“Cultural Catholicism”

20 07 2009


It ain’t what it used to be

Sort of inspired by this post from the Gregorian Rite Catholic. Excerpt:

The implication of course is that you are not as Catholic (i.e., you’re not a good Catholic) because you are not as obvious. And these people are very judgmental about the Catholicism of people they don’t even know. Some even conduct conferences and then hang their audiences out to dry on their web sites for their supposed “ignorance,” or “cultural Catholicism,” or lack of “fervor” or for “not understanding” the message that these latter-day apostles have bestowed on them.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was happy that Catholics, however estranged, did go to Mass at least on Christmas and Easter. And he certainly would not disparage such Catholics either in person or behind their backs.

I was surprised during my last conversation with my father that he still considers himself a Catholic, though I don’t think he has set foot in a church during his adult life. Indeed, when he was growing up, his family would walk two miles to Mass every Sunday, though my father often was thrown out of catechism class for bad behavior. Before my father left for Vietnam, my grandmother gave him a card of the Mexican folk saint, Juan Soldado, which he kept with him, though he barely made it out of Vietnam alive. It was in the shadow of her folk shrine to this strange spirit that I lived some of the happiest years of my childhood. But while my grandmother was devout, her children weren’t. I don’t think any of them attend Mass as adults, though my uncle, recently deceased, was buried on consecrated ground next to his mother.

“Cultural Catholicism” was a fact of life growing up. I once worked on a crew with a guy who religiously made the Sign of the Cross every time he passed a church, though he had not set foot in one since he was baptized as an infant, and possibly for weddings and funerals. I’ve known evangelical Protestants who still carry around pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe in their wallets. That’s just how things are in the barrio, even today. I once saw a report in a national magazine concerning the growth of Protestant churches in the Latino community. Amongst some at least, they continue to use Catholic imagery, such as images of the Virgin Mary, in their churches. Like the black Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, one can’t really frame this form of Protestantism in the typical American context. Something more seems to be at work.

If I disparage those who disparage “cultural Catholicism”, I do so because their idea of religion borders on Pelagianism. While effort is always to be exhorted, the strength of a faith, like the strength of many things, is based on its weakest link. “Cultural Catholicism” has historically been that link. If the only act of Faith a prostitute or a drug smuggler can muster is wearing a medal of the Virgin or St. Jude, I fail to see how this is any worse than those who would turn Christianity into the civic religion of “decent folk”. If anything, at least the person who wears such religious symbols is more likely to acknowledge that how they live is wrong. I am not so sure about those who would turn Catholicism into a culturally Calvinist ideology of the salvation of “upstanding citizens”.

But such prejudices also underestimate how powerful such symbols really are. The Virgin is powerful, her image is powerful, and even the smallest act of love towards her can save a soul. (Read Trochu’s biography of the Cure d’Ars on this one.) No, it is not ideal, but do any of us deserve to get saved in the end, really? Perhaps the slow death of “cultural Catholicism” in the developed world is thus the most tragic phenomenon of all. If we are turning Catholicism into a mature faith of churchy busy-bodies, we are going to end up with half-empty pews filled with tightly wound, unpleasant partisans. And is that how the Church is supposed to look like?



14 responses

6 07 2012
Christine Flanigan

You are so right! It is so nice to hear someone talk like they know what the Church is all about. The church I go too is open to anyone and welcome everyone, and one more thing our church if full every Sunday with over 200 people or more sometimes.

1 07 2012

Hi! Thanks for this article.. (I’m not sure if I understood your article correctly, so please correct me if I’m wrong 🙂 )

I agree with you that being too-mindful-leaning-to-judgmental about someone else’s spiritual life is wrong since we do not know (and we will never know) a person’s most intimate thoughts (something which only God can know). Also, it is true that in the Church every member has their level of spirituality- and no one is indeed perfect. However, I believe that the Church embracing all her members (without any prejudice or preference to the more faithful) should not be in contrast with Her role as a mother to never cease in reminding Her children to really live their faith- that is, to never be contented with mediocrity or lukewarmness.

“I am not so sure about those who would turn Catholicism into a culturally Calvinist ideology of the salvation of “upstanding citizens”.”
– I guess the people that you might be referring to are not precisely saying that the Church be composed only of “upstanding citizens”. I’m sure what they mean is that it would be better (I used “it would be better” since ANYONE is really welcome in the Church) if Her members are struggling to be upstanding citizens.
Isn’t it more joyful to see 10 devout Catholics in the pews believing in the Real Presence and attending the mass out of love for Christ than a hundred who are only their because it’s an obligation or because of something else?

We are called to be LIKE Christ. Thus, what we should do is not just to have Faith but also Love- Love which in turn motivates us to act for the glory of God and the good of others.

