Jeremy Ekeler (NCC’s associate director of education policy) and I had the blessing to be in Italy last week. We were there with dozens of other state Catholic conference directors from across the country. State Catholic conference directors typically get together to discuss our work a couple times a year. However, every 10 years we try to make a pilgrimage to Rome.
Among the many graces of our pilgrimage to Rome (as well as Assisi, Orvieto, and Florence) was the presence of the Catholic culture. It seemed that everywhere you turned your head, there was some rich aspect of Catholicism, whether it was the saints, a basilica church, some statue, monument, or great relic, or even pedestrian signage. The Catholic Church is in the air you breathe in Italy. It really was a beautiful thing to experience, and has had me reflecting on the importance of culture as the basis for a healthy political and legal system.
But what is “culture”?
Let me offer a few working definitions that give some different insights into the meaning of culture. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger defined culture as “the historically developed common form of expression of the insights and values which characterize the life of a community.”
Father Romano Guardini defined it as “all that man creates and is in his living encounter with the reality that surrounds him.” Father Julian Carron calls culture “a way of looking at and conceiving reality, and of relating to it.”
And Archbishop Charles Chaput defines it like this: “Culture is little more than the sum of the choices, habits, dispositions of the people who live in a particular place at a particular time.”
Culture pertains to things such as our history, traditions, music, art, sports, social interactions, work, leisure, architecture, politics, sexual mores, food, etc. In a lot of ways, our cultural circumstances are handed down to us and are far outside of our control. But in so many other ways, we each play a critical part in the development of our culture. As Archbishop Chaput puts it: “We are the culture.”
It is also commonly stated that “politics is downstream of culture.” In other words, politics and what occurs through our laws is the result of the cultural milieu and circumstances of which we are a part, and have built.
As somebody who is constantly pushing for a Catholic ethos to undergird our legal system, I find it hard to accept the fact that the work of politics and lobbying is limited and challenged by concretely defined cultural circumstances. I’d like to think that whatever we as Catholics want the law to be, we can make it happen—just scrounge up enough votes—but that isn’t the case.
For example, we struggled to protect babies with a heartbeat this last session. That’s because we live in a culture that was not quite ready to go to these lengths in recognizing the humanity of the preborn child. For the last 50 years under the Roe regime, we have lived in a cultural circumstance in which people have been educated—both in their heart and mind—to believe that a baby’s right to life only triggers at some later point in the pregnancy, if ever at all. This is a hard fact—and limitation—of our culture; and one we must work to reverse.
The flourishing of law to reflect the common good means we have a great deal of work to do within the culture.
As one gazes on the monumental structure of, for example, the Duomo in Florence and is awestruck by the façade of this basilica, one is reminded of the hard work of building the culture. It is a task that is done person-by-person, day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade, stone-by-stone, fresco-by-fresco. It is no light work. And what appears to simply be a blueprint in one’s mind for the beauty that is hoped for, can with the grace of God and hard work of the labor of our hands become the building blocks for a culture that instills justice, mercy, and peace among its people.
Even if the task of building such a culture is daunting, frightening, and seemingly impossible, we are reminded that—like the early Christians who walked and were martyred in places like the streets of Rome—the grace of God is capable of doing mighty works in our midst and that the human spirit yearns for goodness, truth, and beauty. In short, if we seek to build the culture, we can trust that God is with us.
May the Lord bless you in your daily efforts of building a culture that reverences Christ the King!