On February 1st, the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal published an article by Gunnar Gundersen, entitled “The Dead End of Counter-Cultural Catholicism.” I highly recommend reading the piece in full, in which Gundersen accurately diagnoses the problems caused by “countercultural Catholicism.” When Catholics say we are called to be “countercultural,” they usually mean that they have an obligation to oppose the prevailing secular culture. According to these Catholics, we do that by rejecting secular culture or by acting so differently from the prevailing norms—in our dress, morality, and customs—that we live as a counterexample.
Robert Christian, editor of Millennial, was quite prescient in 2013 when he wrote for the National Catholic Reporter on precisely this question. In his mind, there are a few ways we can be countercultural and they usually involve either withdrawing from the broader culture, a move that many have characterized as the “Benedict option,” or they engage in an all-out culture war with the goal of drawing what Christian describes as “stark contrasts” with secular culture. Gundersen goes further than Christian, however. While Christian embraces the term “countercultural,” writing that engagement and dialogue are countercultural, Gundersen argues that the prefix, “counter-,” is unhelpful and, well, counterproductive.
By virtue of being Christians—because we have accepted the gift of Divine Love—we will live in a way that is not informed primarily by the prevailing norms or mores. Christians will always bring something more to the equation—something otherworldly, we might say—than secular culture itself can offer. Therefore, there will always be tension between Christians and the cultures we inhabit.
This tension does not need to be destructive, as if one must give way to the other. In fact, this tension should result in a new, higher synthesis of the Divine Will and human culture. This was Francis’s point in Evangelii Gaudium, one that he has repeated throughout his papacy, that “Grace supposes culture, and God’s gift becomes flesh in the culture of those who receive it” (115).
Conversely, when Christians close themselves off and build walls to protect themselves from the wider culture, they effectively put barriers around the grace of God and thwart his work in the world. Christians are not “against” culture. On the contrary, Christians are very much “for” culture. Gundersen writes, “Christianity is not defined as being against X, but by being for Christ… We are not against a culture, but are living and developing a beautiful culture in relationship with Christ by saying ‘yes’ to him.”
The primary problem, as Gundersen suggests, is that in offering a categorical “no” to the world, we become an “anti-cultural” force. In contrast to our call to work toward consensus based on objective truths (cf. Fratelli Tutti 206), counterculturalism is insular and despondent, and the kinds of behaviors and virtues required for culture-building—such as discernment, humility, and dialogue—are lacking.
Certainly, feelings of despair about the direction of our culture are not entirely unjustified. Relativism, a pernicious ideology that rejects the existence of objective truth, ravages the West and makes futile many of our efforts at culture-building. At least that’s the perception. What we often miss is how much of our Christian heritage and beliefs are found in cultures around the world, even when they are not explicitly acknowledged as Christian. In some cases, inherently Christian developments occur unconsciously or through a very gradual, organic inculturation.
Discernment is necessary to culture-building. Without discernment, we risk rejecting even the good elements of other cultures. At best, this would hold back cultural progress. At worst, we would confuse ourselves about what is truly good, corrupting our Christian faith itself. Counterculturalism, almost by definition, lacks discernment.
Gundersen pulls no punches here when he says that counterculturalism is at its worst when it rejects out of hand those Christian developments that occur outside our preferred culture. He cites recent racial strife in the United States, for example, and the way that many white Christians were, “unable to utter the very Christian words Black Lives Matter” because of reflexive opposition to cultures other than their own.
Humility is also required for culture building, not least because we often fail to recognize the shortcomings of our own culture. Instead of growing and progressing, always seeking to make the will of God increasingly manifest in daily life, advocates of counterculturalism seek to preserve their own cultures, even those aspects that are objectively harmful. They fail to apply the standards they set for other cultures to their own, always assuming that what they inherited was inherently better. But as Francis warns, “A culture can grow barren when it ‘becomes inward-looking, and tries to perpetuate obsolete ways of living by rejecting any exchange or debate with regard to the truth about man.’ (Querida Amazonia 37, quoting St. John Paul II in Centesimus Annus).
Both Robert Christian and Gunnar Gundersen (and Pope Francis, for that matter) agree that the key is engagement and dialogue. This isn’t solely an intellectual project, but rather one “inspired by mercy,” which calls us to go out to the peripheries to meet people where they are. To build up culture, one must work within culture, always seeking a greater consensus. Pope Francis writes, “This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (Evangelii Gaudium 228).
It is essential to understand that, in Francis’s vision, the kind of culture Christians are called to build is a “culture of encounter… where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations” (Fratelli Tutti 215). It is one thing to say that dialogue is the path to inculcating Christianity, but, in Pope Francis’s vision, a society enriched by kindness, mutual concern, and dialogue are the hallmarks of a culture that has, in a way, already been Christianized. Especially today, when differences can be so profound and partisanship is extreme, Christians do not serve culture by opposing culture or rejecting the prevailing culture. We serve culture when we say yes to the love of God and when we facilitate the conditions for peaceful dialogue.