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.          

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

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