But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.Hebrews 11:16
Neither scripture nor tradition says a word about the culture of the Roman Empire or the necessity for the Church to address its ills. The Lord did weep over Jerusalem but he did not propose civic reform. Scripture does say that this world is passing away, and the Apocalypse does say that the great city will come tumbling down, but nothing more. St. Paul, who lived during the gray days of the Flavians, when such worthies as Nero and Claudius ruled the empire, missed countless opportunities to denounce a civilization that was corrupt, built upon slavery, rife with government corruption, prostitution, perversion, and other evils. But all St. Paul said about this moral mess was, “Honor the Emperor,” “Keep yourselves unspotted from the world,” adding in I Corinthians (5:12) that it was not the business of the Church to offer morally improving criticism to those without. Occasionally one of the third or fourth century Fathers would claim that Christianity had brought blessings to the Empire, but events of the fifth century proved these claims precipitate.
Yet now it is almost impossible to pick up a Catholic publication that does not propose recapturing the culture, Christianizing it, as a project lying at the heart of the Christian faith. Of course the idea of remaking what is perceived as a lost Christian culture has intrinsic appeal, living as we do in the wreckage of what once bore the unmistakable signs of a Christian presence. The idea is appealing to traditional Catholics, who quite understandably long for the moral and intellectual environment of a golden past, and to progressives because, disinterested as they often are in the four last things, the idea of making the world a better place nicely redirects moral concern away from the importunate claims of conscience while seeming by its culture-building actions to make the church relevant to the world.
Thus while there is always a constituency for building Jerusalem in our own time and place, it is ironic that pleas to create a civilization of justice, love and peace are often addressed to assemblies in which sit Catholics who hold church teaching lightly, and who care about such things as a civilization of peace only as long as it is politically useful and never personally intrusive. Were the senators and congressmen who claim to be Catholics to act in the light of what is best for their immortal souls, change would indeed occur. By doing so they would offer a powerful witness and change the present moral climate, but neither they nor we will build the permanent Christian civilization of our dreams. For culture (or civilization, take your pick) is not a something. It is not an enduring object. It is not a person or persons, not a moral agent, not something capable of salvation or damnation. Culture is an impress made upon a time and place by the thoughts and actions of living mankind, and when those thoughts and actions cease or change, what is left is not a civilization but artifacts and texts from which imagination can make memories of things past. In that sense any civilization is not like a reservoir in which ideas are collected but like a river that dries up when its sources fail. The novels of Jane Austen, like eighteenth-century country houses presented afresh by the National Trust, may tell us of things past, but the culture of Mansfield Park is nowhere to be found. Dead as a doornail. The great French cathedrals, so full of beauty and interest, are now like whales washed up on an alien shore, the faith that built them a flickering light. The presence of such artifacts may inspire contemporary Christians with memories of the historical power of the Christian vision, but Europe itself is increasingly a cultural ghost town whose living inhabitants have long vanished, leaving only recollections of a glorious past for Americans and Japanese to enjoy.
We ask the cultural question and are tempted to the idea of a Christian civilization because the intellectual fashion of our time is something called historicism, or the conviction that God’s purposes are realized exhaustively in this world’s history. This doctrine comes from sources too numerous to catalog: from the secular vision of an ever-improving political order, from Renaissance optimism, from the Whig theory of history, which teaches us that things are bound to be getting better, and from Hegel, who tells us that whatever is, is right, that the voice of history is the voice of God. Historicism has many children, and indeed diverse, including the Marxist doctrine of the inevitable triumph of communism, the American belief in Manifest Destiny, and Protestant postmillennialism, which teaches that the world will, under grace, grow better and better until Christ returns to a perfected world.
Unfortunately this last proposal makes its way into Catholic thought by means of a sort of Catholic postmillennialism, a theology the substance of which, to reiterate, consists of truths extended beyond their proper meaning and used to blot out other teachings of Christ; a weak version of Abelard’s doctrine of the atonement—Christ loved us, we should love one another—melded with Walter Rauschenbusch’s Social Gospel of the 1920s—make the world a better place. Thus with the best of good wills we will hear of the civilization of love. The prayer of the Renew Movement will ask us to recreate the earth in the image of justice. While the liturgy in its wisdom asks for peace in our time, we will be exhorted to pray for universal, everlasting peace, now. In all its forms historicism involves the denial, conscious or unconscious, of the Christian pattern according to which history is the story of two diverging paths, two ways ending in a last battle and the action of God, rather than a process, inevitable, through which the world will become better and better. Culture, morally speaking, is in itself irrelevant to the mission of the Church, which explains the silence of the apostles and the fathers regarding it. The lives of Christians and the mission of the Church move within and use an existing culture, and the Church may impress itself on the face of culture, but culture is at best a circumstance, a means, and occasionally, an encouragement.
