America and Catholic Culture

It’s no secret that there’s much wrong with American culture: trashy supermarket magazines, the gangster element in pro sports, imbecilic television, corporate callousness, even a “high” culture that’s quite low, pornographic, or navel-gazing – just for starters. You would have to be brain dead not to be struck by it every day, though there is much more to American culture than that. But it doesn’t stop here: our dominance of the world insures that these unfortunate American byproducts show up almost instantaneously around the globe.

Last week, Horace Engdahl, a Swede who is Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Prize Committee, added some new charges. “Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world . . . not the United States. The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” he said in excusing the committee’s apparent lack of interest in American writers, “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

This is the sheerest nonsense, of course, in the simplest factual terms. It’s good to be reminded just how silly even the Nobel Committee can get when, as seems to be the case here and in some recent choices for the prize, it allows ideology to warp its judgment. You can hate George W. Bush, as many Europeans seem to do, but do not have to go into psychotic fugue at the mere mention of America. It will be interesting to see if American intellectuals, who for years have spread fear of Eurocentrism among students, will now turn the “hermeneutics of suspicion” on Stockholm. On the right, I fear our excitable radio talk shows are probably already calling for boycotts of Saab and Ikea.

American Catholics cannot help being drawn into these questions in a deeper and much different way. To begin with, since the Second Vatican Council, several popes have reminded us how important culture is in modern circumstances. This places special burdens on us as Catholics in the world’s most influential nation. America is to Europe in the modern world what Rome was to Greece in the ancient: a much larger and more powerful vehicle of the parent culture. But Europe is also the origin and longest bearer of the Catholic tradition. To ignore or deny crucial European contributions to Catholicism – as some American Catholics do – would indeed be “too isolated, too insular.” America has made significant contributions to Catholic culture. But in many respects, much that is weak or incoherent in the contemporary Church stems from a wrongly Americanized Catholicism.

As Benedict XVI argued at Regensburg, for example, Catholics – around the globe – cannot look on the Greco-Roman dimension of early Christianity as merely accidental. We have seen three attempts at de-Hellenizing Christianity, he says. First, the Protestant Reformers sought to eliminate Greek influences through sola scriptura; then liberal theologians in the nineteenth century tried to go behind the scriptura through textual criticism in hope of finding liberal truth there; finally, in our own time, we have the widespread belief that there is some simple “Gospel” truth obscured by the Greek text itself and the commentaries of the early Church Fathers and the whole tradition.

To my eye, lots of American Catholics take that impoverished Protestant-to-the-third- power view of being Christian as obvious and look no further. But you cannot understand the New Testament or how it was read, Benedict rightly says, without also appreciating the essential and providential importance of Greek thought to Christianity.

Extend that type of analysis for our present purposes and it is clear that American Catholicism cannot understand itself without understanding European Catholicism in all its richness. Most educated Americans spend quite a bit of time studying European philosophy, history, literature, music, and painting, if only because we do not have many figures in our brief history to match Aristotle, Shakespeare, Bach, or Michelangelo. But it would be difficult to say that American Catholics have labored as hard at Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, and other indispensable figures in our own tradition. In the past, we could plead poverty and social discrimination. Today, we have big, wealthy Catholic universities – and no excuse.

I tried to remedy this situation a bit with my book The God That Did Not Fail, by showing how central Catholicism is to the whole of Western history and how that history illuminates current questions in America, Europe, and the Church. Many American readers have written me in enthusiasm. But the next time you are tempted to bash Europe, pause for a minute. The most enthusiastic response to this argument has come from several countries in Europe and Latin America.

I was in Rome last week for the launch of the Italian translation and am still amazed at the sheer intelligence of the Italian readers and the hunger they have to hear much more of this kind of thing. Since they do not seem to be able to get it at home, let me make a modest proposal.

A lot of Americans have lectured Europe lately on its obvious deficiencies. No one much likes being lectured to, so I suggest we American Catholics try to lead the way for both continents by getting much better acquainted with what is perennially true in European Catholicism and by thinking through how we can all live a fuller Catholicism in modern circumstances. European secularists have deluded themselves that they can unite Europeans by denying the existence of much of their own history. We can do the Old World a favor by reminding them of it and our own role in that noble line, perhaps in the kind of encouraging tones Jeanne d’Arc once used with the future Charles VII.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.