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Catechism and Cultural RuinCatechism and Cultural Ruin

Catechism and Cultural Ruin

An excerpt from Ryan Topping’s new book, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life

8 minute read

In this excerpt from his new book, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life, Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping answers the question of why we need catechesis to regain authentic freedom.

Have we grown too old for catechisms? Some say so. Even prior to its 1994 English language publication, a wall of opposition greeted the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Critics said that a definitive guide to faith and morals could never again be achieved. The modern world confesses too many uncertainties; pluralism exposes too many points of view, they said. A catechism is, after all, an instruction in the faith by question and answer. It is a book of definitions, of certainties, of closures. Question: Who made us? Answer: God made us. Question: Who is God? Answer: God is the Supreme Being. Question: Why did God make us? Answer: God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in Heaven. The old Baltimore Catechism ran through those questions like a bowling ball, knocking down the riddles of poets and philosophers like pins, leaving to stand only the skeptic and the half-believer. And they wonder: what kind of game do religious people think they are playing? Bertrand Russell, the 20th century British atheist philosopher, once said that it was precisely for this reason that a believer could not produce original intellectual work. Believers presume they already possess answers. So in Russell's History of Western Philosophy, poor old Thomas Aquinas did not even make the roster in the lineup of greats from Plato to Alfred North Whitehead. "There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas," Russell concludes, since as a believer, Aquinas can always "fall back on revelation." Apparently, faith is not compatible with all forms of freethinking.

Bertrand Russell was on to something. Faith does impart to our freedom a distinct form. The heart and mind illumined by love no longer act the same, feel the same, think the same. We might even say that religion, once planted and left to seed, tends to take over the whole of the garden of the imagination. As T.S. Eliot observed in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, "there is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people." Like the outside of your window on the morning after winter's first snow, nothing looks quite the same; the world sparkles. That old bench still sits out front, but now it crouches under a white blanket; the trees still stand erect, but now they have become Christmas trees. The world has been made anew.

Revelation is like that first snow. It is a gift from above. It does not destroy the place beneath; but neither does it leave the earth as it was. Culture is born of our response to revelation. We shape culture; and it in turn shapes us. Like Athena leaping from the head of Zeus, culture springs from religion. At the head of Western culture, in ancient Greece, culture quite literally was born from the gods. All the arts (poetry, dance, music, history, etc.) were, in their view, the inspirations of the Muses—those nine sisters within the pantheon and protectresses of the arts and sciences. Religion was decisive in the formation of Europe, too. Cyril and Methodius set out to preach the Gospel to the Slavs in 863 A.D, only to find that before they could read them the Bible, they had to invent for them a script—the Cyrillic alphabet. In the Middle Ages, we could point to the foundation of the universities in the 12th century, at Paris, Cambridge and Oxford; to the birth of hospitals in France in the 14th century; or to the rise of the scientific revolution in the 17th century. Here, in the New World, we might name Father Michael J. McGivney's development of life insurance for families in the 19th century, or the credit union movement in the 20th century. Each one of these is an instance of the ongoing transformation of culture by faith. Wherever you look in the development of Western civilization, and the same could be said of other civilizations, religion is present. It is good that it is here. Pace Russell, pace Richard Dawkins, once faith took root in the West, its effect was not like a weed where soil is robbed and lightly choked, but like a lilac tree, emitting a fragrance, an atmosphere within which culture has flourished.

The Catholic claim is that faith makes you truly human: nobler, more just, lovelier than you could have been otherwise. And not only you and me. Nations likewise are elevated by their contact with this living creed. Faith defines and so limits thought through its dogmas, its institutions, its traditions; but by these, faith also liberates. By imposing limits, faith frees thought and action from futility and can render them divine.

A definition is in order. The Gospel aims to transform culture; but what do we mean by "a whole way of life"? "Culture" derives from the Latin cultura, a cultivating or tilling of the ground. Figuratively, cultura applied also to the cultivation or improvement of the mind. Thus, in a now slightly older English usage, we call a liberally educated man or woman "cultured." This mixing of human nature with a tradition of nurture is what produces "civilization." But civilization is not everywhere the same. Connected to this is the second sense of our term. "Culture," borrowing now from the German Kultur, can also denote a more localized pattern of living. We are not born anywhere, but only somewhere. So also the rational and the universal must be given concrete form in particular places. It is this sense of culture that usually denotes the habits of dress, dance, dining and dying. By speaking of the renewal of Catholic "culture," I wish to evoke both the universal and particular senses of the term. Thus Catholic culture refers to that excellence in thought and manner of life that properly accrues to a people, namely the Church. The centre is the celebration of the Mass. Swirling out from this is a way of life elevated and ennobled by the Gospel, touching, as it must, upon the artistic, economic, philosophical and communal dimensions of existence. At the same time, a culture so defined can take on distinctive forms. Catholic thought and piety will, surely, not look the same in America as in Armenia; that Our Lady appeared at Guadeloupe takes nothing away from the devotion that Europeans give to her at Lourdes. Every nation can contribute distinctively to this universal human culture; none can flourish apart from it.

