Friday, August 19, 2022

Inculturation: A Wrong Turn - Part 2: Common Claims of the Proponents of Inculturation

We continue with the second part of this guest essay by a Nigerian Catholic on the problems of liturgical inculturation. The first part was published yesterday.

The first part of this essay ended with an outline of three common claims made by the proponents of liturgical inculturation:
(1) That efforts at reform which require the Church to prioritize direct and reciprocal engagements with particular cultures through legislation and experiments are not only necessary for the flourishing of the Church, but also for its survival.
(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.
(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. We continue with an appraisal of these claims.
1. The necessity of inculturation
The first assertion, the prioritization of direct and reciprocal engagement with cultures for the survival and flourishing of the Church, has been repeated in documents of episcopal conferences and scholarly publications, although no data has ever been adduced for its substantiation. Maybe that is because all available data seem to prove the opposite, namely, that inculturation is destroying, rather than promoting, the Catholic Faith. For instance, as liturgical adaption is energetically implemented in the Catholic world, the global number of Catholics fell below the population of Muslims for the first time in history. [35] Detailed statistical data on every measurable aspect of Catholic life in the US, Canada, and some European countries showed a precipitous decline following the policies of rapprochement with contemporary cultures and sensibilities in the wake of Vatican II. [36] The significant inroads made by various Protestant groups in Catholic Latin America on the heels of widespread liturgical adaptation and the ascendency of Liberation Theology clearly shows that the Catholic decline cannot be explained by general societal secularization.
An evangelical church in Catholic Brazil. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by the Igreja Apostólica Plenitude do Trono de Deus; CC BY 2.0)
Although today Catholicism continues to grow in sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria, the increase is due largely to population growth, but accompanied by substantial attrition in favour of the Pentecostal branch of Protestantism. In contrast, in the years prior to inculturation when the liturgy was almost entirely in Latin, Catholics in Nigeria were witnessing a phenomenal increase “in the region of 10 per cent per year”! [37] The picture that emerges from reviewing the available data is that in every part of the Catholic World, inculturation has been associated with abysmal decline in Catholic vigour.
2. Identification of today’s inculturation with the practice of ancient Christians
The second contention, that inculturation or active liturgical adaptation today was identical with the practice of primitive Christians, can only be defended by a selective reading of Church history, an interpretation that is even opposed by some proponents of inculturation. [38] As doctrines and the liturgy were spread orally by the first Christians, it is to be expected that improvised and non-standard liturgical formularies would be the norm. With time, liturgical improvisations gradually morphed into structured usages, “[u]sages developed by slow degrees into rites; rites expanded into” [39] more complicated ceremonies, and finally fixed formularies were adopted. Such an organic development in vastly different environments is bound to introduce much diversity in the set liturgical formularies. The next and commonly overlooked stage of the liturgical history is marked by unification. Smaller Christian communities generally adopted the formularies of the great metropolitan Churches of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. This process continued until “the uses of Rome and Constantinople [had] almost absorbed the rest.” [40] Thus, liturgical uniformity was favoured not only in the West but also in the East. However, the East with a greater number of ancient sees, heterodox separate churches, and culturally alienated communities, does project a liturgical face much more diverse than does the West.
Although the Church rejoices in the diverse legitimate liturgical and disciplinary traditions that Providence has engendered in her bosom, it is not expedient for her to go about actively seeking to create more diversities in her liturgies and disciplines any more than a multilingual country proud of the diverse tongues of her citizens will necessarily benefit if she goes out of her way to create new languages. If left to its ordinary course, i.e. if communication is unimpeded, nature will produce uniformity in a body, whether this concerns heat in a piece of metal or the dialects in England or the liturgical traditions in a Western or Eastern ecclesiastical province. Such unity flows not only from the exigencies of nature but also from the Providence of the God of nature. [41] We may thus begin to appreciate how unnatural and contrived rampant inculturation and liturgical adaptations are in a world that now practically exists as a “global village.” [42]
Solemn Pontifical Mass in the Roman Rite celebrated in Nigeria in 2010 by H.E. Gregory Ochiagha, bishop emeritus of Orlu. Bishop Ochiaga passed away in December of 2020.
However strong the natural case for uniformity is, and however congenial it is for the wellbeing of a polity, the Church at no time in her history countenanced a blanket condemnation of liturgical diversity. When it is for the benefit of souls, the Church has been willing to sanction deviations from her normal liturgical practice. We see this clearly in the story of the saintly brothers, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs. Unfortunately, this historical event is often erroneously presented as an example and justification for liturgical diversity understood as a good in its own right. [43] Nothing could be further from the intention of these apostolic brothers as St. Cyril’s defense of his actions before the pope showed. “[W]hen I was unable to help those people with the salvation of their souls in another way, God inspired me through this means, by which I have won a great many of them for Him.” [44] Clearly, St. Cyril understands that liturgical and disciplinary adaptation is the exception that may sometimes be helpful, rather than the rule that must always be followed. [45]
Even after the codification of disciplines enacted by the Council of Trent and right up to the eve of Vatican II, the Church granted dispensations from her established liturgical norms in favour of local customs when she judged such concessions beneficial for the salvation of souls. [46] Hence, at no time in her history did the Church foreclose beneficial adaptations of her liturgies and disciplines; but the pursuit of adaptations and diversities in everything and everywhere as a rule to be invariably followed is novel.
3. Hostility to non-European cultures
