Building on Nature

In his Letters to an American Lady, on November 10, 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I believe that, in the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes. I would even carry this beyond the borders of Christianity: how much more one has in common with a real Jew or Muslim than with a wretched liberalising, occidentalised specimen of the same categories.

I think Lewis has a point. One of the things our faith teaches us is that grace builds on nature — that God begins with the human “raw material” He creates and, if you will, co-creates us via the risky business of giving us free will. Accordingly, human beings have spread out across the globe in a vast array of cultures (including religious cultures) that respond to Christ in a vast assortment of ways. (And yes, if Paul on the Areopagus has anything to teach us, it is that non-Christians, when they respond to the “light that lightens every man,” are, in some sense, responding to Christ, though very imperfectly. If it were not so, Paul would have told pagans to abandon their pursuit of the Unknown God, not identified the Unknown God as Jesus Christ [Acts 17].)

Within the Catholic communion, in which the fullness of Christ’s revelation subsists, we see a host of different sorts of spirituality and piety. A Franciscan is not a Dominican is not a Jesuit is not Carmelite, but all are Catholic (giving rise to a host of Catholic intramural jokes, such as the interview I once saw with a Franciscan who noted that “Dominicans are great preachers and Jesuits are brilliant, but when it comes to humility we’re tops”).

When we go to the heart of these different approaches to Christ, we discover the mysterious fact that the more Dominican a Dominican is, the more different he is from a Franciscan, yet the more they grow together in the love of Christ. The great icon of this, of course, is the friendship of Francis and Dominic themselves. The one couldn’t organize his way out of a paper bag and was no great shakes in the book-learnin’ department. The latter was one of the greatest organizational minds in history and had a penchant for book learning that left a deep impression on his learned followers (among them, St. Thomas Aquinas) that endures to the present day.

This mystery is at the heart of the Catholic Faith — which is, after all, the Catholic Faith. Jesus called twelve apostles, not just one, and began the Church from the get go with the proposition that He would be found in the crazy diversity of a Body.


And so, the American, French, African, Irish, German, and Chinese Catholic churches are all recognizably different — but all are recognizably Catholic, too. On the good side of this, it means that, as grace perfects nature, you wind up with Christians — both inside and outside the Catholic communion — who ripen according to their nature. Only Polish Catholicism could have produced a Pope John Paul II, for instance. And a John Henry Cardinal Newman could only have arisen among the English. Likewise, there is something deeply American about a Dorothy Day; and the profound Russianness of Solzhenitsyn makes trying to transpose him to, say, American culture like trying to imagine turning the Gulag Archipelago into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. As they say, liver is good and chocolate is good, but chocolate on liver, not good.

This curious tendency of things to become more themselves, not more homogenized, can be seen in the world of converts to the faith, too. I remember once listening to a recording of Scott Hahn in the early 1990s (this was before we’d met). A friend of mine remarked, “You can take the preacher out of Protestantism, but you can’t take Protestantism out of the preacher.” She was referring not to his theology (which was thoroughly Catholic), but to his delivery. Till the day he dies, Hahn will be an American Presbyterian-flavored Catholic, just as Tom Howard will be flavored by his upbringing as a Philadelphia Evangelical-cum-Anglican, and Dale Vree will bear the marks of a radical who converted to the Faith. These are all good things, because God consistently allows our nature to be the raw material He fashions into the image of Christ.

And so Saul becomes Paul, but he bears forever the mark and mindset of a Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee of Pharisees. St. Augustine, renewed in baptism, put off the old self and put on the Lord Jesus Christ, but he remained the brilliant Latin rhetorician and thinker that could only have sprung from that time, culture, and place. St. Teresa of Avila is the peculiar combination of pious saint and saucy smart aleck that a Spanish and Jewish background of that time and place could produce. Where but in 18th- and early 19th-century England could a moral force like William Wilberforce have arisen and met with the success he did? Where could a C. S. Lewis have arisen but in the time and culture that he did? A French Lewis is as unthinkable as an English Thérèse of Lisieux or a Norwegian John XIII.

