“You want to preserve Western culture? Don’t attend far-right rallies. Volunteer at a museum instead, found a Shakespeare company, join the Dickens fellowship, buy season tickets for the symphony or the opera”
— paraphrased from a Facebook comment by EK Dagenfield
One of the reasons invoked by many politicians today to adopt a restrictive immigration policy is the need to preserve Western culture. They will claim that immigrants negatively change our culture and can only be stopped from doing so with tighter border control. This attitude has found favor among many conservative Christians, who tend to identify Western culture with Christianity… and therefore view the alien and the foreign (especially from Muslim nations) as a threat.
This is met by their political adversaries with an understandable, but disproportionate reaction: a demonization of Western culture and an overfixation on the crimes committed by westerners in the past (while disregarding that many of those crimes of war, conquest, enslavement and ethnocentricity were part of other cultures as well, being more a fruit of the age than of a particular culture.) They make the mistake, often decried by historians, of judging our forebears through contemporary values, forgetting that we share those values today thanks to them, for evolution is brought about through a series of mistakes and imperfect steps.
Such a reaction from the progressives elicits a doubling down from the conservatives, as they view Western culture as even more under attack. The vicious cycle is then complete.
But is there any value in this politically motivated endeavor to protect Western culture? What do conservatives really mean when they talk about such a culture? According to my experience, many of them don’t have a very clearly defined idea of what Western culture actually means. They have a fuzzy abstract notion, filled with nostalgia for a supposed gilded past when everyone seemed to be a Church-going, law abiding Christian… but not much more. Some others, more extreme, equate Western culture with Caucasian race and use the alleged superiority of Western culture as a way to convey racial supremacy.
However, if we are to analyze whether Western culture is worth preserving or not, we should… know what it is in the first place. And that’s when it gets messy. You see, Western culture is not *a* culture, but a mosaic of different cultures, sometimes with a past of warring and conflict between themselves. English culture is just as western as French culture, but no one would ever call them the same. Same with Portuguese and Spanish culture, or German or Russian culture.
Nevertheless, if we are to get a widely encompassing definition of Western culture, we can see that it is like a stream with three sources: Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment/Post-Enlightenment philosophies. I will not focus on the last source for now, for conservatives usually view it with suspicion, as it tends to be anti-religious and anti-Christian. However, we will have to return to it later, for there is a surprise in the end to all those who are anti-Enlightenment and strive to protect Western culture.
So let us start with the Greco-Roman source of Western culture. The Ancient Greeks, just like many ancient peoples, had a great respect and reverence for Xenia, meaning the concept of hospitality. To know how important hospitality was for the Greeks, we have to go no further than the Odyssey: Odysseus (Ulysses) returned to his home dressed up as a beggar and only by being welcomed as such was his wife able to get rid of the suitors who pestered her (and he was only able to reach home alive thanks to the hospitality given to him by Princess Nausicaa earlier on.) Also, there are beautiful speeches about hospitality when Odysseus’ son Telemachus is received by friendly kings Nestor and Menelaus.
Greek mythology is replete with stories of mortals who were rewarded or punished for showing or not showing hospitality (respectively) to strangers who turned out to be gods in disguise. This mirrors very perfectly the account of Abraham showing hospitality to the three sojourners who showed up at his encampment at the foot of the Mamre’s oak… Those three sojourners have been identified by theologians and Church Fathers with angels of the Lord, when not the Trinity itself. It was by showing them hospitality that Abraham finally got God’s answer to his prayers: that he would have a son directly from his wife, fulfilling God’s promise of filling the Earth with his descendants. In contrast, Sodom and Gomorrah’s doom was sealed when they failed to show hospitality to the same emissaries of the Lord, trying to force them into sinful intercourse with them instead.
This brings us to the Judeo-Christian source of Western culture. As we have already showed, there is a very important lesson on the topic of hospitality in the abrahamic account. However, it doesn’t stop there.
The Old Testament also has many stories in which righteous people were rewarded for showing hospitality to God’s prophets when they fled persecution, sometimes from sinful Israelite kings themselves. And there is one whole book about Ruth, a moabite immigrant forced to glean on the fields thanks to the Law mandating farmers to not selfishly deplete their own properties, but to leave something behind for the alien and the destitute (cf: Lev 19:10, Lev: 23-22; Det 24:19-21; Det 24:19-21). Please note that Jesus, a descendant of Ruth, would take advantage of such laws Himself (cf: Mt 12:1; Mk 2:23; Luk 6:1).
