Toward a New Catholic Culture

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In the past few days, I have been invigorated by a debate that has popped up on social media. In the wake of a prominent priest’s blog post criticizing the presence of young children at Mass, there has been a push back on some of the “intentional discipleship” and “parish renewal” movements, questioning the sacramental theology and full Catholicity of such “trends.”

I think debates like these are always important because they refine and clarify the conversation. Any authentic renewal will never stray from the fullness of the deposit of faith and any attempts at parish renewal, forming disciples, etc. should always be accomplished in a way that is fully Catholic.

One part of the debate, in particular, piqued my interest, though, in such a manner that I felt called to respond. Some priests and theologians whom I respect in the Catholic Twitter-verse (enter at your own risk) questioned the efficacy of critiques on the term “cultural Catholicism” because faith is always culturally contextualized and lived. They suggested that the remedy to our current crisis as a Church will not come from focusing on parish renewal or intentional discipleship, but is instead going to be brought about by the creation of a new culture.

On the one hand, I agree with them. I think any methodologies of parish renewal that do not emphasize intentional discipleship are short-sighted and, essentially, shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Any efforts that are just about tweaking the way we do things as a parish, and are not pushing for full cultural renewal, which only comes about through forming disciples, will be ineffectual long-term simply because of the gravity of the crisis on our hands. The statistics point to the fact that we are looking at the possibility of a collapse of the Catholic Church in America in the next couple generations if something does not change.

I also agree that a new and vibrant Catholic culture is the end goal that we should have in mind! Where I disagree is this idea that you can just create a culture out of thin air. To me, looking at our bleak, post-modern, post-Christian cultural landscape and saying, “To fix this, we should build a new culture!” is a little bit like looking at a desert and saying, “We should build a city here!” As a long-term goal, it’s great, even though it will be a difficult road, but it is not something that just pops up tomorrow.

Consider Francis, Dominic, Teresa of Avila and other great reform/revitalization figures in the Church’s history. Each of them progenitors of movements that, long-term, contributed mightily to vibrant cultures. But, what did they set out to do initially? Each articulated a new and radically lived expression of holiness and mission that was incarnated in actually communities. In our current era, it is my contention that our current “springtime of the New Evangelization” will come when lay people commit to doing the same. A new and dynamic Catholic culture will follow, but it will not start there.

Culture is not the starting point for renewal in the Church. We cannot begin there. Culture is always the end product of individuals living community, holiness, and mission in a dynamic way in a certain era. How do you get you get such individuals? By forming disciples.

St. John Paul II summarized it perfectly in his 1999 post-synodal exhortation, “Ecclesia in America.” He wrote, “It is more necessary than ever for all the faithful to move from a faith of habit, sustained perhaps by social context alone, to a faith which is conscious and personally lived. The renewal of faith will always be the best way to lead others to the Truth that is Christ.”

While cultural Catholicism should never be used exclusively in a pejorative manner, since faith and culture always go hand in hand and are mutually fed by one another, there is a very real danger in a merely cultural Catholicism that can lead to a faith sustained by "social context alone.” The critique, then, of a Church that only focuses on culture, without pushing for a living and personal faith in its members, is a valid one.

If we want to build a new Catholic culture, then we need to help people live a faith that is conscious and personal. You cannot just say “Culture!” three times loudly and have one appear. It will be the creativity of bands of well-formed, passionate disciples who renew both the culture of our Church and our world and that does take going back to basics. It does not mean that we just borrow recklessly from the evangelical world, hoping to copy-paste their structures to hopefully mimic some of their successes, but it does mean that we take Church teaching seriously on the importance of preaching the kerygma and inviting people into a life-changing encounter with a personal God which is the basis of discipleship. To do so is uniquely Catholic.

If you want to create a new Catholic culture, the only route forward is to form disciples. The horse does, in fact, come before the cart.

Tim Glemkowski