by: Deacon Gabriel von Wendt, LC, Catholic Worldview, Philosophy faculty of APRA. Glances on Cultural Change (2018), pp. 99-105.
If you analyze the Church’s external responsibility in society, you can compile a list of elements which qualify her encounter with culture: her prophetic vocation implies proclamation and testament to the truth; by imitating Christ’s example and fulfilling his commandment, she is to always give priority to charity; driven by the urgency of salvation, she assumes the kingly responsibility to lead mankind to the true good; and this missionary leadership must take on the same shape of selfless service as Jesus, the King, lived it. Testimony, charity, leadership, mission—all these are important ingredients for the Church’s encounter with culture. One thing, however, has an even more powerful impact and is thus more important for the Church and the world: holiness. Holiness is the leaven that raises all the prior elements to their full richness.
In fact, it is no coincidence that all the great leader figures of the Church, who teach us the art of genuine Catholic leadership in culture, were saints. This does not mean that genuine Catholic leadership is reserved for a few special souls. “‘All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 40). All are called to holiness: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48).” The core factor for Catholic cultural leadership is holiness—be it reactive leadership (resist, rebuke, reform, rebuild), or active (decamp, explore, create, act). Holy persons are those who do the will of the Father in everything and devote themselves wholeheartedly “to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor.” Therefore, they will intuitively see the world through God’s eyes and, thus, apply his vision in a way that is attentive to the genuine needs of the people.
In this sense, it appears that holiness and Christian engagement in culture are closely related. But is that really true? Is it even possible to be both leaven and holy? Can one reach the high peak of sanctity while engaged in a world which is often so hostile to God, the source of all holiness? And if so, should there not be at least a certain separation, aimed to clean the soul and fill the heart with noble and pure things? All religious experiences will assert that, indeed, a certain separation is necessary. In the first place, such a separation is implied by the general ascesis which all types of spiritual activity demand. From basic recollection to ritual worship, all religious acts require to free oneself from the busyness of the ordinary life. That condition, which will have a more rigorous form if pedagogically motivated, can even become the main focus of religious commitment. The different forms of consecration, in fact, are deliberate acts of separating something or someone from the world for its or his exclusive dedication to sacred affairs.
Out of admiration for the radicalism of such an act, holiness is often equated with consecration. But, while the separation from other objects in order to focus on God alone for a while is the very act of religion, the physical or cultural separation of the world as such is not necessary to become holy. It will occasionally be convenient; it can even become the very character of an individual vocation when someone is called to consecrate his life to God; but it is not essential for holiness. Sure enough, the spiritual journey of conversion and sanctification will replace the worldly standards with new ones; God will call the soul to spend time with him alone; the soul will develop a spiritual gusto which surpasses all corporal delights; yet, all that work of grace is not inhibited by living in the world. That which does inhibit grace, sin, is not conquered by simply secluding oneself. Holiness requires ascesis. But it would be wrong to think that the more radical the ascesis becomes, the holier a person. Therefore, it is also not true that, the more a person gets separated from the world, the holier he will become. On the contrary, too much ascesis often leads to too much confidence in one’s own will; and too much separation from the world can, similarly, lead to too much self-reference.
It is thus wrong to believe that holiness is first achieved by seclusion and then “tested” in the world. Such a conception reflects a vision of holiness which could be called “puritan.” It would suggest that there is a purer form of Christianity than the one we have inherited through Tradition and that one would have to access that form directly through the purifying practice of an individual and exclusive contact with Christ (cf. Kierkegaard’s ideal of contemporaneity). It would suggest that there is a purer form of the Church than the visible one, in which one participates invisibly, personally and immediately (see Luther’s ideal of the spiritual Church). Such an ideal of holiness would further suggest that there is a purer form of wisdom than the commonly accessible one, obtainable only for a small elected community (cf. the ideal of old and new gnostic sects and puritan communities). Such puritanism would fundamentally suggest that there is a purer form of humanity to be achieved, purer than the ordinary, unenlightened human life (cf. the ideals of modern humanism).
