Catholicism's Antidote to Multiculturalism

Christopher Shannon on How to Survive in an Age of Radical Individualism

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana, FEB. 5, 2004 ( In the face of a much ballyhooed multiculturalism, Catholicism is distinct, if not unique, in its insistence on the priority of an authoritative moral community not of one’s own choosing.

That’s according to Christopher Shannon, a Jacques Maritain Center research associate and former associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

Shannon relayed to ZENIT how Catholicism can stand up to multiculturalism and the ideology of radical individualism that underlies it.

Q: What is multiculturalism, and how does it end up subverting culture?

Shannon: Multiculturalism means different things to different people. If I had to identify a common ground that unites all self-proclaimed multiculturalists, it would come down to two points. First, all cultures are equal in value and have an equal right to flourish free from external constraints; and second, the greater good of humanity — defined in terms of peace, love and understanding — is best served by people living within or directly experiencing as many different cultures.

The irony or contradiction within this ideal of diversity lies in the historical reality that all of the traditional cultures celebrated in the multiculturalist literature were able to flourish and develop their unique beauty precisely because of a degree of isolation now judged to be the incubator of intolerance.

The peoples of the South Pacific islands developed their unique cultures largely due to their separation from the mainland of Southeast Asia and from each other.

The Hurons and the Iroquois of North America maintained distinct cultures in large part because they were sworn enemies. Sustained contact between cultures transforms — that is, undermines the integrity of — each culture.

The demand on the part of multiculturalists for a constant engagement with difference betrays a very elitist, cosmopolitan vision of culture in which each individual is free to sample the cultures of the world and piece together their own idiosyncratic, personal «culture.» By the standards of most of the cultures in world history, this is simply cultural consumerism.

Q: Where are the roots of multiculturalism?

Shannon: The roots of multiculturalism lie, appropriately enough, in the idea of culture.

For 19th-century Europeans, the idea of culture, in either the aesthetic sense of high art or the social sense of a whole way of life, arose as an antidote to the social fragmentation bequeathed by the French Revolution and industrialism.

Interestingly, the longing for social unity and wholeness fostered a romantic longing for the Catholic Middle Ages as a period that exemplified harmonious social relations and the ideal integration of art and life. This Catholic romanticism could only go so far, due in large part to the contempt of secular and Protestant intellectuals for the real living Catholics, particular those of the immigrant and working class variety.

By the early 20th century, intellectuals began to look elsewhere for ideals of unity. Anthropologists, particularly the Columbia University school led by Franz Boas, questioned the Victorian notion that European high culture provided the single standard of excellence by which all cultures of the world should be judged.

Work in the field led these anthropologists to see that the so-called primitive cultures of the non-Western world were not simply at a lower level on an evolutionary scale, but that each had an integrity, a pattern all its own. The cultures of Africa were not inferior to that of Europe, but simply different.

This notion of cultural relativism quickly became a humanist rallying cry with which to attack the racist ideologies of certain strains of fascism, particularly Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic national socialism.

Q: Is this something in American culture that especially fosters multiculturalism?

Shannon: With respect to racism, the war against fascism certainly induced a kind of shock of recognition among many Americans, most clearly with respect to the historic treatment of African-Americans, but also the lingering refusal to accept the legitimacy of the European cultural groups that descended from the great waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Since World War II, America has officially embraced peoples of all cultures, but the terms of that embrace remain unclear.

The civil rights movement was in many ways an effort to incorporate African-Americans into the society and culture of mainstream white America. By the mid-1960s, advocates of black power began to question whether social equality required cultural assimilation.

This tension between equality and diversity still drives much of the debate over multiculturalism today.

Q: How can Catholicism be a bulwark against individualism and the balkanization of culture?

Shannon: I believe that Catholicism really offers an alternative «road less traveled» for those concerned with reconciling equality and difference.

Like Martin Luther King, the secular and religious leaders of American Catholicism had a dream deeply rooted in the American dream — that is, they embraced democracy, equality and opportunity. Still, they embraced democracy from within the deeper religious and cultural context of a community that existed as in many ways a separate world within America.

