The Dead End of Counter-Cultural Catholicism

By Gunnar Gundersen, 14 February 2021
Image: Mariah Solomon/Unsplash


Imagine visiting a friend and seeing an attractive, shiny, red apple sitting in a fruit basket. You cannot resist the urge to bite into what should be a juicy treat. Your friend, seeing your mind, invites you to take it. You bring it to your mouth—and find yourself chewing Styrofoam. You are—you think—quite rightly upset. What is the meaning of this? Your friend answers that this is the new, trendy fruit among those considered relevant. You see, what matters is that it always looks nice—it is the appearance that makes it fruit. Is your response to declare you are counter-cultural on fruit or to point out that this new trend is not food? Or, do you mean to get people to eat real fruit?

Catholics advocating in the public square tend to use the phrase “counter-cultural” to describe their way of life. Now I understand the point being made. There is a “culture of death,” and we oppose it. But I think that the “counter” terminology is not helpful. After all, Christianity is not defined as being against X, but by being for Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI explained, faith is saying yes to God: “Faith, then, is an assent with which our mind and our heart say their ‘yes’ to God, confessing that Jesus is Lord.” Of course, saying yes to Christ necessitates saying no to certain behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs—but it is a positive reality. By focusing on the “counter” aspect of the Christian life, we are in danger of losing a key point—we are building and preserving a culture. We are not against a culture, but are living and developing a beautiful culture in relationship with Christ by saying “yes” to him. As Pope Benedict XVI argues, “This ‘yes’ transforms life, unfolds the path toward fullness of meaning, thereby making it new, rich in joy and trustworthy hope.”

And critically, the attitude of “counter-culture” gives the relativistic assumptions undergirding the attitudes of many of our prominent academic, political, and artistic institutions too much credit. The moment these groups and institutions abandoned truth, they forfeited the right to be called cultural institutions. Instead, what results is its antithesis: an anti-culture. On the other hand, as Ratzinger shows in Truth and Tolerance, culture is a way that a people live out truth. It is a reference point and school for its members to help them express the truth of the meaning and purpose of life—as experienced and learned by the community and individuals forming that culture: “Culture is the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it.”

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Gunnar Gundersen is an Affiliated Scholar and member of the Fellowship Faculty at the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. He is also Partner at Gundersen & Gundersen LLP, where he represents clients on intellectual property matters, including before the U.S. Supreme Court.

With thanks to Church Life Journal, A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Gunnar Gundersen, where this article originally appeared.


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