The Catholic Thing
Culture, Again Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 08 February 2009

Evangelize the culture. Be not afraid. Those two phrases might be fairly taken to sum up the entire papacy of John Paul the Great. He knew what he was talking about. As does Benedict XVI, who has pointed to the bloody secularist regimes in the twentieth century and suggested that it would be a good thing for all of us, even unbelievers, to start acting “as if God existed.” For a lot of Catholics, all this may sound like something optional and a little uncomfortable in modern pluralistic societies, where evangelizing or making converts or just criticizing bad behavior can appear arrogant or offensive or worse. But it’s becoming quite clear that there are only two alternatives. Either we and those with whom we can make alliances will evangelize the culture, or the culture will evangelize us.

By culture, I do not mean the residual high Western culture of classical music, museums, and art galleries. I mean television, pop music, and Hollywood, and the pseudo-high culture of a large part of our universities and mainstream journalism. It has often been pointed out that about 90 percent of Americans are believers and only 10 percent unbelievers, while almost the exact opposite is the case in newsrooms and faculty clubs. Even when the popular and elite segments of our culture do not produce outright unbelief, they tend to separate people from their religious communities. A recent Gallup poll and another survey being finished by Mark Silk, a serious scholar of American religious trends, show – not surprisingly – that the South remains among the most religious sections of the country, but also that New England, one of the most cultured parts of the country, has passed the Pacific Northwest as the region where the most people say religion is not very important in their lives. The New England figures, according to Professor Silk, reflect a sharp drop off particularly in the numbers of Catholics who say religion is important to them.

Now there are several things to be drawn from these figures. First, in America there has still not been a large swing away from religious belief per se, as there has been in Europe. (Even in Europe, by some measures, there are only two places where outright atheists are in the majority: the Czech Republic and the former East Germany, both for complex historical reasons. Eighty percent of Russians say they are believers despite over seventy years of Communist rule and religious persecution.) The secularization thesis – the notion that modern, technological societies inevitably produce non-believers – has actually been disproved in many parts of the world as religious renewal has taken place in reaction to those very modernizing forces, what Peter Berger has called the de-secularization of the world. And in large parts of the world such as Asia, Africa, and Latin America, secularizing simply never occurred, even where those societies modernized.

What happens more frequently, however, is a detachment from religious institutions, a de-churching of believers who become freelancers in belief and behavior. People believe in God, but make no very strenuous efforts to know who He is or what He wants. They take their popular cultural framework as the basic guide to what’s right and wrong. When you combine this with the pervasive media environment today – Paris and Lindsay, Brangelina and Jen (complimenti if these names mean nothing to you) – and the multiple outlets that make such lives seem normal or even ideal, and you get an unfortunate and potent brew. The pedophilia scandal in general and the Boston’s problems in particular may have contributed to the Catholic slippage in New England, but it would be myopic to think they explain everything. The problem is much bigger.

Catholics have felt the effects of evangelization by the culture for some time – ever since acceptance into the American mainstream, the turmoil after Vatican II, and the 1960s cultural revolution destabilized our traditional community. Lots of people, almost a quarter of the U.S. population, still call themselves Catholic and may even mean it in some sense. That is no small number and is as large as the next fifteen religious groups combined. But of those 65-70 millions maybe a third show up at Mass with any regularity; the same percentage has any inkling that the Eucharist is anything more than a symbol or that opposition to abortion is not merely a religious dogma; and only that segment of American Catholics shows much that is statistically different in behavior from American culture at large.

At the time of the Reformation, Catholic and Protestant evangelizers alike were shocked at the low level of religious knowledge among the people they went out to convince. Perhaps we are not much different from other ages on that score, but people then lived in communities that conveyed by precept and example many things that a large segment of the human race seems incapable of taking in theoretically. And they did not have around them various institutions that taught them what can only be called non-Christian attitudes towards themselves, God, and the world. In other words, they were not constantly being evangelized by a corrupt culture.

