obscures Christ. This isn’t accomplished by following the ever-shifting sands of popular opinion, adjusting to the continually changing values of the culture, or worrying about the latest polls. This is accomplished, on the other hand, by paying even more attention to Jesus Christ and His teachings, by uniting ourselves collectively and individually more closely to Jesus Christ abandoned, crucified, and risen.

But we must also keep our eye on the culture and how it affects the Church. Francis Cardinal George of Chicago spoke to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) last June about the dialogue between faith and culture:

It is a necessary dialogue because both faith and culture tell us what to do…. “Everybody’s doing it,” children say to their parents, especially when they are young teenagers; and the “everybody” is the culture…. It is a normative system. So is the faith. If the faith and the culture clash or disagree, as they always do to some extent, it is because faith is a gift from God and culture is a human construct. There will be tension in us because the faith and the culture are both inside us.

Undeclared War

Our culture today is—despite some residual trappings of an unofficially established generic Protestantism—thoroughly secular. This might be surprising to some. One could cite as evidence to the contrary statistics that point to a large number who claim to believe in God, a fairly large proportion of Americans who belong to a religious body and attend religious services (at least as compared with other industrialized nations), the frequent reference to God in public discourse (“In God We Trust,” “Under God,” “God bless America,” etc.), and the prominent presence of clergy at most public events or institutions. But these facts mask the reality: Our culture is thoroughly secular. And the particular form that secularism takes in America is in an undeclared war with our faith.

Sadly, the timing of a Catholic move into the mainstream of American culture coincided with the abandonment by that culture of its generic Protestantism. Beginning in the 1950s with such radical groups as the Beatniks and those associated with the humanist manifesto, these movements culminated with the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, there was some good involved in this cultural shift. Every culture has its strengths, and the secular culture of America is no exception. Long-needed reforms in the structures of power, the area of civil rights, and the treatment of women are particularly noteworthy.

But these cultural changes happened in the matrix of a real paradigm shift that is far from happy. Underlying all these changes is the absolutizing of freedom as personal autonomy. This ideology, by definition, tends toward radical individualism and the pursuit of self-fulfillment through self-aggrandizement. In economics and politics, it makes an absolute out of the free market where choice and self-interest predominate. Even in the arena of ideas, there must be an absolute free market where “choice” is all-important and truth claims seem to be potentially, if not really, totalitarian.

Perhaps the Magna Carta of this viewpoint is seen in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Here the Supreme Court defined what some commentators call the “mega-right.” According to the Court’s majority, the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy seen as the right “to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Gone are the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence, not to mention the acceptance of “the Law of Nature and Nature’s God” that our Founding Fathers took for granted. This is liberty as license taken to an extreme.

During this period, much of mainline Protestantism acquiesced to these developments. Some of it was at the vanguard of this change. Having abandoned many traditional beliefs (such as adherence to the tenants of the Nicene Creed and the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture), these denominations found ethical and social novelty to be somehow “liberating.” Evangelical Protestantism reacted (some would say, overreacted) by attempting to assert political and social power through such groups as the “Moral Majority” and the “Christian Coalition.”

Thus, Catholics in America entered and embraced a culture that was radically different from the vaguely Protestant (and mildly anti-Catholic) culture of our first 200 years. To say that we were not ready for the encounter is an understatement. First, we accepted, rather uncritically, aspects of this new American culture that were at odds with full Catholic faith. One can see this in the area of sexual morality and the acceptance of divorce. In the priesthood and religious life, an uncritical acceptance of the therapeutic society led to all kinds of mischief (including some that directly or indirectly contributed to the great scandal of the last few years).

In public affairs, Catholic leaders, lay and clerical, hesitated to be overly critical of the greater society, fearing that this would violate ideas of “dialogue” and “cooperation.” Many clerical leaders chose silence about important dogmatic and moral truths as the best policy. Too many theologians allowed their work to be overly influenced by the prevailing academic and cultural trends, without attention to the teaching of Christ and His Church. Some political leaders opted to misread the Church’s understanding of religious liberty and abandoned their obligations both as Catholics and as leaders to work for justice and to protect the innocent.

