Challenges to Moral and Cultural Renewal

Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
University of Notre Dame, September 28, 2004, given on the occasion of the Center's Fifth Anniversary
(Text of September 29, 2004)

Christian faith and morals, though they appeal to all that is best in human nature, normally encounter no little resistance. Without considerable help from on high, humanity cannot rise to its full stature, especially because it labors under the burden of original sin. It is to be expected therefore that people will generally be more inclined toward self-indulgence than toward loving self-sacrifice. They will have difficulty believing the gospel of Christ, which seems foolish to those who judge by the standards of the world. Christians should always expect to encounter a measure of rejection and opposition. The very absence of hostility may be a sign that the Church has fallen short of her mission and yielded to the standards of the world.

Christianity is lived within a culture, that is to say, a whole set of ideas, values, behavioral patterns, and expectations that are characteristic of a social group. To the extent that the culture is shaped by Christianity, it may be supportive of the faith. But in practice every culture, no matter how “Christian” in name, is vitiated to some degree by incredulity and sin. Each culture presents its own particular set of challenges.

In his apostolic exhortation Evandelii nuntiandi (1975), Pope Paul VI mentioned the split between the gospel and culture as “a drama of our time.” Contemporary culture, he taught, needs to be evangelized in depth, so that the gospel will be more than a superficial veneer (EN 20). Your Center for Ethics and Culture, as I understand it, is dedicated to this goal, as is the present conference.

My task this afternoon is to reflect on some of the major challenges to Christianity, and to Catholic Christianity in particular, posed by the dominant culture in the United States today. Nearly all commentators seem to agree that there are serious tensions, even perhaps a crisis. A crisis may be seen as a moment of weakness and danger, but it can also be celebrated as an opportunity for growth. Peter Hebblethwaite, for example, contended that the present situation of the Church can best be understood with the help of Erik Erikson's statement: “Crisis … is not a threat of catastrophe, but a turning point, a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential.”[1]

Two important books published last year [2003] dwell on the negative aspects of the present crisis. One of them, by Peter Steinfels, bears the troubling title, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America. His first sentence declares: “Today the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation.”[2] Contending that debates about faith and morals have been over-theologized by the Holy See and the bishops, he calls upon the whole People of God to shape institutional change by greater attention to practical experience.[3] More specifically, he calls upon the Church to abandon what he regards as the fundamentalism of her official stances of sexual morality and the role of women.[4]

David Carlin, in his The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, agrees with Steinfels on the drift and confusion in the Church but recommends a very different set of policies.[5] The Catholic community, he believes, has undergone a massive loss of identity, disinterest in Catholic doctrine, and disrespect for ecclesial institutions. Whereas Steinfels faults the Church for failing to keep pace with the changing times, Carlin argues that excessive accommodation to modern American society has deprived the Church of the distinctive character she needs to remain faithful to her apostolic origins and to sustain a loyal and enthusiastic membership.

These preliminaries suggest that, whether or not the Church is in crisis, she is faced by serious challenges arising from the secular culture. To give the necessary guidance, scholars must investigate the nature and causes of the crisis, as we are attempting to do today. While the subject is much too vast to be covered in a single lecture, I would like to call attention to some salient features of modern American culture that in my judgment call for evaluation and response.

The American Tradition of Freedom

The United States is, as Abraham Lincoln memorably declared, a nation conceived in liberty. The American Constitution was intended to secure the blessings of liberty and hand them down to posterity. Among our national monuments the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the Statue of Liberty in New York hold a privileged place. In patriotic songs we joyfully profess our allegiance to the “land of the free,” the “sweet land of liberty.”

Catholics can welcome the American esteem for freedom. Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, taught that the dignity of the human person requires a political society realized in freedom (PT 10). Vatican II, in its Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, spoke in some detail about the connection between human dignity and personal freedom. Created as they are in the image of God, men and women should act according to knowing and free choices, personally motivated and prompted from within (GS 17). Dignitas Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, approvingly noted the growing demand for freedom in society. In particular, it supported religious freedom and rejected the idea that anyone should be coerced in matters of faith (DH 12).