For a generation already, Christians in developed nations have lived amidst the rubble of a ruined culture. The long litany of indicators—the collapse of religious life, vanishing church attendance, banal liturgies, abortion—are familiar enough on our horizon. We in the North Atlantic nations marvel at the fantastic growth in the South. Missionary priests now come to us. We wonder how this happened. Whatever the causes of this decline, what Catholics in Western nations most lack is not goodwill; nor do we lack political freedom or money. What we lack is confidence. We lack confidence in the world-transforming character of our creed; we lack confidence in the potency of the faith to shape and redefine the culture of an aggressive modernity that confronts it.

There was a prejudice among sociologists in the 1970s and 1980s called the secularization thesis, which ran that as modernity advanced, religion would recede. This is, of course, untrue. The rise of global Islam, five hundred million Charismatic Christians in the South, the explosion of African and Asian Catholicism, and even the stubborn persistence of belief in the developed world have buried the idea. Religion remains. Yet the sociologists were correct in this sense: they were right to see that religion has not been left unscathed. There has been a true clash. The terms of peace between traditional patterns of life and an ever-expanding modernity are conditional. Where the culture of modernity advances unchecked—a culture that can be summed up as progressive, secular and pluralistic—religion survives in stunted form, taking on one of two roles: as therapy or as critique. As therapy, religion recedes into the private, offering itself as a coping mechanism. In this mode, religion remains as one product among a list of competing remedies that the global consumer digests as required, an occasional sedative for a good night's sleep. As critique, religion occupies a place of discontent, assuming now the role of permanent heresy. Its survival at the margins is even necessary for the justification of the liberal state: religion remains as a trophy to modernity's own universality, its own benign tolerance. Even the Chinese government helps restore an old church now and again.

The following meditations proceed from two assumptions. First, that the Church is and remains obliged to make the reign of Christ the King present in every aspect of human life—the school, the concert hall, the legislature, the lab, the home and the mall. Where modernity pretends to offer a creed more universal than the Church's, whether this be through the language of rights, of tolerance or of inevitable progress, those pretensions need to be exposed; they need to be ridiculed for the idolatry that they are. The Church has a bridegroom who is a jealous lover. The second assumption is this. If Catholicism is ever again to shape Western culture, then the Church in the West must learn anew how to master and muster the resources of its own tradition. This will be done not through endless accommodation to contemporary thought, but through renewal and recovery of its own mind. And in those parts of Western culture where the Church is making advances, this is what she has done. No other institution has been thinking about thinking as long as the Church. Intellectual humility is a great good; but self-imposed humiliation before our medical, moral and political masters is unbecoming.

Renewal is a work of the Spirit. It also demands sacrifice. When Father Miguel Augustín Pro, the Mexican Jesuit martyr, stretched out his arms before the firing squad on November 22, 1927, he did not proclaim in vain "Viva Cristo Rey!" ("Long live Christ the King!") For Christ is not simply our Good Shepherd; he is also the King. Only the most prosaic and gnostic versions of the faith could accept as a fait accompli the decentring of religion from public life. Scripture says, "The Son of God came so that we might become partakers of the divine life" (2 Peter 1:4; CCC 460): that principle holds true for our common life as well. As the Book of Revelation tells, not only individuals will add their gifts to the glory of the Heavenly City, so too will nations "come bringing their treasure and their wealth" (Rev. 21:26). Among the tasks required for our time, then, is the recovery of the Church's tradition as this is embedded in her creed, in her liturgy, in her moral philosophy, and in her mystical practice. Only then will the symbols (liturgical, architectural, artistic), the language (of literature and philosophy), and the confidence (in matters of faith and morals) of Catholicism enable the Church to succeed in her world-shaping ambition.

The resurrection of Lazarus did not mark the end of history; what the rising of this dead man's body made tangible was the power of God at work in a new age. Pope John Paul II once explained, "The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine" (General Audience, February 20, 1980). Christ raised Lazarus to evoke faith. Christian culture can evoke hope. So I draw an analogy. As in the raising of Lazarus, the renewal of the body of human culture can make present goods that might otherwise remain inaccessible. A vibrant Catholic culture makes intelligible a mode of life and the habits of being that fit us for heaven. With the end of this renewal in view, there exists no better concise presentation of the faith than the recently promulgated Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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