Civilization Inspired by Catholic Truth
Catholic culture and civilization, like all cultures and civilizations, is necessarily bonded to influences of place and time.
Therefore, a variety of Catholic cultures and civilizations are possible throughout the millennia.
Nevertheless, in order to be Catholic, any culture and civilization must be sealed with two characteristics.
Firstly, Catholic culture and civilization must be an authentic expression of the Catholic Faith’s core truths which, because they are divinely revealed, are eternally unchanging, and have been formulated authoritatively as essential doctrines, Catholic dogma.
Secondly, Catholic culture and civilization must be bonded visibly, tangibly to the Catholic Church because adherence to the Catholic Faith is no mere gnosis or privately attained belief that one can live independently of the institution divinely founded as the authoritative guarantor of the transmission of the divinely revealed truths.
Consequently, if God in His Providence of history gives Catholics time before His Parousia in which to build a Catholic culture and civilization, this culture and civilization will be built on the same principles as the first one ‒ the basis of Western Civilization, Christendom, which flourished in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
There will be no need to puzzle over what foundations to lay, which principles to assert. As Pope Pius X stated:
“The City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be set up unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is the Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City.” (Notre Charge Apostolique)
The Church is open to building a Christian civilization from the true and the good of both East and West
Before going any further, let it be clearly stated that there never was and never could be in the mind of the Catholic Church any identification of her nature and mission with Western Civilization. That is simply impossible.
However inculturation of the Catholic Faith is necessary. The birth of the Eternal Son of God had to happen in some century, in some country and this implied that he would speak the eternal and universal truths in a particular language and culture.
The Lord Jesus then entrusted these truths to his Church to be guarded to the end of time and to the ends of the earth; a journey made with trust in divine providence but demanding unceasing vigilance in selecting the cultural vehicles of language, customs and laws through which the divine truths would arrive intact in all their integrity and purity to the minds and hearts of men.
Therefore although the Catholic Church is “catholic” [universal] in its openness to all that is true and good and noble in the cultures of the peoples, whether in primitive or advanced cultures, it must carefully select what it wants to admit into its own Catholic culture: it cannot renounce sitting in judgment on the cultures of the world accepting or rejecting their ideas and values according to whether or not they are in harmony with the Gospel, the Natural Law and the excellence of man’s reason.
Certainly all men are equal in dignity; certainly all races are equal in dignity; but not all cultures are equal in dignity. How could we put the advanced Chinese civilization of the 17th century on the same level as a tribal culture practicing cannibalism?
Or indeed how could we not judge some civilizations -notably the present post-Western secularized society – to contain so much that is contradictory to the Gospel and man’s dignity that they can only be classified as “alien and hostile”.
The Church therefore is truly multicultural – not in the illogical sense of accepting the equal value of all cultures – but in the readiness to look for goodness and truth in any place or time: her history in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe is proof of her inherent open-minded dynamism – an open-mindedness however that never ceases to recall – as Chesterton remarked – that “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid”.
The Church therefore welcomes from any culture anywhere anything that will increase respect for human life from conception to natural death; any tradition that will elevate man’s appreciation for the natural dignity of marriage; concepts and customs that will deepen and ennoble man’s living of the human virtues of courage, kindness, generosity, loyalty, love of family and friendship; all that will help to express the truths of the Catholic Faith more clearly, convincingly and beautifully she will incorporate.
Benedict XVI, speaking of the new culture that emerged from the arrival of the Catholic Faith to the Americas after 1492 stated:
“In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture. Authentic cultures are not closed in upon themselves, nor are they set in stone at a particular point in history, but they are open, or better still, they are seeking an encounter with other cultures, hoping to reach universality through encounter and dialogue with other ways of life and with elements that can lead to a new synthesis, in which the diversity of expressions is always respected as well as the diversity of their particular cultural embodiment.
