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How to Change the Culture

In his great Christological hymn in Colossians, St. Paul wrote that all things in heaven and earth were created in, through and for Christ, and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17). In Ephesians, he set forth the first principle of authentic human culture:

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:17-24)

Unfortunately, if we truly believe that Christ is all in all and that everything we do must be done in Christ, then we bump immediately against a severe limitation. We run smack into the culture that surrounds us, a culture which has little room for God. And yet there ought to be nothing separated from Christ. Truly, as Pope Paul VI put it so well in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time” (20).

How Culture Is Done

Before we can understand what to do about this reality, we must have some idea of what culture is and how it works. Let us suppose, for example, that a particular set of parents has a deep belief in the goodness of God and the dignity of all persons as sons and daughters of God. The first thing we notice is that as long as this belief is confined within their minds no corresponding culture will be created in the family circle. But insofar as the parents—who necessarily form their children—join together to act repeatedly and predictably in a manner consistent with their beliefs, an identifiable and almost tangible atmosphere will be created, an atmosphere in which all family members can find restful security, and an atmosphere which tends to nourish and shape the speech and actions of each one.

This “identifiable and almost tangible atmosphere”—this ambience of life—is what we’re talking about when we use the word “culture.” It can and is expressed in ways too numerous to count. In the example presented here, it is a constructive ambience which communicates things like support and dignity, security and love. By contrast, in a family formed by parents preoccupied with careers, productivity, and financial power, an entirely different atmosphere will be created which communicates things like materialism, insecurity, and stress.

Some kind of culture is formed wherever people speak and act consistently. We usually think of culture in terms of the larger society of which we are a part, though the family is most often the first cultural unit. But culture is not restricted to families on the one hand and dominant social trends on the other. Rather, culture is formed within the spheres of influence of each group of persons who are brought together by any conceivable set of circumstances. Thus the combination of thought and action can create a specific atmosphere or ambience—a particular culture—in an office, a team, a classroom, an office, a store, a church—in any human association.

In fact, culture is always formed within a specific sphere of influence based on repeatable actions which are consistent with specific ideas, beliefs, or values. This is why culture can be formed deliberately as well as more or less accidentally. In fact, to preserve the values in any existing culture within any sphere, or to extend those values to other spheres, a good deal of self-awareness, analysis, and planning is often essential. The one constant is that culture is always born of consistent action properly connected to leading ideas. Therefore, insofar as we act based on the prevailing ideas already operative within a certain sphere, we do nothing to change or improve the culture. But insofar as we act consistently on a different set of ideas, then in each sphere of our own influence, the culture will begin to change.

Incarnational Culture

Catholic culture is neither more nor less than the incarnation of Catholic ideas in the concrete circumstances of the social order. It is perhaps not surprising that the same God who created us seeks to communicate with us primarily by using natural things as conduits of grace. God knows—none better—that the human person is a composite being, a unity of spiritual soul with material body, and that it is typically through the soul’s interpretation of bodily experience that we seek to apprehend the universe in its entirety, both material and spiritual. Moreover, to be out of the body—as, for example, after our bodily death and before the resurrection of the body—is to be incompletely human, yearning for the glorified body that will make us at last whole through a perfect union of body and soul with God himself.

For this reason, God communicates with us through engraced matter. The most striking example of this is, of course, the Incarnation of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Christ Our Lord. In Christ we see the perfect fusion of the material and the spiritual: the body, blood, soul, and divinity of him who alone has seen and can reveal the Father. Thus does engraced matter become the pattern for the entirety of human life, and the model for the entirety of human culture. A proper understanding of Catholic culture, which leads directly to the creation of that culture, is a simple extension of the principle so perfectly represented by the Incarnation.

