Joseph Shaw

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To rebuild Catholic culture, we will have to rebuild culture

November 15, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A friend of mine remarked, on the question of making the nominally Catholic school attended by his son more genuinely Catholic, that first, it needed to become a school. His point was that this institution was so bad that it failed not only to convey the Faith, but to fulfil the basic function of any kind of school, to convey knowledge. It is pointless to talk about it becoming a Catholic school, if it was not, really, a school.

Of course, efforts to make this institution more Catholic might well help it fulfil its educational mission at every level. Nevertheless, the problem was not simply to clothe an effective school with a Catholic ethos, but something more fundamental.

The same observation can be made about Western culture. With partial or isolated exceptions, we can see that the culture around us is not Catholic, but then it is scarcely to be called a culture. What ‘culture’ includes here is a shared understanding of institutions such as the family and the state, with corresponding social norms which support that understanding. 

To illustrate, up to the first half of the 20th century, western societies taught their children stories which illustrated and reinforced a particular conception of marriage and family; the same conception was supported by the civil law, by social expectations and social sanctions; and the same model was experienced by the vast majority of people. The same is true of the conception of the role of the state, the place of religion in society, gender roles, and a thousand other things. These shared understandings, which took on distinct flavors in different countries and in different cultural and ethnic groups, were the basis of a sense of solidarity.

One does not have to imagine that the culture of any particular time and place was perfect in every way, in order to realize that a society which lacks a culture in this sense is in serious trouble. But that is our situation today. The old models of how to live have not entirely gone away, but they are no longer supported by a social consensus. Our children are continually exposed to mixed messages, and civil law and social norms not only fail to support the old model, but in many ways work to undermine it. On the other hand, that model has not been replaced by a consistently applied, widely understood, and coherent, alternative.

We are told that we can choose any model we wish to live by, and of course many continue to choose monogamous, life-long marriage and openness to children. They cannot, however, so easily choose to live in a society where that choice is supported, respected, or even understood. The culture, of which this understanding of marriage was once an integral part, has gone.

Some aspects of the traditional culture of the West were a necessary reflection of the Natural and Divine Law. Other parts of it were morally neutral, and could legitimately vary from place to place and over time. Some aspects of it could be said to be in conflict with morality, and needed to be corrected. Overall, however, it provided people with a set of shared expectations and social support which is the normal condition of human life, but is lacking today.

A necessary response to this crisis of culture is to support social and political efforts to restore at least those parts of the old consensus required by Natural Law. The bias in many tax and benefit systems against marriage, and even against long-term cohabitation, is an example of something which should be fought at the appropriate, political, level. But in the meantime, it is necessary for Catholics to recognize that, even though they are a minority in today's situation, they must see themselves as a real community, capable of sustaining a distinctive culture of their own.

Today this is not, generally, the case. Our fellow Catholics do not tend to dominate our social lives, and so their views—their disapproval of cohabitation before marriage, for example—do not form an important part of the background to our decision-making, even if they were consistently and strongly held, which often they are not. It is impossible to talk of a Catholic culture, even among church-going Catholics, without both a healthy consensus on the key issues of how to live, and a functioning sense of community: generally speaking, we have neither.

They go together, however: those who adopt the culture of life recognize that they need the support of like-minded Catholics, and a community based around this culture is slowly becoming established, both in specific geographical locations and through the internet. We cannot exist as isolated individuals or even as isolated families: we need the support, and sometimes the correction, of a community with a shared culture.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.