On the Road to Emmaus: The Catholic Dialogue with America and Modernity

On the Road to Emmaus: The Catholic Dialogue with America and Modernity

by Glenn W. Olsen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813219547
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 03/19/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.86(w) x 8.82(h) x 1.16(d)

About the Author

Glenn W. Olsen is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Utah, with a Ph.D. in the history of the Middle Ages. He is a frequent contributor to journals such as Communio, Logos, and Faith and Reason, and is the author of The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (CUA Press) and Christian Marriage: A Historical Study.

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Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8132-1954-7

Chapter One


* * *

In 1987 the then Lutheran, but soon to become Catholic, writer Richard John Neuhaus published a book, The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), which received considerable discussion. I was asked to write a review article on the book, and by titling this "The Catholic Moment?" with a question mark, suggested that, though I found much useful analysis in the book, I was unpersuaded by its basic argument. Of course under the heading of the theological virtue of hope, all moments are Catholic—that is, open to significant formation by Catholicism, but in life one must not simply hope. One must plan and act in a worldly way, based on the best evidence and understanding one can form of one's historical situation. In this sense, I doubted that the American experience was hospitable to Catholicism in the ways and to the degree suggested by Neuhaus's book. I doubted that in America we had begun the countdown to some Catholic moment. I suppose I would have agreed more with a recent writer who, in addressing the question of whether America is a Christian country, answered "I doubt it—but I grew up in one." By that I, at least, would not have meant that America ever had been "the best country there ever was," that it had ever incarnated Christianity more successfully than other countries. The record, the competing traditions, here seems to me too mixed from the beginning for such judgments. But I would have meant that I grew up in a country where Protestant Christianity in the form of "Americanism," of what some have called "civil religion," had such ascendancy that in myriad ways it formed the culture and made a difference in people's lives; and that I have a strong sense that in my lifetime Protestantism, while still forming many of our cultural habits, has lost its place at the center of national life.

While Neuhaus seemed to suggest that a Catholic moment might be in the offing, my best judgment as a historian was that the country was increasingly anti- or a-Catholic, the latter in the profound sense not of opposing Catholicism, but of not even understanding what Catholicism is about. My sense was that the larger culture aside, I live in a Church that for more than a generation has been unable or unwilling to communicate its most basic truths to the young, so that the term "Catholic" has hardly any longer a meaning for many self-described Catholics. The polls on which Neuhaus relied so much are not to be trusted. Or rather, they must be read in the way Will Herberg read them, as showing that because the dominant American form of religion is a secularized Puritanism, a dualism in which the heavenly and earthly spheres are kept far apart, a high level of church attendance or religious belief is perfectly compatible with, indeed a sign of, loyalty to the American way of life—that is, to the logic of secularism. The secularism of society is not the product of some elite, as of the intellectuals, but is the way most people follow the logic of, for instance, consumerism and materialism. Secularism, a life given up to the world, is the form that most American religiosity takes, a life that most religion in America effectively baptizes. Secularism is not an aberration, but the working out of founding principles in which the Deist with his clock-maker God, the Puritan with his transcendent God, and the unbeliever with no God agreed to "articles of peace" creating a social order open to God for those who wished, but with a government defined by a claimed religious neutrality. In Herberg's words, "it is not secularism as such that is characteristic of the present religious situation in this country but secularism within a religious framework, the secularism of a religious people." For a Catholic moment, I thought the presence of some Catholics highly desirable. Neuhaus seemed to me to have gotten long-term tendencies almost exactly wrong. There had never been much chance that America would reshape itself under the impact of Catholicism, that it would in any sustained way receive a Catholic message, but what chance for a Catholic moment there had been was increasingly slipping through the fingers.

Worse than misreading the situation, Neuhaus, by his praise of so many things American, encouraged people in the view that, outside a few anomalies like abortion, Jeffersonian separationism, racism, drugs, sex and violence at every turn, family disintegration, and an educational system with hardly the rudiments of discipline, this was a very promising place to be. If only people could get the hang of "ordered liberty," the American experiment could succeed. He encouraged the view that this culture was not radically separated from the Gospel. One could comfortably be both a Catholic and an American. Indeed, at times he seemed to fancy himself the defender of America against its most visible ecclesiastical critics, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II. He incorrectly described people with profound reservations about "the American experience," like myself, as favoring quietism and the diminishment of effort for Catholic presence in the public square.

