Catholic Culture


Christianity spread rapidly in its early days primarily through personal conversions. This process was often called repentance (μετάνοια). The Greek means a change of mind and heart. It is the interior change that led to personal transformation in outward behavior. The meaning of the Greek word for transformation (μεταμορφόω) is a change in the external form to match the new, internal reality.

However, this transformation wasn’t limited to the lives of individuals. Each Christian is called to be leaven, salt, and light in the world. Once the Christian community reached a certain critical mass it eventually impacted a larger, societal transformation. Personal transformation leads to social transformation.

“Repent (μετάνοια) for the kingdom is at hand!” – Personal conversion that establishes the Kingdom in society.

In other words, the widespread living of Christianity began to form culture. The inner transformation in the hearts of individual men and women found widespread expression externally in all the ways our culture shapes daily life: art, music, celebrations, language, education, customs, food, government, etc. The West became Christian, not just because of the expressions we so often associate with culture, but when its worldview took on the spiritual, moral, and philosophical values that were the core teachings of Jesus.

Once Christianity became dominant, faith and daily life became intertwined: Faith formed culture and culture reinforced faith. Most people found themselves inheriting this rich Christian worldview by default.

While both of these facts seem positive, they actually present a terribly difficult challenge.

Cultural Challenges

First, a deep link between social identity and faith can make it difficult to see they are not the same thing. One can think that living Christian culture is the same as living the faith. Or even worse, by compelling another to live Christian culture we could compel them to live the faith.

Second, when external elements are inherited automatically, it is possible (and even common) to live them without consciously taking on the inner transformation that’s the source. The more culture is identified with Christianity, the greater the danger to miss the point of it all: inner transformation in Christ.

As an example, a community, family, or individual might faithfully go to church, strive to live by Christian morals, repeat the standard prayers, actively pass on the ideas of Christianity, and feel they are doing everything right. However, being present at Mass or saying the memorized words does not mean one is in fact worshiping or praying. Avoiding most serious sin does not mean our will is seeking the good and united to God’s will. And helping others memorize facts about Jesus may not actually help them KNOW Jesus in any real way. It is possible to do all these things and still be a practical atheist–and dangerously unaware of this fact.

It is the inner transformation made exterior that nearly always forms culture, but it does not work the other way around. Christian culture does not necessarily create real Christians. This is because culture is inherited mostly unintentionally, but authentic Christianity is always an intentional choice, a response of repentance to the One who calls.

Fertile Ground: The Role of Culture

This isn’t to say that Christian culture is bad or worthless.

See, “a sower went out to sow,” and the dirt where the seeds fall made all the difference. The history, experiences, and culture of each person help to prepare the soil for the Gospel. In this sense, a rich Christian culture (both in larger society and the family) can play a pivotal role as pre-evangelization. For example, the ability to appreciate beauty, a past free from serious sin, an intellectual framework that sees the world as rational, and so many other elements of a Gospel infused worldview prepare the soil.

“In this way the Church, by fostering and exercising the arts and virtues of humanity, plays its part in the world, by preparing the ground as it were for the Kingdom of God.” – Gaudium et Spes 42

If Christian culture prepares the field, then what should grow? What is the point? Holiness! The work of transforming the field is directed to one thing alone: the sanctification of the world.

The problem is not Christian Culture in itself, but that it can become a detriment to the main point when we confuse the fertilizer with the wheat. We make our focus all about preparing the field while forgetting the crop. So after all the work to prepare the field, in some places almost nothing grows at.

Most farmers would realize that an empty field is a problem, but the challenge with a thriving Christian culture is that we can busy ourselves with the external living of faith, while missing the whole point of interior transformation.

But this isn’t new. God has often chastised His chosen people for this very disconnect between outward practice and inward inner faith. Jesus Himself highlighted this point by quoting Isaiah 29:

“This people approach Me with their words and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of the commandment of men.”

Culture Wars

All of this brings home the fact the battle of our times isn’t a fight to reclaim culture for Christ. A quick look at history shows the great danger for Christianity has never been a society that rejects Christian beliefs. On the contrary, we have always thrived when faced with even the most aggressive attacks on Christianity. The greatest danger is actually when faith becomes identified with a Culture that embodies the spirit of the age.

First, culture is mostly absorbed unknowingly. This is the complete opposite of a real, intentional inner transformation.

Second, most cultures tend to shift further and further away from authentic Christianity. The world changes to become more secular, there’s a relaxation from the original demands of the Gospel, and various religious entities accumulate wealth and social power.

A sure sign of this happening is that institutions exist seemingly only to perpetuate their existence. Their leaders can’t imagine them existing without their current structure, funding, size, and activities. All of these things are done in the name of the Gospel and often with the best intentions. “Well, we have to keep the doors open!” All they do is tend the field, and forgot it’s all about the wheat.

Many parishes are like a ship adrift at sea. Since no one remembers where they are headed, all they can do is continue to work on the boat. This phenomenon is often addressed with the pithy question: “Are we about maintenance or mission?”

