How to Build a Healthy Culture

Published March 7, 2024

The Catholic Thing

Culture wars, like most wars of attrition, are wearisome, enervating affairs. Competing and irreconcilable accounts of what it means to be human – and, thus, of what the proper ends of human life and action ought to be – are a source of unrelenting friction, not only in our politics but also within the Church. Those screeching friction points are familiar to most of us; they are all around us.

As George Weigel once put it, “You may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you – and everyone else.” The current of our culture is not headed in a healthy or humane (or sane) direction, and if one is not conscious of the running tide or is unwilling to swim against it, one is liable to end up adrift at sea.

In our own American instance, the problem is made worse by the fact that too few of us really seem to understand the terms of the engagement. I don’t mean that Americans are ignorant of the particular issues that constitute “the culture wars.” Nor is there a lack of pathos. Plenty of people, on both sides, see the various conflicts as fundamental, even existential crises.

But few people, on either side, seem to have a clear conception of what a healthy culture would even look like if their side were to “win.” We got a taste of what I mean in 2022 when, after fighting to overturn Roe v. Wade for fifty years, the Dobbs decision exposed the pro-life movement (insofar as that is a coherent thing) as woefully unprepared for victory.

Fighting the culture war may be necessary, even noble. But one should never confuse winning a cultural fight for building a culture worthy of the name. The latter is far more difficult.

Culture is one of those things that tends to get fuzzier the more closely one examines it. We all know what culture means, more or less. We speak of it and hear of it constantly. In the Church, we speak about a culture of life, a culture of death, a throwaway culture. Yet for all this, culture – both in general and in particular – is stubbornly difficult to define.

What, for example, does one mean when one speaks of “American culture”? Those of us who swim like fish in that particular sea have one sense of it. Yet a Texan and a New Yorker (or, say, a Catholic and a Baptist) are likely to describe it very differently. The distinctions required to describe just what one means by culture can be dizzying.

There is broad agreement that culture consists, in varying degrees, of a people’s religion, history, language, food, art, and so on. We often speak about politics and culture as distinct (e.g., when people say “politics is downstream from culture”). Yet American culture is difficult to conceive of apart from the American experiences (good and bad) of politics and self-government. We speak of subcultures (or, at times, the subculture) and of mass culture and pop culture.

There have been distinctively Catholic cultures throughout history. Roman North Africa had one, which is long gone. Europe has one. Or rather, had one. In many parts of Europe, her Catholic culture is like a cut flower: still beautiful but cut off from its living roots.

American culture, such as it is, has never really been Catholic. We have had many Catholic subcultures, some of them thriving. A large part of the history of 20th-century American Catholicism is the story of our emergence from (largely urban, ethnic, immigrant) Catholic subcultures into the sunny uplands of the American mainstream. We came, we strove, we assimilated.

Joe Biden could be described as the last, lingering relic of the 20th Century Catholic ascent to assimilation: the apotheosis of Boomer Catholicism. That style of American Catholicism was typical of an era that has long since passed. Yet it also represents an historical moment in which, at least to external appearances, American Catholicism was both recognizably Catholic and most at ease in American culture.

For Catholics concerned about culture, that is worth pondering. What would “victory” in the culture wars look like?  A return to the status quo ante? Even were that possible, which it clearly is not, I’m not sure anyone wishes to return to a time when the American Catholic Church was at the height of its cultural influence if that means losing its distinctiveness like so much flavorless salt.

If not a return, what then? What sort of culture do we think we are trying to build? What is the goal? I don’t pretend to have a clear answer to these questions, but they are important, nonetheless.

Pope St. John Paul II thought and taught about culture as much as any pope. For him, culture was as much a cause of human activity as it was a product. His views were clearly shaped by the Polish national experience: a distinctively Catholic culture that succored, shaped, and guided the Polish nation even in the absence of a Polish state.

In this sense, culture is something that develops organically, over a long period of time. Culture is not something one designs and rarely directs; it is a precious inheritance. And it bears within it an inertia of memory capable of uniting a people even through almost unbelievable hardships.

In culture, as in the Church, growth and renewal come mostly through the way people live – the things we cherish and the loves we cultivate. This takes time. Usually, it takes generations. And maybe that is the beginning of an answer: to build a culture worthy of the name, we have to cherish those people and goods that are beyond ourselves, to pay out our lives for the sake of those who will outlast and succeed us – and in gratitude to Him who alone sustains us.

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. White’s work focuses on the application of Catholic social teaching to a broad spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. He is the author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori Publications, 2016).

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