Conversely, when a Christian or a culture goes bad, it gives off a peculiar odor that is unique to it. American Protestantism could never produce a Rasputin, just as Orthodoxy could never produce a Jimmy Swaggart. Randall Terry is a unique product of the volatile mix of American Right-Wing Protestantism alloyed with FoxNews-ified American Right-Wing Catholicism. Outside his highly specified environmental niche, he would perish like a rare African orchid. Much as moderns fear his return, the reality is that Torquemada is the denizen of a particular sort of religious culture that can no more be reproduced than Jurassic Park can recreate the Cretaceous period.

John Shelby Spong is what Episcopalianism smells like when it dies and rots, just as Heinrich Himmler is the stench of a particular sort of Prussianized, occultified semi-Catholic German culture from the early 20th century. Jeremiah Wright is likewise what a politicized Protestant Black American Church that has lost touch with anything resembling a supernatural gospel smells like, just as Unitarianism is the upper-middle-class white version of the same thing. Trying to put either into the context of, say, third-century Ethiopia is impossible. They are creatures of their time and place.

This matters because one of the things the Church has always grappled with is the problem of enculturation. The Church decisively broke with the notion that a single human culture could contain the New Wine when she told the Judaizers that they were wrong to insist that Gentiles had to be cultural Jews in order to be saved. The Church has gone on busting molds ever since and casting the gospel in all manner of foreign garb. So we see art portraying Jesus as Chinese, or renderings of the crucifixion by Rembrandt in which everybody is dressed in contemporary Dutch clothing. When Mary appears at Guadalupe, she does so in the likeness of the oppressed Native American, not in the likeness of the Spanish. Again and again, the Church follows Paul’s practice of becoming all things to all, that some might be saved.

But that does not mean the gospel mutates. Instead, it too becomes more itself in the very process of spreading out across every nation, language, tribe, and tongue. To be sure, it walks the world’s longest high-wire act as it does so, and that is not for the timid — who, ever since the Judaizers, have built what they thought were fortresses but in fact were prisons intended to keep the gospel safe from being sullied with disgusting heathen humanity. But since the Word became flesh and welcomed the first Roman centurion, Syro-Phoenician woman, and curious Greek, there’s been no stopping Him from finding points of contact with everyone on earth. It is the nature of the gospel to redeem humanity, not just me and my comfy peer group. And it seems to be the habit of the Holy Spirit to shake things up as He does so. I wonder what He will do next?


Image: St. Francis and St. Dominic, Della Robbia, Hospital of St. Paul, Piazza Santa Maria Novella

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Lucien Syme

    It will be interesting to see the Holy Spirit sweep across India, China and Arab lands.

    Good article!

  • digdigby

    The most fascinating and (now wildly distorted) story is that of the Lakota Sioux Catholics and the Jesuits and Franciscans who loved them and were adopted into their families, spoke fluent Lakota and created with them an exquisite amalgam of the finest nobility of Lakota generosity, bravery and intense spirituality with utter devotion to their Church. VII period Catholicism with its Social Justice blather, its groveling and apologizing while accepting utterly phony sham-Lakota ritualism has destroyed whatever remained from the terrible secularization after 1945.

    Just think of this: a visiting bishop in the early 20th century says he had NEVER not in Rome, not anywhere
    seen a Mass like the Lakota. The whole time all were on their knees, head bowed MOTIONLESS in utter absorption into the Wakan (the sacred). Waiting to receive ‘wakan ake’ (the spirit food). These are people who did not need to be taught the Second Commandment because to speak of Wahkantanka (The Great Spirit) with other than reverence was inconceivable for ANY one. The Sioux had the spirituality to distinguish at once between the ‘black robes’ and the protestant missions. They said ‘send us black robes!’ They, at least, knew what was truly ‘wakan’ (holy) at once.

  • BigIrish

    Great article as per, Mr Shea!

    A few of us are trying to spread the Gospel as well as help educate fellow Catholics via facebook. I like how the Pope said we should bring evangelisation to social media and I think in modern times of how big a role things like facebook can play and thus how badly this is needed.

    Everyday we put up prayer requests, saint of the day, inspiring quotations and thoughts, as well as articles on catholic teaching and links to blogs like the awesome ones by Mr Shea.