Many religious educators embraced pedagogical methods that deemphasized religious content and overvalued untested “experiential” techniques. Spiritual guides abandoned (or at least devalued) the importance of sacrifice and penance. Most rejected communal responsibilities, such as the Sunday obligation and Friday penance, as “legalistic” or “old-fashioned.” Age-old traditions and time-tested spiritualities were rejected completely, replaced by insipid and trendy spiritual experiments often tainted with dubious New-Age theologies. Confessors and spiritual directors did not always hold Catholics—lay and clerical—to the high standards demanded of the Gospel. Much of this was done in the name of “openness to the world.” Anything that smacked of difference or tradition was suspect as divisive or triumphalistic.

But this isn’t the end of the story. For many reasons (not the least of which is the inspired pastoral leadership of Pope John Paul II and the genuine goodness of Catholic Americans), the Church in America, like the prodigal son, “came to its senses at last.” While there certainly remain “echoes” of the aforementioned problems, these mistaken paths have in many cases been laid to rest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church ended a lot of misadventures in catechesis. The spiritual hunger of the Gen X and Gen Y generations led many (including their parents) back to traditional religious belief and practice. Even non-Catholic, non-Christian, and secular sources are rejecting much of the excess of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, these positive signs have not yet overcome the primary paradigm of our society. The ethos of modern society is still dominated by radical autonomy. And this cultural value, for some good but mostly for ill, affects every aspect of our society. But a huge opportunity also exists. The values associated with radical autonomy (with its corollary that all must tolerate the actions and choices of others unless these are harmful to third parties) neither satisfy the restless heart nor provide an adequate philosophy on which to build a thriving and just society. This is true because radical autonomy is false. We are social creatures. There is no such thing as a completely private action. One does not invent or choose the meaning of existence; one discovers it. There is a meaning built into existence. There are some actions and choices that ought not be tolerated. All this is true and is part of what one can know through right reason. And it is part of what one discovers when one accepts Jesus Christ and His Church. In other words, the time is ripe for the “new evangelization.”

We Need a Savior

The process of secularization has reduced many people’s view of religion. God is seen only as a source of personal comfort. Any claims beyond this (there is truth, there is right and wrong, God will judge how we act, etc.) impinge upon absolute freedom and thus are illegitimate.

If liberty defined as license is the chief value (“to do what I want whenever I want to do it”), whatever God is understood to be, He cannot make any real demands on us. If God does have power over us and makes demands on us, then we are in fact not “free.” Cardinal George puts it this way:

The belief in a powerful God, an almighty God, an all-powerful God is, in a secularized culture, a threat to human freedom. Since freedom is our primary cultural value, claims that God has power over us are very problematic. Even without adverting to it very explicitly, the process of secularization of a culture and of an individual begins when the power of God is seen as a threat to the freedom of man. In the vision of faith, from divine self-revelation, the power of God creates us from nothing, and the power of God saves us from sin. God’s power constitutes us. There is no way in which the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ can be a threat to our freedom or our salvation or to anything else except sin. But in a secularized culture, God is implicitly, in some sense, seen as a rival, a competitor to human beings, a threat. [Origins, September 11, 2003]

But God is not a threat to freedom. In fact, true freedom can only be found in Him. For in, with, and through Jesus, we discover who we really are. We discover our supreme vocation and ourselves. We become sons and daughters in the Son. We discover our Father and our true home. We are changed by His power. But to believe that change is possible and desirable, one must reject the insipid mantra of the therapeutic society: “I’m OK; you’re OK.” I am most definitely not OK. You are not OK. We are all sinners in need of a Savior.

God’s Power in His Sacraments

The loss of Catholic faith in the sacraments is perhaps the most urgent sign that belief in God’s efficacious power has waned in recent time. How else to interpret the dismal record of Catholic attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (less than one-third attend Sunday Mass); belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (less than one-third accept and can express this teaching); and the acceptance of the necessity of the sacrament of reconciliation (the number of people seeking sacramental confession is noticeably low). I am old enough to remember when almost every Catholic I knew or met regularly attended Sunday Mass, when all Catholic youngsters made their First Communion and continued to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis. I remember a time as a young priest when it was a rare occasion that a couple came for marriage preparation, and one or both told me that they had not been confirmed.

