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Inculturation and interculturality in John Paul II and Benedict XVI

Francesco Follo | 29 March 2010

 Thirty years have passed since the term “inculturation” first appeared in a Vatican document (Catechesi tradendae, n. 53, October 1979). Since then, the term and concept of inculturation have gained a prominent place in papal speeches on missionary action, evangelisation and intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

Since its birth, when it experienced a shift from the Judaic to the Hellenistic world, the Church encountered a great many cultures. In the 20th century, the Magisterium of the Church welcomed the rapid rise of complexity and cultural pluralism, through reflection and analysis. The Second Vatican Council dealt with the relationship between faith and culture in the constitution Gaudium et Spes (cf n. 53), which also closely looks at how in the modern world, scientific development and the emerging social sciences, along with industrialisation and urbanisation, shaped a new form of mass culture.
 

Gradually, the term inculturation took its place alongside concepts like “acculturation,” “transculturation” and “enculturation”. Acculturation refers to the meeting of cultures and the changes it generates. Transculturation refers to a set of elements present in all cultures or the ethnocentric and unidirectional transfer of some elements from one culture to another. Finally, enculturation, a term first coined by Melville J Herskovits in 1948 (Man and His Works, New York, 1952), refers to the process whereby an individual learns the requirements of the culture in which he or she is steeped. More generally, it is the process by which culture is passed on from one generation to the next. In this sense, enculturation is synonymous with “socialisation”.
 

Borrowing from the Special Assembly of the Synod in 1985, Pope John Paul II defined inculturation in Redemptoris Missio, n. 52, as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.” This means that inculturation is characterised by a dual movement, i.e. a dialogic movement towards cultures via the incarnation of the Gospel and the transmission of its values, and a movement towards the Church that involves the incorporation of values that come from the cultures the latter encounters. Therefore, a fruitful cross-fertilisation can follow.
 

In other words, inculturation raises two related problems, that of the evangelisation of cultures and that of the cultural understanding of the Gospel. It was this movement that led John Paul II to say in 1982, “The synthesis between culture and faith is not only a requirement of culture, but also of faith . . . . Faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, nor entirely reflected upon, or faithfully experienced” (Speech to the participants of the national congress of the Movimento Ecclesiale di Impegno Culturale, 16 January 1982).
 

This means that inculturation is not an action but a process that unfolds over time, one that is active and based on mutual recognition and dialogue, a critical mind and insight, faithfulness and conversion, transformation and growth, renewal and innovation.
 

If we want to really understand what is at stake in the process called “inculturation”, clarify the relationship between faith and culture, and see how the Christian faith spreads around the world when it comes into contact with all cultures, we must first ask ourselves what culture means. Indeed, what is culture? In what terms does the Magisterium of the Church refer to it? As a starting point, we can say that culture is the set of means used by mankind to become more virtuous and reasonable in order to become fully human. In its fullest sense, culture means opening up to the divine, and ultimately, to a religious dimension. In 1993, in a speech to the bishops of Asia, then Cardinal Ratzinger said, “We should no longer speak of inculturation but of the meeting of cultures or ‘inter-culturality’.”
 

For Benedict XVI, interculturality “belongs to the original form of Christianity” and implies both a positive attitude toward other cultures and toward the religions that constitute the soul of these cultures, and the work of purification and the “courageous stance” that are indispensable for every culture that wants to remain open and alive.
 

Described in these terms, the meeting of cultures rests on two assumptions. The first one is the universality of natural law; despite their differences, men share the same nature, which is reason open to Truth. The second one is the idea that the Christian faith, which is born when Truth is revealed, produces what we might call a “culture of faith”, whose feature is that it can be found in every people or cultural group. In this sense, faith is not something neutral, above every type of culture, which can be grafted on contexts that are indifferent from a religious point of view. The Christian faith cannot be reduced to any one culture. It is intrinsically tied to a certain kind of pluralism.
 

The dialogue between cultures and religions, one of the pillars of John Paul II’s pontificate, characterises Benedict XVI’s action as well. Even before his election, this Pope devoted much of his time to think about this issue.
In 1975, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi had already addressed the relationship between Gospel and culture. Informed by that document, John Paul II began using the term “inculturation” in order to highlight the fact that the Gospel transcended all cultures because it was experienced by men and women always immersed in specific cultures.

The issue of cultures’ opening to universal values was developed in Faith and Interculturation, a paper released in 1988 by the International Theological Commission, presided by Cardinal Ratzinger after 1982. A variety of meanings came to be attached to the concept of inculturation. They include not only the efforts by the Church to make the Gospel enter every socio-cultural context, but also its influence on cultures to which is linked “the idea of growth, the mutual enrichment of people and groups, by virtue of the meeting between the Gospel and a given social environment.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger thus insisted on the need to abandon the concept of inculturation in favour of that of interculturality. As Benedict XVI, he said that the inculturation of the faith is a necessity, insofar as the specificity and the integrity of the faith are not compromised. However, for him, the relationship between the Church and cultures involves other aspects, especially the action of evangelisation based on critical insight. In expressing concerns that are his own, Benedict XVI appealed on several occasions “for the purpose of offering a reflection that would display the riches of the one truth in the plurality of culture” (speech on the 25th anniversary of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, 11 May 2006).

Someone said that a page of history is worth more than a book of theories. However, if we consider that theory and practice are related, I suggest, by way of conclusion, that we consider the model of inculturation in light of the model of Incarnation, whose peculiarity is to assume in order to transfigure.
 

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