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Culture's Catechumenate

The restoration of the ecclesial catechumenate is one of the significant pastoral gains stemming from Vatican II. It has helped renew Christian communities both in parishes and on college campuses.

Some years ago, however, I began to employ the term "cultural catechumenate" to highlight the formative (and deformative) influence of the surrounding culture on the minds and hearts of our children ... and ourselves.

What particularly strikes me is how potent and elusive such influence is. Like the serpent in Eden it insinuates itself into our consciousness and subconsciousness -- often with coarsening effect. And it is so much more pervasive and powerful than our often puny efforts at and resources for "religious education."

These musings were once again evoked by an uncommonly common sense and honest op ed piece in today's New York Times. The author, a screen writer, cuts through the perennial and never-ending argument whether violence depicted in the movies and media can be directly correlated with tragedies like Virginia Tech.

Here, in part, is what he says:

Can we really in good conscience conclude that the violencesaturating our popular culture has no impact on our neighborhoods andschools?

The calamity at Virginia Tech is unfortunately not asunique an event as wed like to think, but the sheer number of victimshas grabbed our attention and inspired some collective soul-searching.As responsible Americans put their heads down on their desks andreflect, should the scribes of popular entertainment be excused to theplayground? We screenwriters may be overgrown teenagers who still wantto be cool, but we arent 12 years old anymore. Maybe were notresponsible for Mr. Chos awful actions, but does that abrogate ourresponsibility to the world around us?

Most of us who chosecareers in this field were seduced by cinemas spell at an early age.We know better than anyone the power films have to capture ourimaginations, shape our thinking and inform our choices, for better andfor worse. At the risk of being labeled a scold the ultimate inuncool I have to ask: before cashing those big checks, shouldnt weat least pause to consider what we are saying with our movies about thevalue of life and the pleasures of mayhem?

Count me too among the "uncool." Do I hear any "seconds"?

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If people put their heads on their desks after an act of senseless violence like the one at V-Tech, all I can figure is that they're napping.Because when they perk their heads up again, nothing's changed.I think it would be more useful for the Church to scour the media for good entertainment examples and to promote them rather than to scold (though, as the mother of an 11-year-old boy, I realize this is easier said than done). Many of our children already see the Church as "The Big No."

Interesting to think about this right after the funeral of Jack Valenti, the creator of the ratinsg system. There is an excellent documentary called "This Film is Not Yet Rated" that all movie lovers should see. Its thesis is a "deal with the devil" in which the MPAA targets depictions of realistic sex (read: foriegn and art films) and gives a pass to obscene violence (read: big Hollywood studios). It gives the pretence of doing something, whereas it simply lets Hollywood off the hook. Fascinating films like Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" get tagged with the dreaded R-rating, while the most hideous gun violence is made available for the amusement of teenage boys.

It's not just the movies, it's computer games -with a capital C - and TV. It's not just violence it's sex. Those two are powerful sellers.We need to change this without the sometimes amateurish and polyannish approach of good media organizations.

One of the most obscene things I see on TV are game/competition shows. "American Idol" is not a show about talent, but about how much humiliation you can take. Dancing with the stars is a freak show, highlighting one-legged dancers, fat dancers, old dancers, and George Hamilton.The rest are craven appeals to money.I agree that computer games' ratings are about as useless as the MPAA's. But there are some very good ones out there, too, especially some of the simulation games where kids build a city, run a farm, live in a medieval castle, etc. I also have a big beef with mange/anime graphic novels, partly because the whole Japanese aesthetic that spawned them escapes me. I've encouraged my kid to write his own graphic novels. This is useful because it allows me to see how he processes these things. They also allow us to talk about things like plot, theme, action and character development. He even likes my suggestions sometimes and adds them in.So, as a parent, you do what you can to build aesthetic taste and moral discernment in the arts.As a parent, though, I don't find it particularly helpful to wallow around in the "ain't it awful" mode. I think it would much more helpful to talk about what IS morally and spiritually uplifting, especially for kids.

