MERICA MAGAZINE recently reprinted an article by Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., that originally appeared in 1990, An Uneasy Dialogue—Catholicism and American Culture. Interestingly, it is Pope Francis’ tone of greater openness to discussion within the Church that has made this decades old article timely. Also fueling the conversation is Pope Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum and the “Reform of the Reform.” These have made this article all the more relevant to us today. Much of what Cardinal Dulles has to say should look familiar to us—nor are his observations isolated to America.
Our current times, location, and history are inescapable. The influence of history and the role of our ancestors are often subconscious, but highly influential. This is something of great spiritual value, especially as we consider the Communion of Saints, and countless generations who have passed along their faith to us. Furthermore, Dulles reminds us the positive influence of the “American experiment of ordered liberty. Liberal Catholics and neo-conservatives alike insist that the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae — ‘Declaration on Religious Freedom’ is due in part to the influence of the American system.” It is also a detriment when we consider the evils of history and modern times. We know form American history the evils we must undo that are deleterious to the soul; we know the American traditions and truths of liberty and justice we must defend to uphold the dignity of life. And so goes the Church.
Just as insidious, the liturgy suffers under the weight of the culture of mediocrity and instant gratification. We have seen this in “gameshow host” celebrants, the rejection of liturgical tradition, and music that sounds no different (actually, usually worse) that that of secular culture. Most distressing is a false sense of liberty that promotes a sense of entitlement, placing the preferences and opinions of the individual above all else. Dulles states:
The church, like secular society, is continually tempted to settle for mediocrity. To the extent that it has adopted the values and attitudes of middle-class America, the church deserves to be admonished by prophetic reformers. Repentance needs to be preached to those within the household of God
LARGE PART OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE and ideals of liberty (which America still struggles in implement and preserve to this very day) is a concept of diversity of voices. This can be positive when these voices work together for a greater good. But there is often tension with the Church’s governance, modeled in part on royalty, but granted its authority by Christ through Apostolic Succession. The pope is infallible on matters of doctrine, but quite fallible elsewhere as are the rest of us. That is why the discussion matters.
But this tension of many voices can be creative and serve God and His people. Dulles names four strategies or camps. Isolated, each has a positive and a detriment. Together, they can be complimentary:
1. “Traditionalism is the posture of those Catholics who are highly critical of what they find in the dominant American culture, and who wish to restore the more centralized and authoritarian Catholicism of the years before World War II
2. “The neo-conservative strategy rejects as unrealistic the restorationism of the paleoconservatives….
3. Catholic liberals—“Not satisfied to concentrate on what the Catholic tradition can contribute to the American experiment, Catholic liberals are primarily intent on showing how Americanism can help to modernize the church. They propose to reform Catholicism along the lines of participatory democracy
4. Prophetic Radicalism— “While calling for the total conversion of church and society, radical Catholics seek to legitimate their positions by invoking historical precedents, both religious and civil….”
E’VE SEEN THESE COMPETING VOICES play out at the Synod. We’ve seen them on the local parish level. As Dulles points out, “Although American Catholics can disagree about the extent to which each strategy is appropriate at a given time and place, they should be on guard against mutual hostility and recrimination.” How familiar does “hostility and recrimination” sound?
But what brings us together in unity? We are united in the Eucharist, the Word, and the love of Christ. Any “strategy” must be rooted in scripture and tradition. Dulles reminds us:
Regarding the church, I would hold with the traditionalists and neo-conservatives that it is basically healthy and that we should let it shape our convictions and values. The first loyalty of the Catholic should be to the church as the Body of Christ.
This also brings up now as it did in 1990, the call to evangelize. With this, comes the American concept of accommodation and with it its benefits and dangers. “Accommodation” is a very difficult tightrope to walk. There is a fine line between benefit and misrepresenting the truth. As such, this is perhaps the most fascinating part of Dulles’ article:
The most fundamental question raised by the preceding discussion is whether the church in this country should become more countercultural, as the traditionalists and radicals would wish, or more accommodationist, as the liberals and some neo-conservatives propose.
There can be no question of simply rejecting accommodation as a strategy. It has always been an honored principle of pastoral and missionary practice. The Christian message must be presented, insofar as possible, in forms that make it intelligible, credible, interesting and relevant to the hearers.
Accommodation becomes a problem only when the hard sayings of the Gospel are watered down, and when immoral or dehumanizing practices are tolerated.
To the degree that it adjusts to the dominant culture, the church has less to say. By simply echoing the prevailing opinions and values, the church undermines the credibility of its claim to present a divine message and weakens people’s motivation for seeking membership. A church that no longer issues a clear call for conversion is only dubiously Christian. Traditional Catholicism has convictions and priorities very different from those embedded in contemporary American culture. The more thoroughly Catholics become inculturated in the American scene, the more alienated they become from their religious roots and the hierarchical authorities.”
There is much to say on this topic. This is because the Church is alive, interconnected and growing. The Mass is a jewel of inestimable value. Let us be good stewards of God’s gift to us.
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