Americans Are From Mars; Romans Are From Venus

by Jimmy Akin

in The Church

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.

GET THE STORY.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!


What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy

{ 30 comments }

Mary Kay November 8, 2006 at 4:38 am

A food analogy is always good for getting my attention. I like the microwave and crockpot example.
This is an important topic but I’ve a feeling that yesterday’s election(s) will overshadow most of this morning’s discussion.

Ryan C November 8, 2006 at 5:04 am

Very interesting! Thanks for linking to this.

Susan Peterson November 8, 2006 at 5:21 am

T.S. Eliot talked about this in his essay “Thoughts on Lambeth” (after Lambeth 1930.)
But the ultimate results of Lambeth 1930 make one wonder if he were right about British (and American) adherence to the letter of the law as stated, with the exceptions all specified.

Tim J. November 8, 2006 at 5:43 am

This is interesting in light of the current torture debate, with a lot of Americans wanting more details and wondering why Rome wasn’t more clear.

Chris B. November 8, 2006 at 6:05 am

Allen covers this cultural gap thoroughly in his book, “All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks.”
I like the “high” and “low” cultural contexts. Good thinking tool and helps explore the subtleties.

Ed Peters November 8, 2006 at 6:57 am

This is a good description, and that’s important. But we haven’t yet decided the relative “worth” of these cultures. How can I put this briefly? IS a “high-context” culture the best one to administer a world-wide religious, or legal, or whatever, system?

Ed Peters November 8, 2006 at 7:00 am

Asked another way, SHOULD the whole Catholic world always have to adjust to an “Italian” way of doing things? Or maybe, should the “Italians” have to understand better that most of the rest of the world does not do things their way, for a change?

Jason in SA November 8, 2006 at 7:06 am

I think it’s a tad over-generalized, but it’s certainly interesting.
I’ve always wondered what could be the role of Romanization (under her empire and successive process of civlization and enculturation of subject/colonized tribes) on the later Protestant revolt. The Germanic peoples as a whole (whose descendants we see in modern Germany and anywhere Anglo-Saxons [both Germanic tribes] are found today) weren’t as thoroughly ‘Romanized’ as say, the Celtic tribes, and perhaps this contributed a great deal to the different sixteenth-century responses in, e.g., those areas roughly corresponding to Hispania and Gaul (colonized much earlier) as opposed to Germania (arguably never successfully colonized).
It wasn’t so hard to cast off ‘Rome’ if you hadn’t been exposed to being ‘Roman.’

Matt McDonald November 8, 2006 at 7:09 am

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.
I beg to differ, the document is clear, the comments by it’s authors are clear. No person with same-sex orientation should be admitted to Holy Orders. It does allow that someone who had a transitory attraction could be subsequently admitted. John Allen is, as always coloring his assesment with his own liberal bias.
If we accept Allen’s thesis, what about when Rome says absolutely no contraception, can we accept that they really mean, almost none, but for certain pastoral reasons it’s ok? As long as it doesn’t violate the conscience of the person? That’s the view of the Canadian Bishops, probably not a few US Bishops and many, many priests in the USA as well.
God Bless,
Matt

Jason in SA November 8, 2006 at 7:10 am

Mr. Peters,
I don’t think we’d easily rid the ‘low-context’ (Germanic, for example) peoples (and those peoples they have in turn subjected and colonized) of what might be viewed by Allen as some predisposition to assiduity or whatever.

Mary Kay November 8, 2006 at 7:15 am

Ed, much of the reason why others don’t get Catholicism is because it is so high context. It doesn’t reduce to a sound bite.
Your question: IS a “high-context” culture the best one to administer a world-wide religious, or legal, or whatever, system?
Yes (IMHO). To have anything other than high-context is to lose the fullness of faith that is Catholicism.

Kris November 8, 2006 at 7:39 am

I with Matt on this one.
Allens depiction of Church mandates, like the one on homosexuals in seminary, just doesn’t jive with my understanding of Papal and Church authority. Chruch law and policy is created to promote the salvation of souls. The more fully we are obedient to these laws and mandates, the more fully we are aligned to Christ,and vise-versa.
The document on homosexuality in seminary was a poor choice for Allen. The copy I found does not seem to be authored by Italians at alt–not to mention that it was approved by a “low-context” German Pope.
Pax Tecum,
Kris

Prof. Basto November 8, 2006 at 7:43 am

I agree, Mary Kay. However, I would like to point out that the Vatican could still work in the high-context format and be faster in its decisionmaking process.
High-context is one thing, slow is another.