Ultimately, these patterns are motivated by a disdain for all corporal and ordinary things, a disdain which has hindered people among each generation to embrace Christ’s Revelation to its last consequence: The Word became flesh. The above are tendencies which reflect one of the great heresies of history, all of which failed to fathom the depth of the mystery of the incarnation: “The Nestorian heresy regarded Christ as a human person joined to the divine person of God’s Son.” Nestorius thus suggested that there is a purer form of the Son of God than the incarnated one, that is, that the Son only lived in Jesus but was not Jesus. In fact, as both Kierkegaard and Guardini showed, faith is greatly challenged in front of the mystery of the incarnation. That challenge leads many to believe in and strive for a purer, more ideal and higher concept “hidden in the flesh;” to hold that, since the reality we face is simply too imperfect, we rather have to choose an abstract, alienated ideal.
In an analogous way, it is difficult to accept the implication of the incarnational pattern in holiness. It would be easier to project a purer form of holiness, idealistic and remote from the complicated scenery of actual life. But it must not. Holiness must not be understood according to the pattern of Kierkegaard’s flight from history, but as an endeavor to engage in the concrete historical and cultural circumstance in which a Christian lives. Holiness must not be understood according to the pattern of Luther’s personalization of faith, but as an endeavor to engage in the concrete community of the visible—and thus human and imperfect—Church. Holiness must not be understood according to the pattern of puritan communities, but as an endeavor to engage in the ordinary life of our society. Holiness must not be understood according to the pattern of elitist, humanist education, but as an endeavor to engage in the strive for perfection in the simple tasks of one’s state of life. Above all, holiness must not be understood according to the ancient temptation of disdaining the corporal humanity which Christ wanted to become himself, but as imitation of the way he lived as true God and true man.
All generations, and probably most human beings, find it difficult to embrace the vocation which Christ’s incarnation entails: to become holy by and while becoming fully human. We find traces of the temptation to minify or even despise the character of the human condition in all religions. The pagan religions often express that disdain through a certain “trans-humanism” which identifies salvation with some form of escape from the ordinary human condition. The Old Testament reveals the sole legitimate motive which can justify such a tendency: the Fall. Man’s tendency to sin and his history of falling into sin explains and justifies his traumatic quest to overcome his condition. “The awareness of guilt weighs down on mankind. Worship [Kult] is the attempt, to be found at every stage of history, to overcome guilt and bring the world and one’s own life into right order.” In this sense, Feuerbach’s notion of alienation has truth to it if we consider that religion is a response to man’s misery and the projection of its overcoming in the afterlife. From here, the resignation of modern atheism, which perceives the vainness of man’s attempt to redeem himself by cult or rituals, seems quite coherent. For religion cannot be a technique for man to solve his problems. “And yet an immense feeling of futility pervades everything [all forms of worship]. This is the tragic face of [worship in] human history [Kultgeschichte]. How can man again connect the world with God? How is he supposed to make valid atonement?” Holiness cannot be the result of puritan asceticism. Religiosity is man’s hand stretching high, but he cannot pull himself up with his other hand. Man cannot redeem himself.
When faced with this impossibility, the best thing might appear to be the acceptance of one’s condition rather than trying to run through that wall again and again. This notion characterizes who we could call the “fathers of contemporary atheism” and their encouragement to stop minifying mankind: Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud. Their projects were a shift towards silencing man’s conscience which never stops accusing him of being guilty. Friedrich Nietzsche calls for the embrace of the Wille zur Macht [will to power], Ludwig Feuerbach suggests brushing off the idea of otherworldly standards; Karl Marx proposes aiming for history’s material progress rather than for imaginary personal beatitude, and Sigmund Freud presents an analogy between dismissing the illusion of God and emancipation from one’s father. By doing so, they call for deliberate affirmation and thriving within those human tendencies which used to be called sinful. Their atheism claims therefore to be life-affirming in contrast with the assumingly life-disdaining or even bedeviling approach of religion.
