Catholics in America today need to find ways to engage the culture with truth, and avoid “beige Catholicism” that seeks to be dominated by the culture, Bishop Robert Barron said Thursday.
“Beige Catholicism,” the bishop said, is the “dominance of the prevailing culture over Catholicism,” where Catholics are “too culturally accommodating” and “excessively apologetic.”
Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
He delivered the keynote address at a conference on “Catholic Thought and Human Flourishing,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. on June 23. The conference was part of a series of events studying the influences of religion on the “roots of human flourishing.”
The purpose of his address, Bishop Barron said, was to propose a “new model for Church-culture dialogue” different from the “one-way quality of the conversation” prevalent today. Under this model of “beige Catholicism,” he noted, “the world sets the agenda for the Church.”
But the proper response to this is not a Church “doomed to a sectarian retreat” from the world, the bishop insisted.
Instead, he suggested, “the question is not whether the Church ought to engage in a dialogue with the wider culture, but rather, how?” And for this, the Church can look to the centuries of saints who successfully dialogued with the culture of their day while still proclaiming Jesus Christ, he said, giving examples like St. Paul and St. Augustine.
The saints did not fall into the modern trap of letting particular worldly experiences “measure doctrine,” he said. Rather, they had a Christo-centric dialogue where, as St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Colossians, “in Him [Jesus] all things were created, things visible and invisible” and “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
Furthermore, the Church must identify what is bad with the culture and, like St. Augustine did with “the corrupt society of ancient Rome,” respond with “honest and unambiguous opposition,” Bishop Barron said.
St. Augustine “named the sins of the Roman social order and proposed an alternative, what he called the ‘civitas dei,’ an order predicated upon the worship of the true God,” he continued.
However, he added, the assimilating Church should also be “eager to take in and take up what it can from the culture.”
“St. Paul told us that in Christ’s light, we should test every spirit, rejecting what is bad, retaining what is good,” the bishop explained. And the Church in assimilating “doesn’t simply absorb” the “positive features of society,” but “rather, it elevates them and perfects them, in accord with the great Catholic principles.”
How then can the Church dialogue with American culture, Bishop Barron asked, assimilating what is good and rejecting what is bad?
It must identify the problems with the mainstream culture — an excessive individualism, a flawed notion of freedom, and the “privatization of religion,” he said.
The individualism affects America so that the “common good remains unexplored and unarticulated,” and thus “we do tend to lose our corporate social identity and a shared sense of moral direction.”
There is also a flawed understanding of freedom today “as spontaneous personal choice and self-determination,” he said. This differs from the traditional understanding of “freedom for excellence,” which is the “disciplining of desire” so that doing good becomes “possible, and then effortless.”
Also, today’s culture suffers from the “privatization of religion,” he added, noting that “authentic Christianity can never be privatized” and that all areas of life belong to God. The Church “certainly doesn’t absent itself” from the public square, he insisted.
What can the Church find good in American culture? Pope St. John Paul II set an example of this when he praised the Western human rights tradition, Bishop Barron said.
The Pope did not endorse the modern belief of human rights as grounded in “desire,” he explained. Rather, he grounded human rights in “every individual” being “a subject of inviolable dignity and worth, and from this identity flow rights and a claim to justice.”
In taking the existing human rights tradition and elevating it, Pope John Paul II was “transforming water into wine” in “assimilating a key feature of secular culture into the organic life of the Church,” Bishop Barron said.
Another positive element of American society is its “limited government carefully structured” with “checks and balances,” he said, which opposes the anti-biblical “theory of perfectibility” that man can be perfected in society. The biblical belief that law and justice come from God fueled both the emancipation movement and the civil rights movement, he said.
Figures like President Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke out against injustices of their time using biblical language and quoting figures like St. Thomas Aquinas.
In doing so, Bishop Barron said, they were not trying “to impose a sectarian vision on the nation. Rather, “each creatively and non-aggressively introduced his most deeply-felt religious convictions into the public forum.”
In the same sense, he said, the Church is entering the public forum in a “missionary” spirit to dialogue with it, “to make the world more like the Church.”