March 2, 2023

Catholicism and the Culture

Does being a true disciple of Jesus require us to be counter-cultural? How true is that? What other ways might we better live the faith?

Catholicism and the Culture

I recently read this quip from a well-known Catholic: "If we are striving to be true disciples of Jesus, does this not require us to be counter-cultural?"

It was a rhetorical question with the "yes" answer implied. But, rather, the answer to this considered in itself is actually "no." Allow me to offer some rationale behind that answer.

If you asked this question at the height of the High Middle Ages in Catholic Europe, would the implied answer be "yes"? I think most folks today would more or less assume that the culture in that place and time was thoroughly Catholic and so obviously what would define "striving to be true disciples of Jesus" would not include a blanket assumption that one needs to be "counter-cultural," certainly nothing like the implicit bias in the statement above.

And yet, as someone who has studied that place/period in some depth, I can assure you that yes indeed, on some points, a true disciple should have been counter cultural. St. Francis of Assisi came up in that time, and he was extremely counter-cultural in some ways, while not in others. St. Dominic, too--all the mendicants were counter-cultural, as have been, in various ways and times, all the saints. No matter how nominally Catholic a culture may be (as it was for largely a milennium), there will always be very many opportunities for one striving to be a saint to be counter cultural--because our fallen human nature corrupts even Catholic culture, and that includes the Catholic culture inside and outside the Church today.

At the same time, there are usually many ways in which we needn't be counter cultural. While we live in a culture that is in some important ways trending away from its Judeo-Christian moorings, not everything in our Western culture is counter to the Faith. Indeed there are not a few points of agreement where we can be happily pro culture. At no point in history have we had a prevailing culture that is as aware and sensitized to the evils of violence, from domestic all the way to international. Very few past cultures (none that I am aware of) value empathy and fundamental human solidarity as much as we do today. So very much of Scripture speaks of God's concern for the poor and oppressed--and our duty to alleviate their suffering, and this concern is very much a shared value in our culture today, by all sides. Christianity highly values education, believes the world is intelligible, and that we have a duty to bring good order to it. That, too, is still very much a part of our shared culture. Our culture highly values authenticity and individual integrity--also something our Faith values. Our culture values heroism and sacrifice; so does our Faith. Our culture is unanimous in our denouncing of human trafficking and sexual abuse--something our Faith shares. Our culture broadly values participatory government, which is something our Faith commends. Our culture increasingly values the good of human thriving in itself, over and above our past worship of profit alone; this is not at odds and shares much with our core value of the dignity of all humans. Our culture largely values work as a positive good; this is something our Faith teaches. Our culture increasingly values being good stewards of our environment; as Christians, we are meant to be good stewards of creation, and have been urged more so to be recently. Our culture's emphasis on technological development has brought many goods that we can celebrate: medicinal advances, means of production that can scale to avoid mass hunger and need, communications technology (such as what we are using to communicate right now) are new means to spread the Good News and facilitate much other good that comes from human interaction and collaboration.

We still can share and celebrate very much in our culture. And even more in a limited, partial, and qualified sense. And this fact is at the heart of what is fundamentally wrong with the "counter cultural" definition of piety and orthodoxy. Because it's rooted in holding that being counter cultural--in itself--is an (if not the) expression of piety and orthodoxy. If you're not a stereotypical pro life, pro traditional marriage culture warrior, you're doing it wrong, is the basic stance.

This mindset drives the knee-jerk reaction to so much today. It drives the dig-in-and-resist-at-all-costs, take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromise thinking. It plays handily into the manipulative political powers that be on one side of the aisle--all social "progress" must by definition be opposed. The same mentality pervades some parts of the Church--all doctrinal development (or even just changing pastoral practice) is inherently suspect, if not outright, de facto heretical. There can be little to no nuance on this, because Modernism.

The presumptive essential value of being counter-cultural prematurely shuts down receptivity to the Holy Spirit. It hardens hearts and predisposes them to turn a deaf ear to the needs and experiences of others. It short-circuits creative thinking that can enable us to effectively witness and draw others toward God. This was as true of those Catholics (often prelates) who opposed St. Francis and St. Dominic and their poor, begging brethren as it is today in Catholics who reactionarily reject the movement of the Spirit manifest in our last ecumenical council and our Holy Fathers since then. This was as true of the "scandalized" Pharisees who resisted Christ. It was as true of the Judaizers in the first century who opposed the inclusion of the Gentiles and Greco-Roman culture, as it is today. It was as true of the Novationists who opposed the readmission of the lapsi. It was as true of the donatists in St. Augustine's time who opposed the rehabilitation of the traditores. It was as true of the Albigensians and Cathars who stood against authentic Catholic culture. It was as true of Jansenists in the 17th century. And so on.