Neuhaus, especially through his fine journal, First Things, continued until his death to address the question of the American historical situation. It is not my goal here to track him through the things he wrote after the publication of The Catholic Moment. I agree with much of this. In a significant sense the heart of our continuing disagreement could be described as lying in the area of high theology, in what implications, for instance, we see or fail to see in Trinitarian communio for human life in community. However, to the best of my knowledge Neuhaus never pursued the discussion very far at this level. We probably also conceive the relationship between grace and nature differently, though Neuhaus denied this. Still, if one judges by what actually has been written, disagreement arguably centers on what is today called the question of inculturation, on how Christianity is to or could be inculturated in an American context. That is, while there is probably some theological disagreement, some disagreement about how the term "Catholic" is to be understood, specific disagreement seems to be about what "America" means, about how American culture is to be understood, and how faith is to be inculturated. This is the subject of the present chapter.

Continuing differences at this level are numerous, and involve such questions as how much a culture formed by Protestant Christianity is in fact open to Catholic Christianity—that is, to a Catholic moment—at all. The Christianity of the American founding, after all, was a reformed Christianity reared in attack on the Whore at Rome, and in many of its most prominent representatives heavily influenced by Deism and the Enlightenment. Neuhaus, almost like the Catholic immigrants of old, but also like John Courtney Murray, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, sees much more in American culture, as in a kind of connatural readiness for Catholic Christianity, than do I, and I can only guess that this is because his form of "neo-conservative" (or "neo-liberal": both systems are organized around the individual and "ordered liberty") political thought sees more in traditional American liberalism as, if not exactly Christian, working in the same direction. Whereas I, for instance, have grave reservations about "democracy," and believe that a society such as ours attempts a kind of "attack on reality" by suggesting that by nature people are equal, Neuhaus wrote approvingly of things like "democratic capitalism" and "democratic governance," even verbally assimilating the American "democratic" and "republican" traditions to one another. Such an approach, like that of John Courtney Murray, "tends to focus chiefly on those elements of the tradition which find ready parallels in liberalism, while largely ignoring the more distinctly Catholic elements."

There seems to me to have persisted in Neuhaus's thought the odd combination of an Augustinian anthropology with a liberal social thought that one finds in so many twentieth-century writers of classical Protestant formation, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr at the forefront. Luther's idea of the two kingdoms made a certain sense when the historical situation was such that living in the earthly kingdom meant doing an actual king's will. Here there was no doubt as to where authority lay. But the persistence of this pattern of thought in a world without kings is most curious. There is in fact no command from authority to tell us, in spite of our "original sin" anthropology, to side in our politics with the Enlightenment—that is, with the individual and ordered liberty. The "people" or vox populi can never really replace the "king" as authority, for the people speak with many voices, and one must side with one party or another. That is, since liberalism is not the king of the earthly kingdom but only one of the pretenders to a long-empty throne, it is unclear why a Christian would ever feel an obligation to submit to it. Nobody has commanded him to do so; all logic or consistency is against it. Yet, again and again in the twentieth century, "neo-orthodox" Christians opted for a classical, somber anthropology that stressed human limitation and a politics that placed great confidence in individual liberty and the self-realized man. Indeed, one of the reasons such thinkers were so hard to pin down is that, holding fragments of two incompatible world views, shifting and feigning in argument from one to the other, they could affirm or deny almost anything. At least until late in the century, in a European context, where the politics chosen was often a socialism or Marxism with a strong subordination of the individual to the community and a strong sense of the obligation of the community for the individual, a kind of consistency was realized. But in America, the schizoid nature of living in the two kingdoms was particularly revealed in those who combined an Augustinian anthropology not with communitarian social thought, but with a stress on individual freedom and free enterprise. A little concern for internal coherency should have alerted one to the fact that, if the two kingdoms have such radically different readings of things, probably there is not much reason to believe that anyone's political experience is going connaturally to lead to a Catholic moment.

Rather than return to old disagreements in forms already discussed, my goal here is to explore the question of what sense Catholic inculturation has in an American context. We must begin with a definition and description of "inculturation." There is by no means agreement on the use of this relatively new word: Francis Cardinal George has written a first-rate book on the subject. For my purposes I wish to follow an illuminating article by Matthew Lamb on "Inculturation and Western Culture: The Dialogical Experience Between Gospel and Culture." In his own way, Fr. Lamb also speaks of a Catholic moment, for his argument is that, the negative aspects of post-Enlightenment culture having made themselves increasingly plain, Catholicism in America is being asked ever more insistently to make a choice. Fr. Lamb uses inculturation (126) to refer to:

The process of how the Church, mediating the proclamation of the gospel, is involved in a mutual learning process wherein the gospel is received and, in that very reception, brings about over time transformations of the particular culture and new "incarnations" of the Church.

