The National Catholic Review

Not Countercultural

Please excuse my sending this comment more than a month after your publication of William Boles informative article American and Catholic, (7/2) on David OBrien. Professor OBrien takes me as representative of Catholics who style themselves as countercultural. I have not used that adjective and have argued in print against Catholics using it for reasons theological, practical and spiritual.

Theologically, the Catholic encounter or engagement between faith and culture employs a double dynamic: inculturation of the faith and evangelization of culture. The first encounter between the faith and a culture not previously used for faiths self-expression searches out the points of commonality, the seeds of the Word present in every culture, the good habits and attitudes, the language and symbols that can be accepted and used in proclaiming Christ among a people still not acquainted with him from within the household of the faith that tells the world who he really is. The missionary listens carefully. Inevitably, every culture also presents obstacles to the Gospel, personal and social sins deeply embedded in a peoples way of life. Faced with cultural deficiencies and sins, the church moves to evangelize, convert, the culture itself. The missionary criticizes. A critique born of faith, however, is conceived not in disdain but from love for the culture being evangelized. One cannot convert or interiorly influence a person or a society that one does not love.

Practically, projects that withdraw Catholics from their own times or society or culture in order to convert them have always failed. The missionary history of the church abounds in such attempts: in Paraguay with the Jesuits, in Thailand with the French Foreign Mission Society, in the Congo with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The history of the faith is also dotted with monastic and other intentional communities that do withdraw without rejecting, that move apart in order to pray more intensely for the people from whom they have come.

Spiritually, rejecting ones own society or culture leads to self-righteousness, the antithesis of the Gospels promise of righteousness only from Christ, who came and died because he loved the world. Separating, even mentally, good Catholics from the culture that is as much within them as is their faith leads to spiritual sickness. Alienation is never an evangelical virtue. American Catholics should not have to choose between the integrity of the church and caring passionately about America and its romantic promise. If they make this choice themselves, God forgive them; if they are forced to make it by America itself, God help everyone.

A critique from within can be ferocious without being countercultural. There is a form of anti-Americanism, sometimes evident among American missionaries abroad, which is particularly American. Born of a sense that American institutions and the American people themselves have betrayed American cultural values, it can turn on America itself. I have, in my years overseeing missionaries, fought that attitude. I dont believe I am echoing it when I (and others) point out that no cultures normative system is adequate to the Gospel. In the end, we are all saved by faith and not by culture. There is no such thing as a pure faith, without conditioning from some culture; but, at the judgment, our baptismal certificate is more important than our passport. In the meantime, our obligation as Catholics is to engage our own culture lovingly but with eyes wide open.

Different eyes see different things. What I see right now is that the question of how to be American and Catholic (what else are we?) is less important than the question of how to help a nation resented by many, particularly by the worlds poor, to take its place and contribute from its own cultural values to a global society that, I hazard to say, will be neither American nor secular. The church is already a global society; America never will be and should not pretend to be. Even in a worldly or purely cultural conversation and even as she listens carefully, perhaps the church has something original to say, something that falls in part outside of American cultural presuppositions. To say it, the church in America has to be true, above all, to her mission and her Lord. With this last point, at least, I believe Professor OBrien and I would find ourselves of one mind.

(Cardinal) Francis George, O.M.I.

Chicago, Ill.

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