In his magnificent new article at First Things, Fr. Thomas Joseph White O.P., considers the incompatibility of diverse and splintered versions of classical liberalism. He notes that the increasingly ubiquitous dogmatic version of leftism (as opposed to libertarianism) is more reactionary than based on autonomous principles. It should not be surprising then, (especially as the West is abandoning real conversation) that there is an equal but opposite reaction, that which has been labelled as the “alt-right” or “Trumpism”.
Fr. Thomas Joseph points out that these are merely two sides of the same coin. Whereas one pushes a secular globalism, the other pushes a secular nationalism. Of course, each side then sees the root cause of our ills to be either a view of politics which is global or one which is national. What they share is a secular foundation.
Truth be told, it is only the Catholic Church in human history that has shown any real long-term success in sustaining in concord the twin principles of balanced nationalism and ethical universalism. The caricature-substitutes of secular modernity that vie against the Church always err on one side or the other, usually to the detriment of both.
Of course, the Catholic intellectual tradition recognizes that the universality of the human condition does not necessitate tension between different nations. As such, Fr. Thomas Joseph points out that St. Thomas Aquinas includes piety toward the patria as a virtue which is constitutive of the moral life.
And yet, as with all virtue, piety toward one’s fatherland and culture is a mean between two extremes. With a correct vision of the deficiency of unchecked globalism, the alt-right makes a crucial prudential misstep in swinging toward the other extreme, which we might label as radical nationalism, often incorporating a kind of racism and cultural idolatry.
True piety for one’s fatherland, however, necessitates a rejection of this idolatry. It seems to me that a true love of one’s culture necessitates a recognition of the culture of the other in order for that love to remain intelligible. This does not mean that all cultural lines should be obliterated. On the contrary, it means that cultural variation is celebrated. There is something about seeing another culture as alien which allows for the love of one’s own culture as that which is familiar. In other words, the view of one’s culture as universally normative destroys its status as unique.
Does this require that we affirm a cultural egalitarianism? I do not think so. After all, it seems to me that culture is by definition something secular. Religious life in the Church is something which transcends the merely cultural precisely because it speaks to man universally, as called by God to a supernatural end of beatitude. Aspects of Church practice may have arisen out of and alongside a culture, such as how Gregorian chant arouse out of 9th century western Europe. Even if they begin rooted in cultural context, things like liturgical practice are most properly put forth by the Church as belonging to the arena of the religious which is distinct from the secular even as it is interwoven and connected to it. These practices speak to man qua man, not man qua Swiss or man qua Indonesian. As such, it is not cultural idolatry for the Church to prescribe Gregorian chant for Christians the world over.
In fact, even if culture is entirely secular, we may be able to make value statements when comparing and contrasting different cultures. The necessity of a respect for other cultures which true patriotism requires does not necessitate that we value all aspects of all cultures equally. It is, after all, only common sense to more greatly respect the culture which affords human dignity to prisoners of war rather than one which enslaves them.
Culture can be judged by adherence to the natural law, which is universal. Particular cultures are not universal, but the fact of culture as constitutive of the human experience is. And just as all humans share the fact that they arise out of a particular culture, all humans share a law of their nature.
We may go so far as to say that by culture we mean precisely the varied and creative ways in which the natural law can be respected, upheld, and celebrated by different groups of human beings. Indeed, culture arises out of differing responses to universal human phenomena: weddings, coming of age, the harvest, death, etc. This is the genus of culture itself. That which unites all cultures is that they deal with human nature and how humans acts, how they live. How humans act is measured by the natural law.
If having a culture (a particular response to these universal phenomena) is natural and good, and if culture itself means a fitting response to human nature and the natural law, then deviation from the universal norms of nature and goodness are perversions of culture, a lack of culture.
In sum, this Thomistic definition of culture, I believe, allows us to reject both the idolatrous universalization of culture and the relativistic denial of cultural judgment.