Faith and Culture: A Catholic Preoccupation

A teenager arguing with her parents, objecting with words like, “Well, everybody’s doing it!” — everybody is equated with the popular culture that sways us to conform. And when mom or dad quips back at their teenager, “Well, not in this house you won’t.” As long as you are under this roof you will … such-and-such.” “Not in this house” registers often as opposition to the culture, a countercultural stance while asserting a higher wisdom, if not practical wisdom — [but] be that parental wisdom, that is perceived to be for the teen’s greater good.

Young Christians are consistently challenged by the values of culture over against the wisdom we find in Gospel preachments and Christian lifestyle in general and Catholic lifestyle in particular. The choices are many and, sometimes, God-awful. No one relishes standing alone without [their] friends who all seem to be part of “everybody’s doin’ it … so it must be okay!” But, if everybody’s doin’ it … it probably means something about it is wrong!

As Christians we live perpetually with this tension. We are in the culture but not of it. Jesus sensed this acutely when, at the Last Supper, he prayed out-loud for his followers — namely, beseeching his Father to preserve and keep safe his disciples from the enticements and persecutions of the world. Jesus reminded his Father that his followers were in the world but not of it.[1]

Christians have always been critiqued as standing apart from the majority. In fact, wisdom has shown over the two millennia of this faith that our genius exists precisely in that we live against the cultural pace. We constantly drive against traffic! When we look like everyone else, talk like everyone else, behave like everyone else, no one can see the unique Christian thread in life and culture. Precisely when we look different, dress and behave differently, even shed our blood on culture’s soil, we are our greatest. How is that for an interesting riddle?

We are not masochists, and we, like everyone else, need to feel we belong. It’s just that Jesus Christ came to this earth with a whole new set of ideas that have set us, unwittingly, apart. If you are going to be a Christian you must resign yourself to living with the tension.

Jesus taught us in the Gospel that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.[2] Our Lord’s teaching implies that there is something on this earth that deserves the seasoning of the Christian lifestyle. Our Lord’s teaching would imply that there is a measure of darkness on this earth that needs the light of Christ that only we disciples can offer.

What is this darkness? What is this bland food of earth needing seasoning we are referring to?

II

We are faced with a problem in our religious lives when we are bent upon dividing life between the secular and the sacred. Granted, the implications of our democracy giving birth to ideas like privacy and choice and demarcation between the affairs of state and the affairs of religion would guarantee such a problem, making it more arduous to respond to God in all things; to see God present in all things.

Truth be told, we live and move in several different cultures; in other words, the environments of home, community, school, our age group, the club, church and so forth. Each of these communities exercise their pull on us to conform. Each of these communities involves a network of patterns, customs and worldviews to which we, knowingly and unknowingly, subscribe.

I think of the Harley Davidson bikers association, which meets for its convention every several years at the birthplace of their motorcycle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Literally, thousands of bikers ride into the city for a variety of activities that run the course of a week’s duration. Ordinary citizens freeze when these Philistines ride into the city! You hear the rumbling of the motors of their bikes throughout the city for several days.

Bikers have their culture, be it a subculture of the larger culture. They wear their leather and tattoos and unshaved faces, bandannas around their heads. Their women look like Tarzan’s Jane swung on the back of their bikes. They have peculiar lifestyles and a particular worldview unlike other citizens who are committed to driving cars and SUVs. Theirs is a unique culture. You may or may not have affinity with bikers.

There is the popular culture we often speak of that influences all other cultures we hold membership in. By popular culture I mean that collage of images and the ever-shifting and changing symbols that tell us who we are, what we should think and be and believe, and how we should behave and dress, and what music we should listen to, what make of vehicles we should drive, in order to belong.

I want to address the issue of the popular culture that hovers above our subcultures. The popular culture turns out to be a large issue to wrestle with in terms of Christian culture in general and Catholic culture in particular.

