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Title: Inculturation  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: History of the Catholic Church, Suppogu Joseph, Emerging church, Bolivia, Antonius Maria Bodewig
Collection: Catholic Theology and Doctrine, Christian Theology, Christianization, Practical Theology
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Inculturation is a term used in Christianity, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, referring to the adaptation of the way Church teachings are presented to non-Christian cultures, and to the influence of those cultures on the evolution of these teachings.


  • Background 1
  • Inculturation after the discoveries 2
    • China 2.1
  • Papal teachings 3
    • Leo XIII 3.1
    • Benedict XV and Pius XI 3.2
    • Pius XII 3.3
    • John Paul II 3.4
    • Benedict XVI 3.5
  • Difficulties 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
    • General sources 6.1
  • External links 7


The coexistence of Christianity and other cultures dates back to the apostolic age. Before his Ascension, Jesus instructed his disciples to spread his teachings to the ends of the earth (Mt 28,18; Mk 16,15) but did not tell them how.[1] Saint Paul's speech to the Greeks at the Aeropagus of Athens (Acts 17:22-33) could be considered as the first inculturation attempt. The speech was not well received by all, according to verse 32: "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked".[2] Around the year 50, the apostles convened the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem, to decide whether to include Gentiles and inculturate Gentile culture.[3][4] The Council confirmed that Gentiles could be accepted as Christians without first converting to Judaism.

Cultural conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians continued until Christianity incorporated the Greco-Roman culture.[5] Similar inculturation occurred when the Roman Empire ceased and the Germanic and Medieval cultures became dominant, a process taking centuries.[6] Early practitioners of inculturation in the history of missions include St. Patrick in Ireland and Sts. Cyril and Methodius for the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. After the schism of 1054, the Roman Catholic Church was largely restricted to the Western parts of Europe. Attempts failed to return the sphere of influence to the cultures of the Middle East with the crusades and the Latin Empire in Constantinople (1204–1261). The Protestant Reformation generated a division in the Western Church. However, at the same time, Spanish and Portuguese discoveries of the Americas, Asia and Africa broadened contact with other cultures and civilizations.[7]

Inculturation after the discoveries

After the discoveries of new territories and the Council of Trent (1545–1563) the movement became more systematic, when the Roman Church had to ponder how and to evaluate elements of ancient non-Christian cultures. Notable figures were, among others, José de Anchieta for the indigenous people of Brazil, Thomas Stephens (Jesuit) in Goa, Roberto de Nobili in Southern India, Alexandre de Rhodes in Vietnam.


Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements, published in 1607.

The Jesuits Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall von Bell and others had successfully reintroduced Christianity to China. Ricci and Schall were appointed by the Chinese Emperor in Peking to be court mathematicians, court astronomers and even Mandarins. The first Catholic Church was built in Peking in 1650.[8] The emperor granted freedom of religion to Catholics. Ricci had adapted the Catholic faith to Chinese thinking, permitting, among other things, the cultic veneration of ancestors, which he described as a mere cultural practice. The Holy See disagreed, deeming the veneration an act of worship and hence idolatry, and forbade any adaptation in the so-called Chinese Rites controversy in 1692 and 1742. The Chinese emperor felt duped and refused to permit any alteration of the existing Christian practices. The Church experienced missionary setbacks in 1721 when the Kangxi Emperor outlawed Christian missions.[9] According to Franzen, "The Vatican policy was the death of the missions in China." [10]

Papal teachings


Pope Leo XIII fostered inter-cultural diversity, leading to the reintegration of the Armenian Catholic Church into the Catholic Church in 1879. He opposed efforts to Latinize the Eastern Rite Churches, stating that they constitute a most valuable ancient tradition and symbol of the divine unity of the Catholic Church. His 1894 encyclical Praeclara gratulationis praised the cultural and liturgical diversity of expressions of faith within the Church. In Orientalum Dignitatis he repeated the need to preserve and cultivate diversity and declared different cultures to be a treasure.[11] He opposed the latinization policies of his own Vatican and decreed a number of measures which preserved the integrity and distinctiveness of other cultural expressions.[11]

