According to Wikipedia the term “Culture War” was derived from the German word Kulturkampf (cultural struggle).The Kulturkampf was literally a set of 19th century Prussian laws designed specifically to undermine the Catholic church. Among other things these laws temporarily expelled the Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican brothers from Prussia.
Americans started using the term in the 1920’s. We used the term again in the 1960’s. And of course in the 1990’s it became the popular euphemism for the sharp political division in American politics. The meaning of the term may have changed over the years, but for the church the fact might as well remain the Kulturkapf is a direct threat to us Catholicism and its on a collision course to undermine the church. Far to many Catholics have embraced the new politics of the culture wars and they I’m guessing might be a little taken aback that I make this statement. To them a say they should take pause to consider what makes our church “Catholic” in the first place.
In point of fact Catholic theology points to four markings that are necessary to make us “the church”. You already know them by heart so chant along when you remember. We are one. We are Holy. We are universal. And we are Apostolic. What are we in the midst of stark uncompromising political discord? We have few options.
If we retreat we will cease to be Apostolic. Some of my culture war-weary brothers have suggested that the answer is for the Catholic church to simply stay out of politics. They suggest we focus inward on our own sin and spiritual well-being and not engage in petty worldly disputes. But God commissioned the church to go out into the world and spread the good news. An apostle can not care for its sins alone.
Pope John Paul II challenged us to spread the “culture of life.” I find his use of the word “culture” interesting. Why do the life issues necessary need be linked to cultural issues? I believe his use of the word “culture” was an acknowledgement that Abortion and the death penalty were part of our nation’s “social” sins. Social sin was an idea that was just getting popular in the church at the time, Pope John Paul himself would develop it more later.
Social sin can be thought of as simply an accumulation of individual sins but it has a key difference. In social sin the sin not only contributed to the lone individual that commits the act. Anyone who could have helped to or prevent the sin but chose not to, or anyone who knowingly profited from the sin is also guilty. So we can’t just sanctify ourselves when confronting a culture of death. Morally we become part responsible for the holiness of those around us. In short it is our moral imperative to be apostles to out culture. An Apostolic church can not retreat.
If we choose to fight on one side we will cease to be holy. Remember to be holy means to serve God and God taught us we can never serve two masters. Yes sometimes even pundits and politicians take up causes the church can momentarily get behind. But these politicians and the political party’s or interests they represent will always be human. And sinful humans at best.
If we take a closer look at either side we will see neither represent the wholeness of truth.The left would deny the humanity to the unborn and the aged. The right would destroy the social safety net and revoke the right to life as punishment. If we choose to blindly overlook the sins of “our” leaders then Christ will cease to be our master. A holy church can not accept half of the truth.
If we choose to fight on both sides we will cease to be one. The increasing polarization has gone far beyond civil disagreement. Politics has become about labels (‘conservative’ , ‘liberal’ , ‘radical’ , ‘intolerant’ , ‘feminist’ , ‘socialist’) and bullying. When the church gets to close to each side of the dog fight it starts to poison us and turn us against each other.
Take for example the state of our much maligned Catholic Relief Services. The CRS is the organization designated by the USCCB to serve the US Bishops abroad. In my (and our bishops view) the organization has served nobly and with accord to Catholic Social Teaching. But it does on partner in targeted ways with global poverty relief organizations that are pro-choice. In a scorched earth strategy against any and all pro-choice groups some in the pro-life lobby have taken to attacking the CRS. In effect some in the pro-life lobby have chosen to attack our bishops.
And despite many attempts by the USCCB to peacefully explain that we can work with those we disagree some Catholics still advocate that we need to take up sides against our own body. How long would the our church last if we went to war with ourselves. A unified church can not serve in two warring armies.
If we choose to form ourselves into a third army, then we will no longer be universal. The heart of war is identifying the enemy and purging them from your ranks. But the heart of the church is to embrace the wheat and the chaff and love them both. Jesus created the church to save sinners. So it will always be necessary to ask when a sinner comes to our door what does it see. Is it an open gateway into a loving community or a line of soldiers from an imposing force.
The politicians and pundit can afford to angrily shout hateful slogans at their enemies because a divided nation only serves to reinforce the two party’s in power. But if the church embraces this same war like approach this will only serve to undermine our message that Jesus loves everyone. A universal Church can not be at war with the world!
We can’t retreat. We can’t fight on one side. We can’t fight on both sides. We can’t form a new army. How can Catholics respond to the war at our doorstep. I’ve been praying about this blog post for sometime and I have no simple answer. The line between responsible moral advocacy and culture war is gray and will require prayerfully discernment for each specific case. But as a general model I thought we should look to what made us one holy catholic and apostolic in th first place. Let us return to the grace of the Eucharist and reflect on the community in which it flows.
It is easy to look at the deep waves of sin that have engulfed our world and say “I can’t change that”. Your right you can’t change that. But we can.You are only one member of this body.Your task isn’t to save the world. Your task isn’t to save yourself. Your task is to save the man in front of you.
If the man in front of you is another Catholic. Good he is also a member of the body. Remember his joys are your joys, his struggles are your struggles. So help form his conscience. Help him gain confidence in the gifts God has given him. Challenge him to leave his comfort zone. Walk with him as an apostle. Help him change the world.
Maybe the man in front of you is far away from the church. Even better. Remember God’s love for lost sheep is endless. There will be more rejoicing over the sinner who repents than ninety-nine who where already found. Take care of his needs. Bandage the wounds he has received from our culture. Show him the love of our father. Teach him the teachings of our church. Invite him to unite with you in this great body.
We are not God’s army sent to conquer the world, we are God’s refuge camp waiting to heal it. If we can we should be cultural peace makers. We need to help people see they have common interests and can work together to achieve the common good. If we get both sides to put their guns down and start working together again it will be a beautiful day. If we can’t what we can do is heal and protect the people caught in the middle of the mindless fighting. We can heal their wounds and convince them there is a better way. Sooner or later there will be more people in our camp than there are keeping up the fight. Then we the refugees can start building the kingdom through sheer numbers.
God’s church is called to be peacemakers and healers not soldiers. Though people may disagree with us we should not treat them as an enemy to be conquered but a lost brother to be found.This culture war is not just a distraction from our mission is directly counter to it. My challenge to you this post is to strive in the midst of great cultural conflict to be a healer and a peacemaker.