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By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 23 August 2010

Since I was born in Iowa, “agriculture,” the cultivation of the fields, is quite familiar in both practical and theoretical terms. The distinction between “good” and “bad” farmer consisted in how the fields looked, the weeds, the fences, the animals, the straight rows, the yield, the painted barns, and mowed lawns. Farms are now often corporate farms. American farmers left the land. Very few are needed to feed us all. Writers like Wendell Berry deplore this situation. They see our national salvation in a return to family farms wherein we actually know about land, animals, and food.

The other form of cultivation, culture, is also a battleground. We speak of “culture wars.” The modern Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac famously stated that no “neutral” culture exists. Tracey Rowland has suggested that some of the fathers in Vatican II erred by advising us to “conform” our faith to the local culture. In so doing, we suddenly found that many things in the culture were not adaptable without losing elements of reason or faith.

Thus, within any way of life in any time or area are embodied certain standards or practices that need careful examination. Catholicism assumes that it can and should “adapt” the good things in any culture. No culture could be complete, however, that was not also open to the transcendent culture that is revelation. But revelation needed embodiment. This coming down to earth may take various legitimate forms.

Catholicism claimed that within the revelational tradition are found universal principles and standards, ways of life, that stand as limits to what is human. These limits indeed point man to what is more than human, his final destiny.

Certain things in every human culture, however, need to be modified, changed, or rejected in this light. A “Christian” culture would be one in which reasonable customs and ways of life are open to transcendence, but they do not define it.

To become “in-culturated” is sometimes a laudable goal. I learn how to live in Paris or Senegal or Shanghai. I know my way around these places. I appreciate the manners, why people eat this way or why they do not make statues. It also means accepting those standards.

Catholicism was never intended to be itself a complete culture. The things of the various “Caesars” remain. But Caesar has power, sometimes overweening power. In forms of leaders, courts, armies, or legislators, he can claim the power and right to define everything. We see more of this daily in our own country.

One meaning of culture signifies refinement or excellence. Better and worse ways of doing human things can be found. “High” culture can be snobbery, but it can also keep before us the noble and decent ways of living a human life. The aberration of nobility is elitism, just as the aberration of equality is ridicule of excellence.

The most obvious paradox about “all men are created equal” is that everyone is quite different in talent, gumption, generosity, and insight. This very diversity is why we have communities whereby the differences are welcomed as additions to a good that could not exist without them.

Behind culture is often not just the “cultivation” of a proper way of life, but a “cult.” What is the proper way to live according to the gods we believe in, or even according to the gods we do not believe in? We have heard of an “atheist culture.” It usually ends up deifying man, more often one man.

But the cultus is at the heart of any civilization. Catholicism is different in that its cultus is not concocted by itself. It is a gift, to be faithfully kept. The songs, the language, the gestures of the cultus can vary, but not what it is, the dogma.

The history of mankind has consisted in seeking the proper way to worship God. Myriads of ways have been tried: from human sacrifice to hymns of praise. In the end, the history of cult is that no one could by himself find the proper cult. It had to come from God.

This is what the liturgy is and why Catholicism is so adamant in insisting that this Sacrifice of the God-Man, the “Do this in memory of me,” must both be understood as the one sacrifice pleasing to the Father, and the one rite or cultus that renders the others mute before it.

Multi-culturalism is usually a theory that denies the transcendent culture. This denial is why it becomes a relativism in which the divine gift of cultus is rejected. Once this rejection is “in-culturated,” false gods appear. All cultures await the completion of human striving, the proper worship of the High God. Not a few who awaited it, rejected it when it came. But this acceptance and rejection, in large part, constitute the real drama of human history within time.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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written by stanley, August 24, 2010
I was thinking about culture after recently reading another article in which you described the difference between Christianity and (Jewish and Muslim) faiths...in that the later are "law" based. This might come in handy in the current Mosque argument.

And then I always remember Conversations with Eric Voegelin where he answered that there are no such things as cultures as absolutes.

Multi-culturalism seems to hold cultures as absolutes.

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