Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Inculturation: A Wrong Turn - Part 1: Introduction and Background

We are grateful to a Nigerian Catholic for sharing with us this essay on the problems of liturgical inculturation, which we will present in five parts.

On the First Sunday of Advent in 2019, Pope Francis celebrated Mass for the Congolese community in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica using the Zaire Usage of the Roman Rite. A news piece published on several outlets titled, “Joyous Congolese dances, songs enliven St. Peter’s Basilica” [1] reported the event at the time. The report did not fail to contrast the scenes of jubilation and dance “with the solemnity of most religious ceremonies at the Vatican.” The Zaire Usage is said to stand on the summit of the program of liturgical adaptation ushered in by Vatican II. [2]
Other than the cheerful swaying, waving, and dancing to rhythmical music, which many have considered the genuine characteristic of African religious experience, in contrast to the more sombre traditional Catholic liturgical piety, the Zaire Usage exhibits other novelties, of which the most contentious has been the invocation and veneration of ancestors. Who may become an ancestor, what sort of power is exerted by these ancestors, and what does it mean (objectively and subjectively) to venerate them are some of the persistent questions which are not readily answered. One author has described the ancestors as “the wise, brave and old parents (men and women) who in the time of their human existence have brought honor to their families and descendants.” [3] Another related various opinions on the power and influence of ancestors on the living. [4] Perhaps because ancestors are variously understood, the Congolese Episcopal Conference limited the ancestors invoked in the Zairean Use to those “of the right heart, which are under the merits of Christ.” [5]
The defenders of the doctrine of the “invocation of ancestors” are generally unwilling to reconcile the “ancestors of the right mind” with the saints as one would think of them on All Saints’ Day. Rather, they content themselves with merely justifying the cult of ancestors by the cult of the saints and in so doing signify a divide between the two. [6] Once the ancestors are in fact separated from the saints, the justification for the former, built on the latter, becomes shaky; the two prove to be at odds. For instance, whereas Christ, “the firstborn of every creature,” [7] is the first in the line of saints, for some He does not even qualify as an ancestor, since only those who “died at a ripe-old age” [8] and were not “cursed by the gods” as to die young [9] can be so regarded. Are traditional African societies not broadminded enough to honour not only their elders but also their heroes and achievers, whatever their age?
At least one African scholar John S. Mbiti answers this question in the negative, claiming for dead African children and young adults reverence from the living. [11] Chinua Achebe, in his critically acclaimed fictional work, Things Fall Apart, a tragic novel renowned for its fidelity to the authentic habits and customs of the Igbo people before and during the early days of European colonization, informs us that Africans are not invariably ageists.
Age was respected among his people [the Igbos], but achievement was revered. As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. [12]
We will have reasons to return to Things Fall Apart in the course of this discussion, but for the moment it is worth noting that Achebe and Mbiti squarely contradict those who insist on an Africanism in which long life is the necessary basis for venerability. Such a narrow mind-set is obviously at variance with Revealed Truth. [13]
When controversies surrounding reincarnation, whether it is nominal [14], partial [15], or full [16], and how these conflicting beliefs intersect the ancestral cult are brought to the fore, the rite of the “veneration of ancestors” in the Zaire Usage or other proposed revisions of the Roman Rite become even more disconcerting. In this respect, the words of our Lord to the Samaritan woman, “You adore that which you know not,” [17] takes on a new and pressing significance. I shall attempt to show further on that the “veneration of ancestors,” though the most concerning doctrinal innovation in the Zairean Use, is not the only problem that arises from inculturation as understood and practiced in the Church today. In order to do this effectively, I will briefly evaluate the root, nature, and the fruits of Catholic inculturation in recent times.
Liturgical adaptation in Vatican II.
Vatican II is credited with laying the foundation in the Catholic Church of inculturation as the term is understood today [18], although the term did not occur in any document of the council. Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II, while stipulating the revision of liturgical books, provided “for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved” while envisaging an “even more radical adaptation of the liturgy.” [19] The promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae and the liturgical adaption enjoined by Sacrosanctum Concilium and extolled by St. Paul VI were quickly implemented all over the world. This led to the almost complete disappearance of the immemorial Traditional Latin Mass, and the disuse of the Latin language and Gregorian Chant in favour of local languages and native music. The widespread adoption of elements of local piety and festivities, including dancing and clapping as well as popular music cultures such as afrobeat, rock, Yé-yé, etc. soon became normative in different parts of the world. [20] In addition, liturgical and disciplinary abuses of a more grave nature were not uncommon. [21] These liturgical novelties were justified on the ground that they lead to the “full and active participation by all the people” in the liturgical life of the Church, which Sacrosanctum Concilium held as the “aim to be considered before all else.” [22] Nevertheless, the celebration of the Novus Ordo in the more reverent style of the traditional Catholic liturgies continued in some places.