Inclusivity and Authenticity

A less authentic Christianity may not come from cultural decadence alone. As a society, community, or family becomes predominantly Christian, public participation in that group also requires public participation in the external trappings related to faith.

Most societies and groups don’t want their members to be excluded by failing to meet some standard, so requirements to participate are lowered. A mother comes to mind, who might insist her children mindlessly participate in a minimum of religious observances despite their visible (and often audible) protest.

There is a desire for something good here. It may come from a genuine effort to help them—or as many people as possible—come to the joy of knowing Christ. The demands of the Gospel are reduced in the name of making the faith more accessible, reaching more people, the law of graduality, or trying to be more relevant. Again, this is often with a genuine desire for people to come closer to the faith.

But how low can the bar be lowered? In some places it may take on a form that reminds us of the Christians in the colosseum: Just offer a pinch of incense to the emperor and you will be allowed to be one of us again. Did anyone actually believe in the divinity of the emperor? No, but don’t ask that question, just fulfill the ritual. Many RCIA and sacramental preparation programs come to mind–especially Confirmation.

Always Reforming

Again and again, past Church reforms showed that the only solution is individuals returning to the dynamic of interior transformation leading to exterior change. The other way round—forcing exterior changes on a society, family, or person—will not and cannot not bring about the interior change that’s at the heart of the Gospel. External elements can be forced upon oneself or others, but they never bring about the accompanying interior transformation. This is always a personal decision in relationship with God and it can’t be otherwise.

For example, St. Teresa’s reform was needed because the Carmelite order, like many religious communities of the time, had adapted to the changing social, economic, and political landscapes of the Renaissance period. This often led to a relaxation of the strict rules that once governed monastic life, including poverty, chastity, and obedience. The monasteries had accumulated wealth and, in many cases, had become part of the social elite. As a result, her simple idea to return to the original principles of the ascetic lifestyle and strict observance seemed radical.

Contemporary Catholicism

And what about today? In 1958, when he was still Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict reflected on contemporary Christianity. He noted in a lecture that this problem had actually been developing in Europe for the last 400 years:

“[Christian Europe is] the birthplace of a new paganism, which is growing steadily in the heart of the Church, and threatens to undermine her from within. The outward shape of the modern Church is determined essentially by the fact that, in a totally new way, she has become the Church of pagans, and is constantly becoming even more so. She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans.” – New Pagans and the Church

These are hard words, but they are so important to accept if we are to confront the challenge.

Our own cultural presuppositions are as hard to see as water is for a fish. Many Christians could easily point to the woes of the secular society and speak of its decline. But these same people might look at their own parish and be shocked if anyone were to say it was far from living the authentic demands of the Gospel and the clear teaching of the Church. Would we agree with Pope Benedict that the typical parish, full of well meaning people, is actually a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians?

It’s easier to say “others” have this problem, but my diocese, my parish, my family, me? Are we able to get past the natural outrage we might feel? Can we look deep in ourselves and see where we too may have allowed this new paganism, the spirit of this age to enter into our hearts?

Set Apart: The Church As The New Israel

This is not just a historical reality that was faced in a few moments of our past, nor only a surprise tragedy we happen to find ourselves in today.

The struggle of the Israelites, God’s chosen people, was not just to be faithful to the covenant. They were a people called out and set apart, so their particular struggle was not conforming to the world around them. This was a challenge both in the Promised Land, but also while in exile.

“Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed” – Romans 12:2

The Church, ecclesia (ἐκκλησία), is from ek + kaleó (ἐκ + καλέω), to call out. We are a people called out, set apart—the new people of Israel. Our struggle is not against foreign ways, but against conforming to the spirit of the age; to be in the world, but not of the world.

Just like Israel, members and leaders of the Church will constantly go back and forth between fidelity and infidelity. This cycle will repeat itself till the end of time, since it is in our very nature as the new Israel. It is a part of our identity as a Church. Like the prophets called Israel back, the Church has its saints and reformers to call the Church back to the essence of what it means to be Christian.

Seen in this light, we should no longer be scandalized by the situation today. And this perspective can allow us to both honestly admit our failures, and also look with hope toward the future.

Encounter to Transformation: The Wildfire Approach

Wildfire’s particular charism is encounter, transformation, and mission. The term “μεταμορφόω” used by St. Paul to say “transformation,” literally means “to change after being with.” He specifically means the transformation that comes from encounter. It is this that he proposes as the opposite, the antidote to confirming to the spirit of the age. “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed” It is not a transformation of the structures, strategy, programs, or culture, but the individual. It is a transformation where the outside is renewed ONLY because it comes to reflect the renewal of the inner reality.

The solution, as always, is to make the outside like the inside.

Author: Nathan Hadsall

Author: Nathan Hadsall

Nathan was a seminarian for 8 years before discerning the call to lay life, and is now married with 3 kids. He is the CEO for St. Joseph Ministries and a member of Wildfire. His passion in life is supporting Church renewal by helping Catholics—individuals, organizations, and parishes—live the universal call to holiness.

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