All throughout Christian history, we have had those who tended towards rigorism and reactionary impulses--in the name of what they understood to be tradition and orthodoxy and right living. They believed they were the remnant of the truly faithful. They believed they were the bulwark against "modern" and "liberal" heterodoxy. They believed they stood in the gap against being too inclusive and too welcoming.

At Vatican II itself, there were initially highly influential and leading parties who opposed what they saw as "modernizing tendencies." They stood against the Spirit's movement towards ressourcement, against the development of doctrine with regards to religious freedom, against the licit and valid reforms of the liturgy, against any accomodations towards the modern world, against being more inclusive towards our separated brethren (and even that term!). And these and their ideological descendants are still with us. Their colors and standards have been raised high especially under our current Holy Father, whom many no longer even feign loyalty and submission to.

Why? Because of, fundamentally, this cherished notion of being counter-cultural. There is a certain insidious and unexamined pride at play that relishes the idea of being the few true faithful, the brave and small cohort of real believers defending the truth. I know this, because I was in that mindset once! I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my own heart in these matters and slowly realizing (and still slowly realizing) how impure my own motivations are no matter how noble I imagine them to be.

Francis, like Jesus, is way too chummy with those sinners, you see. He sees too much good in them. He's too merciful. Too forgiving. He overlooks too much. He doesn't stand apart enough. He doesn't make a clear enough delineation between we righteous and those sinners. He's too willing to blur that line. He's just plain too friendly with the culture today.

The author of the line I started from in this piece, he went on to reiterate the common refrain that Jesus didn't stop with being inclusive. He called to repentance. That's true enough. But just how, where, when we do that is what's at issue here--that's the crux of the disagreement in all this.

The problem is, there's no one size fits all solution for the care of souls, for evangelizaiton or re-evangelization, for bringing sinners back to repentance. If we truly believe that every individual human being has inherent dignity and is imprinted with the image of God, then we must treat people like that. Imagining that just writing or publicly saying this or that thing clearly will bring all people to repentance is wishful thinking and provably wrong. In our history we've surely tried every variation of the Gospel message--and very many just in our own day. Could we have been getting it wrong all this time? Was the message and delivery pre-Vatican II so effective that it converted the entire world?

Obviously not. We all obviously know that there's no one way to bring individual persons to Christ, but you wouldn't know we know that by the way we argue about this stuff! You'd never know it from the level of vitriol and public beratement insisting that so-and-so is doing it all wrong! Be it Pope Francis, "the bishops," or "Father." We act like we know for sure their way is the wrong way to save souls.

The irony is that what Pope Francis is advocating for is in fact simply a tailor-made, authentic mode of evangelization. He urges us to err on the side of welcoming and inclusion--with the hope that we can walk with folks and gradually guide them towards repentance.

Surely each one of us knows from personal experience that repentance isn't a one-time thing. It's not an all or nothing proposition that sticks or doesn't stick. We all (I hope!) have made grand gestures and emotional, firm intentions to never sin again, and even to avoid the near occasion. And just how many of us have made true on those intentions? I'll wager the number is close to zero. If you have, then congrats, you are truly a rarity!

So the question is, then, how do we deal with all these individual human beings who keep screwing up--despite their oft-repeated intention to love and serve God to the best of their ability? Where do we draw the lines of this sin is OK to keep doing and repenting from but not that one? (By the way, did Jesus set a limit on forgiveness or insist on specific displays/public actions to prove our repentant heart? Isn't, rather, a core message in Scripture that God looks on the heart and that only He can truly and rightly judge us?)

We can't just say "public sin" because there's a whole lot of what could qualify under that banner. Not much of our sins are truly private. And even the private ones are not really private once we're in the confessional. What are your recurring sins that you just can't seem to beat? Does it impact anyone else? Does it ever bear a bad witness? If someone observes (or has observed!) you doing it over and over and yet still showing up in the communion line--is that scandalizing them? For parents and spouses, this should particularly hit home. How many times have we given scandal to our family members? Did we then not present ourselves for communion? What about in front of our colleagues? If we truly are being Christians such that people know we are, then any observable sin we do injures the name of Christ and risks becoming a stumbling block to others who witness it.

What I see in most of the focus on excluding certain classes of persons based on a fear of giving a bad witness (by not condemning and excluding them because of their particular sin) seems to be an extraordinary lack of self-awareness and humility. Considering the above, we should all pretty much stand outside of church and yell out our own sins, condemning ourselves, and refusing ourselves communion. Imagine the great clarity and awareness of sin that would bring! Imagine how that would be worldwide news.

