To attempt to preserve a culture is the surest way to kill it. Like a flower that is pruned so it can be put on display, cultures begin to die when they are removed from their roots. The Catholic culture warrior’s reaction to modern-day iconoclasts inevitably will backfire, unless the focus can shift from the statues themselves and become rooted in encounter with others and acknowledgement of their concerns. It must be oriented toward building a mutual hope for a reinvigorated culture, one that is life-giving and makes possible the fruits of evangelization.
Vatican II and the recent popes have highlighted the importance of culture in human flourishing but also taught the subordination of culture to the Gospel. These teachings honor the fact that the human person is always situated in a culture. We are always learning and growing from our encounters with those around us, as well as contributing to culture through our own journeys to the heart of God (Gaudium et Spes 53). At the same time, the Church warns us about the dangers of equating any particular culture with the Gospel itself. Such an attitude fails to recognize that all cultures, including our own, need to hear the Gospel again and again. As Gaudium et Spes teaches, “The Gospel of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen man, it combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from the permanent allurement of sin” (GS 58).
We are unavoidably shaped by the attitudes of others in response to the mystery of God (Centesimus Annus 24). The Christian faith is not an individualized thing, divorced from any notion of the common good or shared values. Rather, the faith is “incarnated” in our culture and the choices we make together. It is important to foster culture according to the values, experiences, and spiritual needs of the people in each community, because an inculturated Christianity is vital to the holiness of all.
We cannot be presumptive, however. Even if we believe that our culture has been evangelized or is rooted in Judeo-Christian values (as is often said about the United States), this does not mean that any community has fully embraced those values or is living them out today. Echoing Gaudium et Spes, Pope Francis has taught hat there is always room for development, that every culture “needs purification and growth.” He wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,
We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous. While it is true that some cultures have been closely associated with the preaching of the Gospel and the development of Christian thought, the revealed message is not identified with any of them; its content is transcultural.
Tragically, to insulate a culture from encounter with others and to protect it from change only leads to decay and rot. Like most living things, a culture needs to breathe, but it can only do so when it is in dialogue. Pope Francis made this point earlier this year, in his exhortation Querida Amazonia, when he wrote, “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’” (37).
The unavoidable reality in a pluralistic society like the United States is that we are constantly in contact with people different from ourselves. This requires us, as Francis writes,to “increase our sense of co-responsibility for the diversity that embellishes our humanity.” We must foster the richness of other cultures as well as our own. This isn’t about plowing each other under or denying each other our authentic roots but about always seeking to bring the best of ourselves in a true spirit of dialogue so that all might grow. As in one’s spiritual life, so too in culture: if there is no growth and change, there is death.
The challenges of living according to the Church’s teaching has become readily apparent in the debate over the destruction of statues. As Eve Tushnet explained in a recent article for America, the path forward begins with a frank acknowledgment of the failings of the Church. She writes, “Failure to be honest will further alienate those who believe Catholics care more about our public image than about truth or justice.” This simple statement points to the inherent contradiction at the heart of the anti-iconoclast movement, that in fighting so ardently for the icons of their preferred cultural heritage, they have done a grave disservice to the legacy of that same cultural heritage.
Others, rightly or wrongly, can quickly point out that our defense of a statue has seemed to take priority over any genuine dialogue with those who feel aggrieved by the Church’s sins. While it would be a much more effective demonstration of Judeo-Christian values to take a position of meekness and humility before those who would seek to destroy the lifeless things we have become attached to, we still cling to symbols of status and power, arbitrary as they are. Jesus condemned one who would lead the “little ones” astray, and said it would be better if he had a millstone wrapped around his neck and was thrown into the sea (Mt 18:6). Seeing no millstones, perhaps a statue will suffice.
Yes, the iconoclasts have been opposed by a diverse group of citizens who undoubtedly believe the vestiges of a rich cultural heritage are slipping away. But rather than taking the opportunity to engage deeply and become true “bridges” for dialogue, as Francis calls for, many have flocked to the statue of St. Louis as a rallying point in the ongoing culture wars. Instead of working to build a culture in service of the Gospel, the anti-iconoclasts are fighting for a culture in service of itself and its own status. The Church, in Gaudium et Spes, explicitly rejects this:
It is necessary to do everything possible to prevent culture from being turned away from its proper end and made to serve as an instrument of political or economic power.
As it has clearly become a confrontation marked by waves of progress and retreat, the “culture war” terminology can no longer apply. What we are faced with today is a “culture siege,” in which those on the losing side are fighting to protect themselves and the achievements of their predecessors, with very few new cultural achievements of our own. The irony about anti-iconoclasm is that it reveals just how much Catholics in the United States, facing irrelevance, can learn from marginalized groups. People from these tight-knit communities, with their embrace of popular piety and unique experiences of faith through persecution and oppression, can guide us through these challenging times ahead. To do so, however, we must listen first.
To evangelize is to be a witness to the mercy of God who showed his perfect love by dying on a Cross. The grace won by his suffering, death, and Resurrection is the true source of all Christian holiness; Christ is the true “hero” underpinning the statues of saints. In this vein, Francis issues a warning: “The message that we proclaim always has a certain cultural dress, but we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal” (EG 117). The Catholic faith does not hinge upon others accepting the ornaments of our Christianized culture. Rather, we advance the Church’s mission when we root ourselves and the culture we create in the love and mercy of God. When we are united by the Gospel, we can bear the fruit of peace together.