The Benedictine Monastery
and the Franciscan Field Hospital

Catholics aren’t Countercultural

As Catholics, we’re called to resist the “culture of death” and the “throw-away culture.” Does this mean we are countercultural? Are we being called to oppose a culture, or an anti-culture? And more importantly, what should we do when faced with an anti-culture?

In two recent articles, Gunnar Gundersen and Daniel Amiri lay out a number of problems with the concept of Catholic counterculturalism. Among other things, the counter-cultural narrative ignores the essentially pro-culture message of Christianity. Gundersen’s article explains that culture is the social expression of the truths a group has discovered in their experience of reality. This means that a true culture must always be open to the truth, even if that truth challenges social assumptions. Amiri quotes Pope Francis as saying that a truly Christian culture is marked by mutually enriching dialogue that leads to a greater consensus.

By contrast, a culture that is closed to the truth of reality becomes an anti-culture and regresses into barbarism. Insofar as our mainstream “culture” is relativistic, it isn’t really a culture at all. In opposing it, we’re not opposing a culture; rather, we’re defending truth and therefore defending culture. Ironically, a narrow-minded counterculturalism that rejects dialogue and self-criticism becomes just another anti-culture, another barbarism battling for social dominance.

To successfully Christianize a particular society we need prudent discernment. Whether we’re in an Amazonian village or in a modern suburb dominated by Amazon Delivery, we need to distinguish the truly cultural aspects of a society from the merely barbaric. Dialogue with culture is enriching, whereas attempted dialogue with barbarism is a waste of time and may even distort our message.

Is Our “Culture” an Anti-culture?

Countercultural Catholics usually fail to criticize the basic routines and structures of their daily lives. Instead, they focus their attention on political issues, artistic styles, and social trends. Daily routines, however, reveal the fundamental assumptions and values of a culture.

I would suggest that a critical examination of these daily routines reveals that our society is formed by an anti-culture rather than a true culture. By saying this I don’t merely mean that there are flawed aspects in our way of life; I mean that it does not fit the definition of a culture given above. It is not, in any meaningful way, the shared expression of a group’s experience of reality, and it is not open to the truth of reality.

Due to our individualism and to the hypermobility and constant change produced by our capitalist economy, we don’t have the kinds of community that could share an experience of reality across time. In true cultures, the elderly become elders, the repositories of group wisdom; in our culture, they become the residents of the “old folks home”, cast aside as irrelevant.

Our dependence on technology and our refusal to accept limits also marks our society as anti-cultural. As G. K. Chesterton said, “It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits. . . . If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold, creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.” Culture is a form of art, and every traditional culture is shaped by a creative engagement with different kinds of limits. The adobe pueblos of the American Southwest or the Norwegian stave churches display the vitality that comes from accepting limits, while the American subdivision shows the sterility that results from defying limits through technology. On a social level, communities of all types, including families, are created by individuals who accept the limitations imposed by others. Our culture, however, is premised on overcoming limitations and on freeing individuals through technology, and so it fails to actually experience and engage with reality.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis contrasts care and respect for creation with the refusal to be limited; this refusal has inflicted grave damage on our common home. He calls us to realize that our massive energy use is destroying both the natural world and the lives of the poor. This unsustainable energy use is deeply embedded in our daily lives. We’ve built our society on the false assumption that our massive consumption can continue forever. Long before we started burning fossil fuels, our society was already shaped by the myth of the “frontier” which was seen as a limitless, inexhaustible source of resources. Of course, this myth of the frontier was based on the sinister lies of racial and cultural superiority. These lies and myths still prevent our society from engaging with reality.

Financialization is perhaps the ultimate source of the unreality in our society. Everything today has been commodified for the sake of economic gain. We buy and sell things as if they were interchangeable, without any regard to their individual reality. Investors speculate in unseen “real estate” with damaging effects on local communities. Even our very lives become commodified as “labor” to be bought and sold like any other raw material. Workers are seen as interchangeable and expendable, and therefore exploitable. In the financial world, all differences are erased, all limits are transcended, the dignity of every human being is obscured . . . and all hope of a true experience of reality is lost.

Pope Francis and Alasdair MacIntyre

What should we do when faced with this fundamental barbarism in our society? In The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher tells us to imitate St. Benedict and make a “strategic retreat” from the modern world. Popularizing the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre, he suggests building “communities of virtue” which can preserve Christianity in a new “Dark Age.”

The vision of Pope Francis is sometimes contrasted with the Benedict Option; while Rod Dreher focuses on the building of Christian community and advises a “strategic retreat”, Pope Francis envisions a servant Church reaching out to the peripheries and serving the marginalized. These two visions needn’t be pitted against one another, however. Their potential harmonization can be seen in Francis’ famous image of the Church as a “field hospital” for the wounded. Running a field hospital takes a dedicated, committed, tightly-knit team. Just so, aiding the poor and marginalized is best done by local communities of loving Christians. This is the strategy of the Early Church, which provided a social and material safety net during the collapse of the Roman Empire.

And this “strategy” wasn’t confined to the Early Church. Rod Dreher takes St. Benedict as his exemplar, but while Benedict is indeed an inspiring figure, he is not the only saint of the Dark Ages. Another Dark Ages saint, Pope St. Gregory the Great, can provide us with a certain vision of what might be possible. As the Empire collapsed, Pope Gregory’s role expanded to include protecting the City of Rome and feeding the poor on a vast scale.

We have a similar opportunity today. As our “culture” proceeds along its barbaric path of decline, the number of wounded and marginalized victims is increasing every day, ranging from exploited migrant workers to lonely residents in retirement communities. Christian communities can take the lead in caring for the marginalized. This care can be shown in myriad different ways, from more “band-aid” solutions such as distributing food to the homeless to more holistic attempts to create a local economy oriented toward social justice.

Facilitating rather than Creating a Culture

Even though Rod Dreher’s proposed solution is incomplete by itself, he is correct to point out that our culture is deeply barbaric. Alasdair MacIntyre’s insight about community is part of the solution. We can’t build a culture, which has to grow organically, nor can we merely preserve or recreate cultures from the past. We can, however, form groups who are open to the truth, and their shared experience can provide the ground from which culture will grow.

This communal openness to the truth must include an awareness of the marginalized. As Pope Francis wrote in his recent book, Let Us Dream:

“You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is. I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins to find a new future . . . But you can’t go to the periphery in the abstract . . . To go to the margins in a concrete way, as in this case, allows you to touch the suffering and the wants of a people but also allows you to support and encourage the potential alliances that are forming. The abstract paralyzes, but focusing on the concrete opens up possible paths.”

Image: St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, Kansas. This is an image of a place or building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States of America. Its reference number is 82002651. By Randy OHC from West Park, New York, USA – St. Benedict detail in fresco – plain version, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36291596

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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