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Change and Return

by Thomas Storck

 

This article was originally published in Caelum Et Terra, Summer 1991, volume 1, no 1, and is used here with the authorís permission.

To obtain permission to republish this article, contact the author by clicking on the author's name link above.

 

 

††††††††††† Sometime in the 1960s the movement or way of life that became known as the counterculture began.Though certainly related to the more political New Left, the counterculture nevertheless was distinct in that it was more interested in cultural than political change.Speaking in the most general way, one can say that the burden of the counterculture's challenge to the establishment culture was that the establishment culture in North America and most of the Western world had misused social organization and technology to create a civilization that was estranged from nature, both human nature and the natures of the various created things we need to live our lives and which make up our earth.And even though the counterculture seems to have given place to the New Age, a movement less admirable in every way than its predecessor, still I think that a discussion of the connection between the counterculture and Western culture, and particularly the traditional religion of the West, Catholicism, could be useful.

††††††††††† Now adherents of the counterculture usually assumed that their ideals bore absolutely no relationship with anything in Western civilization.They tended to look to the civilizations of India or to Native Americans for affinities to what they held.And the defenders of contemporary Western culture, the establishment culture, agreed with that assessment.But one of the strangest things about any consideration of this question is that both the defenders of the establishment and the adherents of the counterculture were often mistaken about what each was committed to.Members of the establishment often loudly proclaimed that they were preserving eternal verities, whereas quite often the ideals they embraced were of relatively recent origin.Capitalism is one case in point.Far from being something traditional in Western culture, it is something that was developed fairly recently on the ruins of all that is really native to our civilization.

††††††††††† On the other hand, although members of the counterculture assumed that the ideals they accepted are radically opposed to everything that Western culture has ever stood for, in many cases, they have simply rediscovered Western traditions that have been lost or obscured for the past hundred or even three hundred years.

††††††††††† One example of this is our attitude toward nature.Since the triumph of the philosophy of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, which began about three hundred years ago, Western man has too often taken a ruthless, mechanistic view of nature.The earth has been seen as something not only to be enjoyed by man, but changed and twisted until it is no longer recognizable.We have not tried to work with the earth and all created natures, but merely to change what is inconvenient to us.Men imagine that any other attitude is foreign to Western civilization.They do not realize that the philosopher Aristotle, who for centuries dominated Western philosophy and education, took a very different view of our relationship to nature; a view that in many ways approximates that of the counterculture.

††††††††††† Many other examples could be cited.But the most interesting is the relationship of the counterculture to Catholicism, the religion that has shaped so much that is typical of Western culture.It is largely unknown that the Catholic religion and the culture it fosters exhibit striking similarities to much that characterized the counterculture.For example, in the Catholic literary and intellectual revival of the first half of this century, a number of the most famous Catholic writers, such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton and Christopher Dawson, explicitly opposed industrial capitalism, and recommended a return to small, craft-oriented enterprises in rural settings.E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, and a convert to the Catholic faith, advocated many of these same Catholic proposals in his own excellent works on economics. Another writer, Fr. Denis Fahey, was well aware years ago of the harm done to our diets by highly processed foods.Many of these writers also warned of pollution and environmental damage long before there was an organized environmental movement.In fact, the reason there was no concerted Catholic effort to influence society on these issues was because most Catholics were not Catholic enough; they were ignorant of the rich tradition of Catholic thought and the implications of their own Faith.

††††††††††† On another important issue, Catholic faith and tradition have always championed the concept of the organic community, bound by family and similar ties, rather than the atomistic, striving group of individuals that modern society has created.The teaching of the Catholic Church is that there is a natural unity in society.Each person and each group has a natural part to play, and harmony will arise if each part fulfills its function.The relationship between different groups or classes must be based on a recognition that every person has needs because he is human; and that the community must see to it that he is able to live in a manner worthy of a human being. The Popes have specifically rejected the notion that the so-called laws of eocnomics can ever override one's right to be able to live in human dignity.This teaching of the Church has been updated and adapted to modern conditions beginning with Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and continuing through the present Pontiff, John Paul II.

††††††††††† In regard to specifics, the Popes and other Catholic writers have advocated such things as employee-owned or managed industries, labor unions, cooperatives, the family farm, and a living wage for all workers.And in areas besides economics, Catholicism also has affinities with the counterculture.Most people are aware that the Catholic Church promotes natural family planning and condemns unnatural forms of birth control, a position also taken by some noted countercultural writers.But in addition, Catholic writers have also promoted breast-feeding of babies; even during the forties and fifties, when very few mothers nursed their babies, manuals written for Catholic parents consistently recommended breast-feeding.La Leche League, the well-known organization that supports breast-feeding and a general way of life more in harmony with nature, was founded by a group of Catholic mothers and named after a shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Augustine, Florida.

††††††††††† Catholicism has also always taken account of man's need for festivity and celebration.The word "holiday" comes from "holy day;" Catholic religious celebrations are both religious and festive, as can especially be seen in places such as southern Europe or Latin America where Catholic culture has traditionally flourished.And though Catholics greatly respect Sunday, the day of the Lord's Resurrection, as a weekly holy day, we have never taken the Puritan view that it need be a dour and boring time.Religious services, yes, but also festivity, games, and plenty of human interaction.

††††††††††† It must be admitted that most Catholics are unaware of this heritage of ours and fail to live it fully.Even so, in the families and lives of many ethnic Catholics in this country one can see an emphasis on community through such means as large families, the extended family, and a concomitant rejection of the atomistic striving that unfortunately characterizes America and much of the modern world. Family and community first is a quite different motto from self first.

††††††††††† But despite these scattered survivals from our rich Catholic past, there is a trememdous work of education to be done within the Church.Catholics must be taught not only the truths of our Faith, but the necessary implications of these truths for our lives and our culture.No one should have an illusion that this will be easy, but there is no other way in which we can promote the full flowering of the Faith, a faith that was meant to transform not only our personal conduct and our families but our nations and cultures and the entire world.This is simply the social reign of Jesus Christ the King and it is our first task and duty after the conversion of our own lives and the salvation of our own souls.

 

 

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