Culture Clashes: America and Rome
From what I have experienced of both cultures (granted, not really that much of Italian culture!), both Allen and Akin's observations are pretty on the money - and help to explain a lot why the Church in America and the Church in Rome sometimes seem to be talking past each other.
Allen writes: Only with time did it become clear to me that language was merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of the deep “cultural gap” that divides Rome and America. 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.
My observation is that Vatican officials and American Catholics often think they’re talking to one another, but in many instances they’re actually talking past one another, making deceptively similar statements that mask different psychological and sociological assumptions, and that mean very different things to each of the two parties. Sometimes they’re sitting in the same room, having the same experience, but drawing vastly different conclusions about what it means – and usually assuming the other party sees things the same way.
This could be due to a culture clash of "high context" vs. "low context" societies that Jimmy hypotheses. While I'm not entirely sure about this notion, in my experience it does explain quite a bit. In Italy, it certainly does seem that the expectation of proper etiquette hasn't died. There is a demand that one knows what the proper etiquette is (there are always exceptions to actually following it - but they expect that if you don't follow it, you KNOW that you're not following it!). And proper etiquette in Italy is vastly more complicated than any Emily Post book for Brits or Americans I've ever seen, because it is so fluid and unpredictable. It's not just a bunch of rules, it's a bunch of written rules with a lot of unwritten rules behind them, and a lot of acceptable circumstantial exceptions in front of them!
I dare say you actually need to be born an Italian to ever really understand what is expected of you in Italian society... And on the flip side, you will never be able to convice an Italian that American laws really are *it*, that there's not much else to "know" apart from what's written down.
Going along with this is the fact that the Italian laws themselves are, well, not quite like our laws. I mean, they're both far stricter, and yet far less enforced. Selectively enforced even. Sure, Italian drivers know that technically, on the books, there is a severe law for hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk (one strike, no driver's license for the rest of your life). However, there are an almost infinite number of circumstantial exceptions to this penalty, not ones that are written down as such, but ones that are ever-admissible before a judge. The laws themselves are so high, that nobody is really expected to follow them exactly all the time, and since they are not spelled out in extreme detail with particulars (if a, then b, if c then d, etc), much is left up to the discretion of the public, the police, and the courts. Of course, this is further complicated by the fact that SOME laws are indeed expected to be obeyed to the letter, while also being very high ideals - such as "thou shalt not kill." So, confusing matters further for us non-Italians, they are specific about some laws, and enforce them entirely, but the problem is that there's no real clear indicator (other than using "common sense") to a legalistic, non-Italian contextualized mind which ones are and which ones aren't.
We'd go nuts in America if we had Italian laws dropped on us. And this is why American Catholics (and American bishops and priests) sometimes go nuts - because they are Americans living under Italain (ok, Vatican) laws. Likewise, I'm sure the average Vatican worker also goes nuts, because they are Italians continually frustrated by having to deal with people who seem to have no "high context" understanding of the laws as written, and who thus are constantly asking for detailed explanations and "allowable exceptions". I should also add that the area of explicitness that I mentioned above does seem to be a difference between the Italian state laws and the Church's laws and documents... Otherwise, as one commenter on Jimmy's blog pointed out, no one would be expected to obey the Church's teaching against abortion and contraception. Clearly, we all ARE expected to obey this very high and idealistic (to our culture) law. The Church does, I think, do a better job than Italy does at being explicit where it means to be explicit - it's those other areas which are left more undefined to allow for pastoral judgment that tend to cause the confusion. The Church means what it says, and those things that are left vague are purposely left vague - but that doesn't mean anything goes!
In our society, if it's not written down as forbidden, it's allowed. In Italian culture, if it's not written down as forbidden, you're expected to use your God-given sense to ascertain *in context* whether or not it is reasonably allowable.
For a very long time, the Vatican saw no reason why there should be an explicit statement telling all priests everywhere to quit using Kool-Aid pitchers for the Precious Blood - what idiot, with any understanding about the sacredness of the Mass and the Sacrament, would do that?? Apparently, us idiot Anglo-Saxons would, the ones with laws so developed that there are laws in place to tell us who to sue when an appropriate law wasn't in place already.
As John Allen put it, so truly, American Catholics do in a sense have it the worst though - we're under "Roman law applied by Anglo-Saxon bishops!" This may be generalizing too much, but there's something true in that statement, looking back over decades of often-confused relations between American clergy and laity and Roman Popese and curial officials.
It does make me wonder... how exactly does our current (very Germanic!) Pope manage in the heart of Italy?!? It's gotta be the grace! :)