Seeing Things: Christ and Culture Revisited

Today, even in historically Christian nations, we have to reconvert the culture. You may bring people, one by one, to Christ; you may hope that a Supreme Court decision will reverse decline. But whether you prefer the personal or institutional route, it’s either act now or passively watch cultural suicide.

Then again, there is a popular alternative: Convert Christianity to the culture. Now, distinguishing proper development from infidelity is not always easy. Augustine used Neoplatonism, and Thomas, Aristotle, in ways that seemed dangerous at the time. But their syntheses of faith and culture soon demonstrated an underlying continuity.

I was reminded of all this when I read Jesuit Thomas J. Reese’s John Courtney Murray lecture at Fordham last spring, “2001 and Beyond: Preparing the Church for the Next Millennium.” Occasionally someone captures a whole viewpoint, as Reese did here for liberal Catholicism, and therefore warrants attention.

A living tradition, he rightly says, must constantly change; but three current issues have “paralyzed” the Church: sex, ministry, and hierarchy.

His prescriptions? On sex: “The real story is that in the Catholic Church the battle about sex is over. On questions of birth control, masturbation, premarital sex, divorce, and remarriage, the hierarchy has lost most of the faithful.” Hmmm. Conveniently absent: abortion, which a large percentage of Catholics also accept.

Reese concedes that the sexual revolution also spread abortion, divorce, illegitimacy, rape, and sexually transmitted diseases. And that while the battle is over, “there are no winners.” A balanced liberal view—if we put all the emphasis, as Reese does, on the bare social phenomena. But is it Catholic? One glory of Catholicism is that its “stern morality” arose precisely because moral realists knew the high human price of indulging weaknesses. For Reese and others, though, whatever truth remains in that view inspires no action in light of the new cardinal sin: being “out of touch” with the people.

He points to a serious problem: children of divorce and “ecumenical” marriages will be torn between parent and Church, if the Church continues to exclude people in irregular circumstances from Communion. Perhaps. But some younger people turn to the Church precisely because of their family experiences of the sexual revolution. And do parents themselves have an entirely clear conscience as this scenario suggests? Even in sociological terms, to think accommodation will help is like thinking welfare is merely a hand up out of poverty. There is much more, for good and evil, in human nature.

On ministry, Reese takes the usual liberal view that only married and women priests will ward off sacramental meltdown. Similarly, for him, the hierarchy is only a clunky bureaucracy, never a force for unity that has proven itself through survival over centuries.

What is to be done? “Despite its superficial attractions, I do not believe that schism is a viable option.” This is the first of seven “reform strategies,” and we can be grateful that God’s desire that we be one and sociology converge beyond superficial attractions.

Instead, we get the usual intellectual’s prescription—tolerance and research grants: “The Catholic Church spends a smaller percentage of its budget on research and development than any other multinational corporation in the world…. That we are losing the battle of ideas is not surprising because we do not take this battle seriously.” Amusing, but who is not serious? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the authors of the Catechism. Or a liberal Catholicism that consists mostly of anodyne pronouncements about God, and “reform” in the Church wherever the culture has allegedly already triumphed? In passing, Reese commends the strategy of leaders such as Cardinal Bernardin and Archbishop John Quinn of using “every possible provision, ambiguity, or loophole” in Church documents and encouraging “‘study’ of certain issues,”—quite a revelation about the aims of the Catholic Common Ground Project.

John Paul II has refused to frame his papacy according to this sort of dichotomy. Instead of a Clintonized Catholicism that leads by following trends, he practices the ancient art of discerning what the Holy Spirit asks, not only among the affluent, but around the world: the signs of the times, not the New York Times. The method is not foolproof; even Jesus did not convert everybody. But John Paul II is among the greatest leaders of the century precisely because his vision of a new evangelization in the coming millennium is far more faithful—and realistic—than the confusion of current culture with “the inevitable movement of history.”

  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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