In an increasingly secular society like ours, we are burdened by conflicting loyalties. Patterns of discourse and debate would present almighty God as a threat to human freedom. The Church suffers under similar indictment as it proposes to be a voice of truth. Indeed, the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought new ideas to challenge human ideas about life and liberty, right and wrong.

The Church’s Magisterium[3] is given the task of pronouncing on moral and religious truth, insofar as truth can be grasped in the present, for the sake of preparing this world for the Second Coming of the Lord, when he will judge the heavens and the earth and all who have walked the earth. But, pronouncing on truth is not done in a vacuum. Its normative source is the revelation that is proclaimed from the written Word of God and the Church’s constant tradition in the areas of faith, doctrine and morals.

But, modernity wrestles with God … I suppose we always have. Scholasticism sets forth the logic of the natural law and the moral law, again stemming from revelation, which are underpinnings of Catholic faith/Catholic thought.

The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) put forth a God being killed so that we could, at last, be free. Some of us remember the Death of God theories that were propounded in the 1950s and 1960s. And in popular literature and film, God is seen as a figure of the macabre or some imaginative being from Aesop’s fairy tales — or from the realms of sci-fi fantasy where God is always warring with Satan — the Evil One — the latter who ends up, actually, the more impressive celebrity for film and media. In our day it is the devil who wins the Oscars.

For the rest of us who try to avoid the headaches involved in thinking about God, it is life’s distractions which prevent us from soaking in the God of Revelation. We leave God to the shelf of intellectual curiosity or merely a name that appears in a book we call the Bible or the poetry of hymns in Church on Sunday if we manage to get there through the press of personal and family events. God amounts to a neat idea but not terribly planted in the humus of our lives.

For these reasons, friends, we fast and pray

We work eight days a week! The good life, critiqued as materialism, consumerism and the stock market, arises among the largest images of modern life in America that would save us from the strains of mere survival … a kind of civil religion these are. Numbers attending the football stadium, basketball court, baseball stadium and the modern airport outrank the Sunday worshiping assembly … telltale indications of where popular American priorities are found.

Connected with popular lingering suspicions about most manifestations of authority, in a free society, is a lingering cynicism and resistance to teaching and direction and the notion that there are certain clear truths as guideposts to life. Unfortunately, certain figures of authority, civic and religious, have lost credibility by their own inability to live up to the values they represent. In the societal crisis it is none too easy to perceive God’s abiding presence in life or the normative place of religion in life. But we move on. The Church will survive despite us.

In its more exaggerated manifestations we don’t need religion to survive in America. In popular culture we dismiss religious perspective to people who are odd or to old ladies. Needing something to point to for an excuse for our behavior, historians say much of these secular thought patterns are fed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.[4]

So, not surprisingly, we deny the possibility of prayer in schools, at sports events and commencement exercises. We refuse the Ten Commandments displayed in our halls of justice. The president of the United States taking his oath to uphold the Constitution while placing his hand on the Bible is one last vestige of cultural religious praxis in this country — hold your breath — yet to be challenged by someone who finds religion an interference in public life. We find it suspect that the president of our United States or any judge on the bench, let alone the mayor of a city, would be simultaneously a conscientious and practicing Christian beyond showing up before the cameras in some church on Christmas or at someone’s funeral.

For these reasons we fast and pray.

Witness the concerted campaign to force the Catholic Church out of the health care industry. Local politicians are agitating for a withdrawal of government funding from our hospitals and health care facilities because we refuse the practices of sterilization, abortion, euthanasia and the passing out of contraceptives to patients. In this climate Planned Parenthood facilities emerge as the secular chapels of modern-day American life.

The religion of the day is freedom-of-choice/pro-choice. The abortion debate is one symbol of the popular belief that God intrudes on our lives, that our ideas improve on God’s ideas. Personal experience has become the foundation for moral judgment, not the Ten Commandments. Popular culture resists certain immutable, universal truths. Anything is all right as long as you determine it is right, as long as it serves you and your needs … the old moral one-size-fits-all constraints are out-of-date.

