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The Evangelization of Western Culture: A Starting Point

The concern of Pope Paul VI that cultures be evangelized "in depth and right to their very roots" has been taken up, deepened and amplified by Pope John Paul II in his writings concerning the "culture of life" and the "new evangelization". What exactly it might mean for a given national culture to be evangelized in this way will obviously depend largely on its own unique character. Britain has, for example, unique characteristics due to the nature of its Reformation, its position on the edge of Europe, its tradition of empiricism, the myths of heroism (King Arthur and so on) that lie deep within the consc

The new evangelization, correctly understood, subsumes and goes beyond the numerous previous attempts at a "theology of liberation" by the way it touches the very roots of modernity, and the way it suggests principles that would give form to a new Christian culture, a "culture of life" (See in particular two issues of Communio : Winter 1994 (XXI:4) and Summer 1995 (XXII:2). In the first of these issues, Lorenzo Albacete compares the new evangelization to liberation theology in "The Praxis of Resistance"). The new culture must be capable of integrating all the legitimate concerns of our era, including respect for individual conscience, for cultural diversity, for scientific progress, for the dignity of women and the poor, for the integrity and sustainability of the natural environment, and so on. Consequently, a "return to Christendom" is neither feasible nor desirable.

The split between faith and culture developed, according to Balthasar, with the separation of theology from the spiritual life. The creation of supposedly autonomous academic disciplines such as "theology" and "philosophy" brought in its train the separation of the "transcendental properties of being" - that is, of Beauty from her "sisters" Truth and Goodness, no longer perceived as mutually dependent. While religion increasingly became a matter of moralism or fideism (of truth grasped by the will), science after Bacon and Descartes became increasingly shallow, constructivist and utilitarian. Our age has witnessed the victory of expertise over wisdom, quantity over quality, action over contemplation ... and Deism over Trinitarian Christianity. An abstract and empty freedom has triumphed over the concrete love incarnate in Jesus Christ.

Beauty lies in the unity of Truth and Goodness, and is in a certain sense what holds them together. Once this connection has been lost, religion becomes less a response to God's revealed glory than a semi-Pelagian attempt to grasp (and ultimately manipulate) doctrine and ethics. But religion, as Christopher Dawson showed in detail, is the source of the dynamic spirit that permeates every culture. The great obstacle or challenge to the new evangelization is therefore a sense of the self as primarily active, rather than receptive, in relation to God and to being, a "technological attitude" the all-pervasiveness of which renders it virtually invisible, and any opposition to it extremely difficult. Even our reactions to the overt symptoms of degeneracy in our culture (ultraviolent videos, the breakdown of families, the rise of drugs) tend to be coloured by it and therefore to feed the flames.

What gives Balthasar's analysis its teeth is the realization that the "autonomy" of the secular has for a long time been wrongly understood. The institutions of our society, both economic and political; the methods of science; the principles governing town planning and architecture; the activities of artists and patrons of the arts: all of these are generally assumed, even by many Catholics, to be morally or theologically neutral, and therefore to be accepted as givens before evangelization begins. Not so, says Prof. Schindler. The institutions and structures that constitute our present world culture embody a "logic or abstraction from God that secularizes the culture and disposes it towards a technocratic-consumerist nihilism." To evangelize, to liberate, to transform, we must recognize this as a structural sin. "We cannot hope to resolve the problems besetting modern Western society if we begin by bracketing the question of relation to God [embodied in its structures], because bracketing that question itself constitutes the source and deepest context of all those problems."

The fear that such a response naturally provokes in our contemporaries is the fear of a new integralism, a kind of totalitarian Catholicism. It might seem that Balthasar's radical critique of modernity and call to conversion carries with it the implication that all Catholics should work towards a theocratic Catholic state, in which important modern freedoms will be curtailed in the name of Trinitarian love and the spirit of "obedience to the truth". This fear is the result of a complete failure to understand the principles and spirit of the critique. Trinitarian love is, in fact, the only basis for a true liberation of the human person, and thereby of an authentic social, cultural and even religious pluralism. A love that traces its origin to the Holy Trinity is a love that respects the other as other, and not merely as an instrument of the self. Furthermore, a Church that represents this "fairest love" cannot possibly impose a religious faith or determine the policies of a government. All she can do is promote, by any means consistent with her mission, the dignity of each human being as such.

