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The Cultural Context

The metaphors used to describe the Church and its role in society are many. Their relevance changes with the passing of the ages. Some retain their philosophical and theological validity – the Mystical Body of Christ for example. Others are especially valid as lights to guide the path of Christians in the modern world – such as Vatican II’s use of the People of God, or, in the language of Pope Francis, the Field Hospital.

            But in a world marked by an increasingly frenzied instinct to take sides, to rally to a banner, as is evidenced most obviously on social media posts and theological, pastoral and liturgical blogs, there is a greater need than ever for the Church to reclaim a new yet ever ancient role in society … a role that is new in its expression but ancient in its roots, namely that of Pontifex – bridge-builder. 

The need for bridges to be built in a world with a passion for constructing walls is clamant.

            This volume, the third in the Reclaiming the Piazza series, seeks to play a small part in that work of bridge-building, offering a series of highly readable essays by respected experts from within the mainstream Catholic tradition with the aim of promoting dialogue in public life.

            On the importance of this work of dialogue, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, could not be clearer:

If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue. We are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every possible means and thus to rebuild the fabric of society. 

            The culture of dialogue entails a true apprenticeship and a discipline that enables us to      view others as valid dialogue partners, to respect the foreigner, the immigrant and        people from different cultures as worthy of being listened to.

Today we urgently need to engage all the members of society in building ‘a culture which privileges dialogue as a form of encounter’ and in creating ‘a means for building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, responsive and inclusive society’. Peace will be lasting in the measure that we arm our children with the weapons of dialogue, that we teach them to fight the good fight of encounter   and negotiation. In this way, we will bequeath to them a culture capable of devising strategies of life, not death, and of inclusion, not exclusion.[i]

Many people in the West have given up organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. Nevertheless, there are seeds of the Gospel everywhere in contemporary society. Western civilisation is imbued with Christianity, and even the rejection of specifically Christian standpoints is often based on ideas which come from Christianity. 

            This becomes evident, for example, when faced with criticisms of the Church. Where rules seem to trump human compassion (in areas such as life and sexuality) the Church is perceived to put ideas before people, especially people who suffer, people in need, victims. Yet care for the person, and for the person suffering, is a very Christian idea, a real foundational idea in Christianity. Christ himself in his life and preaching would always put persons before rules: he would touch lepers, talk to women and cure on the Sabbath – despite the fact that he said he had not come to abolish the law or take away an iota from it. We his followers may now have given the opposite impression, that we care more about rules than real people and their needs. This is surprising given that we think that Christ is the ultimate answer to every human problem.

            In all those controversial topics, we can always find a shared value between Catholics and the critics of the Church: the value of the person, especially the person in need. Critics may be moved by many different values or ideas but at the heart of their criticism there is always a shared idea. This can lead us to realise that the best way to communicate is to start from the shared values and explain our doctrines from there. Doing it otherwise might be perceived as wanting to impose our doctrines and beliefs on others.

            Once we realise that, ultimately, we all want the same thing, we appreciate that the way forward is to dialogue rather than conflict. And knowing that we do not need to fight others but engage in the world of ideas, starting from common ground usually makes us much more confident. We do not need to water down anything we believe, but we do need to connect with others by seeking the common values and starting our explanations from there. It is the culture of encounter in action. People who understand this find it truly liberating.

            This volume came to completion as the world passed through the most devastating health, social and economic shock the world has known since the last World War, namely the pandemic of COVID 19.  It is interesting to reflect on how that seismic blow to humanity’s presumptions about its own capacities and strengths was lived by those who shape public opinion and culture.

            While it is true that gestures of solidarity and cooperation were many, it cannot be denied that even this existential ‘shock to the system’ brought to the fore that instinctive and destructive tendency to ‘take sides’ and to wage culture wars over the corpses of the victims.

            Accusations and name-calling began online while the sick lay dying in hospital. Politicians and opinion formers used practical health advice as a new weapon to be used to distance themselves from opponents; digital warriors used the crisis to continue their campaigns against perceived ‘enemies’ to their preferred form of world order.

            Thus, it appears more necessary than ever to restate the fundamental premise of this series of books, namely that the Catholic Christian of the 21st century is called to a witness of engagement, respectful listening, dialogue and friendship. The Piazza of the 21st century will not be reclaimed for Christ by slogans, anathemas or culture wars, but, rather, by patience, respect and a humble search for understanding.

