Honors Colloquium: What is Catholic Culture?

Honors Colloquium: What is Catholic Culture?

The second Honors Colloquium of the Fall 2014 semester, held on November 12, addressed the question: “What is Catholic Culture?” The panel was facilitated by Dr. Paul Baxa of the History Department, and featured speakers from three different disciplines: Dr. Catherine Pakaluk (Economics), Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J. (Philosophy), and Dr. Michael Sugrue (History).  

Beforehand, the Honors Students were invited to think about questions such as whether a distinct Catholic culture exists, and if so, what that culture would look like. Their required reading included selections from the Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, Pope John Paul II’s Homily in Victory Square, Warsaw (2 June 1979), and his Homily in Gniezno (3 June 1979).

Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J. opened the colloquium with his thoughts on Catholic culture. He reminded the audience that a culture (Lt. cultus) must be cultivated or taken care of. “A culture is a garden of souls,” he said, “and the souls will be raised up poorly or well.” In the past, McTeigue explained, there was a culture of Christendom that emphasized cultivating souls well. We no longer live in such a time. Citing two books by John Senior, The Death of Christian Culture (1978) and The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983), McTeigue stated that in order to restore the garden of souls, we have to relearn the language of love from our Lady, and re-appropriate St. Benedict’s idea of ora et labora. You must “immerse yourself as deeply as possible in the richness of the beauties of the Church,” he said, “to prepare yourself to receive the wisdom and the grace of the Church.”

Dr. Michael Sugrue followed with the idea that the Catholic faith informs culture. It is open, he said, to the best of what has been thought and said in other cultures, and incorporates those things “into a living culture that we can use to ennoble our thinking and improve our lives.” The Catholic Church is able to borrow things from other cultures, which, when used carefully, critically and artfully, can reinforce the faith. Sugrue gave as examples of such borrowing, among other things, Augustine’ use of Plato, Aquinas’ use of Aristotle, and More’s use of Greco-Roman motifs in his Utopia. The internet, he explained, is another such example; we can “absorb things like the internet, which is just an instrument, and use it for moral purposes.” He encouraged the students to be open to reading the works of non-Catholics, like Marcus Aurelius or C.S. Lewis, who have “something to offer to anyone who is willing to be intellectually serious and intellectually open to new ideas.” Sugrue concluded: “There are a few writers and a few thinkers in every age that are worth while, and you should pursue the best that’s been thought and said in every culture. That’s what I think a living Catholic culture is.”

Dr. Catherine Pakaluk concluded the faculty presentations by sharing a story from her undergraduate years in the Honors Program at the University of Pennsylvania. When she was a sophomore, she made friends with a deeply devout Orthodox Jew. She explained how he did things that she didn’t do: he would disappear for his training to become a rabbi, he wouldn’t study on the Sabbath, he dressed differently, he wore his hair in a distinctive way, and so forth. Before meeting this friend, she considered how great it was that she could believe everything the Church taught and still fit in with everyone else. “Almost thinking that was the goal,” she said, “and that I was doing a great job because no one could tell I was Catholic.”

Pakaluk used this anecdote as her departure point for reflecting on the relationship between language and culture. She quoted the words, attributed to St. Francis, that we should preach always and use words only if necessary. If we should be preaching the Gospel without words, she explained, then there must be something else—how we live, how we act, what we are—that communicates our beliefs. “There is more to what it is to give Christian witness or to live as a Catholic,” Pakaluk said, “than using words. Something that is related to being.” Your religion ought to mark you out as different.  “When you remove religion,” she said, “you deny who you are.” Pakaluk finished with St. Catherine of Sienna’s words, which Pope St. John Paul II echoed throughout his papacy: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”

The faculty presentations were followed by a Question and Answer session. An edited selection follows:

Q. How does American pop culture differ from the ideal Catholic culture, and what are some ways in which we could fix that?

McTeigue: John Horvat has a book called Return to Order, and he says that we presently live in a culture of frenetic consumption. Ultimately, he says, what we need is a restoration of a culture of virtue. Leo XIII wrote an encyclical warning against the heresy of Americanism, that we can believe all that the Church believes and fit seamlessly into the American popular culture. If you’re really believing what the Church believes, then you can’t possibly fit seamlessly into the American culture. We have to start offering alternatives. We need to offer literature, music, romance, and art to show that there is another way of living that is closer to being worthy of human nature than Lady Gaga and Madonna.

Q. What is the balance between Catholic culture and cultures that persecute Christianity? A lot of Church doctrine and saints were produced in times of persecution.

Sugrue: My argument would be: No retreat, no surrender. There are things we can compromise with and there are things we can’t compromise with. I would emphasize the importance of being able to distinguish, using Catholic moral theory, between the sinful and the harmless. I’m not looking for a painless synthesis of everything and its opposite, but Catholic culture can accept what’s new and good and use it for good purposes.

Q. How can Catholic culture break into mainstream culture, if at all

Pakaluk: I think the question is motivated by something which we all have, which is we look around and think: “Gosh, things are really looking bad. Pop culture manages to communicate its message really well. Wouldn’t be great if the Catholic message could work its way into pop culture?” I sometimes, in a moment of weakness, think that. If you believe something deeply, you want urgently to see hearts transformed. Pop culture is not, unfortunately, a great way to do this. The only way to transform things is holiness. It’s a hard message: You have to be holy. And we have to look hard about what that means, what holiness looks like today when there isn’t a Catholic culture, generally speaking, and there a very few supports. 

The event concluded with a light reception and further discussion.

The Honors Integrated Colloquia are interdisciplinary discussions for students in the Honors Program, which meet twice a semester. They are dedicated to fostering an interdisciplinary and integrated conversation, focusing on texts and ideas within the core curriculum, as well as broader ideals and themes within the overall philosophy of the curriculum. These stimulating Colloquia are led by three professors representing diverse disciplines. To learn more about the Honors Program at Ave Maria University, visit here