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There has been much attention given in the media to the Synod of Bishops that began meeting today in Rome. The focus of most media coverage has been on the the supposed need of the Catholic Church to give its blessing to contemporary culture, particularly those ways in which modern men and women ignore or even defy Christian moral precepts. We are told, ad nauseam, that if many people today live together before marriage or divorce or favor gay marriage then the Church must give its blessing to cohabitation, divorce, and gay marriage, because the consensus of today cannot be wrong. After all, isn’t ours the most advanced civilization the world has ever known? This morning, a different take on the culture the media wants the Church to subordinate its teachings to was offered by the Relator General of the Synod, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo: "Many people today have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents. We live in an audio-visual culture, a culture of feelings, emotional experiences and symbols. . . . Many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good and enjoying good health. From this vantage point, any firm commitment seems insurmountable and the future appears threatening, because it may happen that in the future we will feel worse. Even social relationships may appear as limitations and obstacles. Respect and 'seeking the good' of another person can even call for sacrifice. Isolation is oftentimes linked, therefore, with this cult of a momentary well-being.” Cardinal Erdo then contrasted today’s “audio-visual culture” with “the culture of the word.”
I suspect that Cardinal Erdo’s words will resonate with many American conservatives. Indeed, his distinction between “an audio-visual culture” and “the culture of the word” echoes the distinction I heard William Lind make between the Word and the Image. Like Erdo, Lind argued that a culture dominated by the word is logical and a culture dominated by the image—in our case, one dominated by the images flickering on televisions, computer screens, and now cell phones—is not. Far from representing the apex of human thought, today’s culture in fact represents the beginning of a return to barbarism. Rather than subordinating timeless teachings to placate those who “have difficulty in thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents," we need to begin the far harder process of introducing modern men and women to the truths contained in the “lengthy documents” they would rather not read.
Very welcome post, Mr. Piatak. Yet more needs to be said. I think the problem doesn't lie so much in the modern ascendancy of the image as vehicle of meaning. Rather, it's that modern imagery has become less and less linked to words of meaning and that respect--honor--veneration of the word (and the Word) has plunged so precipitously. Perhaps most people at the height of Christendom in the Middle Ages could not read words, but they knew how to listen and how to "read" the sacred art in their churches--the latter of which is, alas, more than I can do.
The Church needs to bring back statues, paintings and icons in all churches -- to dominate the "Image" again.
This is an outstanding and insightful piece. Our "culture" is saturated with the flimsy and the fatuous. Serious reading is now relegated to the relative few Troglodytic Luddites who refuse to eschew quality writing because it's "too long" or has too few pictures and who abhor rather than worship the Twitter cult.
Cardinal Erdo has provided us with an excellent - and courageous - analysis. His intellect is well-regarded; I know he was on some short lists prior to the last conclave.
Fair, accurate and sad assessment by Cardinal Erdo of contemporary life.
Ray, John, Harry, and DH:
Thanks very much for your insightful comments.
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