The evangelization of culture and Catholic social teaching

A dialogue between Robert Lazu and Stratford Caldecott
published on the site of the National Conference of Bishops in Romania
( 21 August 2004

Mr. Caldecott, you are known as the founder of the 'G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture' in Oxford, a Catholic institution concerned with the evangelization of culture. As in Romania there are not such institutions, first I will ask you: What is the signification of your Institute and how was it founded? In fact, what is its goal?

To be strictly accurate, the G.K. Chesterton Institute was founded in North America by Fr Ian Boyd CSB, and is now based at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. I founded something that was originally called the 'Centre for Faith & Culture' in Oxford in 1994, dedicated to research into applied theology. In 2002 this was linked with the Chesterton Institute, so that the two organizations are united in pursuing a common aim under a common governing body.

Chesterton, after whom the Institute is named, was a well-known English Christian writer who died in 1936. He wrote on a range of subjects from politics and economics to literature and religion, and also composed poems, plays and novels. He had an enormous influence for good that still continues around the world, and he seemed a suitable 'patron' for the kind of work we want to do.

The purpose of our Institute, both in America and in Europe, is to help overcome the distance that has opened up between the Christian faith and modern culture – or, to put it another way, to 'evangelize culture'. We want to present Christianity to the modern world as a faith that not only happens to be true, but which is also interesting, fascinating, attractive, indeed beautiful. We try to appeal to the imagination as well as the intellect. I should add that we are not an exclusively Catholic organization, although based on Catholic social and aesthetic thought and drawing much inspiration from the teaching of Pope John Paul II.

I gather from your last answers that the 'Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture' is an organization, an academic institution that belongs to Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Or maybe I did not understand well. In fact, where the resources of this institution came from? How many employees do you have and how are they remunerated? I am asking you so 'pragmatic' questions because in Romania the functional cultural institutions are in a great poverty, being impossible to found such 'private' institution. Sincerely, it's difficult for us to understand here, how can be created an Institute as yours.

In fact our Institute is not owned by Seton Hall University, although it has its US base there. The Institute is legally established in England and America in the form of two independent 'charitable' or 'not-for-profit' organizations. In England this means it is registered with a government agency called the Charity Commission, to which we have to provide annual reports of expenditure and income.

The reason for this is that having charitable status (instead of being a limited company, for example) makes it easier for people to give money to it. Tax benefits are given to people who donate money to Charities and our income is generally free of tax. Nearly all our income comes in this way from donations. That is obviously only possible in a country where people have enough spare money to want to give it away! By the way, that doesn't mean that we cannot sell products or services, such as books, conferences or journals. It is simply that any income from these must be put back into the charity, and not used to build up profits for any of us individually. I am paid, but I have a group of unpaid Trustees to whom I have to report my activities, and who advise on the development of the Institute.

Another possible source of funding would be the European Union, which gives to certain projects, or other institutions that might make grants to help fund a conference or other activities of the Institute. But it is not easy to identify projects that qualify for EU funding, and several of our other recent grant applications have been turned down, so it is not easy to generate an income for work like this, even in Western Europe where so much money appears to be available.

What kind of relations do you maintain with Church and its rightful representatives? There is an official recognition, from the part of the Church or a Catholic Bishop?

We are not an exclusively Roman Catholic organization, let alone an 'official' one. One of my Trustees, for example, is an Anglican priest, and we work closely with members of the Orthodox Church. But it is true that Catholicism is very important to us. We have been recognized and listed both locally, by the Bishops' Conference, and in Rome, by the Vatican. Locally our main link with the Bishops' Conference on England and Wales is through the Catholic Agency for the Support of Evangelization (, although we also try to keep our Archbishop informed of developments. In Rome our main links are with the Pontifical Council for Culture, which has been very friendly to us, and the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

What concrete writings and ideas of Pope John Paul II have influenced you?

Many of his encyclicals, especially the ones containing his social teaching. In fact his whole life and all his writings are truly inspirational for us, so it is hard to pick out one example.

When you speak about the presentation of the beauty of the Christianity before the modern world, I am thinking about 'theo-aesthetical' conception of Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar. Does this author have an influence on your general prospect (view)?

