Five Ways Catholics Engage the Culture
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Over my now 30 years of being Catholic, I’ve paid special attention to the various ways Catholics engage the culture. In 1984 I entered the Catholic Church having gradually given up the Southern Baptist faith I embraced as a college student at the University of Texas.
As I recounted in my memoir, An American Conversion (Crossroad, 2003), one of the primary reasons I was attracted to the Catholic Church was the pervasive fear of culture and higher learning I had experienced as a Southern Baptist minister. The Catholic faith and tradition promised a richer understanding of the interstices of religion and culture, grounded in the historic syntheses achieved by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, St. Thomas More, John Henry Newman, Leo XIII, Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Jacques Maritain, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, to name only those who influenced me.
Alas, I found that what I discovered by reading my way into the Church I met on the ground only rarely - such as with the late Cardinal Avery Dulles. No doubt it was very foolish of me to expect the grassroots piety and practice of American Catholics to resemble the idealized Catholicism I had constructed from my years of study. Although the suspicion of culture is not as bone deep among Catholics as it is among Southern Baptists (and that is slowly changing) there is a palpable struggle that manifests itself through various forms. The five models below are an attempt at capturing some of the basic postures of American Catholics toward the culture.
1. The Wall: Among what are often called “conservative Catholics” the guiding principle is to protect the family from harmful influences of the secular world. A culture is created inside the home, among a small circle of friends, usually connected to a parish and school, that serves as a Catholic sub-culture in which traditional piety is observed and traditional values are taught.
2. The Filter: Catholics who are a bit uncomfortable with establishing a separate sub-culture attempt to operate as filters both to themselves and their family members. They see the culture as needing to be addressed, but through a Catholic lens determining the beneficial and demeaning.
3. The Acceptance: These Catholics accept the culture as a given, the place where we must live our lives, a place with an unstoppable trajectory of its own. Their faith offers them personal comfort in a confusing, and often bruising, world. They avoid asking big questions about the culture or making dramatic gestures to change it. This model probably represents the largest group of Catholics.
4. The Infiltration: These “stealth” Catholics, without declaring themselves, seek to change the culture from within by reforming institutions, building families, communities, and creating a network of friendship and associations that can gradually transform the culture.
5. The Witness: Finally, there are Catholics who seek to transform the culture without concealing the fact that they have religious intent. They are evangelizers, witnesses, albeit in a Catholic mode, and self-consciously look for opportunities to prudently challenge unbelief, answer outright scorn, and dispel meaninglessness.
Each of these models, except for the Acceptance, have strengths that make them a reasonable way of dealing with the challenge of being an authentic Catholic in a culture growing more alien and hostile in the 21st century. Individual Catholics find their way according to their own lights and in concord with their own skills.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers see themselves as having inhabited more than one of these models at various times in their lives. When our children are young, the Wall has strong appeal, as the children grow, and we grow older with them, certain aspects of the other models may become more appealing.
To simply accept the culture as being invulnerable to Catholic prayer and action is both cynical and ignorant. The history of the Church testifies over and over to the impact believers have on the course of events and the shape of the culture. The cynicism, of course, is merely a pretext for either sloth- indifference to seeking what is good - or cowardice, in unwillingness to seek the good in the face of danger.
These are two vices that Catholics often manifest whenever election day comes around. Acceptance is a kind of modern Manicheism that regards the world as irredeemably fallen, making a person’s interior spiritual life nothing more than a refuge. But, “by their fruits ye shall know them,” spoke our Lord (Matthew 7:16); thus, whatever way Catholics address the challenge of living in this culture, it should be focused on bearing fruit rather than accepting barrenness.
Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson’s new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.