With the ongoing Amazon synod dealing extensively with the relationship between Catholicism and various indigenous South American religious beliefs and practices, the concepts of inculturation and syncretism have rocketed into the Catholic news cycle. These terms are somewhat technical but many people have been able to get the (more or less accurate) sense that one of these things is desirable and the other is not. This piece seeks to provide working definitions and historical examples of both, so that our readers can investigate for themselves which aspects of the synod appear to be instances of the two concepts.
Inculturation refers to the adaptation of the Catholic Church’s practices to new cultural settings. This does not mean that the Church’s teaching or beliefs are changing. If anything, it changes the new culture more than it changes the Church, since objects and behaviors from the new culture gain a Catholic religious significance where there was no Catholic religious significance before.
A few now-uncontroversial examples from early in the Church’s history might be in order. The choir dress of a priest—the stole, alb, etc. that we associate with a priest dressed for Mass—was originally the everyday dress of a third- or fourth-century Roman citizen. The chasuble was originally the outermost garment of somebody dressed for a long journey; it looks like a poncho because originally it was a poncho. The word “basilica” was originally a Latin term for a courthouse, and “dioceses” were administrative units of the Roman Empire comprising several provinces. These garments, and these words, were part of the Church’s coming-to-terms with its original cultural setting in the ancient Mediterranean. The Church became so inculturated in this setting that we now associate vestments, basilicas, and dioceses solely with their ecclesiastical meanings.
Ancient inculturation extended to terms and concepts from non-Christian and even anti-Christian religions. The phrase “Queen of Heaven” first appears in salvation history in the Book of Jeremiah; Jeremiah uses it sarcastically to refer to a Canaanite goddess called Asherah. Asherah is one of a number of Ancient Near Eastern deities with whom the Hebrew Bible describes the God of Israel getting into turf wars over and over and over again. Thus, the use of the title in the Canaanite religion was obviously unacceptable; even so, the title itself carried enough of a cachet and an emotional weight that it was reassigned to Mary.
Another famous example of inculturation early in Christian history occurred in the British Isles. Early missionaries found that Celtic paganism had a very strong relationship to its geographical place; the worship sites of Celtic polytheists, like the “high places” of the Hebrew Bible, had religious meaning of their own even apart from the gods with whom they were associated. To ease the transition to Christianity, the missionaries built churches on many of these sacred sites. Protestants tend to regard this with suspicion and neopagans see it as appropriative. However, nobody thinks that it would somehow have been better if the Church had simply declared Year Zero and systematically obliterated every trace of Britain and Ireland’s preexisting culture.
In our own age, the first shoots sent up by the semina verbi buried in non-Christian cultures became visible in 1939 when Pius XII revisited the Chinese Rites controversy. This had been a long-running dispute in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries over whether it was acceptable for Chinese Catholics to continue participating in certain Confucian ceremonies. Originally the conclusion had been that this was not acceptable, and this remained the Church’s position on the matter for almost two hundred years. When Pius became Pope, he gave ear to arguments that the Confucian ceremonies in question were cultural and philosophical rather than religious in character. Pius soon came to be convinced by these arguments and reversed his predecessors’ decisions on the matter. For the next ten years the Church boomed in China. Unfortunately, this brief springtime of Chinese Catholicism is mostly forgotten today, due to Mao Zedong’s efforts to destroy China’s religious culture after he came to power in 1949.
It needs to be noted that inculturation is not the same as attempting to blend Christian and non-Christian religious meanings simultaneously in the same object or activity. This is syncretism, on which the Church looks much less favorably. The verb is to syncretize, which is often expanded into the additional noun form syncretization. Cases of inculturation that are controversial or that some believe are misguided are often criticized as syncretism posing as inculturation. An example of inculturation that eventually became syncretic might be the “Hidden Christian” phenomenon that I mentioned in my first post for Where Peter Is. Separated from priests and reliably translated Bibles for centuries on end, underground Japanese Catholics blended their faith with other Japanese religious traditions to create a recognizable but obviously unorthodox system of belief and practice. When a permanent Catholic hierarchy was finally established in Japan in the late nineteenth century, it regarded the practitioners of this religion as simply not Catholic and required them to take steps to come into full communion with the Church.
Some amount of syncretization, however, is unavoidable, or at the very least almost always present, whenever two religions or cultures come into contact. To return to the example of Britain and Ireland, medieval Celtic Christianity showed numerous signs of having been influenced by pre-Christian Celtic beliefs rather than merely appropriating pre-Christian Celtic practices. Such signs ranged from the more lenient way in which Celtic confessors treated abortion compared to confessors on the Continent, to a seemingly uniquely Irish fascination with holy wells and springs. Thus, it is not always obvious which process is going on in a given instance of interreligious contact, and oftentimes both are happening on different levels.
Pedro Gabriel’s “Paganism in the Vatican?” piece for WPI cites two John Paul II-era documents dealing with the difference between inculturation and syncretism, namely the International Theological Commission’s 1988 document on Faith and Inculturation and the 1979 apostolic constitution Sapientia Christiana. As stated above, part of why this subject is being discussed today (including in Pedro’s piece) is that the ongoing Amazon synod is dealing heavily with inculturation in ways that critics of the synod’s working document see as syncretistic. The October 4 ceremony in the Vatican Gardens in celebration of the Feast of St. Francis included elements–especially the instantly famous “Our Lady of the Amazon” statue and its companion–that were inculturated, syncretic, or both, depending on whom you ask. Indeed, we may never get a clear, dispositive explanation of the “Our Lady of the Amazon” hullabaloo. WPI defended it on the grounds that it seemed to be a legitimate example of inculturation. If it was in fact intended as syncretic, then there may be grounds for criticism, but this is not a possibility that should inspire knee-jerk suspicion of every case of inculturation. The Amazon synod will almost certainly discuss many more examples of actual or proposed inculturation. Understanding the concept as something that is distinct from syncretism, but sometimes coexists with it, will be of great help to any Catholic endeavoring to understand the coming weeks.
Image: Mary crowned with a First Nations beadwork crown. St. Francis Xavier Church, Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, Quebec; May 2019. Photo taken by the author.
Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and has a classically Millennial patchwork employment history.