The third affirmation, the alleged hostility of the Church to non-European cultures before Vatican II, has many troubling and distorted sides to it, not the least is its uncharitable generalization and ingratitude for the missionaries who left all they cherished and gave all and themselves for the salvation of strangers. It is easy today to lose sight of the enormous sacrifice a nineteenth-century European missionary made in leaving the comfort and security of home for the uncertainties of life and death, say, in a tropical jungle in Nigeria infested with malaria. There and elsewhere he must set himself not only to cure spiritual ills but also treat the bodies and educate the minds of children and adults, even when the vast majority of the beneficiaries are not even Christians. [47]
The many today that charge these missionaries and the hierarchy that directed them with insensitivity to the culture and people evangelized, cannot account for the sacrifices and achievements of these missionaries and the papal teachings of the time that guided them. For instance, Pius XII is on record to have instructed the missionary to “consider the country he is going to evangelize as a second fatherland and love it with due charity.” [48] The pope continued:
For the Church, when she calls people to a higher culture and a better way of life, under the inspiration of the Christian religion, does not act like one who recklessly cuts down and uproots a thriving forest. No, she grafts a good scion upon the wild stock that it may bear a crop of more delicious fruit. [49]
Similar exhortations for missionaries to love the people they evangelize and to respect, build on, and harness for good their cultures and heritage were issued by Benedict XV, Pius XI, and St. John XXIII, all before Vatican II, [50] and following in the ancient trail of St. Gregory I. [51] Therefore, the common accusation of systemic utter disregard and contempt for the cultures of native populations often hauled at missionaries who laboured for the Faith before Vatican II is without merit and in bad taste. [52]
A Catholic missionary in China wearing a “jijin”, a custom which was given papal approval, and was apparently adopted from the forms of hat worn at the imperial court. This is a classic example of traditional inculturation in action, having been so adopted because within Chinese culture, not having one’s head covered was a sign of “humiliation and scorn.”
Culture misunderstood
The second quotation from Pius XII above underscores an important fact about culture too often confused. Since each culture was developed under more or less unique circumstances to solve human problems within a given context, no two cultures are wholly comparable. In this respect, no one culture is better than another. [53] However, if we look upon culture as civilization or human achievement, “that total process of human activity and that total result of such activity,” then one culture may be more advanced or civilized than another. [54] It should be noted that a more advanced culture is not the inevitable consequence of the higher intelligence of a particular people relative to another group. Civilization grows largely by “the diffusion of cultural traits,” i.e., the borrowing of ideas and techniques by one group from other groups, which depends on the accident of opportunities (or, speaking more correctly, Providence) and the willingness to assimilate. [55] The Church in building the Christian civilization drew from the greatest achievements of civilized Asia, Africa, and Europe, which she harmonized and elaborated by the principles of revealed truth. [56]
Hence, it is genuinely retrogressive and deleterious both to the Church’s mission and the civilization of non-European communities to place the Church, even with respect to her human elements, on the same level as every culture of the world, however primitive. Sadly, there are some who in their effort to promote inculturation demand that the Church embraces “powerlessness” by denying her civilizing power and heritage among nations. [57] And others who hold that non-European communities should as a rule prefer their own cultures to the traditional norms and practices of the Church. In other words, these communities are being asked to re-invent the wheel, to evolve from a more or less disordered foundation a process the Church has long completed and perfected – as far as completion and perfection goes this side of heaven.
NOTES (numeration continued from previous article):
[36] Jones, K. C., Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: the Church since Vatican II, Roman Catholic Books, Fort Collins, 2003
[37] Millot, R., Missions in the World Today, Hawthorn Books, New York, 1961, p. 96
[38] Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 192-200
[39] Duchesne, L., Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1904, p. 54
[40] Ibid., p. 55
[41] John 10:16
[42] Nche, G. C., Okwuosa, L. N., Nwaoga, T. C., 2016, 72, 1, a3015; Doyle, D. M., 2012, 102
[43] Wielzen, D. R., 2009, p. 201-203
[44] Thomas, N. E., ed., “Mission to the Slavs,” Classic Texts in Mission and World Christianity, Orbis Books, New York, 1995, p. 12. Excerpted from Kantor, M., “A Brief Account of Saints Cyril and Methodius and the Baptism of the Moravian and Bohemian Lands” in The Origins of Christianity in Bohemia: Sources and Commentary, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1990, p. 247-51
[45] The narration continued, showing Rome’s openness to diversity when a just cause exists: “Hearing this and marvelling at the faith of this great man, they [the papacy] now decreed in an apostolic decision and confirmed in writing that the Mass and other canonical hours be sung in those regions in the [Slavic] language…” Ibid.
[46] Examples of such concessions include “the use of vernacular Rituals” in Asia and Africa, “the celebration of the Mass in the literary language of China,” “the right to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and other chants of the Ordinary or the Mass in the common language” of certain dioceses of Asia and Africa, re-reading of Scriptural text in the vernacular at Mass, transfer of processions to more appropriate local times, and the “development of native religious music.” Millot, R., 1961, p. 57-59
[47] Ibid., p. 63-76
[48] Evangelii Praecones of Pius XII, 1951, §20
[49] Ibid., §56
[50] Millot, R., 1961, p. 12-28
[51] Carroll, W. H., The Building of Christendom, Christendom College Press, Front Royal, Virginia, 1987, p. 198-199
[52] Of course it does not then follow that all missionaries before Vatican II were saints or were faultlessly prudent. Being only human, they were not perfect, and may not have been entirely immune from the nationalism of their day; hence the papal injunctions on the matter (Millot, R., 1961, p. 22). By and large, these missionaries deserve better than the common label of ethnocentric imperialists.
[53] Benedict, R., “The Growth of Culture,” in Man, Culture, and Society, ed. Shapiro, H. L., Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 188-189
[54] Niebuhr, H. R., Christ and Culture, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1951, p. 32-33
[55] Benedict, R., 1956, p. 188-192
[56] Schuster, I., The Sacramentary, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1924, 1, p. 3
[57] Presmanes, J., 2012, 30, 1, p. 59-76

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