Catholic Culture: What is it and Why Should We Care About It?

The twentieth century has witnessed a veritable explosion of interest in the subject of culture in general and Catholic culture in particular. For the Catholic this is a very good thing. Culture is essential to the formation of the human person. A proper understanding of culture is necessary for a more complete appreciation of the past, a sound assessment of the present, and prudent planning for the future. The Church, the West, our country, our families, and our own salvation depend upon our understanding of culture, and this is especially true for modern man’s everyday life and his search for the good and for his salvific God.

At the same time, however, the notion of Catholic culture is much more complex than one might initially think. Culture embraces nearly the totality of man’s human endeavors and, for the Christian, it must do so in light of the Transcendent. Christian culture is Incarnational, and while man can gain great insight regarding the nature and structure of culture, we must always understand and respect it as a great mystery.

The key to our understanding of culture is to see it from the Catholic cultural perspective. This is no small feat, and we can but sketch an outline of this perspective. We can introduce ourselves to the Catholic cultural perspective by considering three interrelated aspects of it: the nature of culture in general; the uniqueness of Catholic culture; and the importance of both for the Catholic layman today. Let’s begin.

What is Culture?

In his classic work, The Crisis of Western Education, the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson makes a number of simple yet profound points we must bear in mind throughout what follows. Culture is the “common way of life” of a people. It is composed first and foremost of its religion–the spiritual and intellectual vision of a people–which in turn gives direction to, is revealed and refined in, their social and material structures. It is a tradition of learning and knowledge, a patrimony of artifacts and buildings, built up by laborious effort over successive generations. Most important, each generation, each individual, must be initiated into this way of life because if this inheritance is not conveyed and acquired then the culture will collapse or be conquered, or the individual will be confused, dysfunctional, or perhaps enslaved.

The process by which the culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual, is called enculturation. This process is very comprehensive. It takes place first and foremost in the daily life of the family, in nearly any and every aspect of its social discourse and physical activity, as it introduces the child to the wonders and workings of reality and the heritage of the culture. Then this effort ought to be reaffirmed and perfected in the society at large as it completes the common way of life of the people.

One very specialized type of enculturation is education. Dawson succinctly defines education as “the formal teaching of particular kinds of knowledge and behavior to the younger members of the community through particular institutions.” Note the circumscribed role of education as compared to enculturation. Unlike the modernist, we should not view education as the main and even sole means by which the person is “socialized.” Finally, we must always remember that religion, be it a spiritual vision or a materialistic ideology, gives impetus and structure to the culture. Change the religious vision, or fail to convey it, and the common way of life must change, in the present and the future.

To complete our understanding of culture, we must recognize that cultures possess inherent structural relations that hold true regardless of scale, time, or location. As man progressed from hunter and gatherer, to agrarian, to civilized (meaning city) life, culture became ever more complex as the religious vision became more rational and man’s understanding of nature became more refined.

Nature acts as a partial check on the abstract presumptions of man. The civilizations that flourish are those that find a functional harmony between the life of the city and the natural milieu that sustains it, between the human and the natural geographic locale and region. Small is more than beautiful: it is humane. Empires arise to be sure, but they do so at the expense of the dignity of the human person. Man must live and move and have his being in communion with God, other men, and the material world. When his way of life is uncommon or unreal man grows ever more alienated, and the culture or civilization implodes or is conquered. This happened in Greece and Rome, and may yet occur to our own.

Sub Specie Aeternitatis

Bearing in mind this general character of culture, what then marks the uniqueness of Catholic culture? Unlike the pagan or the modernist who worships the temporal, the Catholic holds that culture is the all-encompassing human and material medium, created by God, through which each man must process on his spiritual pilgrimage with and toward his Transcendent God.

Culture is the means not the end; we draw upon the past to clarify the present in order to proceed prudently toward a future. We are called to live sub specie aeternitatis (under the aspect of eternity). Man proceeds toward his end in accord with his vision of reality, in communion with other men, as he responds to the possibilities presented by the material world. This unified effort constitutes culture in general. But, when man proceeds thusly in active communion with and toward the Incarnate Word, as grace perfects nature, he creates Catholic culture. It is a vision and way of life informed by an understanding of the common good, tempered by common sense, in light of, and with the help of, the Eternal. The uniqueness of Catholic culture is found both in this Incarnational perspective of reality and in the culture(s) it helps create.

The broad Christocentric vision you know well. What interests us here, as regards the unique Catholic cultural perspective, are two principle aspects of the Catholic vision from which flow multiple cultural expressions. First, the new Law of Love that unites man with God and man with man, bequeathed a profoundly new notion of the dignity of the human person. God demands that we love our neighbor, that we charitably do all we can to help our brother (and hence ourselves) sanctify his life and save his soul. From this mandate the Christian West derived a unique moral impetus to search for, and institutionalize in its common way of life, the true good of man.

The second principle is the Transcendent dimension of Judeo-Christianity as revealed in Christ’s dictum that we should “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The search for and cultural implementation of the true good of man is expressed perhaps most clearly in politics, in the quest for a proper understanding of the relation between Church and state. This is a complex subject. The main point is that the Christian vision of the polity is antithetical to that of the Greco-Roman, the former theocentric, the latter theocratic, and the two have been in tension if not outright conflict in the West unto this day.

