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Turn to Jesus (Article)

How Firm a Foundation
Catholicism as the pillar of Western culture and civilization throughout the centuries


By Mary DeGoede

Mary DeGoede is a consecrated member of Regnum Christi and a senior at Mater Ecclesiae College in Rhode Island. This article originally appeared in the Mater Ecclesiae Digest Spring-Summer 2012 edition.

Since its establishment more than two thousand years ago, Catholicism has been for every age the foundation and guide of Western civilization and culture. The Church has been the basis for cultural advances throughout history, and great writers, artists, and thinkers have relied on their faith to guide their learning. As culture changes, the Church remains unchanged in essence, but is always prepared to respond to the needs of the time. To call the Church "irrelevant" for any age is to disregard history. Historian Carlton J. H. Hayes wrote, “There are many respects in which Christianity has influenced and helped to shape our historic Western civilization. That is obviously true of…our literature and art…likewise with so much of our historic architecture, painting, and sculpture, and with the West’s distinctive music” (7). This prevailing Christian influence on our culture can be observed in everything from the architectural style of our buildings - European cathedrals have been the inspiration for many a later edifice - to the foundations of our philosophy - the western concept of man relies heavily on Christian belief. The peak of Christianity is synonymous with the peak of culture, and likewise as religion declines, culture follows suit.

In the twenty-first century, we have more technology, more communication, more means of production of food and other necessities than any other age. In short, the world potentially has everything it needs. So why is the current century sometimes referred to as the "Age of Anxiety"? This expression attests to the fact that technological and artistic advances have the potential for great good or great harm, and without faith as a guide, they often go the way of harm. Science, for example, has never been so well developed, but some of the "progress" being made in this area is contrary to Catholic teaching on the dignity of human life. Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said, "Moral strength has not grown in tandem with the development of science; on the contrary, it has diminished, because the technological mentality confines morality to the subjective sphere...where this [moral strength] is lacking or insufficient, the power man has will be transformed more and more into a power of destruction" (Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures 27).  What´s wrong with this picture? Western civilization was built on Catholic values and principles, and their loss is detrimental to our culture.

Christianity was founded during the days of the powerful Roman Empire, and at this time Christians began to live what would be the defining aspect of their religion: enculturation and universality. In living this, they took what was good from the Romans, such as the learning, art, and system of law, and purified the uncivilized aspects of the polytheistic empire. After the fall of Rome, western literature, culture, and art were lost - except what was retained by the Church. In the ensuing Dark Ages, the Church kept civilization alive through barbarian invasions, plagues, and other disasters in Europe. Monks copied books and preserved - even enhanced - art and music, and Europe owes much of what it retains from this age to them.     

As the Medieval era gave way to the Renaissance, the Church was still there as the driving force behind the ensuing "rebirth" of culture. The works of the great artists and thinkers of this time - Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo - were propelled by their faith. European culture retained its deocentricism, and the Church continued to be at the forefront. In the Enlightenment, the emphasis began to be placed on the individual and reason took precedence over faith. In the ensuing rise of humanism and relativism, the faith and values that had hitherto been accepted unconditionally began to be lost. Pope Benedict XVI states, "The secular state rose for the first time in history...declaring that God is a private question that does not belong to the public sphere...God and his will therefore ceased to be relevant to public life” (Without Roots 62-63). Gone were the days when waves of barbarian invasions swept Europe, when civilization was attacked from the outside and preserved by the Church. In the centuries to come, culture itself would rebel against the institution that had safeguarded it.

The twentieth century has been a time of astounding globalization and impressive advances in every field of society. But on its own, does this truly mark an advance in culture? If we define culture as “development, improvement, or refinement of the intellect, emotions, interests, manners and tastes” (Agnes and Guralnik 353), then in the current age we are experiencing not a growth but a virtual breakdown of culture. Although the emphasis of society is placed on self-gratification, the value of the person has been lost. This is part of a trend of reversal of values that can be seen in everything from the loss of children’s respect for their parents to the fact that caring for the earth in many instances takes priority over caring for humanity.

The problems of society noted above could make for a lengthy commentary, but they are hardly as desperate and overwhelming as some analysts would have us believe. A number of positive social trends can also be traced. For example, current clothing styles - particularly for women - are shedding the "barely there" look of the past decades, and taking a more dignified approach. There is also hope emerging in the media - currently one of the most criticized aspects of our society. More and more balanced, reasonable newspapers and reporters are appearing on the scene, giving an objective view of current events. These trends can be attributed in part to the Church, and her untiring efforts to promote Christian social doctrine.  More specifically, many of these positive tendencies can be traced to John Paul II. His powerful leadership at a crucial time in history undoubtedly shaped modern society for the better. John Paul II recognized the role of the Church as one of leadership, not domination. As the late pontiff wrote, "...the Church has something to say today, just as twenty years ago, and also in the future, about the...aims of authentic development...In doing so the Church fulfills her mission to evangelize...when she proclaims the truth about Christ, about herself and about man, applying this truth to a concrete situation" (78).  The Church is - and has always been - meant to be a Christianizing influence, rather than a controlling power.

Modern philosopher Peter Kreeft writes, "Optimism or pessimism about the third millennium? The bottom line is optimism...because apocalyptically decadent ages elicit saints...the more dangerous the enemy, the more precious the victory" (189).  Recent Holy Fathers would agree. They have had great hope for a rebirth and re-evangelization of society and have taken a realistic approach to bringing it about. Pope Benedict XVI tells us that "the Christian response to the question about the ethos and responsibility... faith does not create a better world, but it does call forth and strengthen the freedom of the good against the temptation to misuse our freedom to do evil" (Values in a Time of Upheaval 121).  The Church´s vocation of leadership and its message of hope are as relevant today as in the Middle Ages. The need for moral guidance in all sectors of society has never been so evident, and Catholics must be prepared to respond, as the re-Christianization of society is in our hands. Our Holy Father tells us that we must be "human beings who in their encounters with Christ have discovered the precious pearl that gives value to all life (Matthew 13:45ff), assuring that the Christian imperatives are no longer ballast that immobilizes humanity, but rather wings that carry it upward" (Without Roots 120-121).

Works Cited

-Agnes, Michael and Guralnik, David B., editors. Webster´s New World College Dictionary. Cleveland: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2002.

-Hayes, Carlton J. H. Christianity and Western Civilization. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1954. 

-John Paul II. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1987.

-Kreeft, Peter. C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994.

-Ratzinger, Joseph. Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005.

-Ratzinger, Joseph. Values in a Time of Upheaval. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

-Ratzinger, Joseph and Pera, Marcello. Without Roots. New York: Basic Books, 2006.





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