Cultural Diversity and Unity in the Church

Vatican II's rich vision of the human right to culture remains anemic in the U.S. Church

“Diversity” is a mantra very much in contemporary vogue, although arguably one whose end-goal is often unclear. Any group needs some principle of unity; even the poster children of diversity have to have something that unites one diverse group vis-à-vis others. Otherwise, they’d not be a group but simply a gaggle of individuals. If “diversity” is an end in itself, it is self-defeating. Diversity needs to connect to some concept of “unity.” The question is not if, it’s how.

There are those who see diversity as a necessary component of a larger unity. In American society, that has often been the contraposition of the “melting pot” or “stew”  versus “salad bowl,” “mosaic,” or “symphony” approaches to social integration. In the former, the individual components are boiled down into some anonymous amalgam (which often, suspiciously, more or less resembles the cook’s preferred dish). In the latter, each piece, while remaining itself, contributes to the whole. The former is “assimilation” — everything is melted down into some “similar,” the director of the process determining what that essential “similar” is. The latter is integration — each part entering into relationship with the others without having to forego what it is.

I endorse that idea of cultural pluralism. For too long, “Americans” explicitly or implicitly meant white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Well, my childhood home didn’t look anything like my television contemporary’s, Beaver Cleaver of the Cleaver Family. Nor was that WASP conceit, with appropriate modifications, lost on the Catholic Church in the U.S. For too long, the local Church in this country allowed the WASP’s closest cultural approximation — Irish Catholics, especially Irish Catholic bishops — to set the assimilation agenda and model. “Sure and begorrah, we’re gonna all be real Americuns,” subsequent ethnics were told by their bishops, who usually held begrudging views of national parishes. “They should all belong to the territorial parish!” No doubt its patron was St. Patrick.

Happily, that vision of cultural integration — one alien to the Church’s approach to culture found in Gaudium et spes — is largely receding. Bishops in the United States today rarely hold the cramped views toward ethnic ministry or even ethnic parishes their predecessors a century ago did. That’s not to say those narrow views about ethnicity are wholly gone. Their last gases are to be found in the phenomenon that European ethnic parishes that then were last to gain episcopal approval are now often first on lock-and-leave bishops’ closure hit lists.

Let me, however, reflect further on culture according to Gaudium et spes. The document makes clear that the Church is not wedded to any one culture. That’s been clear from the Church’s first generation, when the early Christians broke out of a Jewish cradle to go into a Gentile world. It raised questions, e.g., how much of that Jewish heritage did one need to keep in Christianity?

The Council Fathers knew the outcome of Paul’s encounter with the Hellenic world. It’s also arguable that, at least notionally, in 1962-65 they realized that the European cultures in which Catholicism often came prepackaged would have to expand. I say “notionally” because, while they may have theoretically conceded it, at the Council’s end even the idea of a non-Italian Pope was still 13 years in the future, of a non-European one (albeit one of European immigrant parents), 48 years away.

Vatican II insisted that the Church was not wedded to any one culture. The Church’s message had to become incarnate in every culture. At the same time, every culture required purification by the grace of the Gospel. Every culture as a human product, i.e., one shaped and formed by fallen human beings, remained to be elevated by the Gospel.

At the same time, culture also conditions our faith. The most basic example is through language. And since language is a product of the history and experience of a particular culture it too is more or less adequate to the concepts of the faith while simultaneously bringing along with that faith a lot of cultural assumptions.

Those cultures and their assumptions permeate how the faith is received. Even at a superficial level, one senses a palpable difference — in style, spirituality, preaching, and music, for example — between an “American” parish compared to a “Polish” or “Haitian” or even a generic “Latino” parish (in which there will be sub-pockets, e.g., Mexicans or El Salvadoreans). The sacred music tradition is rich. Is our target to assimilate them to Marty Haugen? The spiritual traditions (for example, Marian devotion) are likewise different and spiritually nourishing to those people. Such should not be lost.