Brian Day November 8, 2006 at 7:51 am

…while Italy (like the Middle East) has what is called a “high context” culture.
Forgive me for going off topic, but I think this is also a reason why our foreign policy in the Middle East has had less than stellar results. We want results in weeks and months (microwave time), while the reality is that it will take years and decades (crock pot time) to work through through the issues facing Middle East societies.

Dr. Eric November 8, 2006 at 8:43 am

Americans in Rome watch out. There are no crosswalks so you may “jaywalk” where you please and the cars will slow down for you. But, DON’T RUN across the street like we do in America. The cars will HIT YOU!
It was a bit of a culture shock when I was in Rome andalmost got hit. The reasoning is that the drivers think they don’t have to slow down as you are running (jogging). If you walk they assume you are going very slow and will stop.
Some useless trivia for today, unless you happen to be going to Rome in the near future.

AJP November 8, 2006 at 9:21 am

The high-context/low-context distinction is really interesting. I’ve never heard of it before but it sure explains a lot about the cultural differences I witnessed while studying in Italy a few years ago.
I wonder if Poland is considered a high-context culture? Perhaps this might explain why JP2 ended up appointing so many lousy bishops to America. Perhaps he assumed that they didn’t need to be told much, given many instructions, and disciplined much because they had the right “background assumptions” and had no need for rules and regulations. Maybe it never occured to JP2 that someone can be a bishops while completely lacking a Catholic worldview. Maybe he didn’t realize that Americans need clear guidelines and if you issue a vague statement about, say, the liturgy, people of ill will are going to assume that anything not explicitly prohibited is allowed. And when no discipline comes from above, we’ll assume that our transgressions weren’t a problem to begin with.
I think that’s the negative side of a low-context culture – we’re very lawyerly, always looking for loopholes. We don’t “get” important things (like religion) intuitively – we require lots of education, facts, learning, etc. When we try to “get” Catholicism, we approach it as one more intellectual pursuit, one more set of things to memorize, one more academic subject to learn. It makes faith overly dry and academic.
On the other hand, high-context cultures have drawbacks too. The idea that no one will really live up to a law and there’s always exceptions, can have some really bad consequences. Frankly I think this is an infantilizing view of humanity. While no one is perfect, sometimes people can live up to some laws perfectly. Not all laws are *that* hard to follow completely. For example, it is not that hard to attend Mass once a week and on holy days. This law asks so little of one that it’s just plain BS to say that you “just can’t” follow it. Come on. Grow up, stop making excuses, be a man (or woman) and get your rear to church. It’s not that hard.
I can see how high-context cultures can encourage nominal identification with the Catholic faith. I found this attitude in Italy where nearly everyone identifies him or herself as Catholic, but very few people practice. There seemed to be an attitude that it was silly to expect people to do things like attend Mass every week, go to confession on occasion, learn something about their faith, or attempt to be chaste (seems that high context cultures are the ones that are also traditionally more lenient about unchastity) Those things are just rules, no one really follows them, if you did you’d be some sort of super-human fanatic. We do our “best” (i.e., we light candles at roadside Madonna shrines, we put saint statues on our dashboards, etc) and that’s good enough.

Old Zhou November 8, 2006 at 9:44 am

I think the “high context / low context” or “time” distinctions between American and Italian cultures are red herrings, and they should be brushed with olive oil, garlic and peppers, and then grilled.
There is infinite local cultural context everywhere. The only difference is wheter or not you (and your community) choose to listen to that context.
This is, in large part, due to the 19th century Immigrant history of the Catholic Church in the United States, which chose to ignore (or burn and destroy) all the prior culture, even the Spanish or French Catholic Culture, that was in place in parts of the United States before the Germans, and especially the Irish, arrived in the 19th century. In California, which was a Spanish Colony and part of Mexico, there was almost no trace of the Spanish origins of the Catholic Church by the year 1900–it was Irish.
I think that the “overnight” disposal of all things Latin after the V2 Council was also part of this Irish Catholic immigrant syndrome, an immigrant Church that wanted to dump even its own history and culture in order to blend in with the dominant English speaking Protestant culture in the US.
So, it is not a matter of context. It is a matter of choosing to listen to, to value, to participate in the context–or to wipe it away and start over.
American culture is like the Etch-a-sketch. People always want to shake it and start over.

Ed Peters November 8, 2006 at 10:16 am

O.Z., good points.
Mary Kay, I know Catholicism is “high-context”, but need it be so ITALIAN “high-context”? It presently is, well, administratively, (that going back some hundreds of years) and that’s my question.

Ed Peters November 8, 2006 at 10:17 am

Oh, and Brian Day is EXACTLY right.

marie November 8, 2006 at 10:31 am

“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.”
How does this square with the commonly held belief that nations and states with civil codes based on Roman Law traditions have highly specific codes in comparison to those reliant on English common law? Don’t the British have an unwritten constitution? Is it more a difference of enforcement than codification? Interesting topic – thanks for raising it.