I "second" your views about the "cultural catechumenate," but I must offer a "qualified second" on the benefits of our "ecclesial catechumenate."Do future members of the Catholic Church have the opportunity to play "devil's advocate" when questions/issues of church authority arise in RCIA discussions, for example? Do they get a clear presentation about the different levels of church teaching authority, i.e., which teaching is infallible and, more important, which teaching is non-infallible? Or, on the other hand, are they given the distinct impression that all magisterial pronouncements from Rome (not to mention from their chanceries) are infallible and not subject to challenge?Do they learn it is OK to question and critique authority exercised by the pastor?In short, does a typical RCIA program allow for critical thinking, or does it reflect the increasing tendency over the past 25+ years to elevate the ordained and subordinate the laity?Just questions. Thank you.

Joseph J, I don't know what this has to do with Fr. Imbelli's thread, exactly, but my answers to your questions as a Catholic by way of RCIA five years ago:Do future members of the Catholic Church have the opportunity to play "devil's advocate" when questions/issues of church authority arise in RCIA discussions, for example? --Yes, when we were allowed to get a word in edgewise. The leaders wanted to keep sessions to no more than an hour. Do they get a clear presentation about the different levels of church teaching authority, i.e., which teaching is infallible and, more important, which teaching is non-infallible?--Yes, we were given quite a good article about this, and this was followed up with a brief (always brief) discussion that emphasized the need to grow in the faith and talk with the priest when we felt conflicted over the gray areas. Or, on the other hand, are they given the distinct impression that all magisterial pronouncements from Rome (not to mention from their chanceries) are infallible and not subject to challenge? --No, never. It was noted that the business of church teaching should be left to the heirarchy, not the laity. There was a sense conveyed that a lot of the theological discussion in Rome really didn't affect lay people all that much.Do they learn it is OK to question and critique authority exercised by the pastor? --This wasn't discussed, but I never got the idea I couldn't ask about it. But, then, I'm not the type who is easily put off asking questions.In short, does a typical RCIA program allow for critical thinking, or does it reflect the increasing tendency over the past 25+ years to elevate the ordained and subordinate the laity? --No, I didn't feel this at all, and our priest at the time was very warm hearted and welcoming. In the intervening years, I have learned how rare he was and how lucky we were to have entered the church when he was pastor. I find most of the other priests in our area cold fish, indeed. Though I also think this must be an incredibly difficult time to be a priest.If I can say so without seeming impolite: I suspect your questions arise from some disillusionment with the church as a cradle Catholic. I have beefs about RCIA, but they wouldn't be revealed in the answer to the questions you asked here.

I don't think I am that tender, but I cannot stomach Friday 13th and the like. My children have no problem with it. I don't like kung fu and all those non-stop action movies. My wife does. Though I used to like boxing until I woke up. I still like football though I believe it is too violent as is boxing. I am not sure whether people are more violent today. I think we are safer than people were who lived under Constantine. One could not disagree with him, without retribution on the unity of Christ. And what was his point when he dragged the head of an emperor he conquered through the streets of Rome.And God help the poor villagers when the crusaders or any other army marched through. They had no TV and even loved four hour sermons. UGH.I notice my children are very good with their friends and others. Hopefully, Adelaide and I have something to do with that.What about the fact that people in a parish have little connection with each other? Blood relatives are still more important than relatives of the "Spirit." Ones's possessions and pension still define us more than our being Catholic or Christian.Parishes have been spiritually dead for a long time. What about that? What about the culture of the bishops?Why can't we concentrate on reforming the bishops?

If what people (particularly children) see on TV doesn't have an effect on them, then why do advertisers spend quadrazillions of dollars on hawking their products all the time?

Jimmy,I think we have to disinguish here. Food and sex are attractive items. They can be good or perhaps harmful. They are different from violence which most regard as undesirable. Freddy (Friday the 13th) as revolting as he his, is seen as a fictional character, or at least gravely wrong. I know there are some crazies like that in real life. But it is known that they are wrong. Who is to say that Bill O'Reilly and Bill Donohue, or Cardinal Egan are not more dangerous? Do they encourage a climate of hate?

