Reading the Catechism, Rebuilding Catholic Culture

An interview with Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping about his book Rebuilding Catholic Culture

Dr. Ryan N. S. Topping earned a doctorate in theology at Oxford, is a Fellow at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, and has written two books about St. Augustine. His recently published book, Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How The Catechism Can Shape Our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2012), has been praised by Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP (“This book deserves to Rtopping_rebuildingcatholicculturetake its place among the Catholic classics.”), Joseph Pearce (“Ryan Topping wields the Catechism as a weapon of wisdom…”), and Fr. John Saward (“This profound work of scholarship is a delight to read.”), among others.

Dr. Topping corresponded recently with Catholic World Report about his book, and discussed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, resisting the modern and secular “masters”, the challenges posed by modernity, the various assaults on Catholicism and the family, and why Kant rules our days and Nietzsche our night life.

Catholic World Report: It has now been nearly twenty years since the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in English. How well or how poorly do you think it has been received and used in that time? How do you hope Rebuilding Catholic Culture will inspire a deeper reading and appreciation of the Catechism?

Dr. Topping: The work of the restoration of culture is the work of saints. How are saints born? They are born through grace, to be sure. But grace is aided by precept and example. The task of reclaiming our culture for the Church is a battle with many fronts. Far more important than good books is the renewal of liturgy within our churches and the restoration of order within our families and schools. Books rarely excite without lively teachers to place them in our hands.

To explain a doctrine is to teach, but to illustrate how its meaning can transform action is to excite. I tried to keep both of these aims in view while writing. My hope is that Rebuilding Catholic Culture will in some small way strengthen the nerve and excite the imagination of its readers.

CWR: You write, in the Introduction, that, “Intellectual humility is a great good, but self-imposed humiliation before our medical, moral, and political masters is unbecoming.” What are some examples of that “self-imposed humiliation” and why do so many Catholics embrace it? What are some examples of these modern masters? 

Dr. Topping: We improperly censure ourselves each time we talk about “faith communities” or “Christian values” or “gender”. None of these things exist in the Catholic lexicon. We belong to the Church, believe in good and evil, and are created male and female. Language shapes our perceptions. We need to recapture once more, through catechesis and in our schools and colleges, a grounding in the basics of Catholic philosophy. Not that everyone needs to become a scholar. But good philosophy is needed if only to counter bad philosophy. And our public discourse has been dominated for a very long time by those versed in sub-human philosophy.

How to reverse this trend? Every profession and trade affords its own opportunities for heroism. If you are a college president, refuse to remove crucifixes from your classrooms. If you are a principal of a Catholic high school, hire Catholic teachers. If you are a Catholic doctor, stick your neck out and refuse to prescribe contraception. If you are a mother, know what your children are being taught at school, and assert your role as the primary educator.
CWR: A central theme of your book is the uneasy and often contentious relationship between modernity and Catholicism. Why are you so hard on modernity? Hasn’t it produced all sorts of wonderful technological, medical, and cultural advances and accomplishments? Are you simply pining for a golden age of Catholicism when the Church dominated culture and every other aspect of life? Aren’t you a bit young to be nostalgic for the Middle Ages?

Dr. Topping: I am happily nostalgic. I would much prefer to be governed by St. Louis than Bill Clinton, and by a constitution inspired by Catholic social teaching than one inspired by secularism. But, of course, to pit “the Catholic” against “the modern” is to accept a shameless caricature of both. With five young children, I too am grateful for penicillin. I believe Pope Benedict XVI would have no objection to aspirin.

Does a traditional Catholic wish to go back to the past? What could this mean?

Obviously, the earth will not reverse its revolutions. Insofar as a Catholic is nostalgic for something in the past it is because they judge as superior some feature of life in the past compared with the present. This is, I believe, the only rational disposition one could hold. Not only individuals, but whole societies, can err. A recent mistake, in my view, was the president’s decision to allow women to serve in the front lines of battle. If I misstep in algebra, the shortest way to the right answer is to go back to my mistake, and reverse it; the same is true within a society.

