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