JPII to FUS: Do not be afraid to listen to the surrounding culture

by John F. Crosby

The Apostolic Constitution of John Paul II on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, is often quoted here at the university with a sense of satisfaction. People point out, and are right to point out, that we seem to be in full conformity with all the provisions of the document concerning the loyalty to the magisterium that should be practiced by the teachers in a Catholic university, as well as with the provisions concerning the pastoral care of students. What is, however, not sufficiently noticed among us is that Ex Corde Ecclesiae also gives directives that represent a challenge for Franciscan University; we have no little growing to do before we are in full harmony with them.

I am thinking of passages in it like this one: “a Catholic University, aware that human culture is open to Revelation and transcendence, is also a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture.” Now some of us might at first react by asking what good can come from dialogue with the surrounding culture; we might say that the surrounding culture is nothing but the culture of death, and that our job as Christians is to avoid being contaminated by it and to witness against it, but certainly not to engage it in dialogue. We should of course study our own Catholic culture, but why bother with the culture of fallen human beings? Well, John Paul writing in Ex Corde Ecclesiae thinks otherwise; he would have us listen to the surrounding culture, fallen as it is, and try to understand its aspirations and hear its questions and appreciate the elements of truth that it recognizes. He would tell us that the surrounding culture cannot be simply identified with the culture of death, since it is in some ways, as we just heard him put it, “open to Revelation and transcendence.”

I know of no better example of what it is for Christians to enter into dialogue with the surrounding culture than the Introduction to the Vatican Council’s great declaration, Gaudium et Spes. The Council fathers are far from identifying the modern world with the culture of death. Instead they try to understand “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of our time,” to quote the famous opening sentence. Then they say: “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.”

John Paul gives us many examples of listening intently to the surrounding culture. I was particularly struck by the addresses he gave in the summer of 1995 on woman and her place in society. He spoke as one who has obviously been listening to all that is stirring in our culture on the subject of woman.

Now the idea of the Pope in Ex Corde Ecclesiae is that this listening to the culture takes place in a particular way in a Catholic university, where Catholic intellectuals try to understand the thought and the imagination and the aesthetic sensibility of their contemporaries.

At first glance it might seem that this listening is simply a pastoral necessity-as if the Church cannot evangelize until she knows something about those whom she would envangelize. But there is more to it than that. The Church too receives something from the encounter with the culture. In Gaudium et Spes the Council fathers certainly were led to develop the Catholic understanding of the Church in relation to the world. For example, they recognized as never before the religious significance of what they call building up the earth, and with this they deepened the Church’s understanding of the lay vocation. My point is that it was just in listening seriously and sympathetically to the modern world and in trying to respond to it that the Church was enabled to bring forth something new from her treasures. This growth in the understanding of her own faith could have hardly taken place if the Church had refused to have anything to do with the modern world.

We see the same thing with John Paul developing the Christian understanding of woman, to which I just referred. He is saying some new and original things just because he first listened to what is being said about woman. For all the feminist errors abroad in the land, errors of which John Paul is entirely aware, there is an important sense in which he is developing the Church’s teaching on woman in dialogue with the surrounding culture. It is not as if he has to be taught about woman by non-Christians, but he cannot fully unfold the revelation about woman entrusted to the Church if he does not try to respond to the aspirations and questions and challenges of the women of our time. John Paul expresses this in strong language in Ex Corde Ecclesiae when he says that a faith that refuses the encounter with the culture is a “decapitated faith.”

Cardinal Newman understood this, too, and expressed it in terms of a certain “power of assimilation” that the Church has in relation to the surrounding culture. The Church can assimilate elements from the culture for her own upbuilding, and in fact without this work of assimilation she would be in some way deprived.

... wherever she [the Church] went…she was a living spirit…“sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions;” claiming to herself what they said rightly, correcting their errors, supplying their defects, completing their beginnings, expanding their surmises, and thus gradually by means of them enlarging the range and refining the sense of her own teaching. ... we hold that one special way in which Providence has imparted divine knowledge to us has been by enabling her to draw and collect it together out of the world,and, in this sense, as in others, “to suck the milk of the Gentiles…” (Newman, 232) But we can suck the milk of the Gentiles only on the basis of the dialogue with the culture of John Paul speaks in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Newman seems to envision something like this dialogue when he speaks of the Church “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions.”

Yes, I know, it is dangerous to undertake this work of assimilating elements from the culture; it can all too easily happen that instead of assimilating, we get assimilated, losing our Christian identity. In the post- Conciliar Church we have seen too many Christians losing themselves in the culture. But everything worth doing is dangerous. I would just remind you that it is also dangerous not to engage the culture, for then, as I was saying, the faith runs the danger of a certain atrophy.

I conclude with a word on the responsibility that we teachers have for our students. If we let them think of the surrounding culture as nothing but the culture of death, then they will approach it with a stance of total rejection. They will be unable to penetrate it with the spirit of Christ. They will tend to remain sheltered in ecclesial structures and not to know how to live the lay vocation, which is the vocation of most of them. When they take their first position of responsibility in the world, or even in the Church, they are liable to become embroiled too quickly in confrontation and to “crash” before they have made their contribution. In a word their ability to be convincing bearers of Christ in the world depends on our ability to make Franciscan University a place where the Church listens to and engages the culture.

Dr. Crosby is Chairman of Franciscan Univeristy’s Philosophy Department.