What is “Inculturation?”

The recently-completed season of Christmas has many lessons to teach us. One is that every nation has its own way of celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation. Indeed, as numerous websites show us, the ways of expressing belief in the Nativity and Epiphany of Our Lord are as varied as the cultures and languages of mankind — seemingly infinite. Easter, too, receives similar treatment; the world’s peoples gather to salute the Resurrection. The same goes for Pentecost and the other major Church holy days, as it does for the feasts of certain popular saints such as Ss. George, Michael, and Nicholas. So too with devotions at various shrines to Our Lady and popular saints — all venerated differently according to the country in which the shrine happens to be.

This reality brings home an important point about Catholicism — it is not a set of abstract doctrines or a system of purely interior practices. Even when it was in the catacombs, the Church had a fairly complex liturgy — after the 313 Edict of Milan and the decriminalisation of Christianity, this exploded onto the public scene. From the very beginning, it possessed external elements familiar to all the pagan religions of antiquity: first of these was the idea of the Sacred — that there are places, times, actions, objects, and so on, reserved to the use of the Divine. Sacrifice; Priesthood; fasting; ritual and the use of lights, water, oil, and incense therein: everything had parallels. This has led some of the more ignorant to charge Catholicism (and Orthodoxy) with paganism; but the truth is that mankind has a limited number of ways in which to show reverence before the numinous. Moreover, the ritual of the Church arose from that of the Jewish Temple that preceded it. True enough, Unbloody Sacrifice succeeded Bloody; the priesthood of Melchizedek replaced that of Aaron. The origin of the Priestly vestments of the Church in all her rites has been attributed variously to those of the Jewish priesthood or the civil dress of the Roman Empire. What is certain is that the first section of all the Church’s liturgies, consisting of Old Testament readings, closely resembles the Jewish Shabbat services. These facts have led various anti-Semites to accuse Catholicism of being a Jewish plot. In any case, in addition to its Jewish foundation, the Church early adopted Greek Philosophy and Roman Administration as well.

But the truth is that from the time of its origins, the Faith incarnated, so to speak, in forms and manners already familiar to those being evangelised. Never was this truer than as it regarded Sacred Language. At first, the universal liturgical language was Greek; but soon enough, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ge’ez, Armenian, Georgian, and eventually Slavonic joined the ranks of permissible liturgical languages.

From the very beginning, of course, these developments had a potential for disunity. The adherents of Nestorianism, banned in the Roman Empire, fled to the Persian archenemy of the Catholic Caesars. The Persian monarch in his turn placed the heretofore persecuted Church within his dominions under Nestorian management, tolerated and patronised it, and so paved the way for the Church of the East to spread throughout Asia, all the way to China. But the Mongol invasions destroyed much of this body, and its remaining fragments to-day are the Assyrian Church, the “Ancient” Church of the East, the Mellusians, and the Chaldean Catholics — each of whose adherents, however, have developed a quasi-ethnic status of their own.

Nationalism played a major part in the next division to hit the Church, Monophysitism. After the Council of Chalcedon condemned this heresy, the Emperors at Constantinople imposed the Conciliar decrees upon their subjects — leading their more nationalistic minded folk in Egypt and Syria, as well as their Armenian opponents, to reject Chalcedon. This was the birth of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” Churches — whose adherents to-day, however, reject Monophysitism. Those who remained loyal to the “Emperor’s Church” were called “Melkites” — Royalists — and whose present-day descendants are the Melkite Catholic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches. This division weakened the Empire sufficiently to allow for Muslim triumph, and subsequent centuries of Islamic domination have also turned these bodies into small nations of their own.

Ever increasing national and cultural differences contributed mightily to the growing distance between East and West, culminating in the Schism of 1054 — periodically ended and renewed until its current outbreak at the order of Sultan Mehmet II after his seizure of Constantinople in 1453. Subsequent adventures under Turkish and Tartar rule made the Eastern Orthodox Churches the sole expressions of national life under their various non-Christian rulers — and so completely identified with their own nationalities. The divisions this engendered bedevil intra-Orthodox relations even to-day, as we see in the most recent dispute between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople.

In the meantime, of course, those parts of Northern Europe that had been outside of the Roman Empire were evangelised into the Latin West. In the process, various local pagan observances were purified and adopted for Christian use — many of these remain in use among us, such as the holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees to which we recently bade farewell. It was a long, drawn-out process, partly guided by ecclesiastical authority, and partly in an organic manner by the sensus fidei. It took various forms among various peoples according to their particular culture, and primarily involved what we would call para-liturgical customs rather than liturgy per se. To call these customs “pagan” now would be rather like calling fireworks on the Fourth of July and the State of the Union address inherently Monarchist, since they were copied from the British King’s Birthday celebrations and the Speech from the Throne.

