The “Coming ‘Southern Moment’ in Catholicism”


In his latest weekly column, John Allen concluded his reflections on an international meeting of Catholic ethicists by suggesting that this “gathering in Padua may provide an intriguing hint about what the coming ‘southern moment’ in Catholicism will look like – more focused on changing the world, and correspondingly less on changing the church.” Allen has been writing a great deal on this theme.

Obviously, this focus on “changing the world” will be quite challenging to Catholics in North America and Europe. But it might be a good thing to quickly note some other and more conceptual ways that this so-called “southern moment” will likely challenge those of us in the “north.” I am sure that many of you are familiar with the work of the Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh. I would like to look at a recent lecture of his, delivered last year at Santa Clara University, in order to better grasp the implications of a “coming ‘southern moment.’” The lecture is conveniently available online.

Professor Sanneh implies that the “southern moment” will challenge us to recognize the diversity and variety within Christianity. This might already be evident to us when we reflect on the inclusion of multiple portraits of Jesus in the canon. But we will soon become aware that Christianity is always received as already translated, without the required investment in an original culture and language that Islam has in Arabic. Sanneh writes (my emphasis):

Right from the start the Christian movement promoted itself in the Gentile medium, which was very different from the Jewish culture of the founder of Christianity, and that cultural orientation was enshrined in the tradition of worship and scripture that the church adopted. The gospels we have were not written or dictated by Jesus, and the kind of Greek we have in the New Testament as a whole is not the Greek of the classical authors, and certainly not the same language as the Aramaic language of Jesus himself. Embedded in the Christian movement is what one may call the principle of one cultural deficit, that is to say, the idea of an original religion that lacks the claim of a fixed, founding culture, and of culture itself denied the status of a necessary universal prescription for believers everywhere. Freed of the weight of conformity to an original language, the early Christians were given the incentive to make Christianity feel at home in their own culture.

The impossibility of Christian longing for an “original language” also necessarily means the disentanglement of Christianity from other forms of uniformity and centralization which similarly must lack “the status of a necessary universal prescription.” Sanneh continues:

We are all familiar with the culture of heartland Catholicism – it was what Hilaire Belloc and others meant when they spoke about how people could not be Christian unless they were European, or Europeanized. That was how claims for extending Western civilization became intertwined with efforts at Christianization. As a German scholar once put it, thanks to the empire, the narrow world had become a unity; the barbarian world had become Greek and Roman: one empire, one universal language, one civilization, a common development towards monotheism, and a common yearning for saviors. Since then scholars have felt that they were correct in assuming that a certain level of political centralization in terms, for instance, of organized societies and markets, consolidated military power, the founding of libraries, and legal institutions was a necessary accompaniment of the spread of the religion, and that pitched Christianity as part and parcel of a distinctly metropolitan civilization.

Christianization meant the process by which a motley patchwork of tribes and clans banded together to create social institutions, national communities, organized states, regional power blocs and long-range trading contacts, culminating in sweeping triumphant kingdoms and empires. Christianization demanded, or was seen as demanding, repudiation of the local and the particular.

Freed from “conformity to an original language” and “a distinctly metropolitan civilization” to recover the “local and the particular,” Christianity can come to exist as a communion of vernaculars. “We catch glimpses of the enormous potential of what is possible from the well-known Missa Luba where sacred music is fused with sacred dance and choral art to make a vivid, lively impact.” In fact, in “frontier Catholicism,” different from the “heartland Catholicism” of Belloc, existing indigenous cultures are generally strengthened and even rejuvenated by the translation and inculturation of Christianity within them:

What Dante did for Italian, missionary translators did for peoples in various parts of the world. That was precisely how Union Igbo developed in Nigeria at the beginning of the twentieth century, as I once reminded Chinua Achebe. After initial hesitations and criticisms, Archdeacon Dennis’ translation of the Scriptures into Union Igbo was eventually applauded as a work of genius. “The beautiful and liquid phrasing of the Archdeacon’s Bible, as majestic and chaste in its euphony and its haunting sweetness as our own English Authorized Bible, spoke the grand truths of God and Christ to countless waiting hearts.” Union Igbo became a living speech. Pupils took it home with them from school. People coming from distant parts found that they could understand each other through this new tongue, new yet somehow their very own. It was not unlike what Dante had achieved with the unification of the various Italian dialects. Dante had assumed the dialect of Tuscany, which he professed to despise, and made it the basis of his magnificent achievement.

We can end this brief and insufficient post by suggesting that the “coming ‘southern moment’” might persuade us to reread Dante, which would not be a bad thing at all. Even better, as we have already seen, it might also persuade us to listen to Scripture once again, or perhaps for the very first time.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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