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by George Weigel

“Inculturation” has been a buzzword throughout the Catholic world—and especially the developing Catholic world—for decades. Rarely has it gotten such a workout, or taken such a beating, as at Synod-2019. 

The basic idea of “inculturation” is not hard to grasp: The Church must proclaim the gospel in a variety of cultural settings, and it’s good evangelical practice to draw what one can from each culture so that the basic kerygmatic proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” can be “heard” in a given culture. This practice goes back at least as far as Acts 17: 16–34, St. Paul’s famous encounter on the Areopagus with the great and good of first-century Athens. And while the fruit of that particular encounter was minimal, the “inculturation” of the gospel has reaped a great harvest over the centuries. Perhaps the most successful example of a thoroughly effective inculturation in Latin America is the tilma of St. Juan Diego with its image of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a manifestly indigenous Mother of God whose vesture is replete with indigenous symbols. (That the Guadalupana has gotten far less attention at Synod-2019 than the “Pachamama” Incan idols that some bold souls took from the Church of S. Maria in Traspontina, conveyed to Gianlorenzo Bernini’s “Angel Bridge” at Castel Sant’Angelo, and tossed into the Tiber says . . . something.)

Two Popes and a Distinguished Historian. Two weeks ago, I was discussing this business of “inculturation” with a former student now completing doctoral studies in Rome, who asked me if I had ever read Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical for the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landing at San Salvador. Not least because Pope Leo is the pivotal figure in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History, I had to admit with some chagrin that I’d not read that particular Leonine work. So my friend passed along a link which, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 15:3, I now pass along to readers of these LETTERS throughout the Anglosphere. 

A few days later, another friend and regular e-mail correspondent, with whom I’d exchanged some ideas about Synod-2019, wrote and asked whether I remembered John Paul II’s 1986 address to aboriginal peoples in the remote town of Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory. That one I had read, while preparing the first volume of my John Paul biography, Witness to Hope; but I was grateful for the reminder and the link.

The baroque language of Leo XIII’s encyclical and its unabashed insistence that Christopher Columbus was a civilizing missionary as well as a skilled mariner and explorer will doubtless offend some today; one hopes those same offendees will be impressed by John Paul II’s expressions of respect for Australian aboriginal culture. But while it’s easy for the politically correct in comfortable Western circumstances to note the differences in sensibility between the two popes, it’s far more important to mark the deep congruence between these two papal documents. Both Leo XIII and John Paul II knew, and taught, that the Church comes to hitherto-unknown cultures to convert them through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the Church believes that Christ’s salvific message and mission are for everyone—and that everyone (and every culture) needs Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life. 

Which thought, in turn, brought me to one of the finest articles ever published by the journal First Things, Dr. Robert Louis Wilken’s brilliant 2004 essay on the Church as a culture. Like Pope Leo’s encyclical and St. John Paul II’s Alice Springs address, Dr. Wilken’s article should (but won’t) be required reading at Synod-2019. It certainly should be read by anyone interested in the many questions of evangelization-and-inculturation. For, like his papal antecedents, Robert Wilken makes a crucial point: The inculturation of the gospel is not a one-way street, the Church taking this-and-that from indigenous cultures in order to evangelize. No, the Church shapes cultures because the Church is a culture.

How does the Church-as-culture shape (and, dare I say, reform) the cultures it encounters? 

It brings to indigenous cultures a new worldview. The Christian “imagination” and the ideas that flesh it out may have points of tangency with indigenous notions of creation and salvation. But it is far “thicker” and (again dare I say) nobler than the culture to be evangelized. The biblical worldview offers new meanings to people’s lives, often through biblical stories that (again) may have some parallel to indigenous myths, but which purify and refine those indigenous stories and meanings through an encounter with the Trinitarian God. Thus the evangelized culture comes to know that, inside what it has previously known as “history,” there is a deeper story going on: His-story, God’s story, which has chapter headings that read Creation, Fall, Promise, Prophecy, Incarnation, Redemption, Sanctification, the Kingdom of God.  

The Church-as-culture brings to indigenous cultures new temporal rhythms. Sunday is sacrosanct (or should be) and the chronological measure of life is now made, not just by clock-time and calendar-time, but by sacred time: the rhythms of the liturgical year, its seasons and feasts. And while the liturgical year repeats itself annually, its celebrations of those chapter-headings under “God’s story” gives time, like history, a direction: Time and history are going somewhere, history is not just one damn thing after another, and the “end” or goal of history is the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem.

Christianity-as-culture brings to the cultures it evangelizes new rituals that embody a new way of thinking about life’s crucial moments, including birth, marriage, vocational discernment, illness, and death itself. Compare the “compassionate” roasting and eating of deceased ancestors among one Amazonian tribe (previously mentioned in these LETTERS by reference to the anthropological study, Consuming Grief, by Beth Conklin) with the Eucharistic consumption of the Body and Blood of Christ during a funeral Mass; the point will, I trust, become what Mr. Jefferson would have called “self-evident.” 

