Catholics and Culture

by CJ Lam on November 30th, 2002
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This is one of several entries my friend CJ from Hong Kong wrote in my guestbook...
A remark that I once heard made a deep impression on me. It was made by a very refined clergyman, one of the most influential priests of his day, the Rev. Neil Norbert McKinnon, S.J. He was pastor of one of the great churches of New York, St. Ignatius Loyola. The remark was occasioned by a funeral service at which he had just officiated. The deceased was a man of distinction in the financial world, and at his funeral was a large attendance of men and women socially prominent, and most of them non-Catholics.

On his way from the church to the rectory Father McKinnon heard one of his good, simple parishioners say to another: "Isn't it strange that all those big bugs are wrong and we are right?" Afterwards he said to me, commenting on what he had heard: "In this country, one of the obstacles to the conversion of Protestants is their worship of respectability."

I have often reflected on that remark. Time and again I have seen it verified. I recall that an aristocratic and very well educated man in Boston came to me to protest that his son had disgraced the family by becoming a Catholic. The man was very indignant, and among other things said: "Do you think that my cook and coachman are right and that I am wrong? Must my son's religion be that of laborers and chambermaids, rather than of cultured and professional people?"

What he said is what a great many of his social class think. It is also at times a temptation to the faith of Catholics. For it does seem strange that the bankers and great merchants and distinguished lawyers and doctors should as a class be wrong and that their servants and others of inferior cultural status should as a class be right.

As Father McKinnon said: "The worship of respectability is a great obstacle to the conversion of Protestants in this country."

To the gentleman who protested to me that his son's becoming a Catholic had disgraced his family I said, very quietly and calmly, for I made allowance for his state of mind: "My dear sir, I appreciate your position and I sympathize with you. If you will bear with me a while, I shall try to give you another view of the matter."

As he seemed disposed to hear me, I told him briefly that if he went to France or Belgium or Spain or other continental countries, he would find that nearly everybody who was anybody was a Catholic. In fact if he went far enough back his own ancestors were Catholic. Oxford and Cambridge were once Catholic universities. England's rulers in the days of England's glory were Catholic. English aristocracy at its highest was Catholic. European civilization was mainly Catholic. European art was almost entirely Catholic. It was the Catholic Church which took in hand the Huns and Vandals and other devastating races which threatened to overthrow civilization, and made them the modern nations of Europe, now so much admired for their progress and culture.

In this country, in some parts, it is true that Catholics, as a class, suffer in comparison with Protestants from a cultural standpoint. This is due to the fact that culture presupposes leisure. A day laborer has neither time nor opportunity for acquiring culture. Catholics, as a class, have had to struggle for their livelihood, so that until very recently they have not had the leisure which culture of a certain conventional type presupposes. They, for the most part, came to this country after it was mostly in the possession of Protestants, who owned not only the land, but the factories and banks and industry generally. Coming here poor and without influence, and deprived of education by penal laws in their native land, they naturally became laborers and servants.

It was not the wealthy and cultured from other countries who came to our shores, but the poor and the oppressed. Exile sent them to us deprived of almost everything but their faith. It was mainly because they were true to their faith that they were reduced to a condition so deplorable that they came here to better themselves. They lost their goods and opportunity at home rather than forsake their religion. Settling in this country, of course they were cooks and butlers and laborers. But, to their credit be it said, no body of people in the history of the world has advanced so fast and so far in cultural development as these immigrants from Catholic countries.

Without education themselves, these early immigrants made every sacrifice in order that their children might have it, until to-day in every profession and business they are worthily represented. No other class of people in our country has so many institutions of higher education nor so many privately supported secondary schools as the descendants of those immigrants who came here without anything but a stout heart and a firm faith.

In a generation or two more non-Catholics will not be able to point to their Catholic fellow-citizens as ignorant or lacking in culture. It is only too true that until very recently Catholics as a class in certain parts of our country, were the hewers of wood and makers of brick and toilers generally. But our aristocratic and cultured critics were no better than that in the early days of their occupancy. They should not forget that. Unfortunately they do. They also forget that all the culture bequeathed to them in literature, art, and architecture, was what the Catholic Church preserved to them from the cataclysms of the period following the fall of the Roman empire, or what Catholic genius produced in the ages of faith.

However, this is only a personal retort, an undesirable argument. I have mentioned it because we should know that Catholic culture needs no apology other than a statement of facts. What supposedly cultured people now cast up against Catholics is what the cultured Romans objected to in the Apostles. I designedly said supposedly cultured, because a cultured person is a gentleman, and a gentleman never indicts pain. A gentleman never embarrasses an inferior by humiliating comparisons, explicit or implied.

The cultured Romans were no doubt shocked by the preachers of the Gospel. How could they, noble Romans, be wrong, and these peasants right? But the peasants were right, as we know. Christianity is the answer.

Herod and his court laughed Christ to scorn and paraded Him as a fool through the streets of Jerusalem. Yet Christ was Truth itself, and Herod was not only wrong, but vicious. Christ did not come to give us worldly honor, or success or wealth, or conventional culture, but the Truth, the Truth that makes us the children of God, if only we live by the Truth.

He came to give us eternal life, a share in His own glorious life. All of us, cultured and ignorant, rich and poor, are the objects of His love. The only aristocracy that God recognizes is that of virtue. The Scribes and Pharisees were the great people of Israel in His day. Yet these He called whitened sepulchres. They were fair to behold, but full of deceit and hypocrisy, the "better than thou" kind. Christ flayed them.

Culture is a most desirable thing, but not if it despise the clean of heart and those of good-will for no other reason than that they are poor or lack culture. Christ loved the poor. He foretold that the poor should always be found in His Church. To despise the Catholic Church because of her poor is to despise Truth itself. Herod and Nero were rich. Christ was poor. Herod and Nero were powerful. Christ was weak. Herod and Nero were wrong. Christ was right. Christ was Truth.

His Church is as true as Himself, for He said it. His Church is the Catholic Church. As He Himself was opposed by the world, we should not be surprised that His Church is. We do not look for better treatment than He had. At the same time we should endeavor to be true followers of our Model and Leader. Too often it is un-Christian conduct rather than poverty or lack of culture that repels our non-Catholic countrymen.