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Changing the World One Step at a Time

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 17, 2010

"Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my revolver." That brutal sentiment is attributed to Hermann Göring, and although the quotation may not be exact, the man who founded the Gestapo had good reason to hate culture. A totalitarian state seeks to control every aspect of its people's lives; any independent culture constitutes a restraint on the state's power.

To put the matter positively, a society's culture protects the people from the power of the state. In all but the most inhumane societies, the ordinary pleasures of private life--the songs we sing, the books we read, the stories we tell our children--are passed down through the generations, rather than decreed by the government. Our culture is a bulwark of defense against the tyranny of politics, a respite from the rat-race of economic affairs.

Too often, when we speak of "culture," people think of a symphony concert or a trip to the museum. But the fine arts, important as they are, constitute only a small portion of any culture. Indeed Göring might have been happy with government-sponsored concerts and exhibits, provided that the Nazi Party could choose the programs.

A more comprehensive understanding of culture--and one that lies beyond the government's control--includes everything that we do in our leisure time. Our culture is shaped by the music we enjoy, by the parties we throw, by the games we play, by the food we eat. Above all, the "culture" is shaped by the "cult"--by the things we believe and the way we worship.

Yes, Mozart and Shakespeare form an important part of our culture. But barbecues and football games form a part of American culture as well. And let's be honest: most people don't spend much of their free time playing Mozart sonatas or reading Shakespeare's plays.

On the contrary, until recently it was fairly easy to say how most Americans spent the bulk of their free time: watching television. The three major national networks dominated the leisure time of the typical family. Sad to say, for at least the space of a generation the networks were the most important everyday influence on our popular culture.

Now think about what that means: that the greatest day-to-day influence on American culture was a form of passive entertainment, designed to sell advertisements for consumer products, pitched for the lowest common denominator. The TV culture was, and is, truly a wasteland. This was not the sort of culture that could long sustain a free and virtuous society.

Fortunately the advent of cable TV has broken the hegemony of network television. Even for those who spend their evenings immured before tube, there are now hundreds of different options, providing more scope for inventive programming and for individual tastes. Better still, the internet gives people a new means of locating and interacting with others who share our interests. And best of all, our online activities need not be passive. We can arrange our own leisure-time activities, and become shapers--not just consumers--of the popular culture.

The internet allows me to post this essay; it allows you to read it. You might comment on it; I can respond. We can communicate with each other with an immediacy that the print media do not allow. Somehow you found this essay--presumably because you were looking for resources relevant to the Catholic faith. So we discovered each other, you and I; we are forming our own little community.

And that's the purpose of the Catholic Culture Project: to form a little community, united by our shared desire to enrich our lives, and those of others, through the Catholic faith. Working together, supporting each other, we want to build up a genuine Catholic culture.

You and I need to lean on each other for support. The challenge is enormous. We can't fight this battle alone.

Our society is in deep trouble. Our problems are not merely politic, although the political problems are daunting enough in themselves. But the most grievous political problems are themselves symptoms of a deeper disease: a fundamental disorientation. Too often our society rewards selfish and destructive behavior and penalizes virtue. Pope John Paul II captured the problem neatly when he contrasted the reigning "culture of death" with a healthier Christian culture: a culture of life, a culture of love.

Ordinarily we might rely on the Church as our bulwark of support in this cultural battle. But the Catholic Church is in trouble, too. Parishes and schools are closing; religious orders are shrinking; young people are leaving the faith. Rather than making plans to spread the faith and bring new converts into the fold, pastors are struggling just to hold onto their existing congregations.

We reject that approach. We reject the notion that the Church should hunker down and hope to ride out the storm. We believe that a timid approach compounds the problem, giving people the very wrong idea that the Catholic faith cannot grapple with today's cultural issues.

Yes, Catholicism is on the defensive in our society. But we embrace the maxim that the best defense is a good offense.

We believe that the time is ripe--actually, it's long overdue--for a Catholic cultural offensive.

Do you agree? If you do I hope you'll join in the campaign that we're planning to unveil next week, suggesting a whole series of small steps that ordinary Catholics--folks like you and me--can do to launch that offensive.

Unlike a political campaign, the Catholic Culture Project is not designed for quick results. We don't anticipate easy victories. We are setting out on our own "long march through the institutions." Our successes, God willing, will come slowly.

Nor do we expect to enjoy great popularity--to form a mass movement. Our immediate goals are to help each other build a supportive Christian environment for our families. We are confident that this way of life will be attractive enough to draw others, and we will gradually build a counterculture in our own homes, our own communities. We may not live to see Christianity become the dominant cultural force in our society again, but if the faith is the dominant force in our lives and the lives of our children, that is reward enough.

As Lent begins, and we take stock of our lives, perhaps this is an ideal time to ask what we can do to strengthen that Christian culture in our homes. Are there some small steps we could take--some commitments we could make--that would help build up the culture of life?

Beginning next week, the Catholic Culture Project will offer a series of practical suggestions as to how you, your family, your neighbors and friends can join in the campaign to build a Catholic culture. Tackling one topic at a time, we'll propose things to do, topics to discuss, causes to support. In most cases--perhaps all--we can point to initiatives that are already underway, and groups that have already formed to pursue a particular goal. Our purpose is not to compete with existing groups, but to help our readers recognize the issues and find the resources they need to join in the overall effort.

From the family room to the assembly hall, from the home to the marketplace, a culture is formed by thousands of small, concrete actions, step by practical step. We are shaped by the culture in which we live. But we also shape that culture ourselves, by the things we do, the decisions we make, the priorities we set each day.

Yes, Mozart and Shakespeare are part of our culture, and we would do well to drink from those rich streams. But the culture is also formed by the little things that we do each day to bring a little extra--a bit of joy, a bit of grace, a hint of extra meaning, a trace of the supernatural--into everyday life. All those little things add up. They grow. They nourish each other. They nourish us. Eventually the "little things" aren't little any more; they are the very big thing that we call our culture. And we shape that culture: you and I. Let's get started.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: dancingcrane - Feb. 20, 2010 10:21 PM ET USA

    Those of us doing our part often feel isolated, even in our own parishes, or among friends and family who are either not Catholic, don't 'get it', or are actively hostile. Whatever we can do to network with and support each other, is good, and long overdue. We must also pray fervently "to be One as He is One". The worst setbacks are caused, not by enemies, but by allies who bicker, and those who seek pre-eminence of place by holding back or disparaging the efforts of others.

  • Posted by: pba4155 - Feb. 20, 2010 12:49 AM ET USA

    This sounds great. I am looking forward to hearing more about it.

  • Posted by: Michael.Chambers9422 - Feb. 19, 2010 10:31 PM ET USA

    Yes I agree. I'm looking forward to the unveiling, and then to connecting with others all shaping our culture, at least one household at a time. :)

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