The Church-as-a-culture also brings a new idea of law to evangelized cultures. Whatever ideas of “law” may have been prevalent before, the successful proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior overlays those ideas (when it does not completely transform them) by linking human law to divine law and to those moral laws built into the Creation by the Creator. Thus law becomes more than mere coercion, something greater than a mechanism of social control deployed by the powerful for their advantage. Law in an evangelized culture has something important to do with the ennobling of the human person. 

The list could go on, but perhaps these brief notes will entice LETTERS readers to read Dr. Wilken’s article, which fills out the picture in much greater detail.

The First Inculturation. Another piece of the “inculturation” puzzle comes into focus by reference to a major address that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave in 1998 to the theological commissions of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. There, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI stressed what the Church learned from the Greco-Roman culture it encountered when the first Christians left Judaea, even as he made the wholly un-PC point that some cultures are superior to others in their capacity to assist the Church in its self-understanding, and thus in its future evangelization.

If I may borrow Ratzinger’s point while using an image he did not use: It made a great difference to the future of Christianity—a providential difference—that the first Christians turned left rather than right when leaving the Holy Land on mission. Had Peter, Paul, and the rest turned right, they would have brought the gospel to what is now India, where there was, in the first century A.D., a highly developed culture. In that culture, however, the philosophical principle of non-contradiction—that something cannot “be” and “not be” simultaneously—was not secure. And in a culture in which it made perfect sense to say, at one and the same time, “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord,” could the Church have developed that kerygmatic confession of the lordship of Christ into creed and dogma? It seems unlikely, even impossible.

Because the first great “inculturation” of Christianity was in the world of classical antiquity, where the principle of non-contradiction had been culturally secured centuries before by Greek philosophy, “Jesus is Lord” could, and did, become the Nicene Creed, the dogmatic definitions of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and the rest of the foundation of the Great Tradition. Thus Ratzinger argued more than twenty years ago that that “first inculturation” was a privileged inculturation of the gospel, which could be developed by the encounter with other cultures but never superseded. It is not at all clear that this claim has shaped the work of Synod-2019, which is one reason why so many of the synodal debates these past two and a half weeks have had a somewhat unmoored feeling about them: as if what one critic of Synod-2019’s working document called “biodegradable Christianity” had decomposed further into Do It Yourself Christianity (Stone Age subdivision). 

Learning from Gaudium et Spes. If those in the ideological driver’s seat at Synod-2019 were asked to cite a document of the Second Vatican Council as a buttress for their approach to Catholic life and practice in the twenty-first century, they would surely answer “Gaudium et Spes,” the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Yet while Gaudium et Spes is typically taken (and not without reason) as the most “progressive” of the sixteen documents of Vatican II and the textual ballast (insofar as there is any) for the “spirit of Vatican II,” the fact of the matter is that, in line with Pope John XXIII’s evangelical intention for the Council, Gaudium et Spes was, at bottom, about evangelization. Thus it was fitting that the Divine Office last week featured this passage from paragraphs 40 and 45 of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

While the Church helps the world and herself receives much from the world, she has one object in view: the coming of God’s kingdom and the salvation of the whole human race. Every good that the people of God in the course of its earthly pilgrimage can confer on the family of man derives from the fact that the Church is the universal sacrament of salvation, revealing, and at the same time bringing into operation, the mystery of God’s love for man.

The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was himself made flesh so that as perfect man he might save all men and bring all things into unity. The Lord is the final end of human history, the point toward which the aspirations of history and civilization are moving, the focus of the human race, the joy of all hearts and the fulfillment of their desires. He it is whom the Father raised from the dead, lifted up on high and set at his right hand, appointing him judge of the living and the dead. In his Spirit we have been brought to life and gathered into unity, and so make our pilgrim way toward the goal of human history, a goal in complete harmony with the loving plan of God “to make all things one in Christ, the things in heaven and the things on earth” [Ephesians 1:10].

The Lord himself says, “See, I am coming soon; I bring my recompense with me, to give everyone what his deeds deserve. I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” [Revelation 22:12]. 

The Catholic Church exists, by divine will, to proclaim the gospel, offering humanity the gift of friendship with Jesus Christ, who is the unique savior of the world. That proclamation is what the Catholic Church is for, or it is nothing. If the Church is simply another non-governmental organization in the good-works business, it is nothing. Yes, the Church and its people do good works. But those good works only have real ecclesial meaning if they are done “through Him, and with Him, and in Him,” as the Church prays daily at Holy Mass. 

This point has not been sufficiently stressed at Synod-2019. Not at all. And that identifies one of the main challenges that Synod-2019 poses for the Church in the immediate future, to which topic these LETTERS will return.

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