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Culture, doctrine and human messiness

A recent National Catholic Reporter editorial applauds Pope Francis’s apparent predilection for moral teaching which includes “the human application with all its messiness.” This was conspicuously registered in those off-the-cuff remarks to the press on the papal plane’s Brazil-Rome return flight. ("If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?")  

Whether or not it’s fair to contrast Francis too sharply with his predecessors, these changes in pedagogical tone and timbre are certainly welcome, and if they don’t signal a refashioning of a doctrine, they certainly suggest that Pope Francis means to proffer that doctrine kindly, wisely, and compellingly.

“How often,” ask the NCR editors, “do our church leaders who adopt the ‘culture warrior’ stance seem to be railing against, rather than engaging, modern culture? And where has that gotten us?” 

But, in deference to “the human application in all its messiness,” isn’t it fair to wonder:  if “engaging” and “railing against” modern culture can be as neatly and symmetrically opposed to each other as the editors suggest? Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom was a result of an engagement with modern culture which involved more than a little railing against it; the Solidarity movement in Poland railed against a stultifying culture while engaging it. Churches in the American South during the early 1960’s had a turbulent, if eventually fruitful engagement with modern culture.

Of course Catholics and their leaders must engage modern culture and celebrate what is good in it.  But modern culture helps drown immigrants, manufactures and deploys predator drones, force-feeds hunger strikers, out-sources torture, nonchalantly expands legal abortion, gives free rein to rapacious capitalism and offers “57 Channels and Nothin’ On.” When all that encounters the Gospel, it will often and inevitably be difficult to distinguish between engagement and conflict.          

About the Author

Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.



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“How often,” ask the NCR editors, “do our church leaders who adopt the ‘culture warrior’ stance seem to be railing against, rather than engaging, modern culture? And where has that gotten us?” 


NCR complaining abour railing is a bit rich, but let's set that aside.

 I suppose what is meant by "railing" is a particular form of prophetic discourse.   Michael, I take your point to be that there are many things about modern culture in which the church's engagement really should be prophetic - that there are many evil things that our culture countenances, into which God, his justice, his mercy and his love badly need to be interjected.  Cathleen Kaveny has written trenchantly on different "tones" of prophetic discourse, including here on dotCom.  I'm sorry I don't know how to find and link to some of those old posts, as I think they would be very much on point.

It seems the papacy is the point of departure for the NCR editorial, but if recent Popes are to be the point of reference, I really don't think that Benedict nor John Paul II ( nor Paul VI) had a railing style.  For example, it seems pretty indisputable that neither was a fan of laissez-faire capitalism, but I can't think of any instances of either one railing against it.  Both did offer arguments and correctives.   In my views, these are examples of "good" prophetic interjection.  

Some of the US bishops do come across as overly pugnacious (as for example on religious liberty), and in my view, that approach is ineffective, at least in persuading those who don't already agree with them.   I am told that there is a good bit of railing that emanates from EWTN and the Catholic League, but they're not church leaders, at least in my book.


I've just finished reading a story about Bishop Michael Smith of Meath who has chosen the moment when grieving families say farewell to loved ones to remind them that they don't understand the liturgy.  +Smith is no more a Church leader than, I suppose, those pugnacious American bishops.  But he quotes from +Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life to point his finger at secular culture when he needs someone to blame for why we trivialize death.  My point is that we cannot excuse John Paul or Benedict so easily.  They chose these bishops, and these bishops know what mattered to those popes.  The American episcopate (and Bishop Smith) have not run off the rails away from what John Paul and Benedict wanted.  This is their leadership.

Beyond that, I only can voice my enthusiastic agreement with the editors at NCR and gratitude to Michael for calling it to my attention this morning.  All this, and a Springsteen reference. too.  Suddenly, it feels like a good day.

 "Archbishop Oscar Romero’s martyrdom was a result of an engagement with modern culture..." 


Michael --

What do you mean by "modern culture"?  It seems to me that the statement above isn't accurate.  Archbishop Romero challenged the right-wing military government, not the Communists or some other modern group.

You also say, " Churches in the American South during the early 1960’s had a turbulent, if eventually fruitful engagement with modern culture".  Again, it seems to me that the Churches in the South were the modern ones -- they opposed the very old guard, not some new development.  What was new was some of the Churches and some of their members opposing the current sytem founded centuries before.

It seems to me that Frances too is engaging in an internal conflict, and, like MLK Jr,, he is non-violently challenging the status quo, not even using verbal violence.  In this age of snark he is most welcome.

"Who am I to judge them?"  These words were never on JPII or BXVI's lips. If they were they were modified by many more condemnations. We are all sinners who depend on the gracious mercies of the Lord. When a pope or bishop does not lead with that they are in trouble. "The mercies of the Lord endure forever." Augustine led this march of condemnations. Maybe with Francis there will be a permanent halt.

Those writers and editors who want to engage modern culture will use the language of that culture:  gay and lesbian, not homosexual.

Isn't the real issue here when to use honey and when to use vinegar?

I would think that people who address the whole world (popes) and whole countries (the bishops' conference) would be better off, in general, with the honey. That is because their words will reach people who agree with them (where the honey will go down well) and people who disagree with them (because honey is hard to brush off) and -- maybe most important from their perspective -- masses who have never thought about what they are talking about but would spit out vinegar without giving it a second thought.

That said, there are some individuals in the Vatican, and (I imagine) in most chancery offices and among (for instance) "allegedly pro-life groups"  who occasionally need a strip taken off their hide. In addition, there are moments when a state decides to let 16-year-old boys who want to shower with the girls do so if the boys say they feel girlish, and vice versa. So there are times when vinegar is called for.

Which jar to reach for is determined, St. Thomas Aquinas told us, by prudence. I think, though, that if a pope has a reputation for mercy he will find it easier to lead people to Jesus than if he has to relly on his reputation for doctrinal purity. After all, Jesus showed more mercy than doctrinal precision.

To Tom Blckburn's ":when to use honey and when to use vinegar" I add   how about explaining the new papal stances in reference to Polish and German cultures. Finger waving seems to be more excessive in both  these European cultures and their Popes  than S.A Latin culture.  

Didn't Pope Benedict make a comment early on along the lines of how we Catholics talk too much about what we're agains, let's talk abut what we're for? I don't know what's prophetic, but I'm very tired of all this grim-ass disapproval. What's the point of a religion that doesn't like anything at all?

Irene:  you sound like an unreconstructed progressive Christian!  Watch it, please.

Two things are essential to remember about cultures: they are always changing, and they relate to the symbolic dimension of life.

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What role does reason play in the validation or authentication of a monotheistic moral teaching?

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