NEWS SERVICE OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CATHOLIC FAMILIES
A Culture of Life
from a Culture of Truth
Here's my point: What's true for individual persons is also true for cultures. And I'll give you an example. A couple of years ago, the BBC ran a documentary series called The Crusades. The series had a point of view. According to the series, the men of the Middle Ages who embarked on the Crusades were pretty much a mob of semi-barbarian thugs. These gangsters, egged on by a politically ambitious papacy and greedy princes, invaded the cultured lands of the Middle East and - in the name of religious fanaticism - committed rape, murder, robbery, genocide and cannibalism for 200 years. Who appeared in and narrated the BBC series? Terry Jones. And what are his credentials? Well, he studied medieval literature as an undergraduate at Oxford. And he was a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. That's about it.
I happen to like Monty Python. In fact, I like them a lot. Even
20 years later, their work is very funny. But I don't want Terry
Jones telling me what my history is. Because that amounts to telling
me who I am
and what my past means. Reinventing history,
literature and even the Bible is a popular hobby these days. As
it turns out, Terry Jones is just two years older than me, and my
generation seems to have a particular gift for saddling the past
with the prejudices of the present. So I'd like to mention - for
the record - some of the details Terry glossed over in his BBC series.
go back to my earlier question about Manzikert. A thousand years
ago, Manzikert was a little town in eastern Asia Minor. Asia Minor
was part of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were Christian.
By 1071, they had already been fighting Muslim invasions for nearly
400 years. Muslim jihads, or holy wars, had already overrun Egypt,
North Africa, Palestine, the Middle East and Persia, all of which,
excepting Persia, had been substantially Christian. In each of those
places, the invaders systematically eradicated Christian faith and
culture, to the point where even the people's language changed to
Arabic. In 1071, a very important battle occurred near that little
town of Manzikert. The Seljuk Turks, who were Muslim, destroyed
a Christian Byzantine army. Within 20 years, the Turks had overrun
80 percent of Asia Minor. And that wiped out the source of most
of the Byzantine Empire's manpower, food and economic strength.
why, despite the Great Schism between eastern and western Christianity,
which had occurred only a few decades before, the Byzantine Emperor
turned to the Pope for help. And that's why the Pope preached the
First Crusade in 1095 - to help deliver Christians in the east from
point is this: The Crusades didn't take place in a vacuum. They
were part of a much larger and longer religious struggle, in which
terrible things happened on both sides. For nine centuries, the
Hagia Sophia - the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople - was
the greatest Christian Church in the world. When the Ottoman Turks
took the city in 1453, they immediately seized it and converted
it to a mosque. They did that for religious reasons. They were asserting
their militant Islamic faith. And therefore in judging the sins
and mistakes of the Crusades, we should also remember that the Muslim
concept of jihad predated the Christian concept of Crusade by more
than three centuries.
any of this got to do with us, today? Actually a lot, especially
when it comes to building a culture of life. Jesus said, "You
will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn
8:32). The culture of life emerges from a culture of truth; and
therefore memory and history should be exercises in seeking and
telling the truth about the past. This is why John Paul II wrote
that " . . . acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an
act of honesty and courage which helps us to strengthen our faith"
(TMA, 33). It's why the International Theological Commission wrote
last year that the purification of memory - which involves remembering,
acknowledging, and repenting of our sins while trusting completely
in the power of truth - begins a process of reconciliation which
"opens a new tomorrow for everyone."
is powerful. Purified memory is the voice of learned truth. Purified
memory is neither the denial of our mistakes - after all, when we
have God's mercy, we have no need to hide our own sinfulness - nor
is it the distortion and overemphasis of our mistakes, which informs
so much of the secular criticism of Christian history, including
the Crusades. Personal renewal comes from remembering the past honestly,
turning away from the sins we find there, and beginning again in
humility. The same applies to nations. When God gives Israel the
shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 - "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God,
the Lord is one" - He tells His people to "bind [my commands]
as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between
your eyes. And you shall write them on the door posts of your house
and on your gates" (Dt 6:8-9).
inscribes on the heart of Israel, His presence. God imprints on
the memory of Israel, His commands. And He follows that with a warning
and a promise: "See, I have set before you this day life and
good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your
God, which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God,
by walking in His ways and by keeping His commandments and His statutes
and His ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord
your God will bless you
But if your heart turns away, and
you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and
serve them, I declare to you this day that you shall perish
roots of the "culture of death" in America 2000 are located
right here - in our flight from the presence of God and the memory
of who we are in relationship to Him. We've become a people who
dislike the past, not because it's obsolete or uninteresting, but
because the past imposes obligations on us which are rooted in what's
gone before; it reveals who we are, and we don't want to be revealed;
and it cannot be changed, which offends our desire for power.
historian and social critic Christopher Lasch once observed that,
"To live for the moment is the prevailing passion [of Americans
in our lifetime] - to live for yourself, not for your predecessor
or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity,
the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating
in the past and stretching into the future." The result, said
Lasch, is a resentment and resistance to bearing children; a hunger
to delay the process of ageing; a focus on material fulfilment;
the rise of greed and callousness; and a relentless cult of the
self. Lasch wrote those words nearly 30 years ago in a book he called
'The Culture of Narcissism'. And the proof of his argument is around
us everywhere today.