John Paul the Great was hardly the first to warn about the dangers of the loss of Catholic solidarity and the threat from culture. But his was the voice that spoke most clearly and effectively in recent memory. In the four years since his death, things have not noticeably improved. And it becomes ever clearer that, though his work is done – done beautifully – ours is becoming all the more urgent.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Brad Miner, February 09, 2009
Much of the decline in Christian practice is due to popular culture: both in terms of its allure and its ubiquity. It's got a beat you can dance to and the siren song plays non-stop. It's hard for many to distinguish between right and wrong when corruption has become normative. It takes real courage for celebrities to publicize their faithfulness to Christ and the Church, such as those involved in "Rosary Stars" have done.
Food for Thought
written by William Dennis, February 09, 2009
Perhaps it is too early on Monday to cogitate on the pervasive nihilsm of Western culture and its Hegelian philosophies. Is there no absolute truth? Is it only a mental construct related to periods of history?. What is truth? Was Christ silent to this question because he didn't know? Are we now witnessing the "Decline of the West," viz. Christianity? If so, all the evangelization in the world is for naught! Well, enough of this. Oh my!!! I forgot Lauds this morning. Great website!
written by James the Least, February 09, 2009
Mr. Royal, so long as you continue to offer up the same old, warmed-over Modernism that inspired Vatican II and that continues to corrupt the Church through the pontificates of JPII and Benedict, unbelief will continue to grow. There is no great mystery about what needs to be done. The problem is that no one is willing to do it: to preach the Truth of Christ unapologetically, without all the bowing and scraping and attempting to accommodate our doctrine to the pronouncements of inferior sciences
Pop & Elite Culture
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., February 09, 2009
It is not only the Catholic world's refusal to fight pop culture which erodes and corrupts the West, but the very elevation of the eliite secular culture as well that harrns us. When a bishop from the pulpit says that reading Joyce's Ulysses will make them better Catholics we are in troulbe. Where is the Legion of Decency? Everyone wants the respect of the the Chruch's enemies, so we become of the world as well as in it. Is this all in "the spirit of the Council"?
written by Jim, February 09, 2009
Although things haven't noticeably improved since the death of John Paul the Great, many seeds were planted. It is our task (clergy and laity) to leverage that work and ensure those seeds bear fruit in our culture. Cultural decay can be a slow process. It's reinvigoration may be equally slow. We have a natural tendency to look to politics, recapturing media, etc. for solutions. They are important. But at the end of the day, we need saints. Lots of them. That points the finger right back at us!
written by Lee, February 09, 2009
I would not have a contemplative nun for a daughter (age 29) and a daily communicant for a son (age 30) if we had not thrown out the TV 27 yrs ago.

THAT is what is killing us. Instead of doing the really efficient thing and killing the messenger, we debate his messages endlessly with books, websites and magazines. IT IS TOTALLY IDIOTIC. Dads especially would be very open to ridding their house of this antichrist, if anyone would present the case. Bishops anyone? Priests?
written by Andrew Ellison, February 11, 2009
Mr. Royal cautions that "the culture will evangelize us". We need a new word to describe this. May I suggest "to cacangelize"? Let's talk more about the dangers of pop culture instead of trying to use its language to "meet people where they're at." I suspect many are afraid to renounce it because they want to defend the bits of it that they enjoy, perhaps guiltily. (Moreover, I hardly think that James Joyce is a problem for intelligent Catholics, though he shouldn't be a pulpit priority.)
written by charles smith, February 13, 2009
If culture is defined as to its purpose,why it exists... try this ...culture provides the points of reference by which the subject is able to apply meaning to the universe, meaning to his/her own existence and a framework to face death . . . by this definition, the current american culture is bankrupt. It is a society of the superficial and the spectacular, one without shame or modesty, that has rejected trnscendence and embraced materialism and biological well-being...

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