John Allen has a very good piece on the culture gap between America and Rome and how it affects relations within the Church. The article sums up a lot of the differences that you find out if you spend serious time studying Rome and how it operates and is well worth reading.
Allen initially explains the cultural difference like this:
It would be flip to say that “Americans are from Mars, Romans from
Venus,” but there’s more than a smidgen of truth to the perception of
being on different planets.
As an illustration, he compares the American and Roman attitudes toward time:
To take just one small but telling example, consider the difference between American and Roman views of time. In the United States, we have a “microwave” culture. If we perceive a need, we want that need satisfied immediately. If there is a problem, we want a plan to resolve it by the close of business. If you don’t have such a plan, it’s either because you’re lazy or you’re in denial, and either way it’s unacceptable. Our motto tends to be that of Homer Simpson who, when told that it would take 30 seconds for a fried meal, responded: “But I want it now!”
Rome, on the other hand, is a culture notoriously accustomed to thinking in the long term. Its motto tends to be, “Talk to me on Wednesday, and I’ll get back to you in 200 years.” Rome is in that sense a “crock-pot” culture. The idea is that the food simmers for a much longer period of time, but if you get the ingredients right, it will be much more satisfying.
Although Allen doesn’t use the terms I’m about to, America (like England and Germany) has what some anthropologists have called a "low context" culture, while Italy (like the Middle East) has what is called a "high context" culture.
The difference has to do with how much background knowledge you are expected to have in order to function successfully in the culture. Low context cultures don’t require you to know that much of the local cultural lore in order to function successfully. That’s why, in America, if you can speak English and obey a few basic laws which are easy to look up, you can get along well. You don’t have to know all of the unwritten laws and lore and customs and tribal alliances that you would have to in a high context culture.
High context cultures, by contrast, assume that the individual does know the local lore. Among other things, this allows high context cultures to communicate in a way that is less explicit, more allusive. This is one reason that the Bible is as mysterious as it is: It was written in a high context culture that assumed the reader already knew the background to the documents, so it doesn’t waste time explaining that background. If you don’t have that background, the resulting document can seem obscure and mysterious.
(That background, or at least the theoogically salient bits, are preserved in the form of Sacred Tradition, which is why Sacred Tradition is needed to correctly understand Sacred Scripture. It’s the missing background material you need to make sense of Scripture. It’s also notable that sola scriptura arose in a low context culture of Germany, which assumes you don’t need extensive background information to understand a document.)
One of the ways in which high and low context cultures differs is in how they write law: Low context cultures spell everything out in detail in law since they aren’t relying on people to use their knowledge of the unwritten law in interpreting the text. They write law rigorously and, as a result, they expect it to be rigorously obeyed.
High context cultures, by contrast, use law to gesture at what they want to happen, but they admit a thousand unwritten exceptions. Consequently, the laws of high context cultures abound in legamorons.
Allen describes the situation like this:
For Anglo-Saxons, law is a lowest common denominator of civil behavior, and hence we assume that laws are meant to be obeyed. If we find that people aren’t obeying a given law, it’s a problem, and we either crack down or change the law. In Mediterranean cultures, on the other hand, law is more an expression of an ideal, and there’s tremendous room for subjectivity in interpretation and application in a concrete set of circumstances. Anyone who’s ever driven the streets of an Italian city knows what I’m talking about. The bar tends to be set high, with the implicit understanding that most people, most of the time, will far short to varying degrees.
This is a constant source of misunderstanding when the Vatican issues a draconian-sounding decree, which immediately elicits howls of protest from the United States about it being unrealistic or inhumane. Vatican officials are routinely exasperated by the reaction, since they fully expect that pastors and bishops will exercise good judgment about how it ought to applied in individual cases. Most recently, we saw this dynamic with the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education on the admission of homosexuals as seminary candidates. No one in Rome, including the authors of the document themselves, believes that it means absolutely no candidate with a same-sex orientation should ever be admitted to Holy Orders. They saw it as a call to careful discernment, not a blanket ban. (Admittedly, American Catholics can to some extent be forgiven the protest. As the old joke goes, we often have the worst of both worlds – Roman law applied by Anglo-Saxon bishops!)
Ultimately, Allen concludes that America and Rome–despite their culture gap–need each other, and he’s right.