Jean, thank you for responding. Informative. It does sound, indeed, you had a nice down-to-earth pastor not cut from the imperial priestly cloth that seems to be making a comeback among our newer clergy. (I bet he didn't wear a biretta :)To reply to your question as to what my comments had to do with Father Imbelli's thread:He wrote, "The restoration of the ecclesial catechumenate is one of the significant pastoral gains stemming from Vatican II. It has helped renew Christian communities both in parishes and on college campuses." Father Imbelli then contrasts this positive picture with a mixed one of the "cultural catechumenate," noting both the "formative" and "deformative" influences of the surrounding culture. He likens it to "the serpent in Eden [that] insinuates itself into our consciousness and subconsciousness --- often with coarsening effect." I don't disagree with Father Imbelli, by the way.Please rest assured that your last comments were anything but "impolite." Yes, I do feel a certain sense of disillusionment about (or perhaps alienation from) my church. However, I still consider myself a Catholic. While I must admit that the more I learn about our church, the less I like about it, I also consider this newfound awareness a strength that I want to use in speaking out about problems that I see festering in this ancient institution.I did ask the aforementioned questions because I do see a pronounced tendency among Catholics, perhaps especially among younger ones, to accept everything from Rome and their local bishop "lock, stock, and barrel." Every pronouncement seems to be accepted on face value as the unvarnished, infallible Truth (with a capital 't'). There seems to be a distinct absence of critical thinking. I see this phenomenon as dangerous for the church, both now and in years ahead. (Could it be, by the way, that the more liberal/progressive/moderate folks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s pretty much ignore the hierarchy out of indifference? That only the more traditional/conservative/reactionary folks bother to speak up? If so, this might account for my perception.)Anyway, that's where I was coming from, Jean.:)

For what it's worth, based on my experience with RCIA as a team member and sponsor the answers to Joseph J's questions are "yes," "yes," "no," and, given the gentle but effective nature of the pastor, the question didn't arrive (although the candidates all met the pastor for personal interviews and generally thought he was nicer than the rest of us!)This was true both for RCIA programs managed by Vatican II priests and younter, putatively more "conservative" priests. Though the latter did occasionally pull rank over the team members on the emphasis of the program, usually in a thought provoking manner even when I disagreed with it -- and were open to persuasion if a good case could be made (sometimes).I was especially impressed with the degree of emphasis always placed on the distinctions between different sources of Catholic teaching and different levels of authoritativeness.If I were looking for sources of authoritarianism in the church RCIA is the last place I would look; the cult of lawyers, consultants, and real estate brokers might be the first.

Dealing with media trash is a tough issue. Ideally, it would best e handled by lay people through persuasion in the various fora of public opinion, economic pressure, etc. Unfortunately, win the real world we have the Catholic League and a few other gatherings of the bombastic.If the hierarchy is to get involved, I would hope that it would do so by encouraging sophisticated groups of lay people to take the lead in practice and to trust their competence and good sense. Of course, I recognize that our church is notoriously reluctant to trust the laity to take the lead in anything, regardless of competence.

"One of the most obscene things I see on TV are game/competition shows. "American Idol" is not a show about talent, but about how much humiliation you can take. Dancing with the stars is a freak show, highlighting one-legged dancers, fat dancers, old dancers, and George Hamilton."Hi Jean, I thought I was the iconoclast here. We might remind ourselves that the first purpose of art is to give pleasure. Otherwise we would have to demand a message everywhere and it might be all fundies all the time.I agree that there are better and more interesting things to do than watch these two programs. Nevertheless, so many good people find them welcome relief from the humdrum of daily life. The characters and talent (there is talent) make for interesting banter and light conversation. I agree that these and any TV shows rarely capture my interest. At the same time should we not be cautious that we don't become a bunch of sniveling aristocrats?

I remember Cokie Roberts speaking on a Woodstock Theological Center panel several years ago: At one point she quipped: "Yes, I'm a cultural conservative. It's not complicated. I'm a parent."The thing that gets me is the very large number of video games in restaurants that are "first-person shoot 'em ups" with realistic looking guns. Don't try to tell me that doesn't have an effect after awhile.As to being "The Big No," I have no problem with that. That's how my kids see me right now. No, you cannot watch TV every day. No, you cannot have candy for breakfast. No, you cannot have a toy gun. No, you cannot watch the movie "Blade" even though your 6 year old friend got to watch it (no, that's not a joke). Sometimes I feel like I'm channeling Karl Barth: Nein! Nein! Nein!Of course, you run the risk of creating forbidden fruit. My son once told me that when he turns 18, he's going to get his own apartment where he can have his own TV, a gun, and a sword....:-)

Peter, I was talking more about the Church being the institutional No, not parents. Yeah, I get that, "when I'm 18" lip all the time. Only my kid doesn't want a gun, a sword and a TV. He wants to be a Jew.