Perhaps the best way to contrast the African-American and Catholic engagements with democracy is to look at education.

During the 1950s, civil rights leaders came to see equal access to a quality public school education as a kind of litmus test for racial equality, while Catholic leaders continued their 100-year struggle to maintain a separate, but equal, parochial school system.

The maintenance of Catholic faith and communal culture took priority over the promise of individual freedom offered by America through the public schools.

In the Catholic tradition, a certain degree of balkanization is understood as the only bulwark against individualism. Still, Catholic separatism managed to peacefully coexist with patriotism and a sense of civic responsibility to a broader political community comprising non-Catholics and Catholics alike.

Q: What insights does Catholicism share with other critiques of liberalism? In what does it differ?

Shannon: Catholicism shares with other critics of liberalism a deep suspicion of the ideology of «individualism.» There are, however, different reasons for this suspicion.

The social democratic tradition, which includes advocates of the welfare state, criticizes economic individualism ultimately only for failing to live up to its professed ideals. For social democrats, state intervention and regulation of the economy is necessary to ensure much the same kind of libertarian freedom that conservatives insist the unregulated free market will provide.

The secular communitarian tradition goes beyond this by taking the claims of communal obligation as legitimate in their own right, but still tends to understand community as a kind of warm and fuzzy voluntary association in which obligations are freely consented to and ultimately nonbinding.

Catholicism is distinct, if not unique, in its insistence on the priority of an authoritative moral community not of one’s own choosing. To use a religious metaphor, Catholic community proceeds from infant baptism, while secular communitarianism requires some kind of «born again» experience.

Q: How can the Church undermine the societal myth that Catholicism oppresses, while Protestantism and secular modernity liberate?

Shannon: That’s a tough one. The first order of business might be simply to complicate the progressive historical narrative in which modernity liberates the world from medieval «Catholic» ignorance, supersti
tion and violence.

If the Church bears responsibility for the Crusades and the Inquisition, then moderns — including good liberals — bear responsibility for the revival of slavery, the extermination of Native Americans, the imperial domination of the non-Western world, the Holocaust and Gulag, and the rape of nature by modern industrialism. Let’s be generous and call it a draw.

Still, by the standard of freedom celebrated in mainstream American society today, it is hard to deny that the Church is «oppressive.» Oppression and liberation are, however, relative to particular conceptions of truth, and the question of truth is one that moderns — in the great tradition of Pontius Pilate — consistently bar from the discussion of culture.

Catholics are again distinct, if not unique, in insisting on the inescapability of questions of ultimate truth in any discussion of the ethical problems facing society.

Q: Have American Catholics in general been affected by the same myth? And if so, what needs to be done to overcome this?

Shannon: My own sense is that Catholics have pretty much accepted American libertarian ideals as the ultimate truth and have little awareness of the conflict between these ideals and their faith — except maybe on a few hot button issues, such as abortion. Even on that issue, Catholics seem about evenly divided between the Church teaching and American cultural norms.

The only way to turn this around is to shore up the local Catholic communities — that is, parishes — necessary to create the kind of separate cultural space in which a communally oriented faith could flourish.

The increasing assaults of the media, particularly through satellite TV and the Internet, make this more difficult than at any time in human history. Turn off your televisions and go down to the parish hall. Not as catchy as «workers of the world unite,» but it’s a start.

Q: Is Europe facing the same problem of multiculturalism? How is that continent handling the phenomenon?

Shannon: I don’t know enough about Europe to say much more than that they are becoming more like America in every way, including hostility to immigrants.

European countries have traditionally been tolerant of cultural and linguistic minorities in a way that contrasted sharply with American nativist demands for 100% Americanism.

The most pressing question of diversity in Europe today seems less a matter of ideology than demographics. The native European population is dying off, with population growth at below-replacement levels.

Immigrants from Asia and the Middle East may well be the ones setting the tone for any European multiculturalism we are likely to see in the future.

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