The sacramental life is integral to a truly Catholic life. Yet the situation today is vastly different. Mass attendance has dropped significantly. A recent study tells us that up to 40 percent of non-Latino Catholics and up to 60 percent of Latino Catholics in their 20s and 30s have never received the sacrament of confirmation. The study also shows that confirmed Catholics are more inclined to remain in and grow in the Church.

Thanks be to God, the overwhelming majority of these young people, whether they attend Mass regularly or not, consider themselves Catholics. But it is sad to think how much richer their spiritual lives as Catholics could be.

What to Do in a Time of Crisis

Right acting flows from right thinking, and right thinking happens through the renewal of our minds. St. Paul tells us that “the mind in us must be the mind that is in Christ” (Philippians 2:5). Here is how he puts the same idea in Romans 12:1-2: “And now, brothers, I beg you, through the mercy of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfects’

We are called to offer ourselves—our bodies (to Paul, our entire existence is space and time)—as a spiritual sacrifice. We are not to allow ourselves to be conformed to this age but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

This begins when we allow ourselves to go deeper into the mystery of Jesus Christ. All of us—bishops, priests, deacons, religious, laymen, and lay-women—are called to this renewal. The Holy Father was specific about this in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte:

It is not a matter of inventing a “new program.” The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and the living Tradition; it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem. This is a program which does not change with shifts of times and cultures, even though it takes account of time and culture for the sake of true dialogue and effective communication.

The Lord does not demand a flurry of activity but authentic and profound spiritual renewal based on receiving and living the Word of God.

This call to go deeper must be heard and put into practice if we are to bring authentic renewal to our Church and nation. We are called to evangelize and change our culture, but that begins when we allow God to transform ourselves. Then and only then can we hope to be the “leaven” and “salt” for societal renewal.

Our culture has to take a hard look at this problem as well. While we have rightfully been condemned for our grave shortcomings and crimes, there has not been a similar outrage to the continued sexualization of children and childhood in our media. Particularly troublesome is the way that some advertising seems to be using sexually provocative images of young people to sell certain products or services.

Here Catholics have much to say to our culture. Sooner or later—sooner, it is hoped—men and women will awaken to the inadequacies of the current prevailing sexual ethic. When they do, they will be searching for someone to give witness to a different vision of human sexuality. They will be looking for the truth. We Catholics have that vision. We know God’s plan for human sexuality. We are particularly blessed with a new and developing theological presentation of this plan: the theology of the body. But for us to give witness to this vision and this theology, we must be living it (embodying it) in our lives. Ours is a skeptical age. It will not be convinced by words alone. The lived witness of holy and happy men and women living out God’s plan for marriage and the family will be convincing. In addition, the witness of faithfulness by those called to embrace celibacy is will complement and support the testimony of holy families.

The Culture War

Much in our culture is incompatible with full and authentic Catholic faith. In this sense, there is a “cultural war” under way. How ought we react?

Getting angry is not the best solution. Sometimes righteous anger is a necessary response to real abuses, but it often gives way to bitterness and antagonisms that are not, in the long run, conducive to spreading the Gospel.

We owe our culture the best and most authentic vision of our Faith. We must live it faithfully and bring it with us into every aspect of our lives. In particular the lay faithful must endeavor to sanctify the world. Our first witness will be the witness of our lives. If we are living our faith, we will exude peace and joy. This in itself is a powerful witness.

But we also must give testimony to our society of its shortcomings. Most importantly we must unmask the false notion of liberty underlying much of modern culture. Radical autonomy is not true freedom. Every person who has been in love knows this. Authentic love compels the lover to sacrifice everything for his or her beloved. The person in love wishes to give himself or herself away in a total gift of self. This is authentic love and true freedom. It is also the opposite of absolute, radical autonomy. This is the authentic freedom that Jesus gives witness to on the Cross. We discover ourselves only if we give ourselves away. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:26).


  • Most Rev. John J. Myers

    John Joseph Myers (born 1941 in Earlville, Illinois) is the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark (New Jersey, USA) and the Ecclesiastical Superior of Turks and Caicos. He was previously Bishop of Peoria.

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