If the application of that principle reduces the range of human expression in one respect, by militating against many forms of institutional and personal injustice, so much the better. The creative diversity of cultures that do respect human dignity will be greater, because Trinitarian love is intrinsically fertile and regenerative. Merely to ban abortion and euthanasia, to censor violence on television and outlaw guns and drugs on the streets - in other words, to counterreact to the culture of death - is not enough. Love casts out fear, and it casts out the shadows by shining. A culture of life would find creative solutions for women who may be pressured into having an abortion by economic or social circumstance. In the hard cases that no change in public policy can prevent, the refusal to have an abortion would be recognized and valued for what it is: an act of heroism, calling for the utmost respect and support.

However, this is not the place to discuss details of public policy. Nor does Prof. Schindler's book do so: he is necessarily concerned simply to establish the principles that would define a new moral architecture for society, principles based on a transformed understanding of the Church's relation to the world. Schindler himself is Editor of the English-language edition of the international Catholic review Communio, where many of the chapters first appeared in earlier drafts. The review was founded over twenty years ago by Balthasar, along with his teacher Henri de Lubac, and his friends and colleagues Josef Ratzinger, Jean Daniélou and Louis Bouyer. It has since blossomed into thirteen different language editions, including an Arabic edition edited in Beirut. Seeing Schindler's essays gathered together with so much new material, one begins to get a sense of the inexhaustible vision that lay behind the founding of the review in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, a vision of the renewal of all things in Christ, of a Christian anthropology and even a Christian cosmology that has increasingly come to shape the direction of the Church's development under Pope John Paul II.

The book focuses on Catholic liberalism, beginning with the work of John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who helped to prepare the gound for Dignitatis Humanae, the Council's great Declaration on Religious Liberty. That Declaration represented the most radical apparent break with tradition of all the Conciliar documents - at least according to Archbishop Lefebvre and its other conservative critics. It is vitally important, therefore, for Catholics to understand the Declaration correctly, as an authentic development of doctrine - or at least a development in the application of doctrine to a modern situation. Schindler's contention is that despite Murray's enormous contributions to Catholic thought, his work disposes Catholics to liberalism in a way that the Council itself does not. It "Americanizes" the interpretation of the Council. There is a "logical ambivalence" in Murray's position that (contrary to Murray's own intention) actually undermines religious freedom by causing it to "collapse" into a kind of liberal dogmatism. Schindler then moves on to his critique of the most influential contemporary Catholic liberals, the so-called "neoconservatives", led by Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel. Here again, his argument is subtle, distinguishing between the undeniably Catholic intentions of these authors and the "unintended logic" of their stated positions.

According to Schindler, the neoconservatives baptise too quickly the American style of economic liberalism, and fail to recognize consumerism as a structure of sin - as Pope John Paul II clearly does. Drawing on the work of Jewish sociologist Will Herberg and Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, Schindler exposes the anthropology of the Scottish Enlightenment lurking beneath the false neutrality of the "articles of peace" and the "empty freedom" granted to religion by our main social and economic institutions. The neoconservative solution poses itself as the only credible alternative to a Catholic integralism of the Right or the Left, but Schindler insists that there is a "third way" based on the "communio ecclesiology" implicit in the Council itself. The Church must not be absorbed into the world, as the liberationists have tended to do, but it cannot maintain its independence by remaining merely "juxtaposed" alongside the world, attempting to influence it for the better. There is a deeper and more intimate relation between the two, and here the best analogy is found in an ideal marriage, where each is fulfilled through a union with the other without losing his or her own integrity - indeed, in such a union the integrity of each is deepened and confirmed.

In a powerful, compact passage from Love Alone frequently quoted by Prof. Schindler, Balthasar writes that "whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed... then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of 'knowledge', and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation - a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated...." It is the severing of the relationship between nature and grace that lies behind the crisis of the modern world. Perhaps this is a formulation that will only make sense to a theologian, but if so we may substitute for the word "grace" the word "love". Prof. Schindler finds the love revealed in Jesus Christ as "constitutive of all of creation, as affecting intrinsically every fiber of every being in the cosmos". He sees contemplative and Marian receptivity at the very foundation of Christian existence. He sees the Christian's activity as taking its primary form "from within the spousal union given in the eucharist and the fiat ", adding that these "are not merely 'private' sources of moral inspiration for worldly activity", but the inner form of the world as world. This is the starting point for any effective evangelization of culture, any renewal of the springs of our civilization into the new millennium.

* Address: T&T Clark Publishers, 59 George St, Edinburgh, EH2 2LQ, UK

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