Interestingly, through most centuries Catholics were seen by her enemies as “modern”. The old Roman pagans saw the past (as Protestants later would) as a golden age. It is only the new pagans who yearn for some unknown future. Catholicism offers neither indulgence. Catholic nostalgia may at times awaken the longing for the past, but more to the point it is a yearning for justice on earth to more closely mirror the justice of heaven. In this respect Catholic nostalgia faces two directions, backward to the Garden of Eden and forward to the return of Christ the King.

CWR: Fifty years have now passed since the Second Vatican Council was convened, and it seems like the debate about the meaning and purpose of the Council is raging as strong as ever. Why is that the case? And why did things get so bad—in terms of liturgical abuse, loss of vocations, failure to follow the Church’s moral teaching—in the years immediately following the Council? 

Dr. Topping: What was key for leading theologians immediately after the Council was not so much what the documents of Vatican II contained, but what the Church might one day countenance. Those who wished to abandon her moral teaching hoped the Council would mark a point of no return, a new beginning where the rights of freedom could be given wider scope. This, of course, did not happen. Two dynamic pontificates have now buried the so-named hermeneutic of discontinuity. And so today we find a great divide in the Church, often marked along generational lines, between those whose hopes for a revolution were dashed, and those who find themselves embracing an energetic orthodoxy.

I have no doubts that the Church was in need of Vatican II. In many ways, we are only now beginning to witness how the Church can bring modernity and Scripture into a fruitful dialogue. The recent books of Pope Benedict XVI on Scripture illustrate just this point. The problem is, however, that doctrines die without disciplines. One of the prudential oversights of the bishops during the post-conciliar era was to underestimate the corrosive power of a technological and consumerist society upon our habits. We assumed too blithely that the basic patterns of social life would remain informed by a Christian ethos. That ethos has now been abandoned, and Christianity once again must become a deliberate choice made by every family to adopt. Today, if you do not actively evangelize your children, they will be lost.

CWR: What insights and direction did the Council provide about the meaning of culture and how to build a vibrant, authentic Catholic culture? What would say to those who insist he Council was a failure and was actually contrary to historic, orthodox Catholicism? Also, you trace the influence of several Enlightenment and Modern philosophers, but especially focus on Kant. What is so important about Kant and his philosophical project, and where do you see his influence today? 

Dr. Topping: The modern world divides, broadly, between Kant and Nietzsche. Kant rules our days, Nietzsche our night life. The language of rights, of contractual obligations, and of equality is the language governing our governments, schools, and businesses. The United Nations received its charter, indirectly, from Kant. In Kant we find the definitive attempt to construct a good society apart from God. The moralism of today, the prickly environmentalism, and the indignation that people feel in the face of “causes” is fired by the Christ-less Christianity, which Kant promoted. But that project was doomed to fail. Christian morals without God turn out neither to be Christian nor moral.

Alongside the Enlightenment now runs an opposing current, the post-modern. Here Nietzsche and Rousseau are decisive. These philosophers have taught us to look not to nature or revelation for moral inspiration, but inwardly. We may doubt that we are children of God, but we retain the experience of freedom. As a consequence, being good is no longer defined according to publicly known virtues, but according to an inner standard. Begin good is now reduced to being authentic, being true to oneself. Well, what if I happen to be authentically a thug? Accept moral relativism and no principled answer can be given to the tyrants great and small. Accept such a view and ethics is reduced to mere conventions. And intelligent, passionate, young people rightly rebel.

Politically, once an objective standard of good and evil unravels we have begun the great descent back into what the ancients called a pre-political condition where the strong rule over the weak. We have already traveled far down this dark path. The old, the handicapped, the poor all stand to suffer in the coming persecutions, but weakest of all are the unborn. So, while we still utilize the form of the language or rights, the contents of those rights are defined elsewhere, increasingly according to the law of the jungle.

CWR: What are the three main prejudices against the family and what can be done to rebut and rebuff them? 

Dr. Topping: The first prejudice derives from Marxism and constitutes the initial wave of attack upon the family. Marx and Engels called marriage the primordial institution of slavery. Since marriage – and above all the act of begetting and raising children – normally requires woman to work more within the domestic sphere, Marxists argued that it subjected women to unequal treatment. Philosophically, this claim is weak. Whenever one speaks of equality we always have to ask: according to what unit of measurement? Man and women are manifestly unequal in all sorts of ways (average weight, for instance). Marxists claim political power and money are the correct units of measurements. Do we need to accept this? While money matters, the correct unit of measurement, according to Jews and Christians, is virtue. Men and women are equal in terms of their capacity for wisdom, and courage, and because they equally bear the imago Dei.