The desire to be redeemed is universal. Even the “fathers of contemporary atheism” knew that, and their projects were precisely the attempt to offer new interpretations for the root cause of this desire: weakness (Nietzsche), evasion (Feuerbach), super-structural manipulation (Marx), or obsessive complex (Freud). But what if there is another way to cope with man’s restlessness? What if there really is Redemption? Would that not respond to man’s anxiety much better?
From this angle, the concepts of Redemption and holiness come into clearer focus. Far from being a human remedy, a do-it-yourself technique, or a merit-based price, Redemption is “the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin.” This ransom could only be paid gratuitously by God and must imply a renewal of man’s fallen nature. Here we stand at the chasm between believing in a redeeming God or not. Does God exist and does he offer Redemption?
The Jewish purification rituals performed by the priests in the name of the whole people were an attempt to remedy the tainted human condition. These rituals, while still affected by tellingly similar ideals as the abovementioned concepts of holiness, breathe the authentic faith that God does exist and does want to redeem mankind. The God of the Old Testament could grant forgiveness and recreate human integrity and holiness. But how? The attempts to remedy were valid; in fact, it is wise to remedy an essentially tainted human nature, twisted to tend to do evil. Far better than giving in to that condition, man can prescribe himself ascesis, moderation, education, and, above all, separation from that which tempts him to sin. But the fact remains that all that can only contain man, it cannot redeem him.
The described remedies are means to prevent man from acting too spontaneously, knowing that his tendencies often lead to more sin. Again, that type of religion is a remedy to contain humanity; but it does not heal, redeem, or sanctify it. Only he who created man can also redeem him from his restlessness. St. Augustine expressed this in his famous phrase: “You made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you [fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te].” In this light, Jesus’ role as High Priest becomes evident. “There is no longer a replacement cult. Now the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us into that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration. […] Here at last is right worship, ever longed for and yet surpassing our powers.” Christ has performed the sacrifice which really restored the integrity of the human condition. From then on, holiness is no longer the puritan ideal of “containment.” Purity in Christ does not mean to be untouched and removed from the filthy ordinary world; Christian holiness is about being fully human again, as a result of Christ’s Redemption.
The redeemed new man still suffers the effects of original sin. He, therefore, still experiences the twisted tendency to sin, which is why he too needs to contain himself and apply the remedies of ascesis, moderation, education, and separation from what can tempt him. But that is not the way to redeem himself nor the cause of his sanctification. Through baptism he is given the new life in Christ, and herein lies a higher morality than mere containment. Christ’s own life was a fulfillment of that for which man had tried in vain: to truly embrace the human condition, but in a pure and good and holy way. In him, man can find the rest which all desire and which Augustine so strikingly expressed; in him, human nature finds itself restored and no longer convicted to fail; in him, freedom and law overlap in love.
This vision of human redemption and morality affirms the restoration of man’s nature, the creation of a new man in Christ.  What would be impossible out of man’s own strength, is given thanks to the life in the Spirit whose grace enables the Christian to live in accordance to the law of love. This grace, however, still requires a response, a free collaboration of each person. This response is a responsibility and, as such, does require a high degree of the ascesis which only resembles the ideals of human self-redemption. Moderation, education, and even separation are valid and often necessary means to respond to the grace by which God works our sanctification, but they are no “mechanisms for holiness.” Therefore, the ascetic elements of Christian religion are far more than remedies for containment; Christian morality is about nourishing the wondrous flower that grace has planted in the soul through baptism.
Going to the heart of the moral message of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles, and summing up in a remarkable way the great tradition of the Fathers of the East and West, and of Saint Augustine in particular, Saint Thomas was able to write that the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ. The external precepts also mentioned in the Gospel dispose one for this grace or produce its effects in one’s life. Indeed, the New Law is not content to say what must be done, but also gives the power to “do what is true” (cf. John 3:21).
