The Vanguard of Theology and its Expression
The ‘great’ culture today is based upon the principle of self-determination: secularism presents man in his own image. The most avid promoter of today’s ‘great’ culture is the mass media which, through the peculiar dynamic which exists between society and the media, is constantly generating popular versions of secularism. In this relatively new cultural territory, conditioned and limited as it is by its quest for efficiency, mass appeal and profit, many human values find little room for manoeuvre. Moral values, spiritual values, intellectual values, aesthetic values amongst others, are given limited scope. In the secular world, man in his own image, has become constrained, vulnerable and superficial.
Perhaps there is a sense from popular culture that the more ‘cultured’ aspects of society offer no more than elitism or issues for special interest groups. Yet the experience of humanity, which manifests a profound yearning for betterment, expressed above all in religion and art, obliges us to say that without the incorporation of genuine moral, spiritual and intellectual values, individuals and communities will inevitably express confusion over value, in which higher goods are relinquished in favour of lesser goods.
So today, we are living in a culture which not only is focused upon man, but that focus is reduced and minimalist, it represents only a fraction of the spectrum of human values and, it even misrepresents some of those values. It is this culture which is popularised by the media. However, such is the invasive nature of the media within society, that popular culture now threatens any other kinds of culture: the common denominator for all forms of culture has become the new media orthodoxy.
Catholic culture along with many other forms of culture is, in the current climate, scarcely visible. It too has been made to feel vulnerable by the power of the new media orthodoxy. Yet, “in the common experience of humanity, for all its contradictions, the Spirit of God, who ‘blows where he wills’ (Jn 3:8), not infrequently reveals signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers to understand more deeply the message which they bear.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 56) Pope John Paul II, in responding to the Church’s challenge to engage in dialogue with culture, reminds Christians of their prophetic role within culture. This same mission was identified with particular intensity in his first Encyclical Redemptor Hominis when he spoke of the Church as being responsible for truth. In practice, this prophetic role is realised in Christians when “faith as a supernatural virtue infused into the human spirit makes us sharers in knowledge of God as a response to his revealed word.” (Redemptor Hominis, 19) Thus, the mission of teaching and transmitting truth lies at the heart of all Christian lives. A culture in which Christians live is a culture in which truth has been sown.
The Church as a whole has the responsibility for truth. “Today we still need above all that understanding and interpretation of God’s Word; we need that theology.” (Redemptor Hominis,19) Whist Bishops and scholars have a leading role in Theology, the Pope nevertheless, identifies the fundamental task of incorporating truth into the lives of individuals as pertaining to “family catechesis, that is the catechesis by parents of their children” (Redemptor Hominis, 19).
The prophetic mission of Christians to our culture is to make truth available and accessible. The family, even in its present confused state, remains the primary place where culture is handled. Truth must be recognised here. In a sense, actual families and actual family culture represent the point at which the evangelisation of culture should begin. The evangelisation of popular culture can only proceed “with an attitude of profound willingness to listen” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 56) to that culture. The Church is called to accompany, rather than overwhelm, society with truth.
Catholic culture is one in which all human values should find their ‘metre’ and, one in which supernatural virtue is also recognisable. In other words, it is a culture that expresses all of what man is. It has no other formal parameters. Last century popular theology abounded: Frank Sheed’s wealth of manuscripts, The Penny Catechism, the lives of the Saints written for children and for adults, to name but a few. Much more recently, Fr Stan Fortuna’s “U Got 2 believe”, presents an extraordinarily thorough treatment of the Catholic Faith for teenagers. The popular media, especially in the television and in magazines, captivates its audience, youthful and adult alike. It is here, in this kind of culture, that minds are ‘trained’ and fashioned. The psychology of our age may not be one which is founded upon truth, but it is one in which the ‘self’ is contained. And the self is always on a quest for identity. How can we help that ‘self’ identify with Christ?
Today’s new culture “originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed, but from the very fact that there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages and a new psychology.” (Redemptoris Missio, 37) Christians have been slow to respond to or involve themselves in the media, but we must learn how to practice the art of theology, catechesis and evangelisation in the new culture. Perhaps this work needs some open discussion to help it proceed, but the fact remains that popular culture remains virtually unrivalled by the new culture of Christ.
We have so many leads to help us: every news report, every advertisement, every sound byte and every image can inspire Christians to call the graceful light of truth, who is Christ the Lord, into their lives again. Do we not also have the new Catechism, which is “offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes” (Fidei Depositum, 3)? If popular theology is truth well handled, then let us be eager to practice this art today.
Fr Richard S. Aladics
This version 30th November 2001