Faith and culture have always been linked together in Christianity, and particularly Catholicism. Culture is a major theme in the Vatican II document “Gaudium et Spes”, which states that “culture stands for everything by which human beings refine and develop their various capacities of mind and body.” Culture could perhaps be defined simply as “the way we live”.
Pope John-Paul II spoke extensively about human culture, as well as Christian culture, and in 1982 he founded the Pontifical Council for Culture. The Church of course is not tied down to any particular culture because it transcends all cultures. But culture is what makes the Gospel a concrete and lived reality for any specific community. We can speak of “the culture of God” meaning that God dwells in every person’s heart. A “Catholic” culture in any Catholic community centres on the person and example of Jesus Christ, so that we can speak, for example, of a school having a “Catholic ethos”. The Church has always had a passionate concern for human culture.
However, in Britain and the West today we are experiencing the aggression of secular forces that are determined to banish God and religion from society, or at least turn religion into a private lifestyle choice. Science is declared to be the only dependable form of truth, even though faith is always linked to reason in Catholicism, a fact that is being frequently repeated by Pope Benedict XVI.
Decades ago our culture could easily be described as having Christian or Catholic characteristics. This is very difficult today in the midst of a bewildering diversity of cultures, religions and philosophies, as well as the breakdown of family life and most of the traditional Christian values. Even many Catholics are no longer firm in their identity. The decline of organised religion has left a vacuum in our culture, and, although many are seeking spirituality, they are abandoning Christianity.
A serious problem with modern culture is the overemphasis on the individual, at the expense of the community, perhaps following Mrs. Thatcher’s famous dictum: “There is no such thing as a society”. This is bound to colour people’s concepts about human rights, abortion and many other issues. But in fact Christianity is a social religion and the Church is a community of believers who worship and work together for the greater glory of God. Pope Paul VI prophetically said in “Evangelii Nuntiandi”: “The split between the Gospel and culture is the tragedy of our times”. As people seek more and more autonomy, they move further and further away from God.
What we need therefore is a new Catholic evangelisation or re-education. The Church’s biggest failure is perhaps alienating our young people with whom we desperately need to reconnect in order to make them feel needed and empowered as members of the Body of Christ. The young can be easily influenced by the secular culture surrounding them. But the young are the future of the Church, and the Church can build up on the positive features of modern culture in order to attract the young back to the faith. The Church should in fact try to evangelise not just the individuals but the whole society by “inculturating” the eternal Gospel message of love and peace and making it intelligible in today’s complex world. This is the “dialogue of truth”, and thankfully there are still a lot of people out there who are really thirsting for it.