Ultimately, it is only the truth that can bring unity, and the proof of this is love. That is why Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, “love to the end”, is not alien to any culture, nor to any person; on the contrary, the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity, opening people everywhere to growth in genuine humanity, in authentic progress. The Word of God, in becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, also became history and culture.” ( Pope Benedict XVI, May 13, 2007)
An instance of early “multi-culturalism” in the Church is monasticism. Monasticism is an institution that began amid the sands of the Egyptian desert, transplanted itself from the 5th century onwards to a mist-encircled island on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard becoming more Celtic than the Celts themselves and by the 21st century is at home on all continents.
This is because the Church made monasticism into a modus vivendi of the Gospel in its “timeless ideals of prayer and contemplation and the universal spirit of the apostolate” (Dawson).
Another instance is the Latin language which the Church took from Rome but not without shaping it to her own needs until it became her universal language and the native tongue of culture in the West.
Yet because Western Civilization first embodied Christian culture and in the process contributed so much to the Church’s growth, the Church and it are bonded together forever as mother and eldest daughter.
This does not impede the Church from creating another type of Christian civilization elsewhere. However just as a man cannot be false to his own genetic code neither can the Church be false to its own origins. But surely – someone may argue – the embryo of the Church is divine revelation and not mere human thought as found in provisional societies such as those of Greece and Rome?
Yes, certainly our embryo is divine revelation ( an embryo surrounded and protected by the placenta of Jewish genius) but an embryo that once it came to birth and infancy grew sturdy and strong in the air of Greek and Roman culture not because per se it was Greek or Roman but because these cultures had unfolded universal truths in their reasoning about man,society and God. Accordingly the Church will not, may not, cannot, renounce these concepts because she cannot renounce truth; what she has incorporated into the limbs and sinews of her dogmatic definitions are there to stay.
A new Christian civilization should not be a copy of Western Civilization because while keeping all the West’s cultural riches it must also incorporate all the benefits of scientific discovery under the tutelage of the Natural Law and any goodness, truth and beauty that have appeared in modern times for the Holy Ghost never ceases to empower true progress in every age.
Nor – is it necessary to say this? – does it imply that the creation of a Christian civilization means any imposition of Christianity on non-Christians. A Christian ceases to be worthy of the name of Christian the moment he tries to impose Christianity on another! Indeed since a Christian can only become a Christian by wanting to, the attempt is absurd.
A truly Catholic civilization would mean, among many other blessings, a “catholic” [universal] civilization: a civilization of justice, love and fraternity based on the truth of each man’s dignity regardless of race according to the Natural Law encrypted in the heart of every man and decoded historically in all the great civilizations – a society truly worthy of man, capable of opening his heart to the supernatural and to the divinely revealed truth of the Catholic Faith.
Nor does it mean that Christian civilization can only occur in the Western hemisphere. Christian civilization can occur East or West, North or South.
Western Civilization even when it embodied Christian values as fully as in medieval times acquired no monopoly on Christian civilization: that monopoly is held by Christians believing the truths of the Faith, living them and radiating them whether in Canada or China.
The only necessary blueprint for civilization towards which Catholics will look is the set of truths defined by the Church as the Catholic Faith and by necessary implication also those of the Natural Law.
Yet since the Christian knows that God has been providentially guiding his Church through the stormy crossing of time, he also looks at the Catholic culture built-up over the millennia in theology, philosophy and the arts wherein the Faith has been expressed and filled with beauty in the eyes of so many people.
Here the Catholic will be loyal to the “hermeneutic of continuity”; he will look for sources of enlightenment to the cultural riches of the West in building Christian culture in North America, Asia, Africa or elsewhere.
Any rebuilding of a Christian civilization will focus on this core and not on the incidentals of the civilization as it existed in the Middle Ages or in other periods.
This avoids dangers that occur during a disintegration of civilization: either nostalgias leading to anachronisms by idealizing the past or resolutions to shatter links with tradition by pursuing mirages of a perfect futuristic society, perfect only because it is in the future.
Thus we will enable the universal and perennial Western institutions and virtues to become keystones for a genuine globalization worthy of the dignity of man created in the image and likeness of God.