The harmony between faith and freedom is not universally recognized. In a recent speech at the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George pointed out that Christian faith, which acknowledges God as the Father Almighty, is widely perceived as a threat to human freedom.[6] Contemporary secular culture, with its subjectivist notion of freedom, views God as a rival and even an enemy. On guard against the power of religion to mold society, the culture attempts to reduce religion to a private form of enjoyment or relaxation for those who have a tasted for it. The current crisis of faith, Cardinal George concludes, is at root a rejection of divine power on the ground that it would detract from human freedom.

Cardinal George does not recommend that the Church should reduce her commitment to freedom. On the contrary, he writes:

        We have to speak about freedom. Freedom is Gospel virtue. We should speak about freedom before we speak about anything else. Freedom is a gift, however, not something won by conquest. Discipleship means knowing how to wait in order to be set free by Almighty God.[7]

The struggle in our culture is not between freedom and unfreedom but between difference concepts of freedom. The American tradition, inspired by a rebellion against tyranny, has tended to emphasize the negative pole of freedom: absence of coercion, especially external coercion. Freedom then comes to mean the power to do whatever one chooses. Understood in this way, it tends to become empty and meaningless. Merely negative freedom is self-destructive, because to be consistent it would have to maintain that ever exercise of freedom is a reduction of freedom. By choosing any one thing I renounce the possibility of having chosen something else. To be fully free, then, I would have to refrain from acting freely!

It must be recognized, therefore, that the exercise of freedom always involves a positive pole: something that is chosen because it is or seems to be good. Freedom at its best is the capacity to embrace the known good with full personal adherence. Our ability to do so is enhanced if we have learned to control our passions and if our vision is enlightened by the truth, which is most fully disclosed in Jesus Christ.

There is a difference of opinion among American Catholics today about whether the American tradition of liberty is salvageable. One school, identified with John Courtney Murray and the neo-conservatives, seeks to capitalize on the sound elements in our political heritage—elements that can be retrieved and purified with the help of the Catholic tradition. Others like David Schindler seem to hold that the American experiment was vitiated at its very sources by the influence of authors such as John Locke. Individualism and empiricism, they believe, have led to a deceptive liberalism or libertarianism, which has contaminated the entire American tradition.

Whichever of these views we follow, we may agree that the prevalent notion of freedom stands in need of correction. The Church has a mission to explain how the truth and grave of Christ can set us truly free, and how the moral law serves to educate and direct our freedom so that it serves the loving designs of God and promotes the common good. Pope John Paul II has argued very effectively for these points in his great encyclical on fundamental moral theology, Veritatis Splendor.


The idea that all men and women are born equal is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and in documents such as the Gettysburg Address. The Catholic Church teaches the same. Pope John XXIII, for instance, wrote in Pacem in Terris that “all men are equal in their natural dignity” (PT 89). Vatican II, in Gaudium et Spes, explained: “Since all men possess a rational soul and are created in God's likeness, and since they have the same nature and origin, the basic equality of all must receive increasingly greater recognition” (GS 29). This does not, however, mean that in the Church all have the same rights to teach, rule, and preside at worship. With the aim of perpetuating a revealed religion carried down through a living tradition, the Lord established the Church as a hierarchical society. In an egalitarian culture, it is difficult to gain a hearing for authoritative teaching or to convince people that the Church ought not to be governed from below. Dissent tends to be glorified as an exercise of honesty and courage.


In the early years of the Republic, virtually all citizens had been raised in some Christian tradition. The educated classes were familiar with the Bible and Christian hymns. They esteemed Jesus as an exceptionally holy and wise moral teacher, even if they did not accept his divinity. The great majority believed in the God of theism and professed moral principles approximating the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus. This consensus made it possible for the authors of the Declaration of Independence to refer to the “laws of nature and of Nature's God,” to speak of “unalienable” rights conferred upon all human beings by their Creator, and to profess “a firm reliance on Divine Providence.”

From the days of Washington and Adams to the present day it has been customary for presidents to proclaim days of national prayer, to invoke the help of Divine Providence, and to call upon the services of chaplains for important occasions. Actions such as these have not been seen as offensive, or as encroaching on the freedom of consciences, or as violating the non-establishment clause of the Bill of Rights.