This incarnational principle is intended to be extended in history through the Church, especially by means of her sacraments. In the Eucharist, Christ nourishes us for eternal life by transforming bread and wine into his body and blood, by which we are assimilated into himself. So too with all of the sacraments, which extend the Incarnation by appropriating natural things to become both signs and conduits of divine life. The water of baptism; the speaking of our sins to a man who is more than a man; the oils of confirmation, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick; above all the committed bodies of the faithful as seen most clearly in a bride and groom: All these natural things are transformed into instruments of grace as the Church repeatedly touches us in very particular ways with the Incarnation itself.

Protestants lost much of this notion of sacramentality when they rejected the institutional Church and most of the sacraments in the 16th century; this had immediate and profound effects on the secularization of the West. Since that time, most Catholics have also lost the habit of sacramental perception, at least beyond the defined mysteries of their faith. We live in a world dominated by the secular, the material and the mechanistic; our vision is truncated; we typically fail to explore the deeper meaning which exists in all of Creation. The loss of a sacramental sense—an incarnational sense—vastly diminishes the primary impetus of Catholic culture, that is, the drive to shape all aspects of culture into human extensions of the life of the Risen Lord.

The Need to Extend Culture

We now live in a cultural desolation, a culture of death, and so I suspect that most serious Christians yearn to recover that sacramental vision which leads to an authentically Catholic culture. But our culture is so hostile to the Christian faith that we scarcely know how to get a foothold. The prevailing contemporary culture privatizes religion, reducing it to mere sentiment: We may believe whatever we wish as long as it does not affect anyone else! This is folly, for just as a mere interior sentiment will be utterly insufficient for the purpose of satisfying the obligations of our relationships with any other person—whether governor, employer, friend, spouse, or child—so too is the restriction of religion to sentiment utterly insufficient, laughable, and even insulting in our relationship with God.

One of the more chilling aspects of this privatization of religion is the separation of religion from not only public or civic life but from social life in general. The result is that the entire social order is now conceived as a secular wasteland into which it is inappropriate to introduce a transcendent value or even a spiritual thought. It would take a separate essay to refute the false assumptions and specious arguments which are used to confuse civic life with social life and religious values with barbarism, an essay which would also explain how the principles of Catholic thought open civic space to all those who follow the natural law. Suffice it to say here that this contemporary privatization of religion is generally effected in the name of freedom, tolerance and mutual respect, watchwords which have proven powerful enough to make even Catholics doubt whether they have a right to apply their religious beliefs in any sort of public manner. This self-doubt is one of the chief obstacles to the expansion of Catholic culture in our time.

But by enervating Catholic culture, this doubt also saps the richness from all human culture. Therefore, it would be tragic if, having begun by attempting to understand the incarnational nature of Catholic culture, we were to end by confining our culture-forming efforts to the narrow sphere grudgingly accorded to us by a culture which it is our whole point to change. It is, in fact, essential to sweep away all false barriers to the development of authentically Christian culture wherever it tries to blossom. It may be helpful to recall here a common yet highly specific sense of the word “culture” as the term is used in reference to the noblest and richest of the human arts: Literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and so much more. Here the incarnational principle ought especially to flower, for it is in the very nature of beauty to open us to the absolute, to transcend the world of mere utility through a sense of wonder, to shift us from the drudgery of rational analysis to the joy of contemplation. The cultural poverty of removing all this from our common life is manifest.

Culture, High and Low

But on these heights we touch but a fraction of that human experience which is to be penetrated by Christ. All human work, all personal interests, all hobbies, all precious moments of leisure must open out to Christ who is all in all. For example, as faith gradually informs life, we will choose our careers with different ends in view and work partly for the joy of participating with the Creator in the perfection of his world and our gifts. We will treat others as collaborators rather than competitors, as familiar rather than alien. We will begin instinctively to examine whatever interests us for what it reveals about the meaning of life, the law of the gift, and the love of God. We will learn to avoid some interests and pursue others. Not only our home life but our interactions at school, at work, in the community, and even in civic activities will be marked by loftier sentiments, worthier goals, deeper solidarity.