Adaptation outdated and inculturation extolled
Although the program of liturgical adaptation formulated in Sacrosanctum Concilium was welcomed enthusiastically and implemented optimistically across the Catholic world, its provisions have since been declared too restrictive and inadequate for modern evangelization. Many have voiced their dissatisfactions with the alleged superficial impact of liturgical adaptation allowed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, which they claim only incorporated certain local symbols and practices in the liturgy, but left the cultural depth of the people unengaged. [23] Consequently, they opted for the policy of inculturation, which has been widely described as the “incarnation” of the Gospel into a particular cultural context, and touted as the effective scheme for the evangelization of modern societies. [24] The process of inculturation is said to involve “the Christianization of culture and the culturing of Christianity.” [25]
The popularity of inculturation seems to stem from its advocacy of a two-way traffic of influence between the universal Church and a local culture, such that the Gospel does not only permeate and transform the culture in question, but is itself permeated and enriched by the culture. To realize this outcome, proponents of inculturation insist on a “dialogue” between the Church and particular cultures exercised on the firm grounds of reciprocity. [26] That is, the Church must be ready and willing to be transformed as much as she is eager to transform the cultures of the people she evangelizes. In the same way St. Paul VI sanctioned liturgical adaptation, St. John Paul II gave his support for the inculturation of “the whole of Christian existence — theology, liturgy, customs, structures” on the condition that nothing that is “of divine right” or an element of “the great discipline of the Church” is compromised. [27]
Conditions of inculturation ignored
There are already troubling signs in some quarters that the condition for inculturation demanded by the pope had gone unheeded. Some Catholics are now openly calling for the syncretization of the Roman Liturgy with religious elements borrowed from non-Christian religions, [28] and there is even a scholarly paper that claimed, approvingly, that such syncretic worship is a regular feature of a particular Catholic parish in Nigeria. [29] I would have been inclined to dismiss such an account as altogether improbable if not for a similar incidence closer to home. The parish priest of my village in Nigeria stirred much apprehension and confusion a few years ago when he publicly advocated for Catholics to return to elements of the traditional non-Christian religion. He followed this general invitation away from the Catholic Faith with a call for practitioners of the local Traditional African Religion to participate in the life of the Church without renouncing practices and opinions incompatible with the Church’s teaching. Only an episcopal intervention that ousted the priest in question brought the scandal to an end.
Meanwhile, some scholars are making a case for the abandonment of inculturation altogether in favour of interculturation because the former, they claim, “does not fully take into account the complicated reality of the interaction between Christian cultures and other cultures and religions.” [30] To “discover the intercultural face of God residing in the midst of diversely constructed human cultures and religious perspectives” [31] was declared the objective of interculturation. Is this not a call for the direct embrace and approbation of the idolatrous cultus of non-Christian religions and the complete relativization of Revelation? It seems obvious that the hierarchy of the Church cannot now validate interculturation without risking a formal approval of syncretism and pantheism.
Common claims of the proponents of inculturation
Although there is an obvious disagreement on which term – adaptation, inculturation, interculturation, or some other piece of academic jargon – best describes the movement, supporters of the accommodation of various aspects of the life of the Church to local practices (which I will refer to interchangeably as inculturation or adaptation) are more or less in agreement on a number of points.
(1) That these reform efforts requiring the Church to prioritize direct and reciprocal engagements with particular cultures through legislations and experiments are not only necessary for the flourishing of the Church but also for its survival. [32]
(2) That such engagements constitute a return to the primitive practice of liturgical independence in the early Church, and which continues to exist in Eastern rite churches. [33]
(3) That before Vatican II, the Church sanctioned and operated a largely hegemonic policy that demonized, discredited, and destroyed non-European cultures and imposed on the local population Western principles and practice of Christianity. [34] These claims deserve an appraisal, which we will undertake in the second part of this essay.
[1] D’Emilio F.,, retrieved 14 August 2020
[2] Chase N. P., “A History and Analysis of the Missel Romain pour les Dioceses du Zaire,” Obsculta, 2013, 6, 1, p 28-36.
