Inculturation properly defined is the two-way process by which the Catholic Faith influences and is influenced by the culture into which it is introduced. Although related to the term “enculturation” as used in cultural anthropology, “inculturation” appears to have a distinctly Christian meaning. The difference is that the former involves the process of obtaining a culture, while the latter is consistent with the Church’s recognition that it is entering a preexisting culture (Panganiban 63).
The issue of inculturation, then, centers upon the interaction between this preexisting culture and Christianity. In a society that is already Christian, these two aspects are tightly interwoven and serve to reinforce each other. In a mission territory such as Asia, however, the two are initially separate, and the process of integration is often the source of mutual misunderstanding and tension.
As with political issues, inculturation considerations in Asia are as old as the first missionary. Upon arriving in India in 1498, for example, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gamma was undoubtedly surprised when the natives took him to “a large church.” As his chronicler described:
The body of the church is as large as a monastery, all built of hewn stone and covered with tiles…Within [the] sanctuary stood a small image which they said represented Our Lady…Many other saints were painted on the walls of the church, wearing crowns. They were painted variously, with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth, and four or five arms. (54-55)
Immersed in a foreign culture, Vasco da Gamma can perhaps be forgiven for mistaking a Hindu temple for a Catholic church. For later Portuguese leaders, however, it was the existence of the temple itself that could not be forgiven. Idolatry was an abomination, and as one bishop wrote, “it would be a service to God to destroy these temples, just in this island of Goa, and replace them by churches with saints. Anyone who wishes to live in this island should become a Christian…but if he is unwilling, let him leave the islands” (Neill 115). While forced conversions were never carried out, the destruction of pagan shrines proceeded rapidly, and by 1545 “the Jesuit Nicolas Lancilotto could record that, at the time of his arrival in Goa, there were no longer any temples to be seen” (Ibid. 131).
A polar-opposite approach to conversion was attempted in China, where the ruling class was perceived to be more intellectual. In an attempt to make the Faith more understandable to the cultural elite, Jesuit missionaries sought to harmonize Catholicism as much as possible with the Chinese society’s prevailing Confucian philosophy. A prime figure in advancing this notion of inculturation was Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary who in 1603 published The True Meaning of the Lord in Heaven. Written in Chinese, this fictional dialogue between a Christian scholar and Confucian scholar is symbolic of seventeenth century Jesuit emphasis on explaining God in terms easily understandable to the East.
Other religious orders, however, believed this type of inculturation could damage the integrity of Catholic doctrine. Especially scandalous in their eyes was the Jesuits’ tolerance of certain Confucian ancestral rites, practices which they believed came far too close to idolatry. The heated Rites Controversy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries involved rigorous debate between the Jesuits and other religious orders about whether such rites were religious in nature, and hence incompatible with Catholicism.
Inculturation considerations in Asia are by no means an issue of the past. Today, just as much as in the centuries before, a debate rages within Catholicism about the proper scope and limits of inculturation. These conflicting worldviews were especially amplified in the wake of the modernizing Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which some say marked the Church’s departure from a “classicist notion of culture” which sought to impose European-style Christianity as “the one and only culture for all time” (Panganiban 64-65). Whether or not this notion of inculturation is an accurate representation of pre-Vatican II ecclesiology, it cannot be denied that the past half century has seen a greater adaptation of the Faith to the culture than the culture to the Faith. Nevertheless, the Vatican’s discouragement of extreme forms of inculturation—such as incorporating non-Catholic religious texts and dancing into the liturgy—demonstrates that doctrinal integrity in mission territories remains a top concern.
Today as much as ever, the issue of inculturation is merely an outward expression of the ever-present tension between the Church’s universality and its particularity. As the name “Catholic” itself means “universal,” the Church cannot help but recognize the vast array of cultures that compose its 1.2 billion members. At the same time, these particular differences cannot be allowed to overshadow what unites; namely, the oneness of faith which all Catholics are called to profess. “The true test of inculturation,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1999 Apostolic Exhortation to the Church in Asia, “is whether people become more committed to their Christian faith because they perceive it more clearly with the eyes of their own culture” (Ecclesia in Asia 22).
In the same document, Pope John Paul II states that the issue of inculturation is “naturally and intimately related” to another issue—that of evangelization (21). In the next section, we’ll delve into the Church in Asia’s response to Christ’s challenge to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).