Examining the Church’s careful balance of inculturation

Last month’s Amazon Synod was marked by unexpected controversy when several wooden statues were presented to the Pope and used in ceremonies throughout the proceedings. The statues were originally identified as “Our Lady of the Amazon,” but the Vatican later denied that association, saying instead “it is an indigenous woman who represents life.” A claim quickly spread that the statues represented Pachamama, an Incan fertility goddess and “mother earth” figure. This claim caused two laymen to take the statues from the church of Santa Maria in Transpontina and throwing them in the Tiber River. It is still unclear what the carvings were intended to represent, but the debate surrounding them highlights an important tension in Catholic evangelization. Throughout the Church’s history, missionaries have inculturated pagan imagery and customs into local Catholic practices, while striving to avoid an idolatrous syncretism which actually makes pagan figures synonymous with the Christian God.

Inculturation, according to the International Theological Commission, is defined as: “the Church’s efforts to make the message of Christ penetrate a given sociocultural milieu, calling on the latter to grow according to all its particular values, as long as these are compatible with the Gospel.” Simply put, it is making the Gospel alive to people of all nations, a phenomenon which has deep roots in Christian tradition.

As far back as the Old Testament, ancient Israel interacted with the foreign religions of its Gentile neighbors. By and large, these religions were treated with open hostility, sources of idolatrous temptation for the Jewish people. However, the Old Testament does appropriate some imagery from the surrounding cultures, particularly in the book of Exodus. God’s covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exod. 20-24 is modeled after a Suzerain treaty, a fealty oath between a vassal party and their lord. Similarly, Israel’s flight from Egypt in Exod. 14-15 and the description of the Tabernacle borrow imagery from an Egyptian poem celebrating Ramesess the Great’s victory over the Hittites. In both of these cases, Exodus takes Gentile images of the king as a Divine ruler and uses them to better convey the relationship between God and His chosen people.

This use of foreign imagery is put to a broader, evangelical effect in the New Testament, as God’s covenant with Israel had been fulfilled and brought to all nations through Christ. One clear example of this is Acts 17:22-24, where Paul uses the Unknown God to preach the Gospel: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth.” 

On one level, this does appear to equate the Unknown God with the Christian God, but Paul is trying to introduce his audience to the Gospel rather than define a theology equating Christanity and Greek paganism. More generally, the Apostolic period also was when the Church took elements from Jewish worship and local custom to form the Latin Rite, along with 23 ancient Rites across the East.

There were also many successful attempts in the early centuries of the Church to Christianize pagan culture. For example, Pope Gregory I wrote to an abbot beginning missionary work in England: “Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God.” This provides insight into how the Church approached foreign cultures: authentic inculturation takes that which is considered sacred in pagan culture and jettisons that which is incompatible with the one true Faith. If there is an element in pagan culture that is compatible with the Faith, it is set apart and used to bring pagan people closer to the True God. The English-speaking Church provides particular witness to the success of this approach, as the Teutonic goddess Ostara lent her name to the feast of Christ’s Resurrection and a vigil for the Feast of All Saints (All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween) replaced the Gaelic festival Samhain. 

While modern American holidays evidence elements of pagan culture being preserved, there were numerous beliefs and practices that had to be removed. The temples had to be cleared of idols before they could be employed in the worship of God. This has led to such memorable incidents as St. Boniface cutting down Thor’s Oak and converting the Germans who worshipped it. In the right context, however, an evangelist as prominent as Mary the Mother of God seems to encourage proper inculturation of pagan imagery. During her apparition as Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Virgin borrows colors, symbols, and dress from the Mexican culture and religion of the period, in that sense truly being Our Lady of the Americas.

In the modern age, the Church has focused significant energy on developing its approach to inculturation, seeking to foster dialogue which purifies culture. Ad Gentes, Vatican II’s missionary decree, states, “[laypeople] must be acquainted with this culture; they must heal it and preserve it; they must develop it in accordance with modern conditions, and finally perfect it in Christ.” This command is universal. We are all called to engage with our local cultures as the Church has throughout history, encouraging what is good and seeking to remove what is ill. In doing so, we will bring the Gospel to life for our friends and neighbors, shining forth the light of Christ for those around us to see.

This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. For a complete works cited, please email zossimaprojectnd@gmail.com. Thank you for your readership.