Call it the liberal agenda. Call it freedom gone amuck. To some extent we are all liberals because our civic dogma — our civic religion — is freedom; a freedom some others in places around the globe don’t have and cannot imagine.

There are perceptively certain consequences following upon our American interpretation of freedom; moral relativism pollutes the air, giving rise to the current moral crisis we are trying desperately to fix.

Popular culture relishes wide debate and tolerance of a variety of views believing this is the healthy way of surfacing values in a civilized society. We are hesitant about any religious grounding of values lest freedom be curtailed: “My views are as good as your views regardless what we view.”

Freedom of this type guarantees that we are going to bump into one another in conflict over what I perceive I am free to think and free to do. Most aspects of American life are exercised through the arena of conflict … politics, economics, the media, the legal system are all premised upon conflict. And we would bring conflict inside the halls of the Church in a variety of ecclesiologies that leave no one satisfied as to the direction and order of Church life and ministry. Faced with the constitutional construct of the Church from its scriptural foundations, popular dissent sets forth that the Church must change if it is not to our liking … not how I must change in order to be an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ.

Thus the press and media are attracted to conflict-ridden agendas that excoriate the pastoral style of this pope, the office of bishop, the role of priest, the male priesthood, the celibate priesthood, the moral discourse of the Church. Press and media urge an accommodation of religion with the popular culture. Otherwise, the headlines portray that religion amounts to an annoyance in public affairs and the realms of privacy. And the Gospel and its impact on our lives, somehow, gets lost in all this confusion.

For these reasons we fast and pray.

III

When Catholics began arriving on these shores, our faith was seen to be strange and superstitious, if not anti-American. We Catholics have now arrived in American society, the most educated of religious groups. We have made a huge contribution to the fabric of America with our elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and health care facilities and social outreach. With the exception of most recently arrived immigrants, we have become part of mainstream America. We participate in every strata of society from the trenches of the dirt-poor to the chairs of corporate and financial power. Nevertheless, it was once thought that a Catholic could not participate in the civic and political institutions of this land, until one John F. Kennedy proved them wrong — not without a troublesome statement of defense on his part, however, that he would never allow his faith to influence his protection of the U.S. Constitution. That statement, unfortunately, for whatever was meant by it, has become a mantra for a number of Catholic politicians today who find it no problem to hide their Catholicism in order to throw in their hat with certain morally dubious legislation initiatives.

What this all amounts to is a problem of discipleship — namely, how can Catholic culture survive in an environment where people are caught up with the idea that religion and religious institutions are irrelevant. The situation emerges where we are not sure how or why we are Catholic, or why our Catholic Church is special and more truthful among many others. But then again, our brand of freedom says anything you want to believe or not believe is all right. This is the land of the free.

To speak of the terms faith and culture might immediately indicate that there is a clash or point of disagreement between the two. I suppose this is true in a number of respects such that it is a Catholic preoccupation of sorts. There is a built-in tension between Catholicism and American culture, especially the America of ever-expanding individual rights and freedoms.

A nation which held Catholicism suspect eased up on its anti-Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of religious liberty and ecumenism.[5] It was thought the Catholic Church had caught up a bit with modern life, at least until 1968, when legislative battles against birth control and abortion found Catholics, once again, battling liberal individualism and became embroiled in internal conflict that has launched a crisis of ideas and preferences. For the first time, Catholics now debate one another in public over contrasting views.

Philip Jenkins, in his book “The New Anti-Catholicism,”[6] comments: “We are submerged in an arena of rigorous debate on just about every issue of social custom and morality. Catholics have always held suspect the liberal emphasis on the autonomy of the person and perennially stressed the common good over individual rights. In the Catholic tradition, the individual is always embedded in social relations within family and community and his or her rights cannot be understood in isolation. … What has changed is not the Catholic Church with its long-held doctrines and practices but America, in which an expansive view of rights has led marginal or persecuted groups to claim their own place in society.”