Certainly Balthasar is a major influence. In fact when I started my Centre in 1994, before we merged this with the G.K. Chesterton Institute, Balthasar was clearly stated to be an equal influence alongside Chesterton, and the editors of both The Chesterton Review and Balthasar's journal Communio were Associate Founders of the Centre. I find them completely complementary, and their understanding of the modern world is very similar. John Henry Newman and the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson (who is less well known) are also important influences on our work. But I keep coming back to Balthasar: I think that he and the Communio writers associated with him (Henri de Lubac, and so on) have the most profound answers to today's cultural problems. Pope John Paul II seems to agree: he has appointed many of Balthasar's closest friends and associates to be bishops and cardinals in the last few years!

It is obviously from your previous answers that the goal of 'Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture' is to evangelize culture. How do you contrive and achieve this goal practically? Which is the public for which you speak to? Do you have dialogues with non-Catholics or non-Christians?

Christopher Dawson once said that 'the first step in the transformation of culture is a change in the pattern of culture within the mind, for this is the seed out of which there spring new forms of life which ultimately change the social way of life, and thus create a new culture.'

In practical terms we are limited in the influence we can have by our size and lack of funding. At present we are only able to offer our publications, on the one hand, and conferences and occasional lectures, on the other. The publications include our journals (Second Spring and The Chesterton Review), our web site, and several books. Fort example, we have a research project on economics, which will eventually result in both a conference and a book.

At various times in the past we have collaborated with other institutions to offer courses of seminars and lectures, and also exhibitions and concerts. This summer our conference is devoted to the spiritual role of the imagination, in fantasy literature and films. We also have a conference in Vilnius in September on Christian values in society. A few years ago we had a very successful one on liturgical reform, and many others – including one in Zagreb on ethics and economics in post-communist Europe. From 2005 we are planning to have a Summer School in Oxford, and eventually I hope we will be able to establish an educational centre that can offer courses all the year round. But that is still a few years away!

Obviously our audience is as wide as we can make it, but the people who take an interest in our work tend mainly to be Christian (though not all Catholic) and fairly well-educated. I do correspond with some non-Christian friends and publish articles in non-Christian journals, but that again only reaches a small group.

We have not yet solved the problem of how to reach out to a mass audience. It would probably require us to be working in film or TV or the music industry. Or perhaps we should write a best-seller! But because of the comment by Christopher Dawson that I just quoted, I am not too worried. We may only be able to reach a few people, but it only takes one person with a few new ideas to become the seed of a whole new culture.

So, I understand that the organization you lead is, somehow, ecumenical. Why did you contrive it in that way? Is it because Catholic culture is very similar to that of other Christian traditions?

The Centre in England was originally established at a Methodist College, and has remained ecumenical ever since. That is to say, we work closely with Anglicans, Methodists and Orthodox Christians as well as with Roman Catholics. As far as the Orthodox are concerned, the (Greek Orthodox) Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia is a good friend of our work with whom we often collaborate. One of our Trustees is very involved with the Friends of Mount Athos. Also, I am particularly interested in the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dmitru Staniloae, whose work is now appearing in English.

So as you see, while the Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture is rooted in Roman Catholicism, we are open to talking with and working with anyone who wishes to do so. We put a very high priority on conversation and friendship. But we differ from some ecumenical organizations in that we are not prepared to compromise our own beliefs – those of us who are Catholic, for example – for the sake of unity. There are similarities, certainly, between Catholic and other traditions. But the differences are also profound. We believe that a truer kind of unity, a deeper kind of conversation and friendship, will come about in the end if we are faithful to what we know to be true. Unity is important, but truth is more so, and love most of all – a love that is founded on truth.

Do you think that Christians, using cultural means, can bring back into the Church some of the Europeans marked by this 'silent apostasy' about which John Paul Pope II spoke in 'Ecclesia in Europa'?

