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Culture, Its Delights and Distractions: What Does It Mean to Restore Catholic Culture?

By Deal W. Hudson
January 6th, 2014
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

I have often heard the lament about the loss of "Catholic culture" and the need to "restore" it.  In fact, I have sung that lament myself, and deemed it valuable to reclaim some of the great artifacts from the Catholic culture of the past, from its poetry and music to its philosophy and apologetics.But I have had second thoughts about using "Catholic culture" as a rallying cry.


WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - I have often heard the lament about the loss of "Catholic culture" and the need to "restore" it.  In fact, I have sung that lament myself, and deemed it valuable to reclaim some of the great artifacts from the Catholic culture of the past, from its poetry and music to its philosophy and apologetics. 

But I have had second thoughts about using "Catholic culture" as a rallying cry. It's neither clear to me what we really want nor what Catholic culture is in the first place.  Let's start with what is meant when we refer to there being a specific form of culture that is Catholic.  Certainly such a wish includes the restoration of the liturgy, not necessarily in Latin but in its music and its majestic beauty.  Along with that, there is the architecture of our parish churches which went through a decade or so of circular designs, entirely unsuitable to the enactment of our liturgy. Then there are the great writers, both those of fiction and poetry, as well as the philosophers, theologians, historians, and scientists. 

Behind all this, I believe, is the desire for a unified culture, a culture that witnesses to a Christian worldview and morality. This is where the problem lies. No doubt we should reaffirm the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Michelangelo, Raphael, Palestrina, Lassus, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Newman, and Undset in every generation. But was there ever a period in Western civilization with a unified, Christian worldview, and, if so, would we really want to return to such an age?

The so-called Christian Europe of the Middle Ages was a time when reading and learning were confined to a very few, including much of the clergy but not the common laity. It's doubtful that a serf serving his feudal lord really shared the same culture in any meaningful way.  It was also a time when state power and Church power were often combined in a way that resulted in religious wars, enforced abuse of religious liberty, and a Church leadership more interested in protecting its political power than saving souls.

The call for the restoration of Christian culture can also become another occasion to slap down the modern age, the age that began with Darwin and developed through the psychoanalysis of Freud, the existentialism of Nietzsche, and the collectivism of Karl Marx. One distinguished writer on Christian culture, the late Prof. John Senior, in The Death of Christian Culture, spilled a great deal of ink on James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, as if it was an affront to all the literature and civilization that preceded its publication. Did Dr. Senior believe that his diatribe against Ulysses was going to have any restorative effect on the world of arts and letters? Did he believe that a good Catholic should never even attempt to read - what is in fact almost unreadable - the novel? Such verbal assaults on already established literary reputations and works of art might be insightful in themselves, but they are hardly doing the task that Senior addresses in his other book, The Restoration of Christian Culture.

In my opinion, it would have been far more helpful for Prof. Senior to compare  Joyce's work, written between 1918 to 1920, to the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset's masterwork, the novel Kristin Lavransdatter, 1920-1922.  Undset, who became a Catholic in 1924, had established her modernist credentials with her early novels such as Fru Marta Aulie (1921) which begins with the line, "I have been unfaithful to my husband." Both Ulysses and Kristin attempt to portray an entire worldview, Joyce's with one day in the Dublin life of Leopold Bloom, Undset's through the whole lifetime of its heroine in medieval Norway.

Joyce was a cradle Catholic, deeply read in Catholic theology, who produced some of the best short stories in the English language in his Dubliners published in 1914.  But his gradual loss of faith was reflected in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916), a work chock full of theological reflection, and Ulysses (1922), but especially his last work, Finnegan's Wake (1938), although sections were being published as early as 1924.  His contrast with Undset would have been instructive because she began her early adulthood as a suffragette and "liberated woman" in the years after World War I. But as she moved towards the Church, her work experimented less but probed much deeper into the human condition. 

Giving thoughtful readers a sympathetic though critical understanding of Joyce's struggle with the faith of his parents and the impact of that struggle on his creative imagination, would have made Senior's contribution more substantial and lasting.  If he had sustained a comparison and contrast with the best Catholic novelist of the same generation, Sigrid Undset, his book would be sought after now and for years to come.

But Senior got lost in his diatribe, which is endemic among well-educated, earnest Catholics who lose patience with the adulation given to religious rebels, skeptics, and secularists because they confirm the modernist and postmodernist turn among our cultural elites in the university and the media. 

Summary:

1.    For cultural apologetics to be effective it must not pursue the mythical goal of restoring a Catholic culture.
2.    Cultural apologetics should never dismiss but practice the charity of taking the other's point of view long enough to sympathize with the road being traveled.
3.    The goal of cultural apologetics, as we have said, is to defend oneself against a culture filled with toxins and to establish within the culture an effective Christian voice that can hold its own with all the cultural icons of the present age.

Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson\'s new radio show, Church and Culture, will begin broadcasting in February on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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