Benedict XV and Pius XI

While Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius X tended to be slightly more Latin oriented, Benedict XV was especially concerned with the development of missionary activities, which had suffered so much during World War I. Inculturation meant to him first of all the development of domestic clergy. On November 20, 1919, he appealed to the Catholics of the world, to support missions and especially the development of local clergy, favouring a de-Europeanization of the Catholic missions.[12] Pope Pius XI followed suit by promoting local clergy so the local cultures were better recognized. He held a mission congress in Rome in 1922 and personally consecrated each year bishops from Asia, Africa and Latin America.[13] At his death 240 dioceses and administrations were in the hands of domestic bishops.

Pius XII

In 1939 Pope Pius XII, within weeks of his coronation, radically reverted the 250-year-old Vatican policy and permitted the veneration of dead family members in China.[10] The December 8, 1939 isuance from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith issued at the request of Pius XII stated that Chinese customs were no longer considered superstitious but rather an honourable way of esteeming one's relatives, and therefore permitted by Catholics.[14] The Church began to flourish again with twenty new arch-dioceses, seventy-nine dioceses and thirty-eight apostolic prefects, but only until 1949, when the Communist revolution took over the country.[15]

The introduction of the Gospel means inculturation and not the destruction of local cultures. Pius emphasized this because not all seemed to understand this point. He wrote in Summi Pontificatus that a deeper appreciation of various civilizations and their good qualities is necessary to the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.[16] And in his 1944 speech to the directors of the Pontifical Missionary Society, he said:

  • The herald of the Gospel and messenger of Christ is an apostle. His office does not demand that he transplant European civilization and culture, and no other, to foreign soil, there to take root and propagate itself. His task in dealing with these peoples, who sometimes boast of a very old and highly developed culture of their own, is to teach and form them so that they are ready to accept willingly and in a practical manner the principles of Christian life and morality; principles, I might add, that fit into any culture, provided it be good and sound, and which give that culture greater force in safeguarding human dignity and in gaining human happiness.[17]

Inculturation was addressed in his encyclicals Evangelii praecones and Fidei donum, issued on June 2, 1951 and April 21, 1957, respectively. Pius increased the local decision-making of Catholic missions, many of which became independent dioceses. Pius XII demanded recognition of local cultures as fully equal to European culture.[18][19] Continuing the line of his predecessors, Pius XII supported the establishment of local administration in Church affairs: in 1950, the hierarchy of Western Africa became independent; in 1951, Southern Africa; and in 1953, British Eastern Africa. Finland, Burma and French Africa became independent dioceses in 1955.

John Paul II

John Paul II addressed the issue in several encyclicals and public appearances. The term was used again by the encyclical Redemptoris Missio of John Paul II in 1990.

  • "The incarnation of the Gospel in native cultures and also the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church." [20]
  • "The intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures." [21]
  • "It is now acknowledged that inculturation is a theological term which has been defined in Redemptoris Missio 52 as the on-going dialogue between faith and culture." [22]

Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, placed a high regard on the dialogue between cultures and religions. Though he at one point attempted to move from the notion of "inculturation" to "inter-culturality," he would later state that the inculturation of the faith is necessary, as long as the specificity and the integrity of the "culture of faith" are not compromised.[23]