The 'silent apostasy' has many causes. I am sure that in every age of the Church since the conversion of Constantine, the majority of Christians have been less deeply rooted in their faith than might appear on the surface. In the past there were many purely social and purely cultural reasons for professing Christianity. Large numbers will simply never have bothered to question it. But today there is an alternative, materialistic culture, and an enormous pressure NOT to believe. It is not surprising that we see so many dropping away from the Church. This process cannot be reversed by Christian apologetics alone. But it will not continue forever.

How do you see the present situation in Europe? It is not a little strange that in West where there are so many organizations like yours, unfaithfulness, immorally, anti-clericalism, practical atheism, Islam, the New Age and so on are widespread?

Well, this is partly what I have been referring to. The reason there are so many organizations like ours in the West is that it is here that they are needed, here where we have become aware of the cultural crisis afflicting Christianity. This crisis is not due to a lack of spirituality or even of morality. People still want something spiritual in their lives, but they tend to seek it outside the Church. They still want a moral framework, but they cannot take the Church seriously as a moral teacher, partly (it has to said) because of the failings of so many of her members. The crisis of the Church will become worse in Europe before it gets better. But it WILL get better, if only because the alternatives will all eventually prove to be even worse, even less satisfactory. Only Christ, ultimately, has the words of eternal life. Where else can we go?

Mr. Caldecott, I would like to speak now, in the second part of our dialogue, about how you see the evangelization of culture from another perspective; it is about a country as Romania, a very poor country. Practically, in this country almost nobody supports culture (the government offers an insignificant support), and it is seen as something virtually useless. What contra-arguments would you adduce?

I suppose that when one is so poor that one is spending all one's energy simply trying to survive it is hard to talk or even think about 'culture'. But we cannot escape it. Even the very poorest of the poor have a culture: at the most basic level it is to do with the way they live their lives, the respect they have for each other, the stories they tell, the courtesy with which they greet one another in the street. It is also an illusion to think that only the 'economy' is important, and 'culture' is merely what rich people do in their spare time. Even the economy is itself an expression of culture! And we do not engage in economic activity merely for its own sake: we do so in order to be able to sustain and build up our way of life. The many ways we transform the world around us, the songs we sing, the prayers we offer, the families we create – these are what make our lives worth living. That is culture.

How would you see, from a distance, a good strategy for a place where almost nobody wants to sustain this goal with adequate resources? In fact, why is 'culture' good for poor people?

As I said, poor people already have a culture, whether they know it or not. And Christianity, with its respect for the person and for the family, is the best ally of that culture. But Christians do not need money to sustain or create a culture. They do not need a Government to do it for them. Perhaps it is sometimes a problem in formerly Socialist countries that people think they must wait for the Government to do it all. (Just as it is a problem in Capitalist countries that we tend to wait for the rich!) The fact is, we can join together in friendship to accomplish a great deal even if we have no resources. The decision to work together, to spend time together, to collaborate in some way, is already the beginning of a cultural initiative. Maybe that is one way to start: to meet up with some friends and agree to spend a bit of time together, sharing skills, ideas, creativity. Coming together, in the first place, to pray.

I have noted that on the 'Second Spring' site you gave an important place to the social doctrine of the Church. In fact, if am not mistaken, it is one of the main areas of your educational activity. What relation is there between the evangelization of culture and the social doctrine of the Church?

The relation is close in two ways. Firstly, the evangelization of culture is not a superficial 'baptism' of society, but implies a radical transformation of it. The Popes speak of a 'civilization of love' or a 'culture of life'. This can only be achieved, in any degree, by living out the Commandments and Beatitudes in our communities, and thus by creating a more just and humane society. That, in fact, is the goal and message of Catholic social teaching, which is founded on the dignity of the individual person as an image of God. As human beings we achieve our personal fulfilment only through the worship of God and the service of our neighbour.

Secondly, the social doctrine of the Church is very attractive to the men and women of our time, even if they are not otherwise interested in Christianity. People can see that the various secular political and economic ideologies are failing, and they are losing faith in politicians and governments. Catholic social teaching seems to represent an alternative for them: not just another ideology, but a way of life that is more worthy of our humanity. By making this teaching known, we are able to introduce people to the idea that Christianity still has a great deal to offer the modern world.