Vatican II insisted people have a “right” to their culture. They have a right to that culture and to know, love, and serve God in that culture. That truth has implications for all these aspects of parochial life.

One must honestly still ask whether bishops have themselves “assimilated” what Vatican II said about the right to culture. I would argue that assimilation is both superficial and utilitarian. It is superficial in that ethnic ministry is still seen in many quarters to be merely something transitional. Today’s bishops may not be as explicitly unaccommodating to ethnic ministry or even parishes as they once were for theoretical reasons: everybody should eventually be “mainstreamed” into the territorial parish. Instead, they are often stingy out of utilitarian motives. Ethnic parishes cost money at a time when “responsible stewards” are closing churches. Besides, canonically erecting a parish gives parishioners rights that bishops (who can’t issue the motu proprio of the day changing the law) then have to respect.

Let’s simply “give” those folks a Mass or two in a parish church. Maybe even appoint a priest to run the diocesan “apostolate” and write an occasional column in Spanish or Creole or Vietnamese for the diocesan newspaper. Those are all ad hoc (and, in comparison to a parish, relatively cheaper) accommodations that can also be dismantled with the wink of a rescript.

Behind this whole approach, however, is not Vatican II’s vision of culture, wherein Catholics have a “right” to have their faith incarnated and sustained. It is simply a temporary accommodation that, again, assumes this ethnic ministry as a waystation on the way to the territorial “American” parish. The bizarre synergy between attitudes of second-class canonical status for national parishes and the bishops’ (subconscious?) adoption of an American assimilating mission is rarely commented on. A hundred years ago, it was explicit: Archbishop John Ireland (nomen omen) was intent on proving Catholics could be “good Americans” by emphasizing the Americanizing mission. That pressure may not be here today (in some quarters, though, being a “good American” means being a “bad Catholic”) but the gases of the mission remain.

Note that I wrote “and sustained.” I would argue that Vatican II’s vision of culture does not contain the assumption the bishops of the United States have long entertained: that they are also to be “agents of Americanization.” Instead, I would maintain it was their obligation to nurture the faith in those ethnic expressions as long as people chose to adhere to them, even if they chose to remain Catholics in an ethno-cultural sense while entering American society on “Anglo” terms. I argue this not just as a utilitarian argument — the Church is richer when many different cultural traditions and spiritualities are cultivated — but as a matter of right: it is not the bishop’s role to decide how a Catholic’s faith should be culturally incarnated.

I’ll note a way I think the Catholic bishops of the United States are not sustaining Polish American Catholics. When I was in college in 1977, we prepared a catalog of Polish American parishes in the U.S. There were then just under 900. Today, the number of canonically established national parishes for Polish Catholics is somewhere between 150-200. For Poles, for whom their national identity has been sustained by Catholicism even when their political sovereignty was subverted (e.g., 123 years of Russian-Austrian-German occupation from 1795-1918), the loss of a parish network is a body blow to the sustainment of — and therefore, arguably, their right to — ethnic identity.

The bishops do not think of culture rights on those deeper levels. For them, it is at best a palliative approach to offering a linguistically competent ministry that keeps non-English speakers connected to the Church, presumably until that language barrier disappears. That is not Vatican II’s vision of culture.

[I’ll conclude with two notes of thanks. Back in my undergraduate days at St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, my very first theology professor was Fr. Valerius Jasiński. He was thoroughly imbued with Pope Pius XII’s Exsul familia on ethnic ministry. His one requirement for the course’s term paper was that we had to pick a topic related to Vatican II “so that you can learn what the Council said.” As a 17-year-old, I had no idea about Vatican II documents, much less what should go in a theology term paper. I asked for help. Fr. Jasiński told me to write about Gaudium et spes on culture. Consider this post a follow-up on that paper. A second note of thanks to my college’s president (and sociology professor), Fr. Leonard Chrobot, who took Fr. Jasiński’s ideas and developed them in a dissertation on “cultural pluralism” for American-born heirs of European ethnics.]


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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