The American “civil religion” (to borrow a somewhat controversial term from Jean-Jacques Rousseau) has provided a protective environment in which various forms of biblical religion could flourish. Young people growing up in America have found it easier to accept the God of theism and biblical religion because everyone else seemed to do so. As late as 1960 it seemed evident that to be an American was, almost inevitably, to be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew.[8] To be anything else was to be an outsider though not an outcast.

In the past fifty years all this has begun to change. The United States, like other nations in Europe and the Americas, has welcomed immigrants and refugees from lands in which the dominant religion was Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, or at least nonbiblical. Partly under the influence of secular humanism, various quasi-religions such as Scientism and New Age movements have sprung into existence. Atheism and agnosticism would seem to be on the rise.

As a byproduct of this growing pluralism, the presence of any given faith in the public square becomes problematic. In civic events there is a certain reluctance to invoke the God of biblical religion. Some consider it inappropriate to speak of God or to erect symbols of Jewish or Christian faith in public schools and public places. Except in its most generic expressions, religion is being forced back into the private sphere, where it inevitably has less influence.

Under these circumstances it no longer seems obvious that an American ought to be a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew. Young people today are presented with a much broader range of options. Not surprisingly, therefore, many wonder whether it is safe to affirm the truth of any given religion. In order to accept Jesus as God and Savior they need either a very solid religious upbringing in the home or exposure to a strong presentation of the grounds for Christian faith. Evangelization of the young and the not-so-young has become a high priority.

The growing pluralism raises questions about the linkage between Christianity and our national institutions, such as marriage and divorce. Even committed Catholics have problems about bringing the laws of the nation into accord with Catholic teaching. There is a widespread tendency to affirm that all citizens have a right to hold their own opinions and to abide by their own moral standards unless these opinions and practices constitute a manifest threat to the peace and order of society. Many contend that prohibitions against homosexuality, contraception, divorce, abortion, and assisted suicide are inadmissible in a nation as religiously diverse as our own. In some quarters polygamy and same-sex marriages are being promoted as consonant with the new cultural situation.

Well-instructed Catholics will have clear positions on some of these questions. While granting that the denominational standards of any one religion should be binding only on its own members, they will insist that actions forbidden by natural law, especially where human rights are involved, should not be commanded or even encouraged by the positive legislation. They will also claim that Catholics, in the name of freedom of conscience, should never be required to support behavior that their Church condemns as immoral. Valid though these responses may be, they encounter a mixed or even negative reception in the contemporary pluralistic climate.

Having spoken of the American situation, I should like now to take up some issues arising out of the phenomenon of modernization, which has affected most of the world and not only our own nation. Modernization is, of course, an exceedingly complex phenomenon, some aspects of which have already been considered. I can only touch on a few more aspects in the time that remains to me.


Since the industrial revolution, the world has been increasingly transformed by human initiative. We have become accustomed to living in constant and accelerating change. Advanced technology has vastly increased the powers of human beings to shape the future. We can alter almost every feature of our natural environment; we can greatly prolong human life, and are on the verge of being able to manufacture the kind of offspring we want through genetic engineering.

Technology and productivity are not evil in themselves. God intends that human beings should have dominion over the earth and provide for their own future. But biotechnology raises new and almost intractable moral problems. Most Christians today oppose artificial insemination, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning, but their voices sound like feeble protests against the forward march of science. The scruples of religious souls make little impact on the scientific community, which generally gets its way in the long run. If we wish to resist the tide, we cannot remain on the sidelines. We are compelled to enter into the political fray, because otherwise the future will be shaped by people without moral or religious principles.

The capacity to remake the human world has major repercussions in the field of morality. In a book with the title Moral Freedom (2001) Alan Wolfe argues that the twenty-first century will be the age of moral freedom. Once people have the economic freedom to choose their way of life and the political freedom to shape their government, he says, they will not long be satisfied with letting others determine how they ought to live. Rejecting any subservience to higher authority, they will take morality into their own hands and choose the norms by which they will be bound. Wolfe's proposals converge with certain recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court. In the majority decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), it declared: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of human life.”

Against this Promethean ethic, reminiscent of the language of the Tempter in the third chapter of Genesis, Christians are called to present a convincing case for holding that the norms of morality are permanent and binding upon every creature. Obedience to this higher law, not revolt, is the path to blessedness.