So it was that each nationality in the West also had its own manner of observing the Faith. As in the East, these national temperaments eventually played their part in religious division. After the smoke cleared from the Protestant revolt and following conflicts, a majority of the English, Dutch, North Germans, Protestant Swiss, Danish, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, and Scots came to regard their dominant form of Protestantism as the badge of all true natives of their respective countries. This is just as Irish, Italians, French, Spanish, Portuguese, southern Dutch and Germans, Catholic Swiss, Austrians, and Poles came to regard Catholicism as that of their badge of all true natives. That is to say, for many in Europe, what was objective religious truth came to be less important than what was nationally loyal: a sort of tribalism — an affliction that, while less pronounced in Catholic Europe, was not entirely absent.

In the meantime, splintering Europe took to the seas — first Portugal and Spain, and then France, the Netherlands, and England. Being Catholic, the first three made evangelisation a primary goal in their activities (the latter two — with a few exceptions — only really got into bringing their religion to indigenous populations in the 19th century). The same phenomenon of adopting native customs to the Faith — “inculturation,” as we call it to-day — occurred in the newly opened regions. This development was spearheaded by the Mother of God, who chose to appear in Mexico dressed as an Aztec princess. But it presented a challenge to the Church in every individual case; each pre-existing culture being different, what could be legitimately “baptised,” and what could not?

In Latin America (in this case, extending from the American Southwest to Tierra del Fuego), quite a few native religious customs were retained in the local practise of Catholicism: the New Mexico Pueblos, the California Missions, the Jesuit Missions in Chiquitos, are a very few examples. But the slave trade produced in the poorly catechised African captives a strange mixing of Catholic form with pagan substance — such beliefs as Vodou, Voodoo, Santeria, and Candoble, for example, wherein heathen gods were venerated under guise of Catholic Saints. Many who practise these strange faiths consider themselves good Catholics — and, quite literally, Heaven only knows where the boundaries between the two lie in some cases.

The effort to avoid this sort of thing plagued the Church in Asia, as two controversies surrounding Jesuit missionary efforts on that continent — those of the Chinese and Malabar rites — show. In both cases the sons of St. Ignatius attempted to use as much as they could of Confucian and Brahmin custom and ceremonial to spread the Faith, thus sparking friction with other orders. Eventually Rome ruled in favour of the Jesuits’ opposition — a finding reversed by Pius XII.

At any rate, what success there was in the East was not sufficient (save in the Philippines and East Timor) to make Catholicism the dominant religion. As in the Near East, adherents of the Faith became ethnic groups unto themselves: St. Thomas Christians, Mangaloreans, Goanese, East Indians, Karwari, Telugu Catholics, Burghers, Indos, Kristang, Macanese, and Kakure Kirishtan, to mention a very few examples. While this development solidified Catholicism among these peoples, it provided little spark to further the evangelisation of their respective countries.

The 19th century saw a vast and renewed emigration from all over Europe to the various “settler countries”: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and of course the United States received a massive influx such as the world had never seen — creating in each of these countries a patchwork of settlements by different nationalities in the countryside and an incredible mixing of cultures in the major cities. Our country — being neither Spanish-speaking nor endowed with the tolerance for cultural differences exhibited by the British Empire (save, alas, in Ireland) — presented the Church with unique challenges: a) how to reconcile the Catholic “tribes” in America with each other, b) how to relate to the country’s non-Catholic culture at large, and c) how to evangelise the new country.

The situation was simplified if not improved by the American Church’s tacit abandonment of the last issue. The first was immediately addressed by the creation of “national parishes” — German, Polish, French-Canadian, Italian, Lithuanian, or whatever it might be — wherein the new immigrants could be among their own, hear sermons in their own tongue, and keep up in a more or less modified way the para-liturgical customs of their homelands. These existed alongside English-speaking or “Irish” parishes, often under Irish bishops. But what to do in the long-term?

Two schools of thought emerged. The first held that if the emigrants lost their respective languages and mores, they would be swept up by the non-Catholic culture around them, and lose the Faith. For the “Cahenslyites” (after the heroic German philanthropist Peter Paul Cahensly), as those who espoused these views were called, the Church in America needed to preserve the immigrant cultures as they were indefinitely, until and unless such time as the country as a whole were converted. Their opponents — the “Americanists” — believed that such a strategy would condemn the Church in America to being a sort of confederation of ethnic enclaves irrelevant to the greater life of the nation, and that the Faith would be irredeemably branded as “foreign” in the eyes of the native-born. The more extreme application of this thinking developed into the heresy of the same name. A great deal of friction erupted between the two sides; two schisms occurred as a result, among the Poles and the Ruthenians. New England’s French-Canadians came close to the same end as a result of the Sentinelle affair. In the end, however, the Americanist strategy was adopted, and the Church in this country became a major vehicle for assimilation of the disparate European Catholic ethnic groups here.