Today, everyone, conventional and unconventional, is lobbying for constitutional protection for their beliefs and lifestyles.

For these reasons we fast and pray.

IV

While we must be careful about what we soak in from the surrounding culture, we must remember we are both believers and citizens formed and shaped by culture. Our faith asks us to season the culture and enlighten it, not to give up on it or to damn it, but to bring it to God. And, over the course of history, that effort has, in instances, spelled martyrdom.

We are taught one thing here in this sacred place only to go out those doors and find another commentary that would snicker at everything we are and do here.

All the while, the Gospel we hear each week is fond of throwing riddles at us for the sake of a higher wisdom and a higher level of living, such as: loving our enemies,[7] the denunciation of divorce,[8] chaste living regardless of our state in life,[9] celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom,[10] poverty of spirit,[11] lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven,[12] go sell what you have and come follow me.[13] Yes, that young man walked away from Jesus because the popular culture of his day thought it ridiculous not to inhale the riches of this life.

Our Catholicism, precisely, is a daily habit, not a hobby that we have time for this Sunday but maybe not next Sunday, if we happen to have tickets to a football game. Our religion is the organizing force in our lives. For this reason we are called to be salt and light to the culture.[14]

So, with mentionings here of the tensions involved in being Catholic and being citizen, how do we move in the culture?

You are certainly aware of these tensions between culture and belief and their impact on your lives. Despite the secularizing tendencies of our culture, we can navigate the culture by way of a higher consciousness, by way of grace. The interior life — namely, the life of relationship with God and our devotion to family, professional and social life — totally made up of little earthly realities, should not be separated, but can constitute just one existence “holy and full of God.”

This supernatural view of existence opens an extraordinarily rich horizon of salvific perspectives because, in the monotonous context of normal earthly events, God comes close to us and we can actually cooperate in his plan of salvation. Therefore, one can understand with greater ease what the Second Vatican Council affirmed: “The Christian message does not remove men from the construction of the world … but obliges them even more to engage in this as a duty.”[15]

Friends, we cannot separate ourselves from the world within which we live and work. Our recent pontiffs — John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and, more recently, Francis — have all chided us to get into the arena of ideas and debate and exchange with others opposite of our faith and be salt and light to the secular marketplace. Gaudium et Spes is called by some commentators the most important document out of the council, seeing it as a charter which ushered the Catholic Church into dialogue with the modern world. These popes see this engagement synonymous with evangelization of the culture necessary for these times.[16]

The new millennium has signaled a new allegiance to the Church by young Catholics, such as yourselves, who have a hunger for the purity of the Gospel, which contains the credentials of the Church. We are asked to re-evangelize the Church from within and to uphold the truths of the faith and the rightful claims of tradition. We are asked to witness to the truth of the Gospel message.

Some of us gathered here are young families, where love and direction are strident in our households. Most of the rest look forward to establishing their own families some day. How can you improve on the culture, which shapes your attitudes and values, in order to bring it to Christ? How can you be the salt of the earth and the light of the world?[17]

I suggest the evangelization of culture is closely allied with the renewal of family life among Christians — namely, your nurture of your domestic church which serves the Church universal and works an evangelization that is ultimately out of our hands in its results.

No one of us can change the culture single-handedly. The work of changing the culture for Christ is as subtle as the enhancement of food with the season of salt, and is as surprising as the sudden dispelling of the darkness with the sudden dawn of light.

Genuine discipleship nurtures families if children can perceive their mothers and fathers love each other. This alone works psychological health in your children that no school or therapist can provide.

Catholic families can make a difference modeling their families in prayer and worship and highlighting the Church’s liturgical seasons in home exercises and domestic prayer. Teach the faith in your home, reinforce the teaching of the Sunday homily and religious instruction.

Inform the choices of your children by your instruction and example of an authentic Catholic lifestyle. Model for your children an informed and authentic love for holy Church and its representatives.

Teach your children Christian service without them receiving anything in return; this is how Christians behave, for this is the way of the Gospel.