a single six-month period in late 1999 and early 2000, The New
York Times Sunday Magazine ran major cover stories on "Teenseltown"
- the desperation of young women models in their 20s trying to look
like they're even younger, preferably in their mid-teens; "Racing
Toward Immortality" - the promise of living virtually forever,
or at least a lot longer, through stem-cell research and organ transplants;
"The Backlash Against Children" which pretty much explains
itself; and "Better Loving Through Chemistry: The Search for
the Female Viagra and Other Tales from the Second Sexual Revolution,"
which I think I can leave to your imagination.
unintended result of our prosperity and technological advances is
a consumer economy which deliberately creates new needs - and then
provides the products and experiences to fulfil them. It's a culture
entirely focused on the cultivation and satisfaction of personal
appetites, no matter how much damage is done to our vocabulary of
values in the process.
now markets its latest laptop computer as the real meaning of freedom.
Of course, the real meaning of freedom - the freedom built on personal
restraint, self-giving and moral character which John Paul II talks
about in the Gospel of Life and elsewhere, is barely part of our
national conversation any longer. The reason is simple. Restraint
gets in the way of production and consumption. The gods we serve
are no longer called "Baal"
but he's certainly
still around in whatever brand-name luxuries and indulgences we
care to put in his place. The effect is the same: a forgetfulness
of our relationship with the true God, a flight from memory and
history into the illusions of the present, and along with it, a
refusal to be responsible for the future. The heart of this culture
consists of three sins.
first is pride. Francis Bacon once said that "knowledge is
power," and we've learned to believe in that principle because
of the success of our science and technology, and the accumulation
of our wealth. For however long it lasts, we're still the only superpower
on the planet. The second sin is fear. When you have a lot of stuff,
you have a lot of stuff to lose. As a culture we're preoccupied
with getting more - and protecting what we already own. We also
suspect - rightly - that most of the rest of the world wants what
we have. The fear of losing what we have spills over into a fear
of sharing what we have. The population warfare we bankroll in many
parts of the developing world is an expression of that fear.
this leads to the third sin: anger. In a culture which exalts the
self, all selves are finally in competition. Community is based
on a shared past, a shared memory, shared principles which are larger
than the individual self, and a shared commitment to the future.
If the premise of a society is "create your own meaning,"
no common purpose is possible for long. Competition becomes conflict,
and conflict creates violence and more anger.
and all the other acts of violence against human dignity which Catholics
work so hard to prevent begin right here in this trinity of pride,
fear and anger. What can we do about it? How can we heal it? How
do we build a culture of life? The good news is: It's doable. The
not-so-good news is: We can't "quick-fix" our way out
of a problem we behaved ourselves into. We need to inscribe on our
souls the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark: "The
time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and
believe in the Gospel." Sounds easy, but it's not. It's accomplished
in the hard, daily struggle with ourselves to wake up from the culture
of death which our own selfishness has helped to create. We need
to pray for humble hearts, because humility is the beginning of
sanity. We need to pray for grateful hearts, because gratitude creates
joy. We need to pray for faithful hearts, because fidelity is the
seed of courage. And we need to pray for repentant and forgiving
hearts, because these make justice and mercy possible
justice and mercy are the food for brotherhood and real community
- the world God intended for us.
the Gospel from today's Liturgy, Jesus finally loses patience with
the multitude questioning Him and says, "You hypocrites! You
know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do
you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Lk 12:56).
Those are strong words. They reminded me of a front page story that
appeared in the Sunday New York Times a few months ago about Denmark.
It reported on the growing insecurity Danes feel about their national
identity. As the story began, a number of Danes were quoted complaining
about the proposed new Eurodollar and the loss of their traditional
Danish currency. But as the story progressed, the real anxiety emerged.
Denmark has a great many Turkish immigrants who speak Danish, but
as Muslims, they share very little else of Danish culture. Native
Danes are overwhelmingly Lutheran, but they rarely attend church.
They also have a very low birth-rate. Turkish Danes have much larger
families and are steadily growing as a percentage of the population.
This same story could be written about every country in Western
traditional European cultures we know, are dying. They're choosing
to die by choosing their own selfishness, by forgetting God, by
forgetting the dignity of human life, by attacking and dismantling
the Christian memories, history and culture which once gave them
life. Jesus said: "You hypocrites! You know how to interpret
the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to
interpret the present time?"
who you are, and why God created you. Purify your memory through
repentance - not to focus on your sins, but to be free of them,
the better to evangelize. Be open to new life. Encourage and support
that openness in others. And teach your children to know and love
Jesus Christ. That's the single most important thing you can do
to build the culture of life. Remember Deuteronomy 30:19: "
life, that you and your descendants may live." Inscribe those
words on your heart.
Charles J. Chaput, OFM CAP
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Saint Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, pray for us
GRANT US, Father a spirit of wisdom and insight, so that we may know the great hope to which we have been called.
Let peace and harmony reign among all the dwellers on the earth.
To those who exercise the ministry of authority in the service of their brothers, send a spirit of wisdom and humility.
May all those consecrated to you together devote themselves to constant prayer.
Grant us, O God, to fill up in our own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his Church.
To our families and benefactors grant the blessing of everlasting life.
Be ever mindful of your mercy, exalt the lowly; fill the hungry with good things.
Both in life and death, let us be yours, O Lord.
the world from its slavery to corruption, to share
in the glorious freedom of the children of God.