What does a completely divinized culture look like? Will everyone pray the Divine Office? Will they go to Mass daily? What liturgy will be celebrated?  What clothes would be acceptable to wear in everyday life?

The idea of a culture rooted in Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is inherently attractive. United together in faith, we can leave our human sinful ways behind along with all the trappings. We can shed any and all attachments to this world and live godly lives. Church is the culture.    

In truth, however, in the process of attempting to divinize a society, the Church will create a unique blend of the prevailing human culture and divinizing elements. It will be human insofar as it will draw them out of the muck, and it will be divine insofar as it will raise them up to heaven. When Church is at its best, it does both well–not pandering to our base humanity nor making the Christian life livable only by a pre-chosen few.  Rather, the Church serves as a bridge between our earthly life and the divine life, and it must do so for people in many different stages of their journey.

However, in the process of doing so, there is an inherent danger in theologizing, or making absolute, the elements of our Church culture that are not the Way, the Truth, and the Life–elements that are a way but not the Way.  I’m talking specifically of things like the Divine Office or the Latin Rite liturgy (either form) or the Latin language.

Specifically, the danger with theologizing culture is two-fold: First, when we theologize human culture we can create the sense that the Church’s role of “drawing us out of the muck” is paramount and neglect its more essential role in raising us up to God. Secondly, we can come away with a misunderstanding that what the Church offers us for our benefit is what God himself has ordained as definitively the “best” or ideal for all peoples in all places and times. This approach limits the ability of the Church to evangelize throughout the world. Either way, it’s not the truth about how the Church operates, and this practice will ultimately lead to fundamental misunderstandings about the role of the Church today.

Of course, from time to time, the Church will also provide teachings or disciplines of holiness that are good precisely because they draw us together before God and unite us through time, such as the Divine Office. Another obvious example here is the Latin language itself. While God spoke Aramaic on earth, we have not made Aramaic the language of the Church. Rather, for historical reasons that are not directly related to concepts of Truth and Love, Latin was adopted as the universal language in the West. The Latin Rite Church offers its prayers in Latin because it is the language that the Church chose to be universal among all its Catholics. It is good that we sing and pray together in the same language in worship of God.  

As regards the first danger of theologizing human culture, here, I want to share one specific example. In recent days, one of the authors behind Rebuilt, a book dedicated to rethinking parishes and parish rejuvenation, was taken to task on social media for his insistence that children must be discouraged from being in the sanctuary during Mass. While the book itself has a lot of good things to say about how we can make our churches and the parish a more Christ-centric experience (e.g., stop fundraising for every thing in the Narthex; stop having programs that actually don’t lead people to Christ), tragically and ironically, it appears at their own parish they have done so at the expense of the “divinizing elements” of the faith.   

Specifically, it is a very American belief that we are individuals who have a direct relationship with our Lord; we are saved individually and condemned individually, perhaps insofar as we have an experience of God in our hearts. However, this isn’t the truth and leads to fundamental misunderstandings of God’s grace. It is more correct to state we are saved as a Church through the action of Christ, even if it is not something we personally feel or experience. We are members of the Body of Christ through our Baptism, and thus our Church community is both a human and divine reality. If the role of sin has been to separate and divide, it is God who gathers together for our salvation.   

It is desirable to do more as a Church to draw more people together, but in the process, those elements which raise our soul to God must never be discarded or de-prioritized, as arguably this particular parish has. Indeed, God’s very act of salvation in the Mass–not personal experience–is precisely what creates community: as God calls people together in the Eucharist to worship, pray, and love, they are formed into a community that transcends humanity’s sinful tendencies to find differences and segregate themselves. Humanity is at its best when it is at worship together.  

Nothing could demonstrate the parish’s deficiency in this regard better (although there are unfortunately many more examples) than its insistence that children be removed from Mass for being disruptive, and that children should not distract others from their hearing of the homily. As the baptized and members of the Church, children and babies have as much a right and obligation to be part of the worshiping community as anyone else.

Moreover, if parents are to be the first teachers of their children in matters great and small, no parish should discourage the habits of those who wish to “teach by doing,” that is, worshiping the Lord present in the Word and Eucharist in view of their children. Specifically, by their learning and doing of the things that are part and parcel of “being redeemed,” children grow into personal holiness. As Pope said in reference to today’s youth, but could be said of anyone at any age, “You are the now of God.” The Mass “experience,” positive satisfaction survey responses, and weekly giving may be signs of a healthy parish, but they are not the goal of parish life. The goal must be the holiness of all the parishioners, children included, a goal which starts with recognizing the primacy of God’s work in all we do.

As mentioned above, the second danger of theologizing human culture is the belief that certain teachings which the Church gives for our benefit are universally true, plucked from the timeless divine like an apple from the tree. However, this is a belief unable to process the way in which decisions are made in the Church amidst very human infighting and factionalism. And fundamentally it is at odds with the idea of development and the need for continuous and ongoing reform. Shouldn’t the Church’s teachings be articulated from a place of peace, meditation, and prayerful dialogue, so that the Spirit’s intentions might be best divined? Shouldn’t they be permanent once they are so divined? In theory, yes. In practice, hardly. As Bishop Barron once advised in relation to a recent synod, don’t mind the sausage-making.     