In the meantime, the 20th century saw foreign missionaries in various places attempt to accomplish what the 16th and 17th century Jesuits had tried. Apart from the Chinese Rites being rehabilitated (and certain funeral practices and civic rites in honour of Confucius being made available to Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese Catholics), the catechumenate was revived in Africa due to prevailing conditions of immorality, and attempts made in various places to fit local music to the Tridentine Mass. The most successful of these latter efforts was undoubtedly the Missa Luba.

The Fathers of Vatican II declared in Sacrosanctum Concilium that “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites,” and “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Despite that, the years after Vatican II saw both Latin and chant virtually banished from the life of most parishes throughout the world. In both Western and mission countries, the document’s further note that “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit,” was used to justify this development. In the West, a wave of Folk, Gospel, Clown, and other sorts of Masses were provoked (this author has been at an Italian-language Mass in Venice with American folk music; what relation that had to “local culture” is quite beyond him). The “Zaire use,” “liturgical dance” of various kinds, the Misa Criolla, and innumerable other liturgical innovations of varying cultural, doctrinal, or historical accuracy were folded into the Mass, in the name of “inculturation.”

The once nearly uniform Latin Rite became a memory, and every parish — indeed, every priest — seemed to have a rite of its or his own. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles alone, Mass is to-day celebrated in forty-two languages. The United States witnessed enormous immigration of Spanish-speaking, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Igbo, Garifuna, and innumerable other Catholics from throughout the Third World — but without a common liturgy to unite them with each other and the American born Catholics. Each was locked in its own linguistic ghetto in a way that had simply not been the case even in the worst days of the Americanist crisis.

All that having been said, however, it would be inaccurate to say that the use of the vernacular in the liturgy was without any success. Amongst certain very culturally isolated groups — generally peoples traditionally entirely opposed to the Church such as the Turks, Israeli Jews, and Afrikaaners — Mass in their native tongue has been a source of conversions. And even in places where the level of inculturation — as in Africa — is rather strange to Western eyes, there has been some benefit not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, the dictum of the CDF in the 1994 document, Varietates Legitimae, that “the process of inculturation should maintain the substantial unity of the Roman rite,” is often honoured more in the breach than in the observance — and that in major Western cities, not just in certain mission fields.

In the United States — and to some degree, the rest of the Anglosphere, especially the Settler Countries (Great Britain has its own Recusant tradition) — there has not been an independent, authentically Catholic cultural tradition — save, of course, the Irish-descended, whose ecclesiastical leadership outside the Old Sod has generally favoured mere assimilation to prevailing norms. The result has been that there has been little desire upon the part of the institutional Church in those countries to evangelise or to engage the culture. There was such a desire however on the part of the Anglo-Catholic movement; this is precisely part of that “Anglican Patrimony” by which Benedict XVI wished to benefit the whole Church when he launched the Ordinariate scheme with Anglicanorum Coetibus. This move allows Catholics with a mind to evangelise the Anglosphere the chance to re-examine such as Ralph Adams Cram and T.S. Eliot for insights. Certainly the cadences of Elizabethan English and the beauties of Anglican and Gregorian chant are more faithful Anglo-Saxon inculturation than swing and jazz Masses!

As the liturgical reform launched by Benedict XVI continues — and continue it shall, given the dedication of so many younger priests and laymen to it, despite whatever setbacks older clerics may lay in its path — all of these developments shall doubtless make more sense, some of them kept, others discarded. Our commemorations of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady (now denied by many Eastern Orthodox theologians since they have been Papally defined) after all came to us from the Byzantine Rite. In turn, their Good Friday procession with the Cross and Epitaphios procession owe their origins to Latin practices.

While “inculturation” is a process that has gone on since Apostolic times, it is neither smooth nor always peaceful. But it is inevitable, despite all the problems and difficulties. It is quite remarkable how many observances of “folk Christianity” (as anthropologists enjoy calling it) have been included on UNESCO’s “Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage worth safeguarding.” While the Organisation’s reasons for protecting these practises are certainly this-worldly, they are not incorrect as far as they go: “[They] contribute to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identity and responsibility which helps individuals to feel part of one or different communities and to feel part of society at large.” For our purposes, those customs based in the Faith allow each people to offer worship to God in a manner that flows from their own nature. Whether it be the fiesta of St. Francis in Quibdo, Colombia or the Pentecost Hopping Procession of Echternach, Luxembourg, they may well be picturesque to tourists or exhilarating to participants, but above all they render glory to God in a unique way.

Those of us grounded in the Traditional Latin Liturgy of the Church and fortunate enough to live near national parishes and/or Eastern Rite churches would do well to look in on their festivities and customs. The more we do so, the less parochial and the more Catholic our hosts and ourselves become — and the better able we are to spread the Faith to “those who sit in darkness” — be they in the jungle or Park Avenue.