Even in our leisure we will learn to practice the presence of God, not to make of recreation a spiritual exercise, but simply to rest in the love of Christ and take proper joy in all his gifts. None of this should be stilted or forced; it must over time become as natural as breathing, so that once we have mastered it in ourselves, we will communicate it effortlessly to others. And in all that we do, in our spheres of influence, and among those with whom we interact, there will be this difference that helps everyone to see more clearly what is important, to move more easily toward virtue, to repose more fully in the assurance that they are surrounded and supported by caring hearts and willing hands—and, in countless ways, to see in us Christ, and in Christ God.

None of this means there is no need to plan and to implement those plans, each of us in his own sphere. Of course, those in charge of an association or group will have the greatest influence in creating the corresponding culture. What parents do for their families, teachers can often do in their classrooms, coaches for their teams, and business owners for their companies. But building a positive culture through group members who are not the leaders is also possible if a small nucleus of people can be formed who wish to think and act according to the same principles. Gradually, as all of our smaller associations take on certain cultural characteristics, the larger culture which they in turn shape will be transformed. It is also true that as certain large components of culture are transformed and redirected (major media, for example), the culture of small associations and families will often change.

Two Specific Exercises

So far so good, but what specific, concrete forms will this changing culture take? There is no single right answer to this question. Since the formation of a Catholic culture encompasses every human activity done in the right way, enlightened by faith and motivated by love, there can be no set program, no detailed blueprint, no surefire steps to success. All of this can be done in countless unique ways by different sorts of people in different times and different places. The principle reality is that everything must be transformed, beginning with ourselves; a new understanding of our goals and priorities must gradually be brought to bear on everything we do. Step by step, we must introduce patterns of behavior based on our faith in Christ and the wisdom of his Church into our families, our schools, our parishes, our social groups, our workplaces, our community activities, and our laws, ultimately creating human customs which mirror in various ways a new and deeper understanding of life itself.

When we have trouble envisioning this, I find two specific exercises most helpful. First, the Church’s liturgical year is a wellspring of culture. By taking each season and each day in the liturgical year seriously, we gradually learn to shape our own habits, and the habits of those whom we influence most, according to the great themes of our salvation, the rhythms of feasts and fasts, the examples and indeed the presence of the saints. A number of groups, most notably, have put together resources which acquaint users with the prayers, activities, customs, and even recipes that have been traditionally associated with each feast. There may not always be great opportunity for using this information outside the home (restoring the practice of public eucharistic processions comes to mind as an example), but much can be done immediately in the family, the domestic church. This sort of thing puts Catholicism into your bones, and if it doesn’t somehow get into your bones, it will never become powerful enough to transform the larger culture.

The other exercise is to pick a particular area of human life and reflect on how different it would be if its characteristic culture were Catholic. You might consider a social group, a classroom, a business, a craft, or a talent. To take an example, suppose you think about something very pleasant like the romantic relationships between men and women. Now reflect on what these have become in our modern, culture-of-death world. Knowing what you know now, perhaps already more deeply informed by your faith than you were at some time in the past, how would you change the romantic relationships between men and women? How would you treat those of the opposite sex? How would you structure courtship (a term today without a cultural reference)? What message would you want to send to the one who catches your eye? To the one who may catch your heart? What would a new cultural pattern cost you in terms of interior sacrifice and self-discipline? How would you change romantic customs to support rather than subvert such self-discipline? (If you’re married, it is not too late to make improvements!)

In other words, in this one area or any other we might choose, how would we form a miniature Christian culture of life and love? In this and every other area, depending on who we are, our present state in life, the genius of our ethnic group, the special insights of our time and place, the unique challenges we face, our spheres of influence and the number of potential collaborators available, we can start by assessing our options. Then we must adopt St. Paul’s program, tailoring our speech, actions, plans, and programs to the values and goals we have learned in Christ. Prudence is always required, but I guarantee results. We will find that we need not be victimized by existing culture, at least not all of the time or in every instance. Every one of us without exception can engender culture somewhere. It remains to engender the right kind.

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