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Readers Write: The Keys to Culture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 15, 2009

In the weeks since we started emphasizing the creation of authentic Catholic culture, readers have offered a variety of insights and suggestions. I would divide these into two sections: What we can’t do, and what we can.

Many readers have emphasized that we cannot hope to succeed in establishing a significant Catholic culture without bold episcopal leadership. In the larger social order, I suspect this is profoundly true. Unless we have excellent episcopal leadership, the Church cannot be strong; unless the Church is strong, Catholics will not be unified; unless Catholics are unified—that is, unless they act in large numbers according to a common set of values—they cannot have the desired major, upper-level impact on the formation of culture. However, I note as an enormous caveat that culture needs to be developed at every conceivable level and in every conceivable place. It is important to avoid thinking there is nothing we can do if we cannot immediately influence national and global attitudes.

This concern ties in with that of another group of readers who fear, precisely because we cannot presently act as a large unified body, that we also cannot win the culture wars. Again, at what we might call the “macro” level—the level of the “big decisions” in the larger socio-political order—this is probably true at the present moment. But what about at the “micro” level—the level of all those little things affecting home and family, workplace and school, community service and charitable works? Once again, while never failing to watch for opportunities at the macro level, we must not fall into the trap of believing that the “macro” is everything. The “macro” is only one part of what it takes to form a culture; usually it is the last piece to be put into place.

We haven’t had a chorus of particular suggestions about forming Catholic culture, but several readers noted that just as the Sacred Liturgy is the chief cultural expression of the Church, so too ought it to be a driving force in the shaping of the larger culture surrounding the Church. There is a profound spiritual truth in this observation which is not quite captured by those who argue that only a particular language or a particular form of the Mass will do the trick. Languages and forms are not irrelevant, but they are helpful only insofar as they bind the hearts and minds of Catholics more closely to the sacred mysteries. The critical factor is the liturgy’s inherent capacity to form us into one body of Christ, all participating in the same sacrifice, all offering our lives both personally and corporately for the greater glory of God. Different forms may serve for different people, but true “active [spiritual] participation” in the liturgy, whether one believes it to be beautiful or ugly, is always a powerful engine of culture.

Several other readers pointed out that, culturally speaking, we get what we deserve. While this is largely true in our culture when considered at the “macro” level (that is, comparing the principal cultural characteristics of our society with the large numbers of people who hold the values these characteristics reflect), it is not necessarily true in every particular case. If someone has a deep and active respect for life, for example, he does not thereby deserve to live in a culture of death. No amount of prating about how he might have done more will justify such a dichotomy. But at the micro level, this does capture another important truth. For example, it will do no good to complain about the breakdown of the family if we simply take our own families for granted—if we fail to work and pray very hard to ensure the stability and fruitfulness of our own homes.

One is reminded of the last generation of presumptively good Catholics who, with little understanding and taking far too much for granted, blithely sent their children off to secularized colleges only to have them robbed of their faith. Many were, of course, taken by surprise, but in the spiritual life there is no truly good excuse for being taken unawares. And to this day, many don’t want to jeopardize Johnny’s “start in life” (or his ability to play a major sport at a high level) by sending him to a rock-solid Catholic school, or at least a school at which dormitories are not brothels. If we pay only lip service to our Faith, refusing to live counter-culturally, then we will get what we deserve every time. But turn this on its head, and you’ll see that there is a great deal most of us can do to deserve better. Yes, deserving better is a great way to start building Catholic culture.

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