    Help us out if you can, or else maybe start your own. Ours is called “Sword and Shield” – defending the truth and spreading the Good News of the Catholic faith.!/pages/Sword-and-Shield/115937085157867

  • pammie

    This article is a breath of fresh air in the scared, scarey days in which we are living, when it is so easy to give in to fear and loathing of one group or another or to be sure that our view is the ONLY legitimate view.

    “Randall Terry is a unique product of the volatile mix of American Right-Wing Protestantism alloyed with FoxNews-ified American Right-Wing Catholicism.”

    The majority of my American friends woud fall into this catagory, which can make for very dull political discussions. If I want to know their opinions (especially Catholics) one need only tune into Sean Hannity, the Fox “uberCatholic”. I find him mostly appalling, but many of my friends don’t.

    But it is well to remember that we are all products of our upbringing and culture and try to look at the nonessentials as just that—non essential. And mostly to not forget that we are blessed to be in the truly Catholic Church, which makes us all members (like it or not) of the same family.

  • Gabriel Austin

    And what of the work among the Lakota of the Presentation Sisters, beginning in the 19th Century and continuing to this day? Not as boastful as the Jesuits, and therefore the more effective.

    • digdigby

      Sorry! Didn’t mean to leave anyone out. I’m just reading about these particular fellows right now.

  • “FoxNews-ified American Right-Wing Catholicism”

    Mr. Shea, since this was obviously intended pejoratively (consistent with previous finger-pokes in the collective eye) would you please tell us which MSM outlets are more fair to the Church?

    CBS, NBC, ABC, ?

    CNN, NY Times, PBS ??

    MSNBC, HuffPo, Comedy Central ???

    Personally, I have tried them and found them all to have a disdain for religion in general and the Catholic Church specifically. So please enlighten us as to how “real Catholics” should get their news, because it has been my experience that only EWTN is more fair to the Church.

    Thank you.

  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark, be careful or you will hurt yourself jerking your knee that way. One can find rotting versions of Christianity on some of the outlets you mention. I mentioned Jeremiah Wright and various species of Unitarianism as an example. I simply didn’t connect them with HuffPo and other media outlets because my point was not to play team sports concerning media outlets, but simply to discuss the ways in which different natures can bear fruit or rot according to their acceptance and rejection of grace.

    The problem is not that I failed to mention ideologically liberal forms of rot, but that you, in your hyper-sensitive zeal to feel persecuted, only noticed when I mentioned ideologically conservative forms of rot. It’s sort of like the Far Side cartoon: What I said was, “Christianity, when it dies and rots can sound like Jeremiah Wright or Randall Terry ranting on Fox News. What you heard was “Blah blah blah Fox News blah blah blah.” My suggestion: learn to read, Ginger.

  • Carl

    “FoxNews-ified American Right-Wing Catholicism”
    Well, it is run mostly by imperfect Catholics and the Right-Wing description is clearly uncharitable and pejorative.

    Rupert Murdock owner of Foxnews, Catholic.
    Roger Ailes was hired as CEO, is Catholic.

    They hired Catholics such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Megan Kelly, and Neal Cavuto, to name just a few. Foxnews even has Father Jonathan Morris as a regular contributor.

    Ok, this news program and its personalities aren’t perfect just like our “Church Ain’t perfect,” a recent Mark Shea piece, but who in news reporting is more respectful of Catholic teaching. For example, Foxnews is typically the only national news outlet to cover the Pro-Life March every March 22.

    Prior to October 7, 1996, Foxnews conception date, what MSM news cast was on any level respectful to the Catholic Church? That’s right, none. So how is Foxnews a sign of what is progressively wrong with culture? au contraire!

    Foxnews at least is a shift in proper direction, I almost typed right direction, in news reporting. Didn’t Foxnews “shake things up,” and is “building on [the]nature” of our culture?

    Church Teaching should be digested in heavy proportions daily for Catholics and to limit Foxnews’ influence—but I don’t read this in Mr. Shea’s writings. If this were Mr. Shea’s point I could accept it.

