Catholic Culture, Quo Vadis?

My friend Lee asks a basic question that has occupied my pastoral ministry for the past ten years or more. I’m convinced that Catholic culture can be revived on the family and parish fronts, but it will take lots of effort. Mainly, it will need a reexamination of every votive thing we do: making sure it aligns with the goal of strengthening Catholicciculture. My staff colleagues in my last four parishes and I have struggled with the principle, taking baby steps mostly.

Phil Lawler’s effort, if it continues along his previous internet themes of conservative think-tankery, will never achieve a fullness of culture. Countless conservatives (and many liberals to boot) seem to think the creation or resuscitation of a culture can happen from one extreme or another. Leaven, however, does not act from a corner of the bread dough. It must be spread out: left and right, top and bottom, fringes and center.

Lee is correct that culture must include the arts. It also cannot grow without an appeal to the affective dimension of humanity in addition to the intellectual.

It would be interesting to see what Catholic conservatives and liberals working together would do in terms of concrete suggestions to revive Catholic culture. How much secular culture would be included? Where would the common ground appear? What surprises would we find?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to Catholic Culture, Quo Vadis?

  1. While some folks blame the 2nd Vatican Council for the decline in a distinctive Catholic culture, I blame suburbanization which gutted the urban ethnic churches.I believe this led to a loss of community and the customs that sustain community.

    I’ve spent the past few years writing about how Catholic culture needs to be (re)built and sustained through customs and traditions. As a convert from Judaism, I believe Catholics could learn a lot from their “elder brethren” (and sisters) who managed to sustain culture and identity despite Diaspora.

    Hope this makes sense. I’ve either had too much or not enough caffeine today!

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    The Catholic Culture that so many folks hanker for, and which I was raised for 25 years, was defensive, isolationist, exclusionary and rife with more than a fair amount of Anti-Protestant and racial bigotry. It did start to change in the 1960s as the immigrant culture gave way to 2nd and 3rd generation children integrating into the broader US life. John Kennedy’s election had a lot to do with that. An educated laity that grew out of the post WWII GI Bill opportunities, the movement of so many Catholics to a place other than where they were born, and, of course, the changes wrought by Vatican II, all speeded so much change on its way. Circumstances were changing rapidly and that old culture was doomed to extinction as it had outlived the roots that caused it to be necessary.

    For a good analysis of the roots of the culture in the US and how it adapted and ultimately changed, I recommend James M. O’Toole’s “The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America.”

    I will be quite curious to see how any new attempt at creating a 21st century Catholic culture in this land of rapidly changing non-European Catholicism works itself out. I can almost guarantee that the old days of lockstep devotionalism and clerical authoritarianism will not repeat themselves. The Church’s hold on the laity is, at best, tenuous and will only be maintained through persuasion and not coercion.

  3. Deacon Eric says:

    I think any discussion of restoring or retaining Catholic culture is fraught with difficulties because various camps have various understandings of what this term means. Before any kind of fruitful discussion can take place, the concept must be clarified. Global terms will only lead to polarization.

    For example, one of the above posters sees Catholic culture as pertaining to a particular style of church decoration. But this needs to be broken down into its component parts. Often I’ve found this sort of point refers to a certain Victorian style of devotional imagery. But could “conservatives” and “liberals” agree, for example, that a part of Catholic culture is to have vivid and personal depictions of the communion of saints within our church buildings? Leaving matters of style aside, that would allow for more fruitful exchanges.

    My mother, who is an ardent Lefebvreite, attended my ordination at the cathedral in Los Angeles, fully expecting to detest everything about it. Yet even she had to admit she kind of liked the tapestries of the Communion of Saints in the cathedral. They are by no means like the Victorian plaster statues so many think of as “Catholic culture,” yet somehow they fit the bill for her.

    What I’m saying is that we need to identify the basic elements of any such aspect of “Catholic culture” and explore how the arts can be employed to meet those needs in ways that both respect tradition and sing a new song. It’s not a specific form or style that matters, but the foundational appeal.

    If we want to re-affirm something like a May crowning, will some insist that the crown must be made of white roses or can we agree that violet orchids are also a nice idea? After all, it’s the concept that matters, not just doing everything exactly as we remember from grade school. Must our celebration of the Way of the Cross include the words “We adore you O Christ and we bless and praise you…” (with a genuflection) or can we agree that having the Way of the Cross is the important thing, even if the version we use does not contain those words?

    There was a fantastic scene in the AMC series “Mad Men” where the new parish priest comes to dinner and is asked to “say grace.” He offers a lovely extemporaneous prayer over the food. The matriarch then says with some derision, “That was lovely, Father. Now will you say grace?” And he quickly responds “Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts…” with a sign of the cross over the food. This has actually happened to me. The Catholic value here is to give thanks to God for our food, not the specific words. Yet our polarization arises over specific forms rather than fundamentals.

    Can various camps agree on the fundamentals? I sincerely hope so. But so many of these externals have become tied to specific ideologies that it can be difficult to agree on fundamentals, like when those of the “True Mass” persuasion cling to fiddleback vestments as a sign of their ideology rather than just accepting that a chasuble is a chasuble, and the rest is taste.

  4. Gavin says:

    The talk of “reviving a ___ culture” makes me nervous. Culture is inherently organic, you can’t just demand things be the way you think they used to be and call that a culture. Catholic culture was not eradicated, it has changed. If people want to bring back traditional devotions, hierarchical attitudes, and high art, these things must come out naturally and not just because conservative elements were the loudest.

  5. Lee says:

    For me, part of Catholic culture is that it is a way of viewing and interacting with the world – and I don’t see that as limited to one tradition (conservative, liberal, whatever).

    In music, for example, folk, rock, country classical, jazz can all be expressions of Catholic culture.

    In poetry, rhyhmed, unrhymed, free verse, blank verse, haiku, sonnets, odes, ballads can all be part of Catholic culture.

    In liturgy, incorporating appropriate elements of the local culture can all be part of Catholic culture.

    Gavin is right – if we limit Catholic culture to one set of attitudes and devotions. What is more important to me is that whatever traditions, expressions one uses, they have to be infused with a Catholic sensibility (a plug there!).

    If we take the Bible as an example – history, stroy, fables, letters, poetry, all mixed, none necessarily better, but diverse and thus appealing to a varity of people. I can might like Lukes’ Gospel best, but I can also accept John’s way of expressing it – and don’t condemn the John fans.

    This is often where I get into disputes with traditionalists. The Latin Mass is fine – but it is not the only way, and it is wrong to condemn people just becuase they prefer Novus Ordo. I think we should have both.

    Now I’m off to get Mexican food. Ah, blessed variety.

  6. Lee says:

    Sorry about the typos in the last bit. I was hurrying. Daughter is hungry!

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