Terry Eagleton defined culture as consisting of four components: a body of artistic and intellectual work; a process of spiritual and intellectual development; the values, customs, beliefs, and symbolic practices by which men and women live; and a whole way of life. This is worth keeping in mind when thinking about the American Catholic Church, which not only puts an emphasis on culture, but exerts an influence on it as well. The history of American Catholicism is one of institutional “implantation” and inculturation, and the encounter between Catholicism and the culture has often led to crisis, like the 1899 condemnation of “Americanism” by Leo XIII in Testem benevolentiae.
Now, in the Western world, we’re witnessing a different kind of dynamic in the relationship of Catholicism to culture. Think of it as “exculturation,” a concept articulated twenty years ago by French sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger. It’s an unbinding of the deep affinity established through history between shared representations of culture and Catholic culture. Hervieu-Léger returns to this concept in her latest book, written with Jean-Louis Schlegel (philosopher and sociologist of religion and director of the journal Esprit), titled Towards Implosion? Conversations on the Present and Future of Catholicism.
The authors argue that there are two parallel and interrelated phenomena of implosion (or collapse) of the Catholic Church. The first is internal, stemming from the sex-abuse and financial scandals and the inept response from the institution—which highlight the lack of professionally and socially qualified personnel among the clergy—and the inadequacy of attempts at emotional and symbolic recovery by the clergy at the liturgical level (the cassock, the pre-conciliar Mass in Latin devotionalism). The authors assert that these have brought the Church to a state of de facto schism. Where struggles for the future of the Church were once centered around the opposition of clergy and laity, or around models of “conservatism” and “progressivism,” that has changed. Today the struggle is between anti-modern traditionalism on the one hand, and on the other a notion of “being Church” differently—one which seeks to shuck the liberal-progressive paradigm of adapting to contemporary culture without falling into traditionalist anti-modernism.
This poses significant questions for liberal-progressive Catholicism. According to Hervieu-Léger and Schlegel, there are signs, in France and elsewhere, of an “ongoing Catholic restoration or counter-revolution” fueled by mobilized minorities who have moved from the margins to the center of the ecclesial scene—a far different dynamic than that of the early post–Vatican II period and under John Paul II. The challenge is complicated by fragmentation within Catholicism, which now seems like an archipelago of separate groups, each with its own tendencies and relationships with the institution, but also disconnected from the institution and its regulatory bodies, leading to what the authors call a “deregulation of the institutional element” in the context of a “disqualification of a system of power.”