The pursuit of unlimited productive power is a threat to faith as well as to morality. Christian faith is not a free construction of the human mind but a loving submission to God as his word comes to us through Jesus Christ. The canonical Scriptures must be kept as they are, and not revised to suit our preferences. The essential structures of the Church, including her sacraments and her form of government, are to be accepted as divinely instituted. The dogmas of the Church are irreversible.

These givens do not exclude all scope for human activity and change. There is ample room for doctrinal development and pastoral accommodation in the Church. Through dialogue it should be possible to find a path that respects the legitimate concerns of conservatives, who wish to safeguard the deposit of faith, and moderate liberals, who wish to adapt the Church's mode of action to the times. Every effort should be made to keep the Church from being internally polarized or divided.

The Critical Mentality

The culture of the West, since the age of Descartes, has been dominated by a method of doubt in which the ideal of knowledge is mathematical demonstration. In the thought of John Locke, faith was no longer a higher power that reveals things beyond the range of observation and reason, but a personal opinion that falls short of empirical and rational demonstrability. The exaltation of doubt culminated in the great masters of suspicion, Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud.

Until recently the critical movement seemed to be sweeping away many settled convictions, especially in the realm of religion. Biblical criticism tended to undermine the credibility of the biblical accounts. Critical history raised questions about the reliability of tradition. Various forms of social and psychological criticism called into doubt the voice of conscience and the reliability of the great witnesses of Christian faith. Magisterial pronouncements were suspected of being ideologically tainted, as though the true motivation of popes and bishops were to enhance their own authority.

The prospects would be bleak except that there are signs that the world is entering what Michael Polanyi calls a post-critical era.[9] Polanyi does not go back to the precritical but forward to a system in which the premises of the critical program are themselves subjected to criticism. Like Newman before him, Polanyi shows that objectively firm judgments do not have to rest upon deductive arguments from self-evident facts, as the critical philosophers maintained. In matters of faith and morals, tacit or implicit awareness is a primary source of knowledge.

Doubt and distrust can be corrosive for civil society as well as morality and religion. A society in which people cannot trust one another is scarcely a society at all. Trust rather than sheer coercion is the glue that holds any free society together. But in our litigious society the bonds of trust are severely strained.

The Church, as a community of faith, depends upon a shared body of beliefs and on multiple relationships of trust—trust in God the revealer, in Christ the Savior, in the Scriptures, and in the traditions and teachings of the Church herself. For Christian faith to recover from the critical assault of the past few centuries it needs to articulate a stronger post-critical epistemology.

Sensate Culture

Over the centuries Christianity has moved through a series of cultures connected with successive transformations in the media of communication. After functioning for some centuries in a predominantly oral culture, Christianity prospered in a manuscript culture, and then accommodated itself to a culture of print. In our time, the Church is faced by an electronic culture in which the ideas of most people are formed, predominantly, by radio, television, and the computer. Some would say that the most recent developments bring us beyond modernity into a post-modern situation, which is also post-critical.

The new media are well suited to convey particular facts and events, especially in their external aspects. Creatively employed, they are capable of generating strong emotional impact, but they are rarely conducive to deep and rigorous thought. Most of us today are constantly distracted by sensational news reports, which beat in upon our eyes and ears with deadening relentlessness.

The communications industry is driven by commercialism. It is almost totally in the hands of advertisers, who use it to market their wares and increase their profits. Their dominant concern is not to relieve poverty or promote justice, but rather to stimulate people's eagerness to buy. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly warned against consumerism, which, as he says, “ensnares people in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than helping them to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way.” Mass communications, the pope points out, manipulate people and “impose fashions and trends of opinion through carefully orchestrated repetition, without its being possible to subject to critical scrutiny the premises on which these fashions and trends are based” (Centesimus Annus 41).

Morality and religion are deeply affected by this situation. Traditional morality, which inculcates restraint and self-control, is being replaced in many quarters by an ethos of self-fulfillment. Religious orthodoxy, which emphasizes the eternal and the invisible, is discarded by some in favor of syncretistic New Age concoctions that revive aspects of ancient paganism such as earth-worship.