So, teaching the Church's social doctrine is an important part of evangelization. But that does not mean we do it only to win converts! A 'civilization of love' is not a civilization in which every person HAS to be a Christian. It is a civilization in which love is the supreme value, and where the 'logic' of love somehow shapes the structures of society. It is quite possible to have people of many different beliefs working and living together in such a society. We are working for the common good of humanity, and there are many people who would agree with us on the nature of the common good who do not recognize (we would say, do not YET recognize!) the divinity of Christ.

To what extent is Catholic social doctrine present in the society in which you live? Do you succeed in communicating and applying it? Is this teaching known among the English Catholic lay movements?

Catholic social doctrine provides a powerful critique of many aspects of Government policy. The Catholic bishops are well aware of this. In 1997, when we were preparing for a General Election in Britain, the Bishops issued a document summarizing the relevant points from the teaching of the Church, called The Common Good. Many parishes ran study groups on the document, which was designed for such a purpose. The Bishops are also beginning to encourage a discussion of Catholic teaching among Christian business executives and leaders through a series of high-level seminars and conferences. Some Benedictine Abbeys are also running courses on Catholic social teaching which are proving quite popular among lay Catholics.

However, despite all these recent developments, I would say that in the early part of the twentieth century the Catholic laity were even more aware of this teaching than they are today. There were several active movements, such as the 'Catholic Social Guild', the 'Catholic Women's League', and G.K. Chesterton's 'Distributist League', all promoting an intense and detailed discussion of what they sometimes called 'Christian sociology' around the country, through public lectures, debates and study groups, for which a great deal of specialized material was produced. What we are seeing now in England is just the beginning of a revival of interest in this teaching, the level of which used to be much higher before the Second World War.

The pontifical documents on social themes often speak about the necessity of the involving the State (government) in the regulation of some issues, such as the just wage and so on. How can the Church work with governments that approve the law in favour of abortion and have a tendency to segregate or even oppose the doctrine of the Church?

It is true that with the general acceptance of abortion, surrogate motherhood, embryo experimentation, homosexual 'marriage' and so on by all the main political parties it is difficult for Catholic to know what to do. Many people are finding it difficult to find a candidate they can vote for in good conscience. The Bishops should follow the lead of the Pope in talking with politicians and never failing to recall the important issues – but also in giving them some encouragement when they do something good! As for the laity, if they cannot vote for any of the existing parties they should start a new one – a party that is not confessionally Catholic but which could unite people of many different beliefs on the principles of natural law and justice, the importance of the family, and so on.

I do not think such a party or movement has yet emerged in Britain. It would probably require a man or woman of real vision to create one. It is not enough for someone to put together a coalition of anti-abortion campaigners, for example. The new party would need to have a broader vision, based on a profound analysis of the modern situation. Perhaps we need more research by Christian intellectuals to develop that analysis – and to provide intellectual support for those who are working in the political field. There is a very interesting new institute within the Pontifical Lateran University that is doing this kind of research. It is called the Redemptor Hominis Institute, and it works in parallel with the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family.

From the social doctrine we can go to a very difficult question: is the Catholic Church a material presence, important in Western culture and civilization?

Clearly it is still an important presence, even in a highly secularized, hedonistic society such as the one we currently have in Western Europe. It will continue to be so. But in the past it was more than a mere 'presence'; it provided the foundation and much of the superstructure of our civilization. Yet even then I think that the apparent triumph of Christianity in the Middle Ages, when it produced the civilization we call 'Christendom', masked a profound failure. That civilization, magnificent as it was, could not continue for very long. It was unstable, because of the deep divisions between Christians that the Church had been unable to overcome. Attempts to suppress heresy by force only made things worse in the long run. The modern movement to abolish all Christian influence in society started as a reaction to the religious wars and persecutions that had brought Christianity into disrepute, and so it could be said to be partly the fault of Christian themselves, for not living their faith adequately. G.K. Chesterton put this very succinctly when he said that 'Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried!'

