Where Was Our Catholic Culture?

As anyone who has been to Rome can see, the Church – in the city that it has so profoundly shaped – has preserved, adapted, repurposed, and integrated pieces, large and small, from thousands of years of different cultures and even whole civilizations, into a rich and humane tradition. Among the various puzzling things about the past three weeks is how small a role that deep, many-hued Catholic culture has played during the Synod on the Family. It certainly did not play much of a role in the creation of the Working Document, which instead relied more on a shallow sociology and anthropology to describe problems and on a thin rationalism for answers to them. And that, to say the least, is a sad state of affairs.

We’re at a lull in the synod process at the moment. The bishops were given the progetto, the first draft of the Final Document, yesterday at 4:30 PM. They were supposed to hear it presented until 7. But I happened to be walking near St. Peter’s at 6 and many of them were already coming out. I’m writing late and expected that there might be some leaks by now, not the whole document, but some of its basic tendencies. Everyone is mum, however, and there are worries that since the Synod committee has decided to issue the document only in Italian – which many Synod Fathers do not know well, or at all – all sorts of serious stumbles are possible over these final forty-eight hours.

While we’re waiting on the bishops to work their way through the text and offer their last round of suggestions, I’ve been thinking about the position of Catholic culture in deliberations like these. Please do not misunderstand. I’m not speaking here of the kind of “cultural Catholicism” that served very well for many years in a place like America. That kind of cultural Catholicism flourished because there was a distinct Catholic community, sometimes called the Catholic ghetto, shaped by certain values and concrete practices like popular devotions and a social life centered on local parishes. We’ve lost that, just as we’ve lost the once saner traditions of our public life (though we need to work to renew both, if in different, contemporary forms). Noxious cultural elements have ravaged them and without such communities of sane understanding, it’s hard for what the bishops are after to get a hearing – or become a reality. When you see how young Italians, for example, are imitating the worst parts of our American pop culture, it’s clear what a plague that pop culture really is. We’ll have a lot to answer for on Judgment Day.

The Catholic culture I’ve been most worried about these weeks, though, is that richer culture, the one you expect most educated Catholics to have been introduced to and to be prepared to apply in a fairly sophisticated way to serious issues. If the Synod Fathers as a body have any great depth or formation in that crucial element for responding to our situation, it hasn’t been obvious. Indeed, we’ve been hearing instead over the course of the two synods now that classical notions like natural law don’t speak to people anymore; key Catholic concepts like sin, adultery, etc. are “offensive” terms. And, of course, this is true in a way since we haven’t even taught ourselves how to understand them.

But how can you counter the deep decay we all see without an equally deep way to heal it? Instead, most participants in the Synod seemed to look at problems of marriage and family from the kind of thin rationalist standpoint of our politicians in democratic countries. Get policies right, listen to people, respond to their requests, and we’ll be on the right path. If that approach were enough, the political process itself would have already solved marriage and family problems. But that shallow rationalism is precisely what gave us contraception, abortion, no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and much else that threatens the future of our societies.

Ironically, this approach is the exact opposite of what Pope Francis and his two predecessors have been advocating. Catholicism in its fullness is not a mere set of propositions, like some secular philosophy or political theory. It must first be deeply rooted in a vision of God and His Creation, which explains to men and women their deepest identity, and the nature of a proper life in society. When that understanding is strongly present, then the more piecemeal debates on this or that question participate in a wholly different set of meanings and a deeper reality than do the kinds of discussions we see on the everyday news programs.

More than a few Synod Fathers from all parts of the globe have complained about the way that the same small set of questions – on divorce and sexuality, for example – drew inordinate attention, serious as they are in our societies. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, at the press briefing Thursday, spoke of a broader cultural stance, a spirituality of the family. How do we provide parents and children with more adequate religious means to confront everyday challenges, as well as the bigger issues like immigration troubles and poverty – and how do we get them the kind of education that allows people to live up to their full potential in every aspect of their lives.

Gomez was introduced as the archbishop who has Hollywood within his archdiocese, and he acknowledged how much Tinsel Town affects cultures around the globe. In an aside that suggested the truly worldwide reach of the Church, Fr. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, joked that another member of the same panel, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay – a member of the committee preparing the draft of the Final Report – has Bollywood in his diocese.

Strange to contemplate, but when you think of the influence that those two places exert globally – influence that widely conveys background assumptions very far from Christian teachings – you have to ask yourself why that undermining element, which also exists in television, pop music, schools, colleges, and the media were hardly mentioned in the Working Document, or (so far as we can tell) the Synod debates? Or where was the discussion of Internet pornography, another cultural factor that, alone, causes all sorts of marital problems?

Significantly, the third member of yesterday’s panel was a new cardinal, the youngest among the college of cardinals, Soane Mafi of Tonga in Oceania, who remarked that the kinds of breakdowns common in the first world were not very common among his people – yet – because they still have a culture of extended families. But they see the wave of disruption approaching them via the Internet, like a tsunami.

The Synod seems to have talked a great deal about all sorts of things: but the crucial questions of recreating a vibrant Catholic culture, and spaces where it can survive, were muted. The Church still inhabits some of the richest spaces ever created by human art – literally so in Rome and many other places. Marriage prep and “accompaniment programs” are all to the good. But can we neglect the effort to maintain a richer, more human cultural environment for families threatened by its absence?