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Martin Maier SJ



From: Stimmen der Zeit. 8/2007, P.505f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In recent time from diverse directions the question of inculturation of the Christian message taking root in different cultures, came into the focus of public interest. In his inaugural address to the Fifth Plenary Assembly of the Latin American Episcopacy on 13 May 2007 in Aparecida Pope Benedict XVI took the view no foreign culture was forced on the natives by the Christianization. Above all indigenous associations of Latin America violently contradicted that view. In a review on his Brazil journey the pope then differentiated that there had been light and shadow in Latin America's evangelization. Now he mentioned the sufferings, injustices, violations of human rights and the crimes that had accompanied the conquest of Latin America and "could in no way be justified".

The contextualization and inculturation of theology is a substantial question in the of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) on 15 March 2007 published notification to the Christology of Jon Sobrino SJ. It is Sobrino's central request to draft a Christology from Latin America's reality and from the victims' perspective. This is comparable with the process in the early church: to preach the Biblical message anew in the context of the Hellenistic culture and problems.

After all the liturgy reform after the Second Vatican Council was also a form of inculturation. The council granted the local churches their "own discipline", a "liturgical custom of their own" and a "theological inheritance of their own" (LG 23). It was expressly stated that the church is not bound, "to any special form of human culture ", but is rather looking for a "lively exchange" with "the different national cultures" (GS 42; 44).

It was Pedro Arrupe SJ (1907-1991), the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, who introduced the term 'inculturation' into the Catholic Church: "Inculturation is the Incarnation of the Christian life and the Christian message into a certain culture, to be precise in such a way that this experience is not only expressed in forms of the culture concerned (this would be only a superficial adaptation), but so that it becomes the principle of a new inspiration, at the same time guide and uniting power, changing and creating this culture anew. Inculturation so stands at the beginning of a new creation."



The theological key for the understanding of inculturation is Incarnation: God enters into relation with this world, its history and a special culture. So ultimately Jesus Christ himself is the model of inculturation. Real inculturation of the Christian faith means that it inspires, changes, and renews the culture. Thus neither the Christian message nor the culture concerned will remain unchanged: Something new arises. This can figuratively be compared with a seed. Normally the germinating of a seed is bound up to certain climatic and soil conditions. But the seed of the gospel can germinate and grow in most different cultures, and every time it will produce another plant and other fruits. Another image for an inculturated Christianity is for Arrupe "the garment shining in the many colours of cultural variety of God's one people on pilgrimage".

The synthesis between the Christian message and the indigenous culture of Latin America found a beautiful expression in the brown Virgin Mary of Tepeyac in Mexico. According to the tradition in the 16th century a woman appeared to Juan Diego, an Indio who had become Christian; she spoke the language of the natives and had features of the mestizos. This is the origin of the large shrine of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, where the conflict between Spain and the indigenous cultures was symbolically settled.

Inculturation presupposes that God's Spirit works in all cultures and that each culture can accept and absorb the gospel. A further condition is that no culture is regarded as superior from the start, and that Christianity in its western shape is not represented as normative for other culture areas. Finally no certain culture may be regarded as perfect and no shape of the Christian faith be declared to be absolutely valid - neither the Roman one.

Thus the topic of inculturation belongs to the larger context of the relationship between universal church and local churches, of papal primacy and the collective responsibility and competence of the bishops. That question has still not yet found a satisfying solution and was some years ago even the subject of a "friendly argument" between the cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper. A greater independence of the local churches was expressly intended by the Council. But after the Second Vaticanum the Roman centralism again increased. From time immemorial the Catholic Church faces the tension between cultural plurality and protection of unity. To dissolve that tension one-sidedly would hit the vital nerve of the church.

The understanding of the church as unity in variety is inspired by the Whitsun event. Men from all peoples hear the Apostles preach the gospel in their respective mother tongues. Here for the first time the inculturation of the Good News in different languages and cultures happens - intended and led by the Holy Spirit. Thus the church remains young and alive. A return to the old uniformity would be a retrograde step.


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