The New Evangelization and Culture

The importance of culture for a healthy society is recognized by a few; fewer still recognize the role culture plays in a fruitful life of faith.  Moreover, an adequate understanding of the meaning of culture eludes most, even among those who do recognize its importance.  There are two common errors made in terms of faith and culture, which form two opposing poles.  The first is a culturally reductive position that says when it comes to the Catholic faith in particular, the only thing that is important is unity in the truth; culture should be of little, if any, concern.  The second is a culturally absolutist stance that assumes that culture is immutable and absolutely definitive for personal identity.  In this view, to ask any people to give up or modify any aspect of their culture is to do violence to them, to denigrate their culture and so to do the same violence to their very personal identities.  Among Catholics who belong to the latter group, the new evangelization means that the Catholic faith must be mapped onto existing cultural structures. Asking the evangelized people to accept cultural expressions of the faith that are foreign to them is disallowed, or at least it must be limited to the minimum extent necessary. 

The first group is correct in seeing unity in truth as a sine qua non for living the Catholic faith and so for evangelization, yet they err in dismissing the importance of culture.  Saint John Paul II indicated that faith is mediated by culture because it is lived incarnationally by people, as a unity of people.  He said: “The synthesis between culture and faith is not only a requirement of culture, but also of faith.... [A] faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived” (Address to the Italian National Congress of the Ecclesial Movement for Cultural Commitment, 16 January 1982).  Culture is of prime importance in mediating and living the faith.  The second group is correct in their assessment that the culture of a people is of importance for a people’s personal and corporate identities.  They err, however, in their static view of culture and their lack of understanding that its authenticity must be assessed by means of an authentic, Catholic anthropology.  All cultures are alive, they are malleable and they are authentic only to the degree they conform with Gospel values. 

What these two poles have in common is that they both mistake the nature of Christianity; they both misunderstand it as a culturally naked set of intellectual propositions.  It is not.  While it is true that the faith is not identified with any one culture and transcends all cultures, it is also true that there is no culture-free expression of the faith.  This mistake, often acted upon by those who promote a mistaken view of inculturation, actually ends up diminishing the dignity of those it tries to serve by imposing upon them an artificial, manipulated faith-culture composite.  We will look at this problem later in this article.  If the new evangelization is to be successful, an adequate theology of culture is necessary.  This begins with an adequate anthropology (see The New Evangelization and the Human Person).

We need to begin with a definition of culture.  Cardinal Ratzinger wrote “culture is the social form of expression, as it has grown up in history, of those experiences and evaluations that have left their mark on a community and have shaped it” (Truth and Tolerance, 60).  Universal to these experiences is society’s relationship to the divine.  In fact, Josef Pieper points out that the root of the English word culture is “cult” from the Latin cultus, indicating culture’s inextricable link with the public worship of the divine (Leisure, the Basis of Culture, xiv).  Ratzinger agrees, indicating that culture is an attempt to understand the world and man’s place in it.  In every culture, the central question that is addressed is the divinity and man’s relationship and obligations toward God (or the gods for pagan cultures).  Therefore, culture by definition incorporates values and mores; it is more practical than it is theoretical in the way it comes into existence.  Man is not an atomized individual so he cannot possibly address life’s multitudinous concerns and many questions on his own.  He is dependent upon the host of those who have gone before him; that is, he is always dependent upon a society.  Culture, in its manifold expressions which interpenetrate all aspects of life, is about the worship of God and what that worship means for the way we treat one another.  Therefore, it is not possible to have a stable, much less a flourishing society, if is not vivified by a healthy, authentic culture. 

Every authentic culture is a manifestation of the reciprocal exchange between the individual and the community.  Cultures incorporate into themselves the fruitfulness of individuals, their experiences, their creativity and their ingenuity.  Yet culture also forms the individuals within a society, who are subjects of that culture.  Culture then is a living, changing expression of persons and peoples; it is the social agency that forms them and unites them.  Because a culture helps form the identities of persons and unites a society, many questions arise with respect to evangelization and its various manifestations: a) mission to non-Christian cultures, b) the re-evangelization of former Christian countries and cultures and c) the incorporation of Christian, particularly Catholic, immigrants of other cultures into a host culture. In other words, we need to address the question of inculturation.

In order to understand inculturation, we have to go back to the meaning of the human person and the manner in which cultures arise.  There is a universal human nature that unites every person in a way that transcends all possibilities of diversity.  The human person by nature is created to seek the truth, to seek God; yet, he is fallen and is often mistaken in his pursuit of truth and his pursuit of God.  We should then expect to see in the plurality of world cultures, including those throughout time, an admixture of truth and error.  Authentic inculturation is based upon the proposition that every culture is potentially universal since all are products of the same human nature, a nature that is seeking the common truth that aims toward a communion of persons and communion with God. 