[3] Egbulem, C. N. as quoted by Chase N. P., Ibid.
[4] Chiorazzi, A., “The spirituality of Africa,” The Harvard Gazette, retrieved on 27th August 2020 from
[5] Chase N. P., 2013, 6, 1, p 28-36.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Colossians 1,15
[8] Njoku, F. O. C., “Some Indigenous Models in African Theology and an Ethic of Inculturation,” Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology, 1996, 8, 2, p. 10
[9] Okwu, A. S. O., “Life, Death, Reincarnation, and Traditional Healing in Africa,” Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 1979, 9, 3, p. 19-24
[10] Njoku, F. O. C., 1996, p. 10-11
[11] Onyewuenyi, I. C., “A Philosophical Reappraisal of African Belief in Reincarnation,” Présence Africaine Nouvelle série, 1982, 123, p. 63-78
[12] Achebe, C., Things Fall Apart, Anchor Book, New York, 1994, p. 8
[13] For example: “For venerable old age is not that of long time, nor counted by the number of years: but the understanding of a man is grey hairs. And a spotless life is old age…Being made perfect in a short space, he fulfilled a long time.” Wisdom 4: 8, 9, 13
[14] Stefaniszyn, B., “African reincarnation re‐examined,” African Studies, 1954, 13, 3-4, p. 131-146
[15] Onyewuenyi, I. C., “A Philosophical Reappraisal of African Belief in Reincarnation,” Présence Africaine Nouvelle série, 1982, 123, p. 63-78
[16] Okwu, A. S. O., 1979, 9, 3, p. 19-24
[17] John 4:22
[18] Inyanwachi, E., A Content Analysis of Church Documents Relative to the Role Of Catholic Schools and Universities in Nigeria in the Process of Inculturation, Doctoral Thesis, University of San Francisco, 2007, p. 6
[19] Sacrosanctum Concilium, § 38, 40
[20] Wielzen, D. R., Popular Religiosity and Roman Liturgy: Toward a Contemporary Theology of Liturgical Inculturation in the Caribbean, Doctoral Thesis, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2009, p. 35-37
[21] Doyle, D. M., "The Concept of Inculturation in Roman Catholicism: A Theological Consideration," Religious Studies Faculty Publications, 2012, 102.
[22] Sacrosanctum Concilium, §14
[23] Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 178-179; Nche, G. C., Okwuosa, L. N., Nwaoga, T. C., “Revisiting the concept of inculturation in a modern Africa: A reflection on salient issues,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 2016, 72, 1, a3015
[24] Bowie, F., “The Inculturation Debate in Africa,” Studies in World Christianity, 2011, 5, 1, p. 67-92; Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 180-182, 184-185
[25] Ibid., p. 186
[26] Ibid., 186-187
[27] Ecclesia in Africa, §78
[28] Njoku, F. O. C., 1996, p. 4-32; Anyanwu, C., Reshaping The Theology and Praxis of Inculturation through Interreligious Dialogue Between The Catholic Church and African Traditional Religion in Igboland, Nigeria, Doctoral Thesis, Duquesne University, 2019, p. 199-203, 223, 235
[29] Salamone, F. A. and Mbabuike, M., “The Plight of the Indigenous Catholic Priest in Africa: An Igbo Example” Africa, 1994, 49, 2, p. 210-224
[30] Rukiyanto, B. A., “Interculturation as Threefold Dialogue: Leaming Experience from the Church in Asia,” UTP Journals, 2007, 30, 2, p. 165-173
[31] Grenham as quoted by Rukiyanto, B. A., Ibid.
[32] Inyanwachi, E., 2007, p. 1-3, 46, 68; Alimnonu, O A., Review of Austin Echema 1995 Corporate Personality in Traditional Igbo Society and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology, Vol. 8, Issue 2, 1996, p. 66-69
[33] Kanu, I. A., “Inculturation and the Christian faith in Africa,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 2012, 2, 17, p. 236-244; Presmanes, J., “Inculturation as Evangelization: The Dialogue of Faith and Culture in the Work of Marcello Azevedo,” U.S. Catholic Historian, 2012, 30, 1, p. 59-76
[34] Presmanes, J., 2012, 30, 1, p. 59-76; Inyanwachi, E., 2007, p. 4, 20, 31; Njoku, F. O. C., 1996, 8, 2, p. 4-32

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