In the 1850s one of the first battles between the idea that culture saves and the idea that it does not necessarily do so took place in a correspondence between John Henry Newman and his good friend T. W. Allies. Here, in the shadow of the Catholic Revival, Allies proposed writing a book, later to appear under the title The Formation of Christendom, that would extol the thirteenth century as the greatest age of the Church. Instead of the enthusiastic support Allies might have expected, Newman began to kill the idea with gentle qualifications. Was it not true that the whole world lies under the influence of evil, totus mundus in maligno est in the words of St. John, so that one might say that while there had been periods full of Christians who founded good institutions and made better laws, there had never been a Christian culture? And could one claim that more Christians were made in the thirteenth than the nineteenth centuries? If cultural criticism and reform was the work of the Church, why had Saint Paul been silent? Was not Corinth, Newman asked, at least as bad as South Carolina? But the point was and is that reforming culture directly is never the business of the Church. While all of the apostles said the times were evil, none praised or condemned what we would call culture because they understood as we often do not that one human soul weighs more than all of human civilization, beautiful as it may sometimes be, helpful as it may be from time to time.
The Church never sees its success in the reforming of culture and laws but in the reforming of souls. It follows that the mission of the Church when it is being itself is never to chase the culture, in which case it might with catastrophic consequences succeed in catching it. It is always good to use effective apologetic techniques, as St. Paul did on the Areopagus, appealing to elements of truths that exist in every culture. But in the long run the culture has nothing to teach the Catholic Church apart from its natural share in the truth God has scattered throughout creation, so that every attempt to engage the culture on its own terms ends in failure and poses real danger to the Christian mission. When in the second century Christian apologists began self-consciously to use the Greek philosophers, they did so with the understanding that the Church was the arbiter of what was true, what untrue, in these systems. St. Thomas used Aristotle, but only after purging his works of ideas that the philosopher would have considered central to his thought. Inculturation is a delicate business; when we change the word we change the thing.
Oddly, while the Church cannot always and ineluctably perfect the world by standing firm in its true mission, it can, by weakening its message, make the world a much worse place. A very fine book could be written entitled: How the Catholic Church Caused the Sixties. It is of course fashionable to blame the apparent desolation of Catholicism in Europe and America on the very wicked culture that rose like a sea around it. True, the devil is ever active. The fact is that when John xxiii opened the windows of the Church, among the things that came pouring in was, in the words of Paul VI, the smoke of Satan. The culture exerts a continuous pressure downward, and if you follow it, it will take you down with it. Better close that window, or at least post guards.
Even if in the Age of Kennedy it seemed that peace terms could at last be arranged between Christ and the world, the fact remains that the world is in some sense always our enemy. It is not our place to come to terms with it or indeed to worry about it over much. We may love it for its beauty—the created order does always declare the glory of God—and for all its lawful enjoyments, but, as Chesterton said, we must never trust it. The paradoxical fact is that when Christians have simply enjoyed whatever goods it offers and otherwise pretty much ignored its purposes, the Church has made that impression on time and place we call Christian civilization. Chartres and Amiens were built by men who were convinced that what matters most was depicted over the central door: the judgment of God, heaven or hell. What made the Theodosian Code was love and fear of the Lord. What made the feudal system possible was a modicum of shared moral probity. What did make the United States a Christian country in the nineteenth century was not the Constitution or the Declaration, both of which may or may not have been written with any Christian intent and which may be interpreted variously, but a Christian people, just as the influences that have unchristened us are not the education establishment or the aclu or television. These are to a significant degree not causes but consequences, the result of millions of tiny apostasies in the hearts of persons, and when persons cease impressing upon their time and place principles and ideas through their witness, the appearance of a Christian civilization rapidly fails. That this is so should not be controversial among those who have lived the decades between 1950 and 2000.
The most damning aspect of the new postmillennialism is its tendency to obscure the wonder of the moral world, the real dimensions of the human situation and of the Catholic faith. In its concern for the impossible project of remaking culture, it directs the believer away from the adventure of his own soul, the one thing for which every person is ineluctably responsible and the one thing every person can by grace change for the better. When Christianity impressed itself most successfully on the culture, the governing apothegm was:
Man, please your Maker and be merry and give not for this world a cherry.Dunbar