Got Culture?
Jan 13, 2019

Got Culture?

Modern culture, postmodern culture.

O Lord, what does it mean?

Culture of life, culture of death.

O Lord, what does it mean?

Cult of personality and cult-following.

O Lord, what does it mean?

Culturally-significant cinema, novels, and music.

O Lord, what does it really mean?

Culture of secrecy, culture of transparency.

O Lord, let us make sense of it.

Culture of fear, culture of optimism.

O Lord, let us make sense of it.

Mexican culture, Canadian culture, American culture.

O Lord, can it make sense to us?

The culture of the family, the culture of the clergy.

O Lord, can it make any sense at all to us?


I begin this issues’s editorial with a little litany I composed to seek the Lord’s help in understanding culture. On the face of it, culture shouldn’t be a difficult thing to comprehend. After all, culture is everywhere. We are born into a culture: a family, a society, an historical epoch. We school our children in order to “cultivate” their minds, habits, and skills. We bemoan the bad in the larger culture, and work (or at a minimum, wish) to increase its good. We positively swim in culture.

Yet what is culture?

Putting one’s finger on just what marks this or that culture—getting the pulse of a culture—presents a daunting task. What is modern culture? How does the newly-hired coach foster a winning culture in the locker-room of his new team? Even Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, laments today’s “culture of zapping.” What do these “cultures” mean? What are their features?

Furthermore, and most importantly for our purposes here at Adoremus, what is the relationship between the Church and culture, especially in the liturgy?

January 25—the feast of St. Paul’s conversion, he who was sent as apostle to the Gentiles—marks the 25th anniversary of Varietates Legitimae, the Holy See’s instruction on “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy.” Inculturation, the document says, signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implantation of Christianity into different human cultures.” But can one understand the meeting of cultures—the ecclesial and the secular—without having a firm hand on “culture” itself?

Indeed, the cultural question presents itself daily, both inside and outside of religious circles. Here are three reasons why both culture and inculturation should concern liturgically-minded Catholics—that is, all Catholics!

First, the Church works to redeem cultures. Inculturation works much like the Incarnation. “God became man,” St. Athanasius wrote, “so that man might become God.” Similarly, the Mystical Body of Christ engages a secular culture so that the secular culture might be redeemed, transfigured, and divinized. Inculturation describes “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church” (Varietates Legitimae, 4). By inculturation, the City of Man can come to resemble the City of God; the earthly Jerusalem (or its Chicago or Miami iterations) can become a sacrament of the heavenly Jerusalem. It is at the liturgy when the Church is most herself, most clearly manifesting the God-become-man and his divinizing power.

Second, knowledge of cultures and the dynamics of their meeting governs the mutual influence each should have on the other. Varietates Legitimae describes a “double movement” in inculturation, a shared enrichment. “On the one hand the penetration of the Gospel into a given sociocultural milieu ‘gives inner fruitfulness to the spiritual qualities and gifts proper to each people…, strengthens these qualities, perfects them and restores them in Christ.’ On the other hand, the Church assimilates these values, when they are compatible with the Gospel, ‘to deepen understanding of Christ’s message and give it more effective expression in the liturgy and in the many different aspects of the life of the community of believers’” (4).

But questions arise: in liturgical inculturation’s “double movement,” just how much of the liturgy should be adapted to the culture, and which of the culture’s values ought to be assimilated into sacramental celebrations? Indeed, not all cultural elements are “compatible with the true and authentic spirit of the liturgy” (VL, 2). The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, for example, may be accused of too little accommodation to varying circumstances, while the Ordinary Form of too much accommodation. A firm grasp of both culture and inculturation can clarify these difficult questions.

Third, since language is a key component of culture (perhaps its central element), liturgy’s language questions are also culture and inculturation questions. Liturgiam Authenticam’s 2001 norms, in fact, “are to be substituted for all norms previously published on the matter, with the exception of the Instruction Varietates Legitimae, published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments…in conjunction with which the norms in this present Instruction are to be understood” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 8). It is for this reason that Varietates Legitimae is especially important to our understanding of the liturgy. One cannot read and apply Liturgiam Authenticam’s principles authentically without knowledge of Varietates Legitimae. Ultimately, the “God who speaks,” as Benedict XVI writes in Verbum Domini, speaks like us so that we might speak like him (to adapt Athanasius’s dictum).

Because Varietates Legitimae has such wide and profound application to the liturgy, Adoremus Bulletin is devoting ample space in the year ahead to the topic of culture and inculturation. For starters, consider the following excerpt from Varietates Legitimae below, “The Process of Inculturation Throughout the History of Salvation,” as well as Denis McNamara’s introduction to the topic on page 6. Then look forward to entries in future issues by Father Cassian Folsom on monasticism’s counterculture, Father Thomas Baima on eastern cultures and ritual families, and Joseph O’Brien’s review of The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture, Yesterday & Today, by Jared Staudt.

Culture fundamentally refers to the fruits of meaningful human activity. Since liturgy is among man’s most meaningful activities, the cultural question is paramount to Adoremus. Particularly since our Catholic cult cultivates culture—worship makes our world—it is in the Church’s best interests to get it right. O Lord, let us make sense of it.