The new man has received a vocation to holiness which is no longer based on the restrictive ethics of the old law; he is to become a new man in Christ.
That is the type of holiness which the world needs. Since it is neither caused humanly nor culturally but by God; since it is no technique but a gift; since it is ascetically educated but not itself ascetic but mystic: this type of holiness is not extinguished by surrounding darkness but shines bright and far in it. It must not fear the world but warm it and light it. It does not essentially need external separation from the world but internal communion with the Holy Spirit. It is the type of holiness that, while always requiring a wise and pedagogical dose of ascesis, can blossom as an innocent flower in the filthiest spots of the world or during the most decadent times of history.
What makes the examples of the saints so striking, in fact, is precisely that their light does not shine because of their bright circumstances of life but, on the contrary, as a sign of contradiction: in spite of the surrounding darkness, they possess a source of light in their interior. The saints are proofs of the possibility of redemption; they stand upright among the crowd that desperately desires to stand up; they are special, not because they mustered the strength to rise, but because they accepted the redeeming hand which Christ offers us all. The saints have become fully human.
Such is the holiness which the Church can offer. In its life-affirming character, that ideal is nothing to be hidden from the world. On the contrary, it is the very message of the Church by which she shall engage in culture: the true road to human fulfillment. The fact that contemporary generations often perceive the Christian message as life-minifying or bedeviling while embracing atheism, is nothing short of dramatic. Nothing affirms man’s life as wholeheartedly as Christ’s Revelation, and nothing belittles man as much as those teachings which invite him to resign from his high desires of wholesomeness and redemption. The Gospel is full of examples where Christ teaches us to be human. In fact, he never indulged in the gnostic or puritan or legalistic forms of “holiness” which were as present in his age as in all others. Christ became man precisely in order to show us how to be man. He came into the world precisely in order to show us how to live in the world. He became flesh in order to direct our attention to the human condition again and recover hope in the possibility of achieving the human wholesomeness which we all long for. Thanks to Christ, man neither has to accept the misery he so often perceives, nor does he have to try and escape from his humanness by means of abstract puritan ideals. Christ offers man a road to be completely human.
As we have mentioned, the way in which Christ made that possible, in which he reestablished human nature and paid the ransom for our sins, was by assuming the role of High Priest. The priest stands before God in the name of the people and offers the sacrifice of expiation in order to sanctify the people. Christ, the priest, offered the most precious sacrifice of all, his own life. “For God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:17). In as much as the Christian is called to participate in Christ’s priesthood, he represents mankind before God and has the responsibility to sanctify the world through his own love and self-giving. That priestly sacrifice of oneself takes different forms in different states of life. The ministerial priest “teaches and rules the priestly people; acting in the person of Christ, he makes present the Eucharistic sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people.” The laity, through their participation in the common priesthood of Christ, are called to holiness precisely through their presence in the world.
For their work, prayers and apostolic endeavours, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labour, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord’s body. Thus as worshipers whose every deed is holy, the lay faithful consecrate the world itself to God.
In that sense, the Church’s priestly attitude toward the world is decidedly not to separate from it but to assume responsibility for it. All this adds a specific attitude to the way the Church is to relate to the world in her external ministry. The prophetic character, the sincere charity, the kingly responsibility and the missionary leadership: all these elements need to be motivated and permeated by the awareness that one’s own holiness does not stand prior to one’s task to be leaven but is achieved in it. To become holy, one does not need to suspend the encounter with the world! The holiness of the Christian, especially of the laity, essentially consists in being leaven in the world. Their way to become holy is to sanctify the world they live in.
The Meaning of Cultural Change from the Perspective of Revelation
Does God really care about the world? If he doesn’t, why should we? If he does, how could we not?
