Catholics have spent the past few months focused on politics. It was unavoidable, at least for anyone who owned a computer, a television, a radio or a telephone. And while politics can sometimes seem intrusive, it’s important: Catholics are called to be faithful citizens, bringing the resources of our faith to bear on public issues. 

But with the election over, it’s time to shift focus to something even more central to our lives as Catholics: our culture. If politics is important, culture is fundamental. Culture rightly understood means more than just pop culture; it even means more than high culture, more than art and literature and music. It’s shared habits and understandings and affections rooted in a particular place. It gives a particular shape to family, to friendship and to daily living. A vibrant culture is reflected in an everyday life interwoven with something beyond the everyday, something holy.

Breathing thin air

Not too long ago, many American Catholics inhabited a culture in which their faith suffused their lives. It informed where they lived; it informed what they ate; it informed where their kids went to school and the sports teams they joined and what they did for fun. For better and for worse, Catholicism was the air that many American Catholics breathed. 

Catholic culture
We begin to build real culture in our homes when we orient our families toward God. Shutterstock

That’s not the world most of us live in today. Today the air we breathe is thinner. For a host of complicated reasons, the everyday lives of many American Catholics are no longer particularly distinctive from the everyday lives of members of other faiths. But we know things should be otherwise: Our faith should be part of the air we breathe. We need to learn to weave our faith into the particular circumstances of our everyday lives in a way that fits our time and place, without sentimentality or nostalgia. Making that happen — building a living Catholic culture in our homes, among our friends, and in our parishes — is the most important task facing Catholics today. 

Without romanticizing the past, we can say that at other times and places, everyday Catholic cultures have often at least dimly reflected the Catholic belief that the good and the true and the beautiful exists just beyond the everyday world, and sometimes overflows into it. At their best these cultures reflected a living faith of feasting and fasting, joy and grief, generosity and sacrifice, that witnessed to the truths of our faith without having to articulate them. 

It’s often hard to find reflections of the good and the true and the beautiful in the culture that surrounds us today. Its problems are familiar: an unthinking consumerism taught by ads that tell kids they need the new Lego Captain America Avenging Cycle, or that tell 20-something women that this year’s fall fashions are fundamentally different from last year’s. A routine coarseness emanating from the screens we view. A loss of a sense of place, of stability, of home. A casual acceptance of each new technology that comes along even though they too often make our lives more frenetic and distracted. 

I won’t belabor these familiar problems; it’s dispiriting to rehearse them again and again. We know the larger challenges we face. Our job is to respond to them in our own lives. For the most part, that’s a cultural task. It requires not legislation, but everyday efforts to work with those closest to us to build this essential aspect of our common good.

Building up our parishes

Catholics bring particularly useful resources to the challenge of pushing back against a culture that, to paraphrase Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Peter Maurin, doesn’t make it “easy to be good.” We need to reclaim those resources. As Catholics we know, for instance, that our faith calls us to be in the world, even as we’re not to be of it. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of Catholics today forming a “creative minority” in society, engaging culture while remaining true to our faith. Engaging a culture doesn’t mean embracing it, of course; it means countering its values with our own.  

“The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the Faith. But they also call for cultivating a mindset, an intellectual ‘culture,’ which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason, and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.” 

To engage the culture on the ground, where we live, means countering materialism with simplicity; transience with rootedness; and coarseness with self-giving love. It means living lives of sacrifice and generosity, integrity and joy, and in doing so, quietly witnessing to our faith. 

One of the surest steps to rebuilding a Catholic culture and witnessing as a creative minority would be for Catholics to commit themselves to their local parishes when possible; to resist the urge to “church-shop”; to think of what they’re giving up before they move to that bigger house a few ZIP codes away. Everyone who stays put is doing something to build a robust, living place, a place where faces become familiar enough to be approachable, and then approachable enough to be friends. 

In such parishes, people take care of each other. They know, without extra effort, when there’s sickness in a family, or someone’s kid is having trouble, or another person’s baby has finally arrived. And more often than not someone does the right thing — drops a meal off on a doorstep; lingers in the hallway just to talk; is simply present for others. After all, we’re not meant to be Catholics alone; we’re meant to be Catholics together.  

And in this time and in this culture, being Catholic together should more often mean sticking with particular people, in a particular place, so that we come to share memories and stories and sorrows and joys and thus become more what we were meant to be — a “people set apart” for holiness. That holiness is the essential thread in any living culture.

Taking care of the family

Catholics know that the work of building such vibrant, rooted cultures necessarily begins in the family. It’s there that children first encounter the beginnings of a faith-filled, other-centered community. And it’s in the family that they can begin to learn the virtues that make life in community livable — forgiveness and patience and charity (at least until someone steals the last brownie); order and an appreciation for beauty (at least until the laundry piles up). It’s in the family that children begin to understand what goodness looks like (often as the opposite of their little brother’s badness). However imperfectly, we begin to build real culture in our homes — and thus the larger world — whenever we orient our families toward God. 

And when the laundry’s piled up and the kids are fighting over who stole what, that’s when we’re grateful for friendship. Friendship might not seem like something particularly Catholic or cultural, but bear with me. Notice how often Jesus acts as a friend in the Gospels: He eats and drinks and celebrates with his disciples. He shares his thoughts with them and challenges them. He asks for their help. He no longer calls them servants, but friends, “for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” Friendship is central to Jesus’ life on earth, and it’s central to our faith. 

It’s also central to culture. Building culture is about building true communities, and communities are made up of friends. Building those friendships takes work, but it’s light work. The Christian “duty of hospitality” can mean many things, but one thing it means is getting to know others; inviting them into your home and sharing a meal and being together, and that’s no burden. And how attractive our local Catholic cultures would be — how effective our witness — if we tried to live this ideal of friendship; if we showed the world, in Hilaire Belloc’s words, that “wherever the Catholic sun does shine/There’s always laughter and good red wine.”

A home for all

More than the words we say or the views we hold, it’s how we live together that builds a vibrant culture in our families, among our friends and in our parishes. Blessed Pope John Paul II recognized the fundamental importance of building culture and the centrality of families and friendships to that project. He also wrote of our responsibility to spread the Good News to those beyond our immediate circle, extending our hospitality to those most in need, to let all know that “no one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden’” (Familiaris Consortio, No. 85). 

This is the witness that a renewed and rooted Catholic culture of faith and family and friendship can give to the exhausted culture from which it springs. This everyday task of enriching our public life by building culture from the ground up is not something routine or secondary. It’s essential, and it’s up to lay Catholics to help it take root. 

Kim Daniels is director of Catholic Voices USA. This article is adapted from her contribution to “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves” (OSV, $16.95).