    I would no sooner stop participating in politics or turn off Foxnews than I would want to toss out the guy next to me in the pew because of their imperfections. The idea is to work together to make ourselfs better as a Church and society. The persuit of personal perfection smells of exclusivism.

  • Carl

    “fear and loathing of one group or another or to be sure that our view is the ONLY legitimate view” pammie said

    Mr. Shea couldn’t be any clearer on that one. To have no fear and know that there is only one way, the truth, and the life. Church teaching is the only legitimate view to have. And I agree.

    Mr. Shea is also saying in essence to throw out you TVs, radios, quit politics, and only associate yourself as a member of the Catholic Church. He loses me here.

  • Mark P. Shea

    “Mr. Shea is also saying in essence to throw out you TVs, radios, quit politics, and only associate yourself as a member of the Catholic Church.”

    Documentation please?

  • Carl

    “Documentation please?”

    I can think of only EWTN as the only possible media outlet permissible by the “essence of your criticism” however right you are. Although I don’t remember the mention of EWTN here at Crisismagazine. By your criteria I have almost nothing to vote for in the state of PA.

    No conversion whether it be individual or especially as a nation occurs over night. It occurs progressively over time. My point being that hardly a Catholic knows or understands all the teachings of the Church. The teaching and learning project is a journey not a sprint.

    Whether it is the guy in the pew next to me or where ever…
    It’s one thing to have flawed ignorant opinions but to denounce Church teachings is quite another thing. Even liberals try to dodge this by saying “I’m personally opposed but will not stop your right to blank (abortion for example).

    I understand, I’m one of those typically ignorant guys who needs patience from others.

  • Mark P. Shea

    I can think of only EWTN as the only possible media outlet permissible by the “essence of your criticism” however right you are.

    And the place in this article–or anywhere else–I have decreed which media outlets are “permissible” for my readers to use is….?

  • Gian

    The typical Americanism is naturally not perceived by Americans themselves. The American Catholics believe in
    the miracle of the invisible hand, that monetary transactions should be guided by self-interest
    and not by love and friendship.that men are by nature polygamous and need to be tamed and civilized by women.

    All of these tenets are peculiarly 20C American.

  • Question: “would you please tell us which MSM outlets are more fair to the Church?”

    Mark P. Shea: “One can find rotting versions of Christianity on some of the outlets you mention. I mentioned Jeremiah Wright”

    And I need to learn how to read? Jeremiah Wright? MSM stands for Mainstream Media, not Megalomaniac Socialist Misanthropes. I apologize for assuming you knew that.. in the future I’ll keep in mind that you were born and raised in Unincorporated Portlandia — the national hotbed of politics.

    Also, for the record, I said please and thank you while addressing you as Mr. Shea, and you responded with: “My suggestion: learn to read, Ginger.”

    And in your mind, you are a beacon of charity.

    I will try again.. please enlighten us as to how “real Catholics” should get their news from the Mainstream Media?

    It’s a straightforward question that deserves a straightforward answer.

    • Mark P. Shea

      Mark: Your reading comprehension continues to need improvement. This piece was not about “how ‘real Catholics’ should get their news from the Mainstream Media?” Indeed, it was not about who is and is not a “real Catholic” at all.

      I don’t know why you think I have some prescription for which media outlets you should read, listen to, or watch. I tend to be very broad in that department and will read anything I think interesting or true from any source I happen on. This gets me into trouble with tribalists who believe that a truth spoken by a ritually impure source automatically means the truth is false. How you navigate you media diet I neither know nor care, Mark. I just wish you could stick to the topic of the piece and not babble incoherence in the service of your tribal allegiances.

  • Ann

    I think Gerard Manley Hopkins has expressed the same reality as Mark in very different language…

    ..There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
    And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
    Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

    (Tje World is Charged with the G randeur of God)

  • Mark

    “This piece was not about “how ‘real Catholics’ should get their news from the Mainstream Media?” – Mark P. Shea

    First, you single out Fox News for your predictable and tired cheap shots and then you react like a sixteen year old being informed that she was cut from the pom pom squad when you are called on it.

    Here’s an idea, if you don’t want people to comment on what YOU write… then don’t write it.