Tangentially, this is related to our recent post on “imagisterium” for it speaks to either a fundamental trust or mistrust of our Magisterium to determine what is best for our growth in holiness. The more we trust the Church, the more we can rely on the Church, and the easier it is for us to do what the Church recommends for us to do, such as praying the Divine Office, or a daily rosary, or any number of practices that the Church offers to us. (I can’t help but think of the backlash in some corners of the internet to Pope Francis’ exhortation in October for all Catholics to pray the rosary daily. They accused him of “weaponizing” the rosary as a way to distract from the abuse scandal. Talk about theologizing human culture!)

As regards the liturgy, for example, the Church has the grace and the authority to offer to us what is for our benefit–that is, what will lead us to our salvation. It does so through very human processes, cognizant of our human needs. What the Church does not do is try to implement some ideal rarefied liturgy that is universally applicable throughout time. For one, even if this liturgy did exist, we should hardly be expected to call upon the Spirit of God to hand it to us. That’s not how the Spirit of God works in the Church.  Secondly, the Church is still presented with the problem of translating the “ideal” liturgy into human terms. What elements should it use to express this liturgy?

On the one hand, we can say that a divinized culture that is completely rooted in Jesus Christ will look much like any other divinized culture. The Church does help to build a universal culture shared by all the faithful that unites us through time in Truth and Love. On the other hand, even a divinized culture necessarily borrows heavily from our humanity and our experiences. Everyone from across the world can and do worship together at St. Peter’s at the Easter Vigil–the heart of Christianity in many respects–but they will do so in a Western style Church (Renaissance) in a Western style liturgy (Latin Rite, ordinary form) predominantly speaking and singing in a Western language (Latin). Not to mention anything of the dating of Easter or the development of each prayer.

Pope Francis has said:

The unified and complete sense of human life that the Gospel proposes is the best remedy for the ills of our cities, even though we have to realize that a uniform and rigid program of evangelization is not suited to this complex reality. But to live our human life to the fullest and to meet every challenge as a leaven of Gospel witness in every culture and in every city will make us better Christians and bear fruit in our cities.

One can apply this reasoning to any number of Church elements, from pastoral teaching, to disciplines (e.g. celibacy among clergy or fasting on Fridays), and even to the specific formulation of perennial doctrines. Take capital punishment, for example. In defense of the revision to the Catechism, Pope Francis and the CDF discussed several factors that led to the decision. First of all, it cannot be denied that the Church’s understanding grows over time; the entire scholastic movement is founded on the notion that theologians are capable of expanding the Church’s understanding and, in fact, must do so.

Here, Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and related encyclicals and documents seems especially relevant given how much he made us aware of the theological underpinnings of Pope St. Paul VI’s condemnation of artificial contraception, specifically, and then broadly the Church’s perennial teaching regarding the inherent dignity of each human person as rooted in the image and likeness of God, a dignity that cannot be limited or destroyed but can be denied or infringed upon.

What also changed, of course, was our human culture. Collectively, we generally have grown in awareness of both the ineffectiveness and brutality of all forms of capital punishment and also in respect for the dignity of all human life.  This positive development in the history of man was met with a corresponding revision in the teaching on capital punishment, that clarifies for our time the perennial teaching regarding when one can properly take another human life. The goal of this revision, implicitly, is to help us to be a more holy people. We are, individually and collectively, a more holy people when we do not kill other people, for any reason, and we have the means and the collective will and now a moral exhortation to do so, at least in one more area of human life.  

With billions of adherents globally, the Church cannot be expected to come up with one universal system of laws and practices that is appropriate for all people. So, the Church has given to each local Church the ability, within limits, to guide their flock in a manner that is appropriate for them.  From the global Church down to the individual parish, each level of Church authority has a role in determining what is for the good of their flock. And here we can bring in principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Without going into a full treatment of these principles here, suffice it to say that even at the parish level, choices must be made by the pastor to best minister to the people in his community. What one parish decides will look very different from what another parish decides, but we all pray and work for continued reform that better achieves the goal of becoming a bridge between each man, each community, and God.  

Amoris Laetitia is perhaps the best example of these principles, as articulated by Pope Francis. In that document, Francis observes that a parish priest will have to guide individual couples in their process of discernment and formation and create programs best suited for their flock. The local bishop will have to institute guidelines for their pastors that are best suited for their diocese. And the bishops will do so in continuity with the directives and teachings of the universal Church, as represented in his person by the Pope. It has been lamented in the case of Amoris Laetitia that one diocese will look different in praxis from another diocese, but in truth, this is an unavoidable and even desirable outcome of individual bishops finding the path that is best suited to achieving the holiness of the Church for which they are responsible.

It is when we theologize human culture, when we make absolute what is only our personal preference or culture, that we limit the ability of God to reach more people in the world. Somewhat ironically, those who overstate God’s actions in the world deny and reject the ways God is truly acting in the world through his very human Church.

One could say that one of the main factors distinguishing various sides in this debate over the papacy of Francis is precisely the extent to which each holds an “incarnational” view of the Church. God works in and through his human church, collectively giving their actions direction and meaning perhaps far beyond what they themselves are aware of. Conversely, while it is tempting to say that God works in the Church “in spite of” humanity, it is more correct to say that God works in the Church “in spite of human sinfulness.”  We still must rely on his very human and sinful Church, infused as it is with the Spirit and mystically united to Christ, to grow in holiness.

Finally, the Church is already hamstrung by a variety of factors, not least of which among them is its own sinfulness. What we do not need to do is place further and unnecessary burdens upon the Church in its ministry to the world. From Africa to Asia to the United States, the Church’s solutions will look drastically different. But if this past Sunday’s epistle offers any insight, all parts are necessary even if they might be treated differently and have different roles in the universal Church.


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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

The Perils of Theologizing Human Culture
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