By “change” I don’t mean that we have to “sell out” to our contemporary society and turn a blind eye towards (much less adopt) the thin values offered by a culture that is too often morally shallow and intellectually lazy. H. Richard Niebuhr was a Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale who in 1951 published Christ and Culture, outlining the different positions that Christians take regarding the culture in which they live. Niebuhr spoke of those Christians who take a stand of radical opposition to their surrounding culture as “Christ against Culture.” There will always be a need for Christians who expose the lack of substance in the prevailing culture. In October 2006 when a gunman killed five young girls and wounded five others in a one-room schoolhouse of the Amish community in Nickel Mines Pennsylvania, the world stood in awe of the spirit of generous forgiveness that the members of that community showed towards the murder (who had himself then committed suicide) and his family. Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who had been the only person in his village to vote against the Anschluss (the 1938 union with Germany) and who was executed for refusing to fight in the army of the Third Reich is another example; as is Protestant Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose resistance of Hitler led to his execution in 1945). American Catholic social reformer, Dorothy Day is yet another example. Such Christians are effective witnesses that make us stop and critique the cultural Kool-Aid which so many drink without thinking. Niebuhr outlines other positions that people might take—the “Christ of Culture” accommodationist who does not see the conflicts between the demands of the Gospel and the enticements of the culture being at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “Christ against Culture.” At the Second Vatican Council the Church pretty much embraced the “Christ Transformer of Culture” model as the operative paradigm. The “Christ Transformer of Culture” model admits the flaws and failures (and sinfulness) of the culture but also believes that the culture contains within it, by God’s goodness, the seeds of transformation out of which can—through processes of conversion empowered by grace—emerge the Kingdom of God. In other words, the world is redeemed and that redemption is (slowly) becoming visible as the Kingdom takes root in our hearts. I must admit, as I have admitted before, I am a strong Augustinian and consequently I find myself more sliding towards (though not at) the “Christ against Culture” end of the scale.
What stops me from falling into the “Christ against Culture” slot is that those who wish to be the “Christ against Culture” voices in the Church and in the world need to have the moral probity of a Dorothy Day or Helder Camara or the Amish survivors. You can’t talk about how wicked the culture is and then parade around in red capes with people kissing your hand, not that red capes and hand-kissing are culturally relevant but neither are they prophetic witness. Our bishops would do well to stop sitting in pharisaic judgment on the culture from which they are benefitting and instead highlight where are appearing already the first buds of the Kingdom of God. As I have said before, everyone knows what the Catholic Church is against—we need voices that can tell us what it is for. We need to publicize the good that is being done in the developing world by Catholic Relief Services. We need to show off the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor. We need to empower the voices of Joan Chittester and Elizabeth Johnson and Donna Orsuto and Barbara Reid and Mary Ann Glendon and Sandra Schneiders and Margaret O’Brien Stienfels and Lisa Sowle Cahill and Delores Leckey and Mary Lyons and Diane Bergant and Teresa Koernke and M. Theresa Moser and Janet Mock and hundreds of other women to speak out and be heard within the Church and for the Church. We need to make the Catholic Worker Houses and Marriage Encounter and Cursillo and the Secular Franciscans and Gethsemane Abbey and Catholic Charities USA and Commonweal more visible. We need to get the insights of Richard Rohr and Ronald Rohlheiser and other contemporary spiritual writers into the hands of spiritual seekers. We need people to identify the fact that Notre Dame and the College of the Holy Cross and the University of San Diego and Boston College and Georgetown and DePaul University and dozens of other top-rate schools are brought to you by our Catholic Church. And we need to remind people too that dozens of hospitals named Mercy and Providence and Saint Joseph and Charity and Saint Vincent’s and whatever were built for health care of all people of any and no faith by the Catholic Church and its many agencies. We have a lot going for us as a Church—we only need the sort of leadership that knows better than to keep singing in a minor key.