GDC 20: “Culture and cultures”

So we get to a slightly more involved discussion of culture. Is the role or influence of culture overstated? Is the Church and her sensibilities too influenced by it, or should we be more the trendsetter?

The GDC devotes two numbered sections to this topic. We’ll start today and finish tomorrow.

20. The sower knows that the seed falls on specific soils and that it must absorb all the elements that enable it to bear fruit.(27) He also knows that some of these elements can prejudice the germination of the seed and indeed the very harvest itself.

The Constitution Gaudium et Spes underlines the importance of science and technology for the birth and development of modern culture. The scientific mentality, which derives from them, profoundly modifies “culture and ways of thinking”,(28) with consequent human and religious repercussions. Modern man is deeply influenced by this scientific and experimental method.

Nevertheless, there is today a growing realization that such a mentality is incapable of explaining everything. Scientists themselves acknowledge that the rigour of experimental method must be complemented by some other method of knowing, if a profound understanding of the human being is ever to be attained. Linguistic theory, for example, shows that symbolic thought affords an approach to the mystery of the human person which would otherwise remain inaccessible. A rationalism which does not dichotomize man but which integrates his affective dimension, unifies him and gives fuller meaning to his life, is thus indispensable.

There are two key insights here. What the GDC diagnoses as a “scientific” mentality really extends far beyond the sciences in application these days. One sees it applied in the social sciences of the past century, an attempt to explain or even rationalize human behavior. Biblical fundamentalism is a form of this mentality–an effort to settle the mind in the face of the unexplainable, transcendent, and often incomprehensible experiences in the realm of faith.

I think we also see this outbreak of reason in recent initiatives–the limitation of Communion under both forms, the flaps here and there over female servers, and the contentious issue of women in Holy Orders. The dissent frames the matter often in terms of human rights–another modern sensibility, and a form of rationalism. And this is accurately diagnosed. But apologists for tradition are not untainted by their own recourse to reason–the desire to explain in detail. But too often these details lack the appeal of the symbolic. The explanations are as sincere and thoughtful as that of any scientist, but they lack the wholeness of the depths of truth.

The GDC is correct: this rationalism penetrates the First World and makes its mark everywhere both in the Church and among non-believers. Is it yet a crisis for the life of faith? I don’t think so. But it requires awareness, so that we can apply a corrective when the situation calls for one.

The second point touches on the importance of reserving reason as a part of the human experience–not the whole. Symbolic thought is needed more than ever today. The Church communicates this, catechizes, and evangelizes as much by its artistic expression as its theological.

(27) Ad Gentes 22a.
(28) Gaudium et Spes 5.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in General Directory for Catechesis, post-conciliar catechetical documents. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to GDC 20: “Culture and cultures”

  1. Liam says:


    Very, very good.

  2. Stijn says:

    I am a bit surpised by the “Nevertheless…” part, because it suggests that Gaudium et Spes wasn’t aware of the limitations of a scientific mindset. GS 57 however, explicitly warns against “a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else.”

    It also remarks: “Those unfortunate results, however, do not necessarily follow from the culture of today, nor should they lead us into the temptation of not acknowledging its positive values. Among these values are included: scientific study and fidelity toward truth in scientific inquiries, the necessity of working together with others in technical groups, a sense of international solidarity, a clearer awareness of the responsibility of experts to aid and even to protect men, the desire to make the conditions of life more favorable for all, especially for those who are poor in culture or who are deprived of the opportunity to exercise responsibility. All of these provide some preparation for the acceptance of the message of the Gospel a preparation which can be animated by divine charity through Him Who has come to save the world.”

    So is GDC simply a bit more pessismistic about our culture, or is that putting too much emphasis on details?

    • Todd says:

      I’m actually surprised that the GDC isn’t more pessimistic than it is. GS was a tremendously optimistic document, especially given the tenor of the world in the period of the Council: nuclear standoff in the Caribbean, and the tensions connected to an expanding Communism. It’s like nuclear armageddon didn’t faze the council bishops (much), but European student unrest in 1968 and all the sex just freaked them out.

  3. Stijn says:

    By the way, that last phrase from GS 57 that I quoted (“All of these provide some preparation for the acceptance of the message of the Gospel a preparation which can be animated by divine charity through Him Who has come to save the world.”) is not without importance for catechesis.

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