The Church, I believe, is called upon to meet this crisis by energetically and winsomely presenting a religious and moral system that moves beyond superficial satisfactions and appeals instead to the deepest cravings of the human heart. To lead her faithful to true happiness, the Church must equip them with a correct scale of values by which they may order their needs and desires and choose appropriate means of satisfying them (cf. CA 41). Christianity is able to put people in touch with the transcendent and protect them against exploitation by the consumerist mentality, which confines their horizons to the realms of pleasure, amusement, and possessions.

The crisis of communications weighs heavily on educators seeking to mediate Christian faith and morals to the restless youth of our time. The new media of communication offer rich opportunities for evangelization and catechesis. The Catholic Church, firmly committed though she is to her dogmas and her theological legacy, speaks also to human affectivity. In past centuries she has given rise to a culture of great beauty, and there is no reason why she cannot do so today. Some recent films and television productions have captured aspects of the splendor of Christian faith.

Behavioral Norms

Time may permit me to mention one more problem. American culture has been increasingly marked by utilitarianism and pragmatism. Distrusting mere theory, people look for what William James called cash value. In the concrete, this means felt satisfaction. Pleasure, health, and convenience seem to be the basic values. What causes pain or suffering is considered to be ultimately and irredeemably evil.

In this situation it is difficult to find a welcome for Catholic moral teaching, which places a high value on discipline and penance. The Church, with its concern to uphold the moral law in the areas of marriage and sexuality, is viewed as cruel and insensitive when it forbids divorce, homosexual unions, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Practices such as these seem unobjectionable to persons who have rejected moral absolutes in favor of utilitarian standards, which aim simply to maximize gratification and minimize suffering.

The challenge to the Church is to find ways of reawakening the moral conscience. Can Christians help others to see that the first principles of the moral law are indelibly inscribed in the human spirit from the dawn of consciousness? If so, they may be able to persuade their hearers that all men and women are dependent on a higher power that binds them unconditionally to do good and avoid evil.

Thanks to the wood of the Cross, the Church can deliver people from the assumption that suffering is to be avoided on all accounts. When united to the mental and physical sufferings of Christ, adversity may be redemptive and meaningful.


I am not convinced that American society is totally corrupt. Many of our compatriots still admire and even imitate heroic persons who gave their lives to service and sacrificed what was most dear to them for the sake of a higher good. Many are thirsting for God and for a redemptive love deeper than any hedonistic calculus of pleasures. Catholic doctrine and moral teaching can build on these healthy moral instincts and point the way to an inner peace that the pursuit of selfish interests can never supply.

The forces of unbelief, prevalent in many sectors of contemporary culture, are not simply external to the Church. Like other Americans, Christians tend to see reality through the lens of the prevailing culture. The present struggle, consequently, is not simply between the Church and secular society, but to some extent within the Church, as she seeks to assimilate the sound elements in the culture and to prevent herself from being contaminated by what is unsound.

The challenges are numerous and grave. Superficial notions of freedom and equality, the burgeoning of religious pluralism, the domination of technology, the excesses of critical thinking, the pragmatic notion of truth, and the sensate culture fostered by the electronic media and the forces of commercialism: these are only some of the forces that assail the Church and counter her message to the world. Among them, these challenges should hold a prominent place in the agenda of a Center of Ethics and Culture at a Catholic university.

A merely negative response will not suffice. Christians have too long remained on the defensive. It is time for a counteroffensive—not pugnacious or angry, but loving and patient. As believers, we must put hard questions to our adversaries and demand answers from them. And we must be willing to pay a price for fidelity. It remains true today, as in the second century, that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.

[1] Peter Hebblethwaite, The Runaway Church: Post-Conciliar Growth or Decline (New York: Seabury, 1975), 241, quoting Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, 96.

[2] Peter Steinfels, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 1.

[3] Ibid., 356-7.

[4] Ibid., 305.

[5] David Carlin, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America (Manchester, N.H., Sophia Institute, 2003).

[6] Cardinal Francis George, “The Laity and the Contemporary Cultural Milieu,” Origins 33 (September 11, 2003): 229-33.

[7] Ibid., 233.

[8] Cf. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1960).

[9] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1964).