In terms of evangelizing a non-Christian culture, inculturation is licit only if one culture can be open to an exchange with a foreign interlocutor without doing damage to itself.  Because culture must be the expression of the truth of God and human nature, the diversity of cultures are authentic only to the degree that they correspond with this truth.  Any elements in a culture that are not open to receiving the truth about God and man from another culture are inadequate aspects of that culture and are in need of purification.  Human nature and, by extension, human culture are by their very natures open to all truth, including diverse expressions of the truth from cultures outside of themselves.  For this reason, the development of a culture and the purification of its precepts and values do no violence to it.  Such an encounter is not self-alienating; rather it is enriching to persons and cultures because it makes them more authentically human.

This same consideration applies to the situation of the encounter between an immigrant, minority Catholic culture and the receiving, majority Catholic culture.  Both cultures will be an admixture of truth and error (though, certainly not to the degree that would be true of a non-Catholic culture).  Both must encounter one another with openness and a willingness to experience one another and to be mutually enriched by each other.  One must recognize, though, that most Catholics, even those who regularly practice the faith, are not well formed in their faith.  Care and respect must be shown for the sensibilities of both the majority and minority, who often are threatened by their differences and whose self-identity as Catholic can be harmed by overzealous efforts at forcing integration or assimilation.  Understanding the encounter of cultures as analogous to the encounter of persons may be helpful here.  One cannot force friendships, one cannot force communion.  Both are authentic only if they are allowed to be entered into freely, if they are allowed to grow and mature in time through the development of trust, familiarity and finally unity.

It is for these reasons that Cardinal Ratzinger proposed the term interculturality, rather than “inculturation,” as more accurate in describing the various processes of cultural encounter.  The term inculturation implies that a culturally naked faith is transferred into a culture that is indifferent in terms of religion.  From this point of view, two previously alien agents are now synthesized into a new entity, but such a construct is artificial.  It must be restated that there is no culture-free faith, just as one can find no religion-free culture (though there have been some artificially constructed societies and associations, but these cannot be considered authentic cultures, which are spontaneous and grow organically).  The term interculturality better indicates that authentic cultures conform to human nature, and so they are open to purification in the truth.  The term also manifests the universality of authentic cultures and their receptivity to transformation in the truth and purification in love.  This openness is possible because man is more unified in his common human nature than he is divided by his diversity.  However, it must also be emphasized that just as the purification of the individual, that is, his maturity in holiness, can be painful because it is a continual call to the Cross, to dying to one’s fallen self, the purification of cultures can be similarly painful, and so resistance is to be expected.

In these tutorials, we have emphasized the importance of liturgy (see The New Evangelization and the Liturgy), and in this article, we are looking at importance of culture.  It would do us well then to rehearse the insightful treatment of inculturation (or interculturality) and the liturgy proffered by Cardinal Ratzinger (see Spirit of the Liturgy, 200ff).  Ratzinger reminds us that the Gospel and the liturgy begin in a particular culture, and so they are necessarily mediated by that cultural expression—there is no culture-free Christianity.  The question then is how are we to understand the multiplicity of legitimate liturgical expressions within Christianity, and what does this mean for the legitimacy of “inculturating” the liturgy today?

To begin with, Ratzinger warns against the liturgy being seen as a “proving ground” for inculturation.  Such experimentation usually results in dismal distortions of the liturgy.  It is especially problematic, he says, that the liturgy and particularly the Mass, is seen as the only or at least primary subject of such misguided inculturation.  It must be noted that Saint John Paul II’s Magisterium produced the book length Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship in December of 2001), addressing the question of inculturation-interculturality.  It is clear from this document that the primary place for inculturation is in popular piety.  Ratzinger shows the interrelationship among interculturality, popular piety and the liturgy, which we will get to shortly.

He first warns that too often inculturation is understood to be the manipulations of exterior forms. This, he warns, is not inculturation at all, but a superficial misunderstanding of it.  He says that such superficiality insults the evangelized cultures and religious communities.  Inculturation-interculturality, rather, first engages the values of the culture.  The approach to be taken must be one of developing a culture of communio—a culture of cooperation, social concern, respect for the weakest and the poor, the overcoming class differences, care for the suffering, dying, elderly, unborn, one that educates the intellect and spirit, that transforms governmental and legal systems such that they authentically serve the common good, etc.  One can see this is a valid approach not only for newly evangelized cultures, but also for formerly Christian cultures, and even for the encounter between minority immigrant cultures and established majority cultures receiving the immigrants. This, by the way, is a method also suggested for inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism as well.  Developing a culture of communion, a culture of love, is the first important step.