Above all, the Old Testament centered on the Law of God, which focuses heavily on the ethical treatment of the foreigner living in the land of Israel. Among many Bible passages, I would like to highlight the following ones (cf. also: Lev 25:35; Det 14:29; Det 26:11):
“If a stranger dwell in your land, and abide among you, do not upbraid him: But let him be among you as one of the same country: and you shall love him as yourselves: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
— Lev 19:33-34 (DRV)
“And do you therefore love strangers, because you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
— Dt 10:19 (DRV)
Please notice how a significant part of these commandments are based on reminding the Israelites that they were once too foreigners in the land of Egypt, subjected to terrible maltreatment after being invited into Egyptian lands out of hospitality and gratitude for Joseph’s service to the Egyptian nation. As soon as they saw the Israelites thriving on their land, the Egyptians tried to curb their population and their spirits with heavy labor and by separating parents from their children, whom they then proceeded to slaughter. This sin cried to Heaven in such a way that the Egyptians were greatly punished…
This logic of hospitality was not abrogated, but rather translated into the New Testament. The episode of the slaughter of the innocents is repeated right at the beginning of Jesus’ life. The only difference is that here we don’t see the oppression of the foreigner, but Jesus becoming a foreigner Himself (in Egypt on top of that) in order to flee oppression. To the chagrin of many conservatives, Pope Francis has used the Holy Family’s fleeing into Egypt as an image of the immigrant and the refugee. However, those same conservatives usually ignore that such is a traditional papal teaching (see here and here), since at least Venerable Pope Pius XII, who enshrined the Holy Family in his encyclical Exul Familia Nazaretana as “the archetype of every refugee family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, living in exile in Egypt to escape the fury of an evil king, are, for all times and all places, the models and protectors of every migrant, alien and refugee of whatever kind who, whether compelled by fear of persecution or by want, is forced to leave his native land, his beloved parents and relatives, his close friends, and to seek a foreign soil
The Old Testament Law on how to treat the foreigner was also enforced by Jesus Christ, Who came to fulfill the Law and listed “taking in the stranger” as one of the Corporal Works of Mercy that divides the sheep (who practice such works) from the goats (who don’t.) Jesus Himself is the One Who, in the parable of the sheeps and the goats, commands His disciples to see Him in the stranger that comes knocking on their door.
It seems, therefore, that Western Culture would mandate our hospitality toward the immigrant and the refugee. How is it possible then, that we have Christians defending anti-immigration stances on account of preserving Western culture? This is symptomatic of a hollowing of the meaning of Western culture. It becomes a pretty, but empty shell, to be idolized but not truly lived.
How have we reached this point? Paradoxically, here is when the third source of Western Civilization comes into play: the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment. For these anti-immigration stances are usually accompanied by nationalistic overtones, either more manifest or more subtle.
But nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. It comes from the institutionalization of the nation-state, which only came to its full fruition on the 18th and 19th centuries. It is foreign to Catholicism, a misuse of the virtue of patriotism to the level of idolatry of one’s own nation, viewed as a guarantee of a common, static, hermetic culture.
Nationalism, as we know it, began with the French Revolution, an antichlerical, antitraditionalist movement that spread Terror, religious persecution and the Christian genocide of the Vendée. None of those conservatives looks upon the French Revolution as a model to be emulated… and yet, they eat the fruits of that revolution.
Nationalism crystallized in Europe into the movements that sought the unification of the German and Italian peoples under the banner of one nation with a common ancestry, language and culture, even when such peoples were too much diverse to fit into the mold of the nationalistic narrative. And yet, this German reunification came attached to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, a struggle against Catholic influence in society, sometimes profoundly anti-Catholic, for the German culture the nationalists sought to build was modern or Protestant-Lutheran in scope. More so the Italian reunification caused great disturbance in the Church, for it lead to the definitive fall of the Papal States and to the terrible episode of the Pope as “Prisoner in the Vatican.”
In America too, the Church suffered with an undue exhaltation of one’s own nation (which lead Pope Leo XIII to decry some errors termed as Americanism.) Even if American nationalism was more theistic-friendly than other nationalisms worldwide, it was not less anti-Catholic, for American ideals were highly influenced by Protestant theology, leading to a great suspicion of centralized religion. American Catholics were viewed as having divided allegiances, and were asked to put nation ahead of religion. Catholic immigrants were constantly shunned as alien agents trying to change American culture from within and were persecuted by the Know-Nothing Party. How strange it is to have American Catholics nowadays advocating the same ideology for other immigrants, sometimes Catholics themselves (like the hispanics tend to be)… the plea to “remember you too were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” is very apropos indeed.
