When the Church Thrives, Cultures Thrive

The current controversy over Pope Francis’s apostolic letter on marriage highlights several realities in the Church and the world that are not always so clear. As is widely known, Amoris Laetitia, published last year, seems to leave open the possibility that couples who are divorced and remarried civilly be admitted to the sacraments in the absence of a declaration from the Church that their previous marriage was invalid.

Four cardinals—with notably Raymond Burke, an American, among them—have stated that this ambiguity has endangered the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage as well as the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist. The cardinals have sent to the pope some questions that are called “dubia” in Latin, questions designed to clear up doubts many of the faithful have concerning these crucial elements of Catholic teaching.

What has this to do with secular culture? With the larger world in which Catholics and people of any, or no faith at all, live? In truth, it has plenty to do with culture because over the centuries the Church has been an incubator of culture, of the arts, of the university itself.

Consider the University of Bologna, for example, the first university in the West, founded by students in 1008 that eventually would branch off into full-grown faculties for the study of civil and canon law, and the literary arts required for that study. Over the centuries, the papacy acted as a protector of masters and students against the incursions of local authorities, bringing to fruition robust intellectual communities. Masters were often given the same “benefit of clergy” protections as priests, arguably an early form of tenure.


Scholars attending Bologna included Thomas Becket, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, Copernicus, Albrecht Durer, Torquato Tasso, among many others. Women were allowed to teach at Bologna starting in the twelfth century, although, admittedly not in great numbers, though the fact itself is remarkable.

Of course, the shadows are there, left by defections from the Gospel by laity and clergy. But we must not let false narratives (both within and without the Church) emphasize only these failures, forgetting the blessings of Christianity to our culture in the West even in this post-Christian period.

For example, the statistics at the end of the 1950’s concerning the Church’s health were, contrary to the myth that Catholicism was then in crisis, robust, almost unbelievably so, compared with the losses the Church endured in the last 50 years in numbers of practicing Catholics. In fact, in the middle of the twentieth century there was a Catholic renaissance of writers: Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, Graham Greene, and Thomas Merton among them.

Many believe the reform of the Church’s ancient liturgy in 1969 helped bring this demise about. German novelist Martin Mosebach has even claimed opponents of Catholicism such as James Joyce “could not avoid being in the shadow” of that ancient liturgy, nurtured as they undoubtedly were on its aesthetic riches of soaring transcendence and delicate immanence.

The possibilities of a more refined culture aren’t the only blessings of our faith in this life. If there is not a single institution in this world which unequivocally declares that there are objective moral laws that bind us at all times and all places, then the hopes of both right and left in politics are nothing more than self-made schemes for short-term mastery bound to fail.

It’s helpful to remember that there were Roman martyrs who died because they wouldn’t even touch the incense offered to false gods in order to save themselves. They knew this one thing held the fate of their soul forever, and they became as iron before the jeering pagans. The love of heaven, the fear of deserting the Lord in this life, and therefore in the next: this is what grace wrought in their lives. Their blood converted an empire.

To those who think character education, or sensitivity training or even university degrees will usher in a generation of peace, Blessed John Henry Newman offers this reminder: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with silken thread; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.” This isn’t to say that character education and such are useless. They remain useful as long as we realize, as Evelyn Waugh wrote shortly after his conversion, that “civilization has … not in itself the power of survival.” That power lies in grace, a participation in the very life of God. And for that, we need truth, about us, about God, and about the way to live which pleases him.

Now more than ever we need clarity in our Church’s teaching, not evasions, not ambiguities, and not, especially, the deformations of conscience that today so many have blasphemously enthroned as an arbiter over the law of God itself.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a sculpture of law students at the University of Bologna listening to a lecture by the famous jurist Johannes of Legnano, circa 1385.

Michael J. Ortiz


Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.