The distinction between Gospel and culture is one form of the distinction between the transcultural and the cultural. Inculturation involves a dialogue between the Gospel as mediated by the Church and a particular culture. This dialogue is finally between the Head and members of the whole Christ. It is a true dialogue, so that each party is open to learning from the other, "learning" in this case meaning both the possible transformation of culture and possible incarnation of Church in a new way. Many things are transcultural—mathematics and the patterns of nature, for instance. Their existence can be known across the cultures. Indeed, if I may extrapolate, it is doubtful that anyone dwells in a single culture, or indeed that cultures are stable enough clearly to mark their boundaries. As Fr. Lamb explains the transcendental and immanent dimensions of all cultures (129), "any genuine culture is both transcultural and incultural." Indeed, arguably it is the transcultural that allows the great inculturations, the concrete expressions of things that are transcultural in a given culture. I am inclined to think that, especially in the contemporary world, we all simultaneously live in many cultures or subcultures, if we define culture in Fr. Lamb's way (125) "as the pattern of beliefs, meanings, and values which imply or define what the good life is." When we get on the bus in the morning, we move in one environment, when we go to Church in another, when we lecture, in a third. Each, in some degree, has its own laws. But even the most isolated person, by the very fact that he possesses a human mind, is capable of knowing transcultural truths, of knowing things known outside his own culture. Indeed almost certainly, by the very fact of being in history, every person knows things learned from more than one culture, if one can even count cultures in such fashion. This is one of the reasons the very notion of an unqualified cultural relativism is unintelligible. By the very fact that the same truths can be known across cultures, truth is not dependent on any particular culture.

This is often forgotten or overlooked by those who treat transcultural and cultural matters as somehow having equal status. It is quite common—this came out especially in the debates about the Columbian Quincentenary—to speak as if specific cultures are sacred or inviolate and should be left alone by other cultures. This is to say that culture is its own justification, without reference to any other standard of judgment. At the Conference on Evangelization in the American Southwest, referred to in chapter 5 of this volume—if I may indulge in a little amateur sociology—the speakers were fairly well divided into two groups. One was largely composed of Anglo lecturers with a great admiration of various so-called native cultures, who hoped for dialogue but nevertheless thought if push comes to shove the Gospel trumps culture. The other was largely composed of Hispanic lecturers who insistently argued that, since native traditions on some matters were quite different from the teaching of the Church, Church teaching should be accommodated to culture—that is, waived. For them culture trumped Gospel, or at least so it seemed to me. In such relativism, to use Fr. Lamb's words (127), "culture in fact becomes normative for the faith." The notion of dialogue—the notion that the particular should enter into dialogue with something larger than itself, which it could teach but from which it could also learn—was rejected. From the first, the idea of dialogue was foreclosed by at least the implicit assumption that particularity has the same status as universality, or indeed is higher. The obvious objection to such a line of thought is that since there are things knowable across the cultures, by definition these have a greater dignity than things actually dependent on a single culture.

There is a kind of parallel but opposite error in which the Gospel is seen as simply something with an essence that is caught in formula and creed. This error forgets that the Gospel is a Person, Himself transcending all categories. As important and necessary as creeds and propositions are, this error treats inculturation as a one-way street in which all traffic flows from Gospel to culture. The assumption is that the Gospel can briefly and stably be summarized and then merely implanted in any particular culture. Such a view ignores, if I can put it this way, the obvious fact that there are four Gospels in the Bible itself, four ways of viewing the Person of Christ. The point is that every culture will not only have its own take on how the Gospel is to be incarnated, an expression of its own cultural patterns, but that this take will in part also be the result of its discovering something unique in the transcendent richness of the Person of Christ, something "really there." If ultimately the Gospel trumps culture, this should not be taken to mean that culture does not through dialogue move the Church to new discovery.


Excerpted from ON THE ROAD TO EMMAUS by GLENN W. OLSEN Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The "Catholic Moment" and the Question of Inculturation....................19
2. The Investiture Contest....................51
3. Lay Spirituality ad majorem Dei gloriam....................72
4. Christian Faith in a Neo-Pagan Society....................81
5. Thy Kingdom Come on Earth as in Heaven: The Place of the Family in Creation....................101
6. Separating Church and State....................125
7. Religion, Politics, and America at the Millennium....................145
8. America as an Enlightenment Culture....................174
9. John Rawls and the Flight from Authority: The Quest for Equality as an Exercise in Primitivism....................188
10. The Quest for a Public Philosophy in Twentieth-Century American Political Thought....................211
11. Unity, Plurality, and Subsidiarity in Twentieth-Century Context....................239
12. The Ethics of Conquest: The European Background of Spain's Mission in the New World....................254

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