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.

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar chris dorf says:

    Thank you for this article. I have spoken to people about these 2 terms off and on for several decades because some Catholics tend to conflate or equate inculturation with syncretism. I have had to explain the difference to people over the years, and I explained that St. Pope JPII spoke of inculturation and hosted the first day of prayer at Assisi, which also set them off.

    There is such a fear of other religions being combined into catholocism that you wonder how much they understand thier Catholic Faith.

  2. Avatar Tayeb Nazim Djedaa says:

    Except that the vatican itself said that the statue didn’t represent Our Lady and that it probably represents “fertility, woman, life” https://twitter.com/CatholicSat/status/1181189628327542785

    • Pedro Gabriel Pedro Gabriel says:

      Except that the native woman herself that presented the statue to the Pope called it “Our Lady of the Amazon”

      Also, the Vatican did not organize the ceremony, and this bishop is not the Vatican

    • Avatar jong says:

      Tayeb
      Thanks for the link. Pedro G. had defended his article from the other guy who claimed he is a Portuguese but back down when confronted with the Truth that the old woman really said “Our Lady of Amazon”.
      Why is a “naked statue” a scandal in the eyes of so many people of today, esp. the schismatic Rad Trads channels who had made a bad judgment on the cultural expression of the Amazon indigenous people on their faith?
      Job said ” “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
      All of us will meet the Lord our Maker “naked”.
      The Amazonian people walk around in their tribe with no malice seeing each other naked before the modern world set foot into their soil and introduce modern clothings.
      A matured Christian with a purified heart can look at the “naked statue” representing Our Lady and St.Elizabeth with no malice, but a corrupted mind whose heart had not yet converted will always be scandalize by the expression of other culture.
      Remember “God looks into our heart and not in appearance”..All of us are bare and we cannot hide anything from our God.

  3. Avatar Pete Vickery says:

    Very informative Nathan. The reaction of the rad-trads and other critics of Pope Francis is similar to how I was treated with suspicion by my best friend’s family when I was growing up. They were fundamentalist Baptist (my friend’s father was a well known radio evangelist) and always trying to save me from the pope and the Church. They were big on the Jack Chick handouts. Jack Chick had conspiracy theories galore but especially wrt Catholics. The pope was an agent of Satan who would usher in the anti-Christ etc… . Sound familiar? Yeah, I know. Now we have Jack Chick Catholics. Well versed in La Salette and Malachi Martin. Everything in the culture is suspect or demonic (or “of this world”) unless they, the true infallible judges of all things Catholic are given a satisfactory explanation. The Virgin Mary really being Asherah (according to Chick) is equivalent to the statue with the breasts exposed being a pagan idol that the pope is going to insist we worship. My experience with these types is that no explanation will be satisfactory. Thankfully, I’ve seen the children of these people grow up to see the foolishness of their parents. Unfortunately, on the other hand, I’ve seen it’s effect on friends and family who follow political pundits and Catholic media personalities instead of the successor of Peter. They need to ask themselves who is the one at this very moment who has the guarantee of the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Who is more likely to be right?

  4. Avatar Jessica says:

    Thank you so much! This was fascinating.

    I had to laugh at the line about neopagans calling the Church’s actions appropriative. Those were my ancestors, and at least some of their descendants (my maternal extended family) think the Church did the right thing. Who has the authority to decide who is right?

  5. Avatar Ann says:

    Thank you so much for this, and for the much needed injection of common sense and irenicism into a depressingly febrile atmosphere. Just one question: does any one have any references, or suggestions for further reading, on Pius XII’s stance on the Chinese Rites controversy? I’d be really fascinated to find out more about this.

  6. Avatar Marie says:

    Very interesting and informative, thanks!

  7. Avatar jong says:

    Now that the “naked statue” was confirmed to be the Our Lady of Amazon by no less than Fr.Roberto Roxas OMI, one of the event organizer.
    Will the Rad Trads channel apologize for calling the image of Mama Mary a “pagan idol”?

  8. Avatar chris dorf says:

    The Sistine chapel had lots of naked bodies until someone felt the need to clothe the. Jesus Christ was crucified naked.

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