I say that half rhetorically, but there is a deeper truth in it. It would be a much more compelling witness because of our humility, integrity, and authenticity. On the contrary, when we stand at the proverbial door (of social media, friendly gossip, blogs, Web sites, etc.) and only are condemning the sins of others--and only particular kinds of sins that we, of course, do not struggle with, what kind of witness is that? When we only publicly demand the exclusion of these others, while it is clear to everyone what horrible sinners we all are, what kind of witness is that? Not only are we literally excluding those individuals who could truly benefit from our real, authentic welcome and ongoing help to live better, we are driving the rest of the world away at the same time, repulsed by our lack of humility, authenticity, and our feigned charity (no matter how charitable we imagine our "truth speaking" is).

If you think I'm exagerrating, you haven't been listening to the folks outside. When we condemn homosexual marriage, but 50% of our own marriages end in divorce, do we imagine that goes unnoticed? It is, rather, a common talking point. No matter the valid points of doctrine, our collective practice is a deep and resounding failure. What about the failed witness of the hierarchy with regards to sexual abuse? It's sadly a cultural trope now. It doesn't matter to those outside (and many inside) the Church that it's some tiny minority of priests. What about rates of contraception and abortion? Same story--polls and news stories highlight that Catholics themselves don't hold to the teachings of the Church.

Naturally, all these points are used to suggest that we need more emphasis in our teaching on these things. They are used precisely to justify radical exclusion on the basis of more clearly communicating Church teaching in these areas. But did you notice the contrast that is contained in these examples? Every time, they acknowledge the teaching of the Church and then use our collective failure to practice it as proof that the teaching is failed.

The problem then isn't that our teaching isn't clear--they know it and use it as a counterpoint to our practice. The problem is that our witness is and has largely failed. That failed witness is exacerbated, not helped, by our counter-cultural, culture warrior stance on these issues. Every time we exclude selective groups based on cultural controversies, we are only making things worse--because of our outright collective hypocrisy.

What we need are not more people denouncing and demanding that others be denied communion. We need more individuals--vastly more individuals--to actually, truly, and humbly live the faith! We need to admit, once and for all, that we all really are tremendous sinners, and that my sin on average is no less than the sin of my neighbor. We need to get as many people as we can to spend time with us, so that they can learn and be inspired and strengthened by our authentic witness--our own daily struggles to get right back up and repent and live again for Christ.

Are they gonna spend time with us if we're excluding them and condemning them? Are they gonna wanna listen to us if we're tearing down their loved ones? Do we believe that the majority of souls outside the visible doors of the Church are attracted to Christ by our exclusivity and judgments and condemnations of others? I can't believe that anyone truly thinks so, and yet...

Is there a time for "tough love" and "clarity"? Absolutely. It's just not the default nor the starting point to draw folks to Christ. Christ Himself nearly exclusively condemned the Pharisees of his day--the staunch, rigorist religious folks. He was often "moved with compassion." He healed people--physically, psychologically, and spiritually; He fed them and cared for them as friends. He spoke to inspire folks towards moral perfection--much more than He chided folks for their failures. What is more inspiring than the sermon on the mount!? He walked with folks. He ate and hung out with them (despite the controversy from the religious types). When He spoke of moral perfection, it was not about the need to "be clear" nor  to be sure to exclude those who fail in certain ways. Quite the contrary, He exhorted forgiveness in great measure; He counseled to avoid judging others. He told us that we'd be judged by many kinds of works--our own integrity in living with a pure and fully devoted heart to God and works of mercy towards others.

And finally, He didn't defend Himself or demand His rights. He didn't complain and accuse others of treating Him unjustly--even though what could be more unjust than treating God as they did! He didn't summon the powers of heaven to defend Himself, nor make Himself a temporal ruler, nor ensure all the positive laws reflected true moral perfection. He completely and freely sacrificed Himself, instead. He prayed for those who abused Him. He welcomed a convicted thief into heaven--and prayed for the Father to forgive those crucifying Him--among His last acts before dying.

Christ's lived compassion, care, patience, and profound mercy provide the ultimate exemplar of our Faith. Sometimes being faithful does mean opposing some aspects of the prevailing culture. Sometimes it means embracing and praising them. There is no default, idealized "counter cultural" position that defines being a true disciple of Jesus.

The imperative to make people feel welcome and walk and talk with them needs to be dialed up to eleven. We have to work a lot harder to judge others less and ourselves a whole lot more. We have to prioritize worrying more about how we can get folks to be with us, spend time with us, genuinely learn to like and appreciate each other as individuals, and in that context of brotherly love we can, when appropriate, exercise the "charity of clarity."

As more of us learn to authentically live this kind of love, I have no doubt more will be drawn to Christ, more will be strengthened and inspired to struggle more against sin in their own lives and strive to live more virtuously--all with the help of the sacraments, in the healing bosom of the Church. That's what being a true disciple looks like, not so much being a combative counter culture warrior.