Mary Kay November 8, 2006 at 10:35 am

Ed, I don’t know and will probably pass until I can shrug off this funk from this morning.

Marianne November 8, 2006 at 10:38 am

“I know Catholicism is “high-context”, but need it be so ITALIAN “high-context”? It presently is, well, administratively, (that going back some hundreds of years) and that’s my question.”
Ed,
This is the same question many eastern Catholics are asking as well. They come from the high-context cultures of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, and they see very distinct differences between their administrative approach and the Roman administrative approach. The Roman approach was forced on them over the last couple centuries and Rome is just now starting to step back some from this. The Orthodox have an ongoing discussion over whether the American church should be stand-alone and the argument in its favor is that the US has a very distinct culture and language, separate from other locations. Unfortunately, the people saying the same thing within the Roman Catholic Church tend to be unorthodox or heretical.

Ed Peters November 8, 2006 at 11:25 am

m. yup.

Maureen November 8, 2006 at 3:04 pm

Oh, come on. High context means laws aren’t very exact?
I see that many people here have never read an Old Irish lawbook. Do you want to know the exact three things you can’t distrain from a woman, or the exact amounts of fines for various social statuses, depending on whether you’re from the local clan or not? How about the exact status of compensation, based on what kind of sexual relationship is taking place between what ranks of people?
My favorite law varies. Sometimes I like the one that penalizes secret murder much more harshly than doing it in front of everybody in an obvious way. The laws regulating satirists, blush-prices, and the truth or falsehood of allegations are pretty cool, too.
Oh, early medieval Irish society required tons of context to understand. (Sometimes it’s difficult to see the exact point of a law without tons of context.) But part of their culture was liking laws to be very exactly written, mostly because of all the people running around who were skilled with argument and loved twisting words — and all the feuds they were trying to stop from getting out of hand!

Puzzled November 8, 2006 at 3:05 pm

I’m not wholly certain about this high/low context thing.
A side note is that rural Americans really are from a different culture than urban Americans.
But what is the culture caused by the Law of Moses and the prophets? Would that qualify as ‘high context’ or ‘low context’? Since God is very high on precise holiness, and, for examples, Aaron’s sons who brought unauthorized fire and the individual who reached out to steady the Ark, that we should be ‘low context’, and that ‘high context’ could perhaps more properly be seen as corrupt. Of course, saying that is dropping ice cream in root beer, and I’m not desiring to start a flame war, but I do question the premise of this argument.

Jared Weber November 8, 2006 at 5:09 pm

Puzzled: You used the example that I was going to use. The dude who steadied the Ark DIED for not obeying the letter of the Law. Doesn’t sound like their was a whole lot of leeway there.

gsk November 8, 2006 at 6:24 pm

Wow — I’ve never heard a reference to Edward T. Hall (“Beyond Culture”) since leaving graduate school (American University, circa 1983). He was all the rage at the School of International Studies and gave us a fascinating tool to use in assessing culture. It was the only thing I took away, since everything else there was completely anti-American and out-to-lunch. Thanks for the reminder.

Jim Whall November 9, 2006 at 9:39 am

How does this affect things like how Catholics should vote? Does it affect the Catechism? When the Catechism, written by a high context Vatican, says ‘X’ explicitly, should it be viewed as up for interpretation?
Things like this drive me nuts. I have many friends who would look at this and say ‘See, I can do ‘X’ because its up to my conscience and interpretation.
Low Context, linear thinking Jim.

JC November 13, 2006 at 11:55 pm

Seems to me it’s just the opposite. Anglo-Saxons are the “commmon law” people whose judges have the power to override written laws. Roman culture is all about written laws, and what’s in the written law can’t change.
The difference is the applicability to a situation. In common law, if the judge finds a case that makes an exception to the law, the law goes out the window. In canon law (the opposite of common law), the exception is noted in that one case, and the law remains for everyone else.
We take an exception and run with it, which is what ticks Rome off. Canon law gives annulments as an exception; Americans turn them into “Catholic divorces.” Pontifical Academy for Life says, “It’s OK to use tainted vaccines if you’re in a third world epidemic,” and Americans say, “It’s OK to use tainted vaccines.”

John Thayer Jensen December 27, 2006 at 8:21 am

I’m dubious about the “Anglo-Saxon = low context” idea, at least. We have not got a written constitution (in New Zealand) and although there is a lot of pressure to create one, it is perceived as American pressure. In general I don’t think it is an idea well-received by most New Zealanders. And of course England never has had a written constitution. “Stare decisis” is our constitution and that’s pretty “high context.”
jj

Previous post:

Next post: