What A People Worships, Shapes Their Culture
The word “culture” has an interesting history. At the root of the word is the Latin word “cultus.” This is the Latin term from which we derive the word “cult.”
“Cult” is a word that has negative connotations. It suggests a group of wide-eyed, fanatical followers of a dangerous belief system created by a cult leader. However, the Latin word cultus has a much broader meaning. Originally, the term had a close connection to farming. It referred to the process of fostering or promoting growth. Here, you can think of the word “cultivate,” which comes from the same root. In the same way that a famer cultivates a field, so also a culture cultivates a people.
Importantly, however, the word also refers to the established religious practices of a people. As one Latin dictionary says, some of the meanings of the Latin term cultus are “worship, devotion/observance; form of worship.”
Worship Forms Every Culture
A cult, in the modern sense of the term, is just one form that “worship” can take, i.e., a dangerous, disordered form. When a group of people worship some false prophet or false religious system, then they belong to a cult. However, any form of worship can rightly be called a “cult.” This is why Catholic authors will sometimes speak of the “cult” of some Catholic saint, or other Catholic devotion, such as the “cult” of the Sacred Heart.
Once you understand that, at its root, the term “culture” refers to worship, you can begin to see the richness and the depth of the term. We tend to think of a culture as simply the various forms of art and social practices that define a people. So, the music and the theater and the art or the food that a certain people watch or listen to or eat, or the various manners they practice, are collectively that people’s “culture.” However, if you look deep enough, what you will soon see is that all of these things are, in some meaningful sense, a reflection of who (or what) a people worships.
Throughout the history of medieval Europe, almost all of the music, art, and manners, centered around Europeans’ worship of the Christian God: the triune God, who became incarnate in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. The daily life of a medieval European was suffused and structured by the liturgical life of the Church, including not just daily Mass, but the various hours of the Divine Office, prayed by the monks and nuns in the monasteries that tended to be positioned in the very center of a medieval town. Similarly, the year was suffused and structured by the various feast days and saints’ days, not to mention the sabbath rests, that gave the life of most people their recognizable rhythms.
The point is that the lives of even those people who did not think very much about God, or perhaps even did not believe in God, were nevertheless deeply informed by the practices of a culture that assumed the existence of God, and in particular the Christian God, and the various moral principles that flowed from that belief. A medieval European did not believe in child sacrifice, for instance, because such a belief was completely not in keeping with the cult of Christian worship, which presumes that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God. On the other hand, in the culture that sprang up in places where people worshipped the pagan god Moloch, child sacrifice was accepted. What a people worships, shapes their culture.
Catholic Couple Refused Right to Adopt
It might seem odd that all of these thoughts were sparked by this article in The Daily Mail. The article recounts how a Catholic couple is suing the state of Massachusetts for denying them the right to adopt a child. According to the couple, the state refused them adoption, because they had expressed their acceptance of Catholic teaching on such things as gender identity and marriage.
Regulations adopted by the Massachusetts’ Department of Children and Families (DCF) state that foster families must “promote the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of a child placed in his or her care.” This might seem like little more than common sense. However, the regulations go on to clarify that this includes, “supporting and respecting a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity.”
In other words, if parents should adopt a boy who subsequently claims to be a girl, parents are legally required to accept their child’s new “gender identity.” Should they express their belief that the boy they adopted is not a girl, they would be in violation of state requirements. In fact, as Catherine and Michael Burke have just discovered, should they even suggest to the DCF that they might, in a hypothetical future, object to the idea that a boy can “become” a girl, they will not be allowed to adopt a child at all.
The Burkes are, understandably, shocked by the DCF’s decision. And they are, quite rightly, suing the state. As they pointed out in a statement, “We were absolutely devastated to learn that Massachusetts would rather children sleep in the hallways of hospitals than let us welcome children in need into our home.”
On the one hand, everyone should be shocked by the callousness of the state. As the Burkes rightly note, the DCF’s obsession with policing the beliefs of potential adoptive parents, to make sure that they are in conformity with radical gender ideology that would have seemed madness to most people as little as five years ago, is crazy.
Replacing God with Self: The Heart of the Modern “Cult”
However, while the Burkes are understandably devastated by the state’s decision, I can’t say that I am particularly surprised.
There is indeed something especially callous about allowing a child to languish in institutions, rather than to send him to a loving Christian home, simply because his adoptive parents don’t ascribe to the latest progressive fad. It’s almost as if the Massachusetts DCF has become a kind of “cult,” in which DCF employees are willing to allow children to suffer in the name of their creed.
And indeed, I would argue that the idea that the DCF has become part of a “cult” is in some important sense true. I don’t necessarily mean that they are being led by some crazy cult leader. What I mean is that they are being led by what they worship, even if they themselves are not aware that they worship anything at all.
Since the sexual revolution in the 1960s, the modern world has rejected the traditional worship of the Christian God. This has instead been replaced with the “cult” of radical autonomy, sometimes called “freedom.” The “god” that this cult worships is nothing other than the self, or the individual will. Believers in this cult believe that the only meaningful life is a life in which there are no constraints, in which the individual self is totally “free” to become whoever or whatever he or she wants, without anyone or anything telling him or her what to do.
The cult of transgenderism is the latest, but in many ways the most sacred form of this creed, because it manifests this fundamental belief in a particularly radical way. In this cult, the self is not even constrained by the given facts of one’s own biology. While one might appear to have been born in the body of a man, in fact, a person can, purely by exercising his will, “become” a woman (whatever exactly a woman is), or one of the other dozens of newly-minted “gender identities.”
The reason that the Massachusetts’ DCF cannot allow the Burkes to adopt a child is because the Burkes do not ascribe to this cult. They believe that there are inherent limits in reality, and that part of the responsibility of parents is to help their child acknowledge those limits, and to live in accordance with them, and thus to flourish as a human being. That is to say, the Burkes worship something other than themselves.
False Worship Destroying Christian Culture
As many religious leaders and pro-family activists have warned for years, issues such as same-sex unions are not—as LGBT activists insistently claim—about extending “freedom” or about “love.” These issues go much deeper than that. How we think about them, and the cultural practices we associate with them, are, in some deeply meaningful sense, a manifestation of what we worship.
When Christians say that marriage is the life-long union of a man and a woman oriented towards the rearing and begetting of children for the betterment of the common good, or that the sexual union is so powerful and meaningful that it ought to be strenuously kept within the confines of a life-long marriage of a man and a woman, these are not simply our “values.” They are not things that can be changed willy-nilly. They are a manifestation of our belief that there is something—or rather Someone—outside of ourselves, Who is Holy, and to which we are beholden to give worship, above all the worship of the submission of our own wills.
When we change our society’s understanding of marriage, sexual morality and gender, we are indeed changing our “culture,” in the deepest sense of the meaning of the word. That is, we are changing what we worship. Rather than a culture that worships the God of the Bible, we are transforming our culture into one that is based upon the worship of the self. By telling our children that they can become “whatever they want,” to the point of changing their very God-given genders, we are essentially educating them in the phrase, “non serviam”—“I will not serve.”
Many Christians have been duped into believing that we could change such fundamental aspects of our culture, without affecting our own lives in any meaningful sense. How many times have we heard it said, “What does it matter to me who anybody marries?” or “What business is it of mine if someone wants to change their gender?”
However, as the Burkes in Massachusetts have learned, it turns out that it matters a very great deal. In meddling with such things as marriage, sexual morality, and gender, we have not merely changed certain cultural practices. We have, in fact, altered the very basis of our culture. There is no space left in a culture that worships the self for Christians who worship the God of the Ten Commandments.
We Must Restore Christ as the Heart of Culture
To our new culture, Christians like the Burkes are not merely wrong. They are heretics. They are dangerous. As such, they cannot be allowed to be near, or have responsibility for children. Hence, the growing number of cases of Christians being fined or arrested or losing custody of their children for such things as reading certain Scripture verses in public, stating certain biological facts on social media (e.g., “biological sex is binary and immutable”), or for refusing to allow their children to undergo dangerous, experimental medical procedures or drug “treatments.”
And hence, in the end, the crucial importance of re-establishing our culture on the correct “cult”, i.e., the true worship of the true God, is paramount.
As I have said so often over the years, only by addressing the spiritual roots of our cultural crisis, can we re-establish an authentic culture: one that is predicated upon the dignity of the human person, and the common good of all. In other words, we must restore the Christian cathedral, both metaphorically and physically, at the center of our cities and our lives. For from true worship, comes true culture. From false worship, however, comes the cult, of which the cult of gender ideology is merely one of the latest, and most pernicious.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.