I am always amazed at the number of parents I run into who decry the negative influence of, say, Britney Spears, on their child's behavior and sartorial choices but who can't even conceive of limiting the child's access to, say, Britney Spears recordings, and tv shows and magazines that glorify her. I have girls so this is what I know, but there are comparable choices to be made for boys. I truly had the following conversation on Monday:Mom of 7 year old: My daughter had a big hissy fit because I wouldn't let her wear a sequined halter dress to Easter servicesMe: Why would she want to wear that?Mom: She said the dress we had bought for her wasn't grown up enought. It's amazing, these girls want to dress like Britney Spears and people like her and they talk nasty and such. Me: How do they know about this stuff?Mom: Oh, tv, and TeenBeat Magazine . . . I thought I'd be safe by sending her to a Catholic School but it doesn't seem to be working out that way . . .As for AI and Dancing with the Stars . . . I think it's important to separate out what is offensive from what is tacky. I think it's especially ill considered and unfair to call Dancing with Stars a freak show. Highlighting that anyone can dance does not make it a freak show. This kind of televised competition has been going on for a long time. It's certainly less offensive than bear baiting or whatever our ancestors did for "fun." And if you really want to see humiliation, you can watch Japanese tv shows, where "participatory humiliation" is something of a national past time. Think Karaoke on steroids.

Barbara--I don't know if you saw the two-part PBS documentary on the Mormons earlier this week, but there was one segment of the presentation that vividly reminded me that it is possible to fend off, at least in part, the negative influences of secular American culture. In the segment of the documentary highlighting the Mormon focus on family, as both an earthly and an eternal institution, a Mormon family was interviewed about various aspects of family life. In that particular family, Monday nights are reserved for family time. No distractions--TV, other commitments, etc.--are allowed to intrude on family time, which includes such things as reading scripture together, playing games, talking, etc. Of course the children may have looked happy because there was a camera in the room, but there seemed to me to a genuine appreciation for the time they were spending together without interruption from the outside world.I don't know if there will be a thread at dotCommonweal on the PBS documentary, but IMO it was very interesting on many levels, both secular and religious.

Barbara, yes, good point about what's tacky v. morally offensive. Though I do find game shows, and their craven appeal to material stuff morally offensive. Just to restate my point: I am not against censoring any of this stuff for adults. Parents have the obligation to censor it for their kids. And they can't rely on MPAA and other "official" ratings.I would find it much more helpful if Church leaders talked more about what they DO find uplifting and good in secular entertainment/culture and less about what they think ought to be banned.Too often, they look like that bell-ringing priest in "Cinema Paradiso," (one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen).

Isn't the one thing most dangerous is that we and society teach our children how to amass money and security? The one thing we are all inundated with is how to be rich and famous. We measure what people possess rather than what they are, whether it be money, possessions, or phd's. People magazine, ET and talk of celebrity are more popular than any video game. As great a body as the United Methodist Church lays out rules stating what is necessary and what is mandatory in Christianity. The example of the Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount are laudatory and admirable but voluntary.Being a gentlewo/man is more important than being a Christian and material trumps spiritual most of the time. Except at Valedictories and Commencement addresses.

Bill, perhaps we would agree that there IS a certain amount of temporal security that money brings, and we should respect it and use it wisely, invest it responsibly, and teach our children to do the same.Money, after all, allows us to help our children, aged parents and our neighbors. But this is different than using money as a thrill drug like they do on game shows, lotteries, and (dare I say it) Catholic bingo?My grandfather was a compulsive gambler, addicted to the adrenaline that came with bg wins and big losses--didn't matter which.I see a collective compulsion in the way people watch game shows. We love to see the poor man make a big pile in 30 minutes, and it's equally exciting when he blows it in a week and has to file for personal bankruptcy.

Jean,We should be prudent. But the point I am making it is that Christians have lost their focus on money. Further, the addiction to comfort and the prestige that comes with money is ten times more dangerous than violent video games and movies. We are aristocratic Christians who virtually ignore our leader who possessed nothing. We will give our lives for our children but nonchalantly note that the 130,000 children who die each day from lack of hunger and lack of basic medicine, are beyond our control.We blame the Germans for tolerating Hitler but are silent about the genocide that still goes on. We go ballistic (rightly so) if a predator is in our neighborhood but pretend we can do nothing about the untold number of children that are sold into slavery every day.Tepidity is the norm in Christian churches. Material comfort is the god.

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is an associate professor of theology at Boston College.