You hear the word “culture” thrown around a lot these days. However, I would like to hazard that most of the time this word is misused. Typically when people use the term “culture” they are referring to “general trends in society.” For example, the phrase “culture of death” or the statement “people do not value old people in our culture.”
I would like to suggest here that when we use this term “culture” defined as “general trends in society,” we fundamentally obscure the essence of what culture is. To make matters worse, I will argue here that Modernity has created something new and hideous – “anti-culture” – which affects cultures – whether Christian cultures or not – like poison affects health. Anti-culture dissolves culture itself and dismantles it. We saw this on display at World Youth Day, and even, to some degree, the whole concept of World Youth Day is susceptible to anti-culture. Let me try to explain what I mean.
What is Culture?
In my second book, City of God vs. City of Man, I attempted to sythesise that great Catholic historian of culture, Christopher Dawson. His work yields basically four main elements which are essential to culture: cultus, tradition, elders and piety. Every culture known to man (until modern times) has these four elements.
The first is the most important: cultus. What is a cultus? A cultus is a religious ritual which provides contact with the divine. Everything in a culture flows from this cultus. St. Thomas says that the offering of sacrifice – the cultus – is a part of natural law. Therefore every culture, every civilsation, every government that has ever existed has offered a public cultus – that is, a state-sponsored religious ritual – to the divine in order to make contact with the gods. Obviously the cultus of Catholic culture is the Apostolic rite passed down from the Apostles.
But the cultus does not just communicate with the divine, it rests on a tradition – written and unwritten – and this is that second element of culture. The tradition is what explains the cultus. The word tradition is a verb which means to “pass down.” Thus the noun form of “tradition” means “the act of passing down.” What is Catholic Tradition therefore? Everything that is passed down, from the smallest and most obscure pious custom to the greatest pearl of great price in our tradition – the Apostolic Roman Rite, the Latin Mass. Indeed, the Second Council of Nicaea decreed regarding the lowest and least authoritative form of tradition (that is, sacred art): “if anyone despises a Church tradition, written or unwritten, let him be anathema.”
Therefore in the broadest possible sense of the term “tradition” in which we are using it here, “Tradition” – all things passed down – would also include the Scripture itself. Scripture is simply written tradition, as opposed to oral tradition. The whole Tradition explains and flows from the cultus, so that the faithful may partake of Sacramental grace and save their souls. But from the cultus, mediated through Tradition, divine grace and divine wisdom, illuminate all things in Catholic society: family life, political and economic life, and all the rest – literature, sciences, music, visual art, architecture. The Holy Mass built Catholic culture, which is Christendom.
The third and fourth elements of culture are simple: elders and piety. The elders are the ones who guard the cultus and teach the Tradition to the next generation. Piety is the virtue by which the younger generation reveres the older generation in order to receive the cultus and the Tradition.
So there you have it: what is culture? A culture is a society which flows from the cultus, explained by tradition passed down from the elders to the next generation by means of piety. The Catholic cultus is the Mass, the Tradition is the whole of Christendom, which is passed down by the elders – both priests and Catholic parents – to the younger generation who receive it with reverence and piety.
Protestant Wounded Culture vs. Liberals’ Anti-Culture
When the Protestant revolt happened, this fundamental structure was weakened, but not destroyed. First, the most important thing to note is that the heretics changed the cultus. They altered the rite in order to alter their culture and make it Protestant. Thus this created a wounded culture, introducing the seed of revolution into these cultures, which would ultimately be the seeds of its own destruction.
Still, the basic four elements of culture remained intact: even in Protestant countries like England, elders were still revered and children expected to receive their Anglican cultus and tradition with piety. The cultus – recently on display at the coronation of King Charlies III – remained central for the culture, and all the rest flowed therefrom, so a certain stability obtained in terms of the basics of culture, despite the wounding of heresy, and despite the further splintering of the Protestant sects.
But the seeds of revolution planted by Luther and other heretics came home to roost with Liberalism. In 1776, 1789, and the other Liberal revolutions (with their hideous Communist daughter revolutions), the place of the cultus in society was suppressed and privatised. Religious ritual would now be a private affair, said Liberalism, and we will also suppress the office of elders and piety as a virtue for tradition. Our tradition, said Liberalism, is to revolt against your elders. It is the individual imposing his will on the world that counts (think of how school children in America are constantly told to “follow their dreams.”). Our heroes will be those who revolted against their elders and threw away tradition to impose their will on society. Indeed, Liberalism itself celebrates “freedom from constraint” from culture itself – no cultus, tradition, or elders will tell us what to do. It is my will which counts.
This is anti-culture. It is a fundamental inversion and imbalance in which the element of youth rejects the framework of culture. This creates a revolution in every generation, breaking apart the cohesion between the old and young generations which culture creates. Culture is what creates the framework for the creative tension between the old and the young: it allows the youth to provide their zeal to the elders, and the elders give their wisdom – this cooperation between young and old is the manifest sign of what a culture is, and you can see it in every culture known to man – until you look at modernity, which is anti-culture.
Liturgical Reform and Anti-Culture
Now the particular note of anti-culture is that it isolates a single generation and sets them up in opposition to the preceding generation. This is the fundamental framework of Liberalism, and this of course entered the Catholic Church in the form of wholesale iconoclasm with the event of Vatican II and the imposition of the New Mass, all of which contained elements of anti-culture.
These things isolated the living generation of the 1960s and spoke all about “modern man” and his needs, over and above what is immemorial, traditional, and what appeals to every generation, not just this present generation.
Now it is true that every Magisterial act is addressing the needs of the living generation. But the mark of anti-culture was seen since that conciliar revolution in its adoption of an anti-culture framework to sacrifice everything to appeal to the living generation. It is one thing to introduce something new for the sake of current needs: the Dominicans or the Franciscans were founded as something “new” for that living generation.
The critical difference is that anti-culture isolates a single generation in opposition to prior generations. It would be one thing, for example, if Pius XII promulgated an optional new Holy Week, or Paul VI merely introduced an optional new form of Mass. But they did not do that. They introduced something new, then suppressed what was old. This isolates the living generation and cuts them off from the prior generation. Imagine if the Dominicans and Franciscans were introduced, and then Benedictine monasticism was suppressed. This would isolate that generation and cut off the tradition which was passed down. Rather, the way that Catholic culture authentically innovates is to create something new while preserving what came before.