Culture, Again Print
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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