Now, of course, we see that modernity did not succeed in abolishing religion or religious influences at all. In the 21st century we see religious belief of different kinds, including Islamic and New Age, actually growing in strength in Europe, while Catholicism declines. We also see that Rationalism did not succeed in doing any better than Christianity in eliminating war and hatred. Many of the greatest wars, the greatest tyrants, have arisen from the attempt to eliminate religion during the 20th century. Religion still remains the only real hope for mankind, and the only enduring foundation for any civilization. Christopher Dawson once said: 'The civilization that finds no place for religion is a maimed culture that has lost its spiritual roots and is condemned to sterility and decadence.' That is why Chesterton also believed that we would see a revival of Christian faith, as people began to realize where the new Paganism was leading them: in his words, to 'dehumanized and demented anarchy'.

Many times I have the feeling of isolation, lack of communication and dialogue between the Romanian Catholics and Catholics from other countries. You, for instance, have you develop strong relations with Catholics from other countries? I am asking this because I see that your institute functions in England, even if its roots are in USA.

I know what you mean. Even within the West, even between English Catholics, I feel that there is a serious lack of communication. We have the Internet, and all the other means of communication, but that does not solve the problem. It is partly because, the easier the technology for communication becomes, the more people are trying to communicate, and the less time we have to select from the flood of information, and to listen attentively to others. In fact the Devil is a great stealer of time. It may be one of his greatest tricks!

I try to keep in touch with a wide range of people and countries, but I do not succeed as well as I would like. I seem to spend every morning in correspondence by email, but it is not enough, and it leaves little time for other important things. Of course, we have a web site which makes our information available for anyone who will take the time to look, but there are so many good web sites to choose from that we need to keep reminding people to make regular use of ours. We also have our journals, Second Spring and The Chesterton Review, which are sent to subscribers around the world. I would like to encourage more people in Eastern Europe to read these.

If a Catholic group from an Eastern non-Catholic country (say Bulgaria or Romania) would ask you to found a branch of your Chesterton Institute in that country, would something like this be possible?

Certainly, that would be very welcome! There would need to be a small group of sympathetic people in that country, able to contribute some of their time each week to work together on this project. If it would help them, I expect our Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture could help sponsor a conference in that country at some point in the next few years – like the one we are having in Lithuania this year, and probably in Poland later. This might help to encourage others to come together around the project. But any 'branch' (as you call it) that is set up would have to be autonomous, because our Institute does not have the resources to run things at a distance in Eastern Europe. Rather than thinking of it as a branch of our Institute, it might be better to call it an affiliate.

A priest from New Zealand recently spent some time with me in Oxford researching the possibility of starting a Christian cultural centre in his own country. This was not intended to be a part of our Institute, but we were able to share ideas and learn from each other. Such initiatives will only succeed if they answer the precise needs of the cultural situation in each country – so they must always be developed and led by someone who is a part of that situation.

In fact, what is the geographical area of your organization?

Our only offices are in England and the United States, although we also have people collaborating with us in Canada, and of course we have individual friends in many other countries including Japan, Argentina, Italy, Poland, Australia – and Romania!

Dear Stratford Caldecott, I would like to invite you to formulate and transmit in your name and in the name of your ideals a message for the Romanian Catholics.

All I can do is echo what the Pope has said on so many occasions to the various peoples who belong to the 'spiritual commonwealth' that is Europe. Respect your own culture, especially the ways in which the saints of your country have shown you how to live the Gospel. Judge modern civilization in the light of the revelation of Christ. Be open to what is new, be creative in seeking a contemporary expression for your faith, be friends to other Christians and members of other faiths. Be prepared to learn from others, but do not cease to listen to the word of God in prayer, and always be faithful to the whole tradition that comes to us from the Apostles.

Now, at the end of our dialogue, I thank you very much for this wonderful opportunity to exchange ideas. And I invite you, please, to comment on a little fragment from 'Christifideles laici' by Pope John Paul II: 'a faith that does not affect a person's culture is a faith 'not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived' (art. 59).'

The Pope's message is at the heart of everything I have been trying to say. The Pontifical Council for Culture is founded on this very principle, as are the many Catholic cultural centres around the world. This is what we know we must try to do: embrace our faith, think it out, live it faithfully. Only in these ways can we develop a 'culture of life', a 'civilization of love'.