In very simple terms, Christianity holds that the state, i.e., the culture at large, is, as we have noted, the medium through which man proceeds toward Heaven, whereas the pagan holds that the state or culture is the all-inclusive beginning, means, and end by and for which man creates an anthropocentric heaven on earth.

Christianity holds that the state or culture, by way of Faith and Reason, helps man live; the pagan holds that the state or culture, by way of religious or ideological elite, or by majority rule, dictates how man should live. The truth of the matter is that both God and Caesar are due appropriate respect, but this relationship would be understood only in time as the Catholic political perspective was refined in the furnace of actual Catholic political cultural experience.

Culture and the Church

We have said little of the primary role of the Church and the ubiquitous importance of her liturgy and doctrinal and moral teaching; our focus is the cultural expression of the faith and how we as Catholics should understand it. Now, always bearing her in mind, we can draw a number of conclusions from Christ’s Law of Love and His warning regarding the temptations of (political) culture. Central to both principles is the notion of subsidiarity. By this we mean that man can only discover and live a Christian inspired dignified life at the local level— in the family, in the neighborhood, the parish, the town or small city, and perhaps the region. Only here can he truly know and love his neighbor as he takes an active role in his spiritual and cultural life, learns from his experience, and shares the lessons with his children and friends. This is possible to the extent to which man possesses a personal spiritual life grounded in and guided by the Church, and the degree to which the particular culture at large reaffirms his effort, does not overly constrain him, and is in harmony with the natural milieu.

This spiritual and cultural pilgrimage is archetypical of the Catholic cultural perspective that arose as Christianity permeated and leavened the West. In the process there developed the Catholic culture we know: the yearning for spiritual life and understanding; popular piety (local cultural expressions of the faith); the Benedictines and monasticism (the ideal localized spiritual Catholic culture); chivalry and feudalism; the confraternities and charitable works of the laity; Gothic churches with guilds and marketplaces nearby; the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders; the universities, and the like. The Christian people themselves, inspired with the faith, guided by the Church, brought forth this culture in their localized ethnic and regional communities in similar yet different ways. The Christian vision is timeless; its accidental cultural expression must vary.

At the same time, this effort to discern and incarnate the dignity of the human person in culture needed protection against the ever-present Greco-Roman and other pagan visions of man with their craving to direct the culture solely towards humanistic or mythical tribal ends.

This protection developed by way of a Christian-inspired notion of justice incorporated in Medieval political and juridical institutions such as representative government, Christian republicanism, and legal guarantees such as franchises, liberties, and privileges. But the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, industrialism, technology, Communism and Modernism heralded a new modern stage in this confrontation. The Church and Christian culture responded with a renewed Christian anthropology in its Councils, Jesuit and other orders, social encyclicals, Thomistic and Christian existential philosophy, defense of life, and a new evangelism.

All of this can truly only be best appreciated in light of a Catholic cultural perspective. This was the faith and Catholic culture of our fathers. They lived it, learned from it, and lovingly passed this tradition on for centuries, generation upon generation.

Catholic Culture Today

Why then should we today care about culture, and Catholic culture in particular? Because our Catholic tradition has not been fully conveyed to us and therefore we lack the Catholic cultural perspective we need to understand and respond to the multifaceted modern culture in which we live. The religious and intellectual vision of the modern West has changed, and the culture has changed right along with it. Today we have a leviathanic secular humanistic technological culture void of nearly any higher moral vision of order or constraint. If the modern Christian is to live a good prudent life under the yoke of this pervasive materialistic deracinated culture, the need for a self-conscious Catholic cultural perspective has become almost mandatory.

Our ancestors didn’t need such a selfconscious perspective because they lived a Christian way of life in harmony with their local and regional ethnic cultures. Theirs was a culture rooted in a simple small-town agrarian rhythm of life, or based in an American Catholic immigrant ethnic ghetto, that directed and limited the individual’s personal and communal way of life. We no longer enjoy the luxury of living almost unconsciously a virtuous way of life fashioned by our Christian ethnic ancestors. There has been a break in the enculturation process, and the typical Catholic needs to reconnect with the Christian perspective and culture of the past in order to shape a new way of life that befits the religious, intellectual, and material crisis of Western society of today.

Such a vision is, frankly, akin to Catholic liberal education. It requires a reasonable grasp of the main currents of the history of the West and the Church and a practical understanding of how culture actually functions. We have pointed the way in this essay. But this vision must be lived in the daily life of the Catholic.

You begin with your own spiritual and intellectual development, lovingly share this with your family, and do so while you interact with the culture and natural milieu at large. The source and starting point is your personal encounter with the Incarnate Word. Then your journey proceeds with a prudent consideration of the true dignity of the person and the family, the heritage and character of the local or regional community, and a just and harmonious utilization of property and the natural environment.

Can I share any practical advice on how to go about this? Perhaps at another time. For the moment the main point to be conveyed is that the great challenge of the Catholic Christian at any time and in any place, and especially today in the West, is to grasp the Catholic cosmological perspective and to conform his personal and communal way of life to the Eternal principles. It is not a to-do list, but a tradition of seeing and being. May God bless us on our way to Life.

Endnote: Portions of this essay were drawn from an academic paper delivered by the author at a colloquium on The Christian View of History and the Revival of the Liberal Arts in September 2012.


James Gaston is associate professor of history and director of the Humanities and Catholic Culture Program at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He resides in Steubenville, OH with his wife and eight children.