Finally, nationalism climaxed in last century’s Fascist and Nazi ideologies. Those were the causes of much suffering and bloodshed, both at home and abroad, and were rightfully decried by Pope Pius XI’s Non abbiamo bisogno and Mit brennender Sorge and by Pope Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus and his 1943 Christmas Radiomessage.
It is, therefore, very strange and wrong that Catholics would disregard traditional Catholic teaching in favor of nationalistic, non-Catholic Post-Enlightenment ideologies. Can this unholy alliance, more than an affinity with conservative Evangelicanism, be at the core of what Fr. Spadaro called “Ecummenism of Hate“?
Don’t get me wrong. The seeds of nationalism can also be found in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian sources of Western culture. The problem is when those seeds are separated from the bulk of the culture (which includes the tradition of hospitality I mentioned above) so that only the tares flourish, without the weat. It is wrong, as many progressives do, to throw out the baby out with the bathwater… but even more wrong is to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.
But even in those destructive seeds we can find purpose. Time and time again, Israel fell from righteousness by proudly ascribing to themselves a superiority over other peoples, who they saw as pagan and depraved. They would forget that their status as “The Chosen People” was a grace from God, not something they achieved out of their own merits. For left to their own devices, they would fall into the same Golden Calf idolatry as the rest of the peoples.
Israel would overlook that what set them apart was God’s Law (the same law commanding them to treat the foreigner well.) The Israeli nation would become self-referential and would seek secular power, just like any other country on Earth. What would set Israel apart from other nations, then? Nothing… Israel would have forfeited its own culture to pursue abstract chimeras of what a nation should be, demanding to be governed by kings instead of by God’s Word (1 Sam 8).
Whenever that happened, Israel would be punished and humbled with war, conquests and exile. Warnings against secular messianism abound all around the Bible… the most notable one being that the Messiah Himself, God made flesh, was crucified by a crowd who proclaimed “We have no king but Caesar” and asked for the release of Barabbas instead.
Preserving a culture means also acknowledging the mistakes of our ancestors, so that we take our lessons from the Past to grow as a culture, preserving the good and filtering out the bad. Heeding the warnings contained in our Judeo-Christian traditions are a way to preserve our true culture and avoid its erosion, just like it happened with ancient Israel whenever they went astray.
In the end, conservatives who wish to preserve Western culture have it backwards. We can’t protect Catholicism by preserving Western culture, for Catholicism can’t be restricted to Western culture. Catholicism comes from the greek word “katholicus”, which means “universal.” Therefore, Catholicism cannot be contained within the West. Eastern Catholicism has a historical and significant contribution we can’t ignore and missionary efforts in Africa, Asia and the New World always tried to inculturate, producing a healthy and enriching diversity. Besides, as a supernatural gift from God Himself, Catholicism transcends every culture (including the Western one) while permeating it.
No, we can’t protect Catholicism by preserving Western culture, but we can (and must) preserve Western culture by protecting Catholicism, in its pristine form. For Catholicism has deeply informed Western culture. It is an undeniable fact that Western Culture has been so influenced by Catholicism, that it has become an inseparable part of western cultural DNA.
How can we, then, be Catholics, believers in a sense of belonging to a universal assembly (ecclesia), made up of brothers and sisters in the image and likeness of God (“there is no Greek or Jew”)… while at the same time espousing an exclusivist and supremacist view of one’s own nation, culture or race?
Our current refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes after World War II. The USA immigration crisis has produced exploitation of cheap labor, separation of children from their families and populist scapegoating of illegal immigrants. It is profoundly un-Western, in light of our culture of hospitality, to turn our backs to those who come to us crying for help. It is un-Christian to treat the refugee and the immigrant in an inhumane way, for these are the image of Christ. More importantly, it is extremely un-Catholic to do so by dissenting from the clear pleading from our Pope and bishops just to embrace a form of modern secular messianism, putting trust in princes to win a Culture War on which we sacrifice our own culture with the pretext of defending it.
For Western culture has, at its origin, a very core value: the value of hospitality or xenia. It is, therefore, paradoxical to defend it by adopting an attitude of xeno-phobia. As the Apostle says in the inerrant Scripture:
“And remember always to welcome strangers, for by doing this, some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
— Heb 13:2 (NJB)
This encapsulates an important part of Western culture. Let’s preserve it.
[Features image credits: 17th century painting by Jacob von Oost, depicting Baucis and Philemon, an elderly couple, unknowingly receiving gods Zeus and Hermes at their house]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.