Faith and Culture
Bishops of England & Wales

 

The Bishops of England and Wales

Meeting with the Pontifical Council for Culture, 14th October 2003

Summary and Interpolations

 

"Whereas some are so enthusiastic in their efforts at inculturation that they put aside the tenets of the faith, and others are so entranced in the faith that they are afraid to engage with culture, Catholicism has the readiness and qualities necessary to be both thoroughly engaged in cultures and at the same to be wholly rooted in the Gospel".

This was the viewpoint expressed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who was accompanied by a party of some 20 representatives of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales, during a visit to the offices of the Pontifical Council for Culture. This large turn-out was but a measure of how the English and Welsh hierarchy considers the meeting of the saving message of gospel with the cultures of our times to be of utmost importance.

The ad limina reports received in advance had described the U.K. as being tainted by consumerism, scientism, indifferentism, relativism and growing levels of individualism. Although the media-driven celebrity culture was of particular concern, various signs of hope had been described: British society remains disposed to engage in charitable works; the dignity of the human person is promoted through rights issues both at home and abroad; a Christian heritage underlies much of society's behaviour, even if anonymously so; many local initiatives are being undertaken thanks to the good work and volunteerism of the people; many Catholics are engaged in public life, in the arts, in education, the sciences and in politics; in parishes and dioceses across the spectrum the laity are celebrating the faith, learning it, living it out and caring for others in ways rarely uncovered by sociologists and social commentators; the credibility of the Church remains high despite some outright attacks

Concern had also been expressed about whether British culture will continue to develop in the direction of the common good, and the need for a correct anthropology and clarity in life and ethical issues. The ongoing new evangelisation requires an ever-more effective pastoral approach to culture to ensure it fulfils its proper purpose of providing a place within which people can strive towards perfection and unfold their manifold spiritual and bodily qualities.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, recited some of the principles of the Church's engagement with Culture, outlining the elements of study, reflection and prayer needed to identify today's challenges and opportunities. He drew on the document Towards a pastoral approach to culture to give a description of the Church's undertakings in the area of culture, a fundamental dimension of the spirit, which places people in a relationship with one another and unites them in what is most truly theirs, namely, their common humanity

The Church's dialogue with cultures always returns to this basic common element of humanity and with respect, tolerance and clarity seeks to enrich it by expressing and communicating the faith, hope and joy of our Redemption in Christ. It is not a question of reducing dialogue with cultures to the lowest common denominator, but of transforming and renewing them in the light of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is Beauty, Love and Truth to all things and to all people. It is by such Light that the Church makes a difference to the cultures in which we live.

The Cultures of Unbelief and Indifference

The facts are well-known. In the United Kingdom, as in many parts of the Western world, the numbers attending Church are decreasing while the numbers of those who live as though God did not exist and of those who are categorised as "believing without belonging" continue to rise. Paradoxically, "faith" in atheism is also flailing with levels down to just 1 or 2%.

The old interlocutors of the dialogue with non-believers, the famous theorists of atheism such as Nietzsche and Marx, are somewhat passť and nobody has seriously replaced them. Instead, there is a notable growth in indifference and a waning of well-informed debate and dialogue. We live in a culture of indifference and, what is perhaps worse, ignorance. So how can the Church go about engaging this culture of indifference in dialogue to bring out our common humanity and build the common good?

With whom, when, where and how we can engage cultures in dialogue are matters addressed in Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture. The particular cultural milieus of indifference and unbelief are the themes of the forthcoming plenary meeting of the council which is expected to examine the concrete means to respond to them. Such a pastoral response must spring from the ordinary living-out of the faith. It includes that most massive of forms of communication, person to person dialogue through word and action. It requires an engagement with the language of our times, the "nowism" and aggressiveness common to youth and media cultures. It is expressed in a variety of initiatives in education and formation, the establishment of places in which to identify, listen to and dialogue with exponents of the contemporary world, the articulation of themes of particular relevance and the encouragement of all those means used by the Church to let the faith live, grow and transform the world for nearly 2,000 years.