The world is all we know. Time is the cotton from which we spin history. Space is the stage on which we perform our lives. Culture is the momentum in our common drive forward. We are the world. We are a work in progress. We change all the time.
Does God care? He has no time. He stands in no space. He transcends culture. He does not change. God is not the world.
God does care! Revelation comes as a surprise. Not just a message, not just an order, not just a new creation—God himself enters the world. The unthinkable. Oh, how he cares!
What do cultural changes mean from the standpoint of Revelation? The sum total of Revelation, Christ, has manifested God’s supreme love for the world by becoming man himself. God not only created the world and entered into a genuine dialogue with man, he maintained that dedication after man had fallen into sin. God remained faithful to his alliance with man, and his Son, by becoming flesh, entered history in order to redeem mankind. Through the incarnation, the dialogue between God and man became a genuine encounter, in which God adopted the limited condition of the creature whose love he sought. In order to impart orientation from above, he walked among men below. In order to change the course of history, he joined mankind’s quest through time. In order to lift up sinners, he lived among them.
In this sense, no change in culture can brush off God’s company. No sin can stop him from yet another loving approach. God is not afraid of changes. He has seen them all before. His project is not to lead history to a happy ending nor to raise culture to a supreme height nor to erect his palace in a human city. God has already achieved his objective. He has already installed his Kingdom and prepared dwellings for us in it. The turns of history and the shifts in culture do not interest him in order to make things right on earth. Rather, he is interested in history and culture because it is there where he finds us; it is where we live, how we live; it is where he encounters each one of us. How? He encounters us in the Church. That is her mission: to be there at each moment and in each place of the world as the mediator through which God encounters his children. The Church—that is, her members—is the incarnate presence of God in the world.
We see then that the task of evangelization operates within the limits of language and of circumstances. It constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it can bring whenever perfection is not possible. A missionary heart is aware of these limits and makes itself “weak with the weak… everything for everyone” (1 Cor 9:22). It never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness. It realizes that it has to grow in its own understanding of the Gospel and in discerning the paths of the Spirit, and so it always does what good it can, even if in the process, its shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.
The fact that the Church does not isolate herself from the world but pervades it as leaven in the dough or as the soul in the body is the manifestation of God’s close love for mankind—caring, irresistible, unconditional.
The mission to manifest God’s love for the world entails two specific principles for the Church’s engagement in culture: leadership and encounter. First, it is her role to offer leadership by means of orientation in the constant changes of history because that is what God revealed when entering history: the true way to happiness. Second, it is her role to always encounter people by means of enculturing God’s message; this is what God did when incarnating himself and when founding the Church: facing man in a truly approachable fashion. Thus, the Church’s leadership and encounter are rooted in God’s Revelation and incarnation.
In order to fully reveal himself, God incarnated himself. In order to truly exercise leadership, one must encounter the other. Culture and man, which constantly undergo the changes of history and life, need the leadership of the Church. The more they change, the more committedly she needs to encounter them. Cultural change means, from a theological perspective, that the Church’s mission to give orientation never ceases, but that she has to engage the world, generation after generation, and proclaim to each culture that “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:17).
For God does care.
 CCC, n. 2013.
 See John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolical Exhortation Vita Consecrata (25 March 1996), n. 7.
 CCC, n. 466.
 J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius, San Francisco 2000, 35.
 See L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion (1845).
 J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy…, 35.
 See F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882).
 See L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Religion (1845).
 See K. Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843).
 See S. Freud, The Question of a Weltanschauung (1918).
 In our time, this logic is applied above all to the area of sexuality.
 CCC, n. 601.
 Augustine, Confessions. I., Penguin, London 1966, 21.
 J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy…, 47.
 See John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (6 August 1993), nn. 5-21.
 Veritatis Splendor, n. 24.
 Lumen Gentium, n. 10.
 Lumen Gentium, n. 34; emphasis added.
 Cf. Dei Verbum, n. 2.
 Evangelii Gaudium, n. 45.