Overview of Chapters

This book has deliberately strayed into areas which are not typically considered to be ‘home territory’ for the Catholic Church.  That is a deliberate choice.  The focus on Truth, Beauty and Goodness should serve as a reminder that the Gospel message needs to be presented in an attractive manner if it is to be a true leaven in society. For the modern Catholic Christian there should be no ‘no go areas’ in human culture. This is an essential feature of the New Evangelisation.

            God is Truth, Holiness and Moral Perfection, but God is also Beauty. One can find God through the door of truth but many of our contemporaries ask: ‘What is truth?’ and remain outside. The theologians tell us goodness is personified. But many people feel discouraged by the gulf between their own complex and often messy lives and the perfection of the ideal.

            But beauty disarms: it is irresistible for contemporary men and women. As Pope St Paul VI said in the closing message of Vatican Council II to artists, ‘The world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.’[ii]The Catholic Church ‘does’ beauty, and in a big way: the treasury of visual, verbal and constructed beauty of Catholic Christianity is unmatched. And so it is in this area that our volume finds its focus.

            We thank Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, for his Preface in which he reminds us of the importane of the ‘diakonia of goodness, truth and beauty’ which underpins and should give shape to the mission of the Church.

            Following the Preface, Reclaiming the Piazza III sets out its arguments in chapters which fall under two broad themes: in Part 1 the focus is on Beauty and Goodness; in Part II the focus is on Truth and Goodness. 

            In Part I we have the following: a Catholic Understanding of Architecture with Tim O’Malley of the University of Notre Dame, USA; a Catholic Understanding of Literature with Linden Bicket of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and a Catholic Understanding of Music with Bob Davis of the University of Glasgow, Scotland. We continue with Sr Carolyn Morrison, from St Mary’s University, England, who offers a Catholic Understanding of Art, while a Catholic Understanding of Fashion is articulated by Anne Marie Irwin from the University of Notre Dame, Australia. Finally, a Catholic Understanding of Film is supplied by Fr Vince Kuna CSC of Family Theater Productions, USA.

            In Part II we begin with a Catholic Understanding of Science by Fr Andrew Pinsent from the University of Oxford, England; a Catholic Understanding of Journalism written by Daniel Arasa and Giovanni Tridente of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, and a Catholic Understanding of Economics given by Philip Booth from St Mary’s University, London, whose colleague, John Charmley, then writes about a Catholic Understanding of History. 

            The Church has always seen itself as Mater et Magistra (another of those immortal titles!) and so a Catholic Understanding of Education is provided by Stephen McKinney of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, while a Catholic Understanding of Social Sciences comes from Tricia Bruce of the University of Notre Dame, USA.

            We are delighted to have two Afterwords. In Afterword 1, Archbishop Paul Tighe offers a series of important points on the relationship between faith and culture in contemporary society. Drawing on the attention given by Pope Francis to the image of the Church as pilgrim, Archbishop Tighe offers a threefold mandate ‘to listen, to converse and to encourage’ as a way to make the encounter between the Church and the world more fruitful.

            In Afterword II we have a specially-commissioned essay by award-winning food writer and restaurateur, Giovanna Eusebi, who draws together all that is best from her family’s roots in Italy and Scotland. If Catholicism is a religion of the spirit it is also very much a religion of the body, and so it is altogether fitting that the volume should end at the dinner table – perhaps the ultimate place of dialogue. (Buon Appetito.)

Final Thoughts

In this volume we have tried to offer a broad and generous perspective on a range of interesting subjects Nonetheless, we are aware that there are other topics which could have been included but are not: sport, politics, to name just two. There might well be other opportunities in the future to explore such fields.

            To conclude, we thank all who have contributed so readily to Reclaiming the Piazza III. As editors, we are grateful for the wide range of voices and points of view which grace this volume. We thank Tom Longford and all the Gracewing team for their willingness to publish this series of books and for being very easy to work with. Let us not forget our esteemed friend, Dr Raymond McCluskey, who was such an influential voice in the first two volumes of the series. We are grateful for his contribution and insight.

            A final thought: the Piazza is filled with strident voices.  It is time to reclaim it … using the sweet but powerful tone of dialogue.

Ronnie Convery

Leonardo Franchi

Jack Valero

[i] Pope Francis, Address upon Receiving the Charlemagne Prize (6 May, 2016).

[ii] Pope St Paul VI, Closing of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Address of Pope Paul VI to Artists (8 December, 1965).