Sin will always be present because of the scar left by the Original Sin. Therefore, no man is really perfect.
What God wants us to do however is to persevere in our struggle.
If we have sinned today, we can always start again tomorrow.
God sees our heart so He knows how we love Him despite our imperfections.

28 06 2012

Just because cultural catholicism is better than indifference and apostasy, it is in no way ideal, and ultimately salvation might be in jeopardy. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy should always be the ideal, those who fall short should be dealth with sympathetically, but that does not mean to condone continuing their ways.

26 06 2012
Heidi Doerfler Bashen

I guess I’m confused as to what a cultural catholic is. Plain words would be helpful. Is it a person who uses the sign of the cross on occasion and is a good person in general but doesn’t go to church, prays daily but doesn’t go to church or is it that they say they are catholic but they don’t agree with everything the catholic church stands for such as birth control, pre-marital sex or even purgatory?

8 02 2012

What is it and what culture is it from

26 07 2009

It’s partially an apologetics problem. When Catholic blowhards try to defend Catholic religious principles from anti-Catholic “Evangelicals,” they are forced to adopt the norms and parameters of their tellyvanjellybean opponents as they attempt, foolishly, to win them over on their own ground. Actually, that sort of retreat to more defensible positions has been going on since the Counter-Reformation.

26 07 2009

This Cultural Catholicism has brought many nominal Catholics back to the Sacraments. Unfortunately, it’s gone away as we’ve integrated ourselves into the wider protestant culture.

It is the very thing so misunderstood and loathed by the EWTN types so many of whom are former protestant ministers who just can’t give up the pulpit.

22 07 2009

I like what you say here. I’ve often had similar thoughts when confronted with criticisms by Protestants of the apparent lukewarmness and immorality of Catholics. I have answered that a lot of people are Catholics because they are born into the Faith. Thus the Church contains all kinds, and people of every degree of devoutness, from the disinterested to the saintly.

There is no test of sincerity and ardor as there is in some evangelical churches. Which is precisely what made me uncomfortable about attending evangelical churches in the days before I “reverted” to the Catholic faith in my mid-20s: the feeling that you had to go around saying “praise the Lord!” and gushing effusively all the time, or else people began to wonder what was lacking in your faith.

Unfortunately this seems to be the tendency and purpose of a lot of post-V2 catechesis and liturgical practice: To try to “make” people “feel” the faith more, rather than “just” learning it, as they used to do in the days of the Baltimore Catechism. Thus you walk into mass and someone greets the congregation with a big “Good morning!”, and when the people don’t respond effusively enough, repeats in a louder voice, “I said GOOD MORNING!!!” And then the music kicks in, which is supposed to get you singing and swaying and, in short, “feeling it” — though in reality most people just stand there looking uncomfortable and feeling silly.

21 07 2009

One Sunday in Great Lent last year, during my catechumenate in my beloved Greek parish, over olive bread and black tea, the following highly satisfactory conversation occurred:

Cool Cypriot Guy: – All right mate? You’re not Greek. Russian?

Me: – Scots!

CCG: – So what are you doing here, then?

Me: (somewhat earnestly, I fear) – “We have found the true faith, etc…”

CCG: Ahhh (shrugs). Religious reasons. You’re not marrying somebody…

20 07 2009
Christopher Orr

What does a “mature faith of” something other than “churchy busy-bodies” look like? and what is it’s relation to ‘cultural catholicism’?

20 07 2009

If we are turning Catholicism into a mature faith of churchy busy-bodies, we are going to end up with half-empty pews filled with tightly wound, unpleasant partisans.

That’s exactly what Catholicism in America already is, in my experience.

20 07 2009
Death Bredon

I am also reminded of the WWII service man who put an image of the BVM on the wall next to his bunk. Within a week, all of his barracks mates — Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish — were silently shamed into taking down the lewd centerfold pin-ups they had placed next to their own bunks.

Of course, that was then, and now is now, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to mess with the Virgin Mary.

20 07 2009
Death Bredon

Near my patch, just over, in central Kentucky — definitely rural, farming country — we have a pocket of “red-neck Catholics,” centered around the Abbey of Gethsemane the nearby proto-Cathedral of Bardstown, established by Bishop Flaget as the first Catholic see west of the Alleghenies.

One of the most endearing habits of these salt-of-the-earth folk is to dig a hole in the front lawn, plant an old cast iron bathtub half-way into the ground in a perpendicular fashion, thereby creating a small, arching grotto for a kitsch Marian statue.

These do-it-yourself grotto’s are locally termed “Bathtub Mary’s,” without the slightest hint of disrespect for our Lady.

20 07 2009
Michael Liccione

I love that kitschy backyard grotto. Such things make a big impression on children.

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