Christopher Shannon on How to Survive in an Age of Radical
SOUTH BEND, Indiana, FEB. 5, 2004 (ZENIT).
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
in terms of peace, love and understanding
best served by people living within or directly experiencing as many
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
that is, undermines the integrity of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, superstition and
If the Church bears responsibility for the Crusades and the Inquisition,
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
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
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
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.