The Dogma and the Culture

Our late October conference just behind us, I would now like to consider its theme in light of our doctrinal Crusade. The coalescence is a wholesome one; “two great tastes that taste great together,” so to speak. Our conference speakers considered, “Toward an Integral Catholic Culture: Variations on a Theme of Father Feeney.” A connection between this and doctrine might not be immediately apparent to many. So, during my opening comments, I addressed a potential objection: “How is it that you’re putting all this emphasis on culture when dogma is your crusade?” In reply, I borrowed a thought from Monsignor Brunero Gherardini, who calls liturgy, “prayed dogma.” Attempting to imitate his gift for conciseness and aptness, I called culture — Christian Culture, anyway — “lived dogma.”

But what is culture?

There were many explanations and definitions of it given at the conference. I will begin with the Latin origin of the word — colo, colere, colui, cultus — a verb, which has the basic meaning of “to till or cultivate; to protect or nurture; and (in an applied sense) to worship or honor.” We get the word “cult,” as in “liturgical cult” or “cult of dulia” from the past participle of the word. The words “cultivate,” “agriculture,” “horticulture,” etc., are also derived from it. In her excellent talk, Sister Maria Philomena laid great emphasis on the sense of culture as “sustaining of life.” If society is a field, the arts, sciences, and virtues that flourish in it, form its “culture.”

In brief, for my present purposes, I will define culture as “the sum total of a society’s achievements in all the arts and sciences, as well as manners and virtues.”

“Integral,” was employed in our theme in the sense of “whole,” that is, “having or containing all the parts that are necessary to be complete.” If a culture is “integrally Catholic,” then Catholicity permeates its every aspect.

Therefore, in an integral Catholic culture, every human endeavor — theological sciences and worship obviously, but also literature, music, the art crafts, professional ethics, business practices, economics, politics; in short, everything — will be regulated by Catholic norms. Faith, hope, and charity, as well as the cardinal virtues will be not only private virtues. They will be that, but they will also be social norms. Theology, seen in the ages of Faith for what she truly is, “the queen of all the arts and sciences,” will regulate, judge, and command all these subordinate endeavors. A society such as this is a society where Christ in fact rules as King, therefore, it is a civilization much closer to Heaven. It is not a utopia — we don’t believe in those — but it does provide an atmosphere more conducive to saving one’s soul. So much of the teaching of the great Father Denis Fahey (articlebooks) distills into this proposition.

“That may explain how dogma in general relates to culture, but what about your dogma?” someone may ask.

There is an answer to that question, too. Both negatively and positively, our dogmatic Crusade intersects with the important subject of culture. On the negative side, “no salvation outside the Church” is a great antidote against the confused and confusing zeitgeist, and a strong barrier against the invasion of non-Catholic and anti-Catholic principles into the sanctuaries of the Church, the family, and indeed, the mind itself. “He that breaketh a hedge, a serpent shall bite him,” says the Wise Man (Eccles 10:8). Our dogmatic certitudes concerning Christian faith and morals, the “proximate rule of faith” (the Church’s Magisterium), and the praxis of liturgical worship — along with a clear identification of the dangers of heresy, schism, and apostasy — all provide “hedges” keeping out the ravaging foxes of error in belief and practice. On the positive side, this dogma is a vigorous assertion of Jesus Christ, His Mystical Body (the Catholic Church), His Sacraments, His unbloody liturgical Sacrifice, His Grace, His Mother, and His Virtues. To assert these things is to assert what is elemental to a Catholic culture. Sound philosophy, which includes the study of disciplines more immediately associated with culture (e.g., aesthetics, politics, and economics), will provide the necessary fuller theoretical foundation by proving the sound nature upon which grace must build.

Further, as indifferentism is the certain foundation of an unwholesome and destructive inculturation (one corrosive of Christian culture), the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus is the foundation of true cultural integration — that is, of the proper Christening of a culture.

The word “toward” played a very important role in the wording of our theme. If the reader was thinking that we are very far from the kind of society I above described as integrally Catholic, he is quite right. But this circumstance does not drive us to hide out in the bunker till the “big one” hits, waiting for our chance to rise up, Pheonix-like, to build our integral Catholic culture. We have work to do here and now, and that work is to labor toward an ideal. In short, we have cultivation of our own to do, of our minds, of our wills, of our families, of our neighborhoods, and of our other social circles.

The Catholic should embrace the good, the true, and the beautiful wherever they are to be found. Since all societies have some traces of these, however few and miniscule, they all have something upon which to build. Therefore, in the non-Catholic (indeed, “post-Christian”) society in which we live, we need to be cognizant of the seeds of Christian culture still strewn about us, and use them to our advantage.

Relevant to this notion of evangelizing the culture, I present again some words from an earlier Ad Rem:

In the Middle Ages, England possessed the magnificent title of “Mary’s Dowry.” It was not always that way. Aside from a handful of Celtic Christians (probably descendants of those evangelized by Saint Joseph of Arimathea who, tradition has it, went to Albion), what the Roman Benedictine missionaries with Saint Augustine found when they were sent there at the turn of the seventh century, was a whole lot of paganism. Saint Augustine of Canterbury wrote to Pope Saint Gregory the Great, reporting on his mission and asking for guidance. The answer received is worthy of reading and savoring. In Saint Gregory’s “The Letter to Mellitus” of 601, we read this:

“When Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, after mature deliberation on the affairs of the English, determined upon, namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed, but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples – let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts and, knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.”

Keep the temples, destroy the idols. Whatever is good, keep and transform to a holy purpose; whatever is bad, destroy. That is a program for Christening a nation, or, if you will, baptizing a culture.

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us,” said Saint John. That is, the Logos, the thought or wisdom of the Father, was enfleshed as Man. God’s lower-case “word,” that is, Catholic doctrine, must also be enfleshed in the life of each one of us. When several of us, doing this, form a society, its culture is a Catholic culture. If we do it well, it becomes an “integral Catholic culture.”

In this piece, I have emphasized the fact that Catholic culture flows from Catholic dogma. But there is a symbiosis between the two that must not be overlooked. Once in existence, a Catholic culture sustains orthodox teaching. It forms the vital habitat, the atmosphere or environment conducive to the growth and flourishing of sound doctrine. For, in an integral Catholic culture, Scripture and Tradition are not merely accepted, but savored and cherished.