An event cited by some Church historians (such as James Hitchcock, Ph.D.) illustrating the difficulty of inculturation concerns Francis Xavier's missionary work in Japan. Xavier asked Anjiro (a convert from Kagoshima) for a Japanese word that would be the equivalent of Deus (Latin for god). Anjiro offered the word "Dainichi, the Cosmic Lord, in the tradition of the Japanese exoteric theism. Xavier rejected Anjiro's Dainichi, after his religious debates with the Shingon Buddhists monks in Yamaguchi in 1551, because of its semantic connections with esoteric Buddhist tenets." The phrase had a "Buddhist connection in the divine name of Dainichi-Mahavairocana" (where Mahavairocana, as the central divinity of the Shingon mandala, has four divine attributes, 'the wisdom of the great mirror, equality, observation, and action' in the Mahavairocana-sutra".) To avoid invoking the god of a competing religion, Xavier retranslated Deus into a simple phonetic equivalent Daiusu. This turned out to be disastrous due to "its phonetic similarity, Daiusu was heard as "Great Lie (dai uso)" by the Japanese. European priests attempting to use this word were often pelted on the streets by young Japanese ridiculing them with shouts of "Deos, Deos, Deos." This choice of words resulted in the view that "The Westerners were the progenitors of the "Great Lie." And the Italian Jesuit Camillo Costanzo gives an account where a Japanese Christian on his deathbed called out Tenbo (which Costanzo defines as the name of a pagan god) and even when corrected reverts from Daisusu back to Tenbo. Avoiding Xavier's difficulties Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili did not attempt phonetic simulations but "followed Anjiro's way of [cross-cultural] translation, identifying the Christian God's name with the 'native' Supreme Being's names in the lands of Confucianism and Hinduism."[24] Hitchcock points out that one must have a deep understanding of both the essential tenets of the faith and a mastery of the culture to successfully engage in inculturation.[25]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Franzen Kirchengeschichte, 18
  2. ^ (ESV)
  3. ^ McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (2002), p. 37, Chapter 1 The Early Christian Community subsection entitled "Rome", quote: "In Acts 15 scripture recorded the apostles meeting in synod to reach a common policy about the Gentile mission."
  4. ^ McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (2002), pp. 37–8, Chapter 1 The Early Christian Community subsection entitled "Rome", quote: "The 'synod' or, in Latin, 'council' (the modern distinction making a synod something less than a council was unknown in antiquity) became an indispensable way of keeping a common mind, and helped to keep maverick individuals from centrifugal tendencies. During the third century synodal government became so developed that synods used to meet not merely at times of crisis but on a regular basis every year, normally between Easter and Pentecost."
  5. ^ Franzen,319
  6. ^ Franzen 319
  7. ^ Franzen 321
  8. ^ Franzen 323
  9. ^ McManners, Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990), p. 328, Chapter 9 The Expansion of Christianity by John McManners
  10. ^ a b Franzen 324
  11. ^ a b Duffy 241
  12. ^ Franzen 382
  13. ^ Franzen 385
  14. ^ J Smit, Pope Pius XII, New York 1950 pp. 186-187
  15. ^ Franzen 325
  16. ^ Evangelii 56
  17. ^ Evangelii 60
  18. ^ Audience for the directors of mission activities in 1944 A.A.S., 1944, p. 208.
  19. ^ Evangelii praecones. p. 56.
  20. ^ John Paul II, encyclical Slavorum Apostoli, June 2, 1985, No. 21: AAS 77 (1985), 802-803; Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture plenary assembly, Jan. 17, 1987, No. 5: AAS 79 (1987), 1204-1205.
  21. ^ Redemptoris Missio 52-54.
  22. ^ Ethiopia and Inculturation, Brendan Cogavin C.S.Sp.
  23. ^ Inculturation and interculturality in John Paul II and Benedict XVI
  24. ^ Sangkeun Kim (2004). Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci's Shangti in Late Ming China, 1583-1644. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing. 
  25. ^ James Hitchcock, Ph.D. The Nature of Modernity two. International Catholic University. 

General sources

  • August Franzen Church history, Kirchengeschichte, Herder Freiburg, 1988
  • Schineller, Peter. A Handbook on Inculturation. New York, 1990.
  • Shorter, Aylward. Toward a Theology of Inculturation. Maryknoll, NY, 1988.

External links

  • Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort. Chapter: "Inculturation"
  • Translation and Inculturation in the Catholic Church by Stephen M. Beall
  • Inculturation: Matteo Ricci's Legacy in China Short videos from Georgetown's Ricci Legacy Symposium on inculturation.
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