The second wave came from feminists who argue that sexual fidelity works against freedom. The argument during the 1960s went that woman should be as free to be unfaithful as are men. It is true that it has always been easier for men to walk away from women. The pill and then abortion made it possible for women to walk away from their children. Here again, Christians propose an alternative vision. Authentic freedom, in our view, comes not through license but through sacrificial love. We gain through giving, and give most fully in a marriage open to children.

The third prejudice, the third wave of the attack on the family, comes from the gender theorists. For a generation already college students – and now elementary school students – have been taught to blink obediently before the claim that “gender is a construct.” This is foolish. Nouns have gender. Men and women have sex. The gay lobby now suffers no dissent. Their persecution carries forward a long war aimed at asserting the rights of sexual freedom over nature.

Sometimes Christians wonder: why not let gays marry? As with everything, our response must be as clear as it is charitable. But let us not be fooled: against the gay lobby we are fighting a zero sum political contest. Every advance of gay marriage rights issues an assault on a child’s right to a mom and a dad. Sex, and the obligations which flow from masculinity and femininity, are not mental constructs. Sexual distinction is rooted in our biology; maleness and femaleness each uniquely reflect back the glory of God. The success of the gay lobby will destroy the freedom of every family in America to educate their children in this most basic of truths: that boys and girls are created to grow up to become men and women.

Of course argument and defense through law is necessary to preserve marriage in our time. But above all else, what our battered and wounded society needs are more witnesses to the joy of faithful and fruitful married love.

CWR: One word that you refer to several times, especially regarding liturgy, is “enchant.” Why is that term so important? How do we recover a true sense of mystery and enchantment? 

Dr. Topping: A hundred sloppy books in theology do less damage than one badly designed church. Man is body and spirit. We see, touch, and smell the truth, long before we can give an account of it. Liturgy presents truth wrapped in images, splashed with color. At present only about one out of three Catholics bother to show up for Mass on Sunday. Plainly, we need to recover an intellectual grasp of the purposes of Catholic worship. Parents and priests need to be ready to explain to our children why it is that we pray at all.

But, perhaps even more urgently, we need to learn once more how to make manifest the glory of the Lord in our liturgical rites. We need theology just as sailors need a map of the sea. But God is greater than is our capacity to speak about him. Words are not the only kind of signs we need to grasp hold of God. We need also to encounter him through the music of chant, through the soaring arches of stone, and through the mystical bread of the altar. Only when humble reverence is shown for the rites, when the personality of the priest steps aside, are we free to experience tangibly the presence of the living God.
CWR: “Modern secularism,” you write in the Conclusion, “is many things to many people, but it can have no meaning without first recognizing that is a Christian heresy.” How is that so? Isn’t that just a bit of hyper-Catholic triumphalism? If you had to explain that statement to a secularist, what would you say? 
Dr. Topping: I offer this not as a statement of theory but as a matter of fact. Both as an historical reality and as a philosophical movement, “modernity” is a European invention. Apple computers and denim jeans may find a home in China or Turkey but they blew in from across the seas. By naming Christ as the divine “logos” or universal reason, Scripture instilled in Christians the habit of recognizing all truth as their own. This radical confidence in reason imparted to Christian civilization a bold confidence. To paraphrase St. Paul, whatever is good, whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, belongs ultimately to the Church. As a consequence, Christianity – far better than Islam – has proved remarkably competent at implanting itself in any soil, and of synthesizing various schools of thought.

Most notably, prior to her discovery of the new world, Europe’s Christian civilization brought together the achievements of the great classical civilizations. Despite her many failures, through its long education in the faith Europe was able to absorb within itself the Greek love of learning with the Roman genius for political organization alongside the Hebrew devotion to righteousness. Neither the scientific revolution, nor parliamentary democracy, nor the doctrine of human rights can be understood apart from Europe’s uniquely Christian synthesis. And, as Christianity continues to blossom across the continents, that work of adaptation continues.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.