Teach your children to be open and receptive to peoples of other races and backgrounds. Make sure their education and religious formation are gifted by diversity that is a template of the Church at Pentecost[18] and an increasing feature of our modern society.

Read sound Catholic literature that portrays the truths of the faith while exposing us to the ideas of the world that interface with or even conflict with our own.

As a family, live simply and eschew the allures of consumerism and materialism so that you have something to share with others and with the Church.

These action items of family formation raise up discipleship in your children and forges them to be contributing adults to Church and society of the next generation.

The Catholic Church in the immediate future will be carried by young Catholics, like yourselves, who take seriously the call to follow Jesus Christ, who pray, sacrifice, live simply, examine their conscience daily, confess their sins and seek to perfect their lives.

Necessarily, a purified, authentic Catholicism will be represented as a Church of wisdom, of educated and disciplined men and women who seek the truth more than they seek to be right; who think a lot, read a lot, discuss and read and think some more; who share their wisdom as parents, teachers, counselors, confessors and spiritual directors with anyone who cares to enter the discipline of seeking to be wise servants of the truth.

A restoration of Christian family life, a reversal of the tide of broken vows and covenants, a revitalized fidelity to promises we make in life, a renewed allegiance to the Church, will provide us an environment where the work of salt and light can be effective. Seeing God at work in all things, simple and great, is one secret to consecrating the world. You, young families are the key to evangelizing the culture. Know that your serious witness to all things Christian and Catholic is, at once noticed, and truly inspiring.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the 12 disciples asked him why they could not exorcise certain demons they stumbled upon. You remember the Lord’s response: “These kind do not leave except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:14-21).

— This homily was originally delivered on Oct. 9, 2017, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., as part of the observances connected to the 25th International Week of Prayer and Fasting.

Bishop Joseph N. Perry is Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago.



[1] John 17:9-19

[2] Matthew 5:13-16

[3 The teaching office of the bishops, the successors of the apostles. See the Code of Canon Law (1983), canon 330; also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 891-892.

[4] The Reformation: the religious and social and political upheaval (1517-1648) that divided Western Christendom and created world Protestantism. Its causes were manifold: weakening of papal authority through long residence in France and the worldliness of certain representatives of the Church; intellectual and moral unfitness of certain clergy; ignorance and superstition among the laity; social unrest brought on by the disintegration of the feudal system; support given by political power to dissenters in the church; unrest and secularism brought on by the new geographic discoveries; the use of the printing press to propagate the new views. Christian unity was shattered, personal liberty in religion affected every sphere of human activity, with the rise of the modern secular state, of capitalism as rugged individualism, and with the loss of cultural solidarity founded on a common faith, that had shaped Western civilization for almost a millennium.

The Enlightenment: the title given to the 18th-century because of the prevalent intellectual atmosphere of the time heralded as the Age of Reason; all aspects of learning were given a status that challenged the teachings of Christianity; there was a new emphasis upon humanism, attributing to the social and moral sciences the same exactness found in the natural laws of the physical sciences. This led writers, philosophers and scientists to rationalize concerning religion, ethics and the natural law. This in turn gave rise to secularism and subjective thought that placed the teachings of revealed religion in an outmoded grouping. Human reason became the arbiter of the nature of religion, social sciences, political and economic life.

[5] Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965: Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio; and the Decree on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae; found in The Documents of Vatican II, Walter M. Abbott, SJ, Herder and Herder Association Press, 1966.

[6] Oxford University Press, 2003.

[7] Matthew 5:43-48

[8] Mark 10:1-12

[9] Matthew 5:27-30

[10] Matthew 19:10-12

[11] Matthew 6:24-34

[12] Matthew 6:19-21

[13] Matthew 19:16-30

[14] Matthew 5:13-16

[15] Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, n. 34.

[16] Gaudium et Spes, nos. 53-62.

[17] Matthew 5:13-16

[18] Acts 2:1-13