 

The Misconception of Science

The meeting addressed the manner with which the Church has responded to scientific discoveries and developments. We are all aware of the tales about the Church's rapport with Galileo and Darwin, but what is the truth behind them, what has happened since, and how will we face up to future scientific developments?

Often the faith is pitted against science in an either-or equation as though the two were incompatible. As can be seen in the faith of various Nobel science prize winners, the problem is not so much with science and the scientists, but with the popular understanding of science as an anomaly for religion. Addressing this misconception, which arises out of ignorance, is a priority. For this reason, Project STOQ has been launched. Its aim is to increase the dialogue between faith and science and to publicise their favourable and interdependent rapport. Project STOQ aims to help transform the way our cultures view the science-faith question at ground level by offering clergy and laity alike an awareness of the interdependence of science and theology in the ontological quest.

Concern was also expressed for the culture of technology, which is visibly leading our children and tomorrow's world into a state of individualism with high levels of isolation. Against this stands the Christian faith, an inspirational source for science and a cohesive force for scientists.

A Global Perspective

The Council understands itself to be a support to the local Churches, although with an international eye. A short reappraisal of the international activities of the Pontifical Council for Culture allowed the visitors to see their own situation within a global perspective.

In order to assist the local Churches, the Council assists in the organisation of activities which help local churches to develop and engage in a pastoral approach to culture. In the past it has been involved in the articulation of a response to the following matters: in Africa, the retrieval of an historical memory and the need for formation; in South America, the current cultural phenomenon of the spread of sects; in Europe, the culture of indifference and the diffusion of New Age tendencies; in Asia, the task of letting Christ be seen as an Asian and of coming to terms with a continent in which the issue is not a lack of religion, but of too many religions.

 

Effective Communication to Quench the Spiritual Thirst in the UK

One issue faced in the U.K. is that of creating the cultural conditions necessary to provoke people to ask the "big questions". Man is by nature a spiritual being, but in the U.K.'s consumer and media-sodden society it is often hard to identify the spiritual thirst innate to all people and to quench that thirst with the Truth. Consumerism often creates the problem of a false sense of happiness, leaving the consumer destitute of the desire to confront a higher calling.

But there are moments in which a spiritual thirst can be and is provoked. Beyond the various traditional stages of life, such as birth, marriage and death, it can also flourish at other key moments, amongst the retired, the students, the thirty-somethings, and those who have attained a certain stability and success in their employment lives and are now looking for something more.

Another issue is the presentation of the response to these "big questions", that is, how to communicate in a comprehensible manner the good news of our God Incarnate. Which language can effectively convey the message of the salvation of the world? The concepts, ideas and thought structures we use are often alien to those to whom we are speaking, and so we need to be careful to express the fullness of our message ad modum recipientis.

There is a need to speak both the language of the people and the language of the Church, to keep one foot in church and one foot in the world. Concerns were expressed about the Media, particularly the old problem of the inadequacy of journalism to communicate the fullness of the message we desire to express, but also the scandal-driven journalism which can distort the truth and damage credibility, including that of the Church. The media has its job to do, but the Church has the message of the Good News of Christ to proclaim.

Among the techniques to provoke and address the "big questions" in a de-christianised society mentioned were courses such as Alpha, and projects such as the Semaines sociales de France which see parishioners, schools, academics, the great and the good addressing appropriate themes. There are many instruments, not the least of which are Catholic Cultural Centres, museums and exhibitions, that can be used to ensure a Christian cultural presence in society to provoke and respond gently, patiently and with clarity to the spiritual thirst that can only be truly satisfied in God.

The difficulty of effective communication of the Truth was also present in the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria, theme of another recent publication, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life. This provisional document seeks to be a step in the dialogue between Christianity and the cultural phenomenon of New Age, hence its sub-title, Christian Reflections on the New Age.

The New Age, like the sects, has grown rapidly because it has managed to tap into the spiritual thirst present in society. The document not only offers a critique of certain New Age techniques and some useful tools to discern their rapport with Christianity, but is also a paradigm of the threefold nature of dialogue: listen, consider its accord with the truth, act.

Cardinal Poupard appealed to the visitors to take heart in their difficulties communicating the faith, for in the end Jesus did get the message of Truth across to the Samaritan woman.