Over the last three years, serving the Church professionally in various ways, I have heard a lot about the need for a “countercultural” Catholic witness.
Clergy and lay leaders regularly stress certain ways in which our faith goes against the grain of popular culture, especially regarding secularization and certain moral issues.
We have heard often about the “countercultural” nature of pro-life advocacy, authentic marriage, and sexual morality. Likewise, it is said that Christian belief itself – and orthodox Catholicism in particular – is countercultural, in an age of relativism and hyper-pluralism.
There is some truth to this. Peter Kreeft was onto something when he said religious orthodoxy was “the only possible rebellion left” in such an age. G.K. Chesterton spoke wisely when he described the man who “can defy the conventions … because he can keep the commandments.”
On a practical level, too, the rhetoric of “tradition as counterculture” has its place. It may help some believers to question their cooperation with modern culture’s problematic status quo. It can encourage those tempted to lose heart in their opposition to prevailing trends.
Nonetheless, I have come to question this deployment of “counterculture” language, to describe religious orthodoxy and traditional morality. It is helpful to a point, but also risky.
I am afraid that, in speaking this way, we obscure the deeper radicalism of the Gospel – the radicalism of Jesus Christ. He is the essentially “countercultural” one: the standing challenge to non-believers and believers, the one who must always console and yet unsettle us.
Before going further, let us make – in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas – a fundamental distinction: There are two ways in which a thing may be “radical,” “subversive,” or “countercultural.”
A thing is incidentally radical or countercultural, if it happens to go against the trends of a particular time and place. In this sense, many Christian moral teachings, and the Church’s upholding of truth-claims in the face of relativism, are countercultural today.
But a thing is essentially radical, subversive by its nature, if it presents a perennial challenge to the ordinary ways of the world – a standing rebuke to the status quo, always and everywhere.
Some of the Church’s teachings – particularly those pertaining to the Natural Law – are countercultural in the first sense, but not the second. While diverging from the prevailing opinions of our day, they reflect a body of traditional wisdom and reasoning that is common to most other cultures, religions, and societies.
Other aspects of the Faith, however, are essentially countercultural. They go totally against the grain of this fallen world, in paradoxical and shocking ways.
Our challenge is to make sure the “incidentally countercultural” aspects of Catholic belief, do not overshadow the perennial and more profound challenges laid down by Jesus.
A lot is at stake here. If we present the Faith primarily as a rebellion against a decadent “modern world,” we risk losing touch with a deeper Christian radicalism that does not sit easily with any past or present status quo.
Consequently, we may think and act as though Christianity is only a rebuke to the present state of disorder. Then we can fall into the trap of idealizing the past, and imagining that the Church’s main task is to restore a previous state of affairs.
But our faith is more radical than that. The Gospel is perennially countercultural – not just in modernity, but in all times and places. Even historic “Christendom,” for all its great achievements, transgressed against the Gospel of Jesus Christ in many ways.
No society follows Christ’s example perfectly; all our works are under his judgment as well as his mercy. This means that no one gets a “pass”: Jesus challenges every culture, even historic Christian culture.
This is the deeper “counterculturalism” of our Faith. Its most subversive aspects are not the clear dictates of the Natural Law, but the paradoxes and shocks of the Gospel:
You must love your enemies to death, forgiving everything a thousand times over. You must, because this is the way of your Father – who loves those who hate Him, and is close to those who stray from Him.
You want to be face-to-face with God? Sell everything; come and die! Come where there is no turning back. Come and walk with God: alongside the condemned criminals, those forced to dig their own graves.
Congratulations, you spiritually bankrupt! You have the keys to the Father’s house. Congratulations, when you have the privilege of being spat upon, the good fortune to have your heart purified by fire . . .
I believe, following St. Paul, that a Gospel which never seems foolish to the world is no Gospel at all. Jesus asks us to defy conventional, worldly wisdom in the deepest way – putting it to shame through the higher wisdom of the Cross and the Resurrection.
The Lord calls us to perfection; but his idea of perfection is inherently subversive. It is the perfection of the empty, trampled, sorrowful, and desperate; it is the life of inexplicable compassion, painful purification, sacrificial peacemaking, and the reward of being scorned.
The most remarkable, challenging aspects of our faith are not its doctrinal and moral norms, as important and true as those are. If we think the most “countercultural” Catholic teachings are those about marriage, or contraception, or the Papacy, perhaps we have closed our ears to the Sermon on the Mount!
Our culture, no less than that of first-century Rome, needs to hear the message of the Beatitudes. I do not mean some fashionable, artificially-politicized interpretation of them. I mean the teaching of Jesus Himself – deep as an ocean, hard as a diamond, always and everywhere subversive:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall be filled . . .”
Some readers may object: “In this time of crisis, when people are so intellectually and morally confused, shouldn’t the Church focus mainly on her moral norms and infallible dogmas? Shouldn’t we focus on bringing people back to the foundations of the Ten Commandments, which the Beatitudes presuppose?”
I sympathize with this objection. And I do not deny its first premise: our society has reached a point where even the Ten Commandments are “countercultural.” Under various guises, popular culture promotes idolatry, blasphemy, apostasy, murder, adultery, covetousness, and family breakdown.
But the conclusion – that moral reform and intellectual clarification must now be the Church’s main tasks – does not follow.
Why not? In short: because Jesus has brought an entirely new life to man, an infinite hope to the world. And this must be the Church’s primary message, in all times and places.
Christ’s Church, of course, speaks with authority in matters of faith and morals. Moral steadfastness and doctrinal accuracy are necessities, not luxuries.
Nevertheless, Christians must not give the impression of being “different” mainly because of certain moral principles or dogmatic formulas. Catholicism is not simply “the religion of the Ten Commandments” with a few added “extras.”
The essence of our faith is the mystery of Christ Himself. The Church does call the world to repent; but she does so because “the Kingdom of God is at hand”: God has joined the human race, in the Person of Jesus, in order to reunite us with Himself.
Some of our moral beliefs, and distinctive doctrines, happen to be countercultural due to the culture’s present state. But these things are not the fundamental difference between the Church and the world.
The Church is different because, by God’s grace, she knows Jesus Christ. We are countercultural insofar as we have the mind of the One under whose judgment all cultures stand. We can see history’s landscape through Jesus’ eyes, and traverse it in his footsteps.
The essence of “Catholic counterculture” is the life and worldview of the Beatitudes. By faith, we find God even – or especially – in all that the world calls worthless and miserable.
What is most countercultural is not this or that particular Church teaching, but the divinely-inspired attitude of faith, hope, and love in the face of life’s painful limitations – the outlook summed up by the Beatitudes, and verified by the Resurrection.
This deeper counterculturalism is summed up by Pope St. Pius X, in his 1908 catechism.
“The world calls those happy who abound in riches and honors, who lead a pleasant life, and who meet with no occasions of suffering,” the Pope states. “Jesus Christ proposed the Beatitudes to us to make us detest the maxims of the world, and to invite us to love and practice the maxims of the Gospel.”
It is not enough to go against prevailing trends of the day. We must put on the mind of Christ, and go against the way of the world.
This is an uncomfortable realization. But it is verified completely, by even the limited experience I have with the kind of life Jesus calls “blessed.”