Cardinal Ratzinger says that once Christian cultural values are adequately absorbed by the target culture, there begins the opportunity for a reciprocal exchange of cultural forms between the Gospel culture and the newly evangelized culture.  It is only when a culture has accepted the values and has matured in the purifying light of the Gospel mediated by the Christian culture, is the target culture prepared to help to purify and organically contribute to Christian culture and liturgy.  A sure sign that this cultural purification has taken place is the arising of indigenous forms of popular piety, which seem to arise primarily among the poor.  This popular piety then must be respected, guided and helped to be purified by the local bishop and his representatives.  Only after a long period of maturation can some of these forms of popular piety, these newer cultural treasures, be introduced into the liturgy, and then only those which accord with the nature of the liturgy.  Again, we need to avoid the mistaken “instrumentalist” view of the liturgy which assumes that its externals must be manipulated in order to serve evangelization.  Another error is the assumption that the Latin liturgy is a European liturgy.  It is not; rather, it is a synthesis of appropriate gifts from the cultures which it has encountered over the last 2000 years, and which has its foundation in the first century Palestinian, Jewish liturgy.  It is not syncretistic either.  It is an organic development incorporating appropriate cultural treasures through years of exchange, which have complemented and embellished the liturgy’s Jewish, historico-cultural nucleus.

In the question about whether or not the matter, seasonal symbols, etc., may be changed to inculturate the liturgy, Ratzinger points to the historico-cultural context of the Gospel’s first revelation in Jesus Christ.  He argues that given the interplay between culture and history, history must take the priority.  In other words, it is not sufficient that a cultural form is highly esteemed; the cultural treasure cannot supplant or undermine an essential aspect of the historico-cultural context.  Rather it must complement and enhance it.  Inculturation must not mean replacing this nascent Gospel culture, but engaging with it and organically developing it.

Cardinal Ratzinger gives as an example singing in the liturgy.  He says that singing was first a “pneumatic expression” of the liturgical texts.  Singing the liturgical texts, therefore, is the primary place for liturgical music, and so cultural musical expressions which accord with the nature of the liturgy (or can be made so) should be used for singing the liturgical text.  Liturgical singing in the early Church, he says, began with Semitic chant and then moved into the Greek and Slav worlds.  The West saw the psalm chanting develop into Gregorian chant, and this has become what he says is “the permanent standard for sacred music” in the Latin rite (Spirit of the Liturgy, 145).  Sacred polyphony developed from chant in the late Middle Ages, and subsequent to that, there was a return to musical instruments in the liturgy.  Ratzinger notes that by the time of the Council of Trent, music used in the liturgy had begun to assert what he calls “its creative autonomy.”  This autonomy begins to alienate the music of this period, which was being created for the liturgy, from the nature of the liturgy.  Trent intervened and declared that liturgical music must be at the service of the Word.  The result was that in the post-tridentine Latin Church, we see a reduction in the use of instruments.

Subsequent encounters with developing cultural musical forms, Ratzinger notes, bring the return of an excess of instruments and, with it also, operatic singing.  Again, these cultural incursions begin to subordinate the liturgy to the music.  This deformation continued until St. Pius X moved to remove the operatic forms and return the Latin Church to the use of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.  The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, while permitting other forms, still gives the pride of place to Gregorian chant.  Ratzinger recognizes the right for a cultural universalization of the Church (including music) to get beyond the Euro-centricity of the Church.  However, he critiques the misuse of pop, rock and modern classical forms for a variety of reasons; summed up in the problem that all are contrary to the nature of the liturgy. 

In order to help discern the legitimate forms of music for the liturgy, he provides three senses in which the music must relate to the logos, the liturgical word and the liturgical sense.  First, it needs to manifest the fact that God’s saving action is made present in the Mass.  Therefore, the Word proclaimed must have dominance over the music that serves it.  This means that singing the liturgical words has priority over instrumental music.  Moreover, the liturgical and biblical words must serve to orient the liturgical music. Second, liturgical music must understand what the Church means by the “sober inebriation” of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit who guides the liturgy.  Sober is the key adjective.  Sober inebriation is not irrational or immoderate; it does not set aside reason.  Rather such inebriation guides one into a deeper, Infinite rationality.  Liturgical music cannot be allowed to abolish, overwhelm or intoxicate the senses.  To be authentic, it must bring itself into a subordinate communion with the words and have the fruit of raising the human spirit in its return to God.  All of this is to say that the music must be in conformance with the logic of worship.  Finally, music is related to the logos of the cosmos, which has its source in the divine Logos.  The more the music conforms itself to the musical laws of the universe, the more beautiful it is.

Culture and interculturality (authentic inculturation) are vitally important to the New Evangelization.  Understanding them must begin from an authentic anthropology and develop into a mature theology culture.  Pastoral and apostolic action must conform to such a theology.  This important area of research and teaching will be fostered and conducted by MAI.

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