GDC 109: “Inculturation of the Gospel message”

Sections 109-110 cover the principle of “Inculturation of the Gospel message,” and with the title, a note is given reminding us this topic of inculturation will be explored in a bit more detail in sections 203-214. Inculturation is a dicey topic in some quarters of the Church. I suspect there’s a good bit of misunderstanding about it, even in the episcopacy. Telling is the fact that this one section has ten footnotes which heavily reference Vatican II as well as a handful of post-conciliar papal encyclicals.

109. The Word of God became man, a concrete man, in space and time and rooted in a specific culture: “Christ by his incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the (people) among whom he lived”. (Ad Gentes 10; cf. Ad Gentes 22a) This is the original “inculturation” of the word of God and is the model of all evangelization by the Church, “called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures”. (Catechesi Tradendae 53; cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi 20)

‘Inculturation’* of the faith, whereby in a wonderful exchange are comprised, “all the riches of the nations which have been given to Christ as an inheritance”, (Ad Gentes 22a; cf. Lumen Gentium 13 and 17; Gaudium et Spes 53-62; General Catechetical Directory 37) it is a profound and global process and a slow journey. (Cf. Redemptoris Missio 52b which speaks of the “long time” required for inculturation) It is not simply an external adaptation designed to make the Christian message more attractive or superficially decorative. On the contrary, it means the penetration of the deepest strata of persons and peoples by the Gospel which touches them deeply, “going to the very centre and roots” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 20; cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi 63; Redemptoris Missio 52) of their cultures.

In this work of inculturation, however, the Christian community must discern, on the one hand, which riches to “take” (Lumen Gentium 13 uses the expression “to foster and to take (fovet et assumit)”) up as compatible with the faith; on the other, it must seek to “purify” (Lumen Gentium 13 expresses it in this way: “she purifies, strengthens and elevates them (sanare, elevare et consummare)”) and “transform” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 19 affirms: “to acquire and almost to overturn”) those criteria, modes of thought and lifestyles which are contrary to the Kingdom of God. Such discernment is governed by two basic principles: “compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church”. (Redemptoris Missio 54a) All of the people of God must be involved in this process which “…needs to take place gradually, in such a way that it really is an expression of the community’s Christian experience”. (Redemptoris Missio 54b)

* The term “inculturation” is taken from diverse documents of the Magisterium. See Catechesi Tradendae 53; Redemptoris Missio 52-54. The concept of culture, either in a general or an ethnological or sociological sense is clarified in Gaudium et Spes 53. Cf. also Christifedeles Laici 44a.


The starred note should be helpful. We begin with the premise that inculturation is a given. We accept it. And if we have difficulty with it, it remains incumbent upon us–as individual believers, lay or clergy, even bishops, and as communities–to delve into the matter and wrestle with the concept. Or wrestle with our own resistance to it.

What is the root of inculturation? The example of Christ, of course. The Second Person came to us as a human being, and inserted into the particular culture of a particular time. The apostles got it. And within a century, the Gospel had spread across Eurasia from India to Spain.

Penetration into the deepest strata of culture implies that believers will examine, study, and immerse themselves in non-Christian (or post-Christian) cultures. Perhaps we will go deeper than the ordinary inhabitants and practitioners of these cultures. We will search for Christ in these depths and draw out the Christian message in subtle, persuasive, and creative ways.

The twofold criteria: Gospel compatibility and communion with the Church–these move beyond the mere appearances of uniformity. Believers must also be prepared to set aside their own particular “cultures” in the way Christ set aside his “grasping with Divine equality.” (cf. Phil 2:6-11) Jesus did not give away or compromise his divine nature. Believers practicing evangelical catechesis, in the same way, do not set aside their heritage as daughters and sons of the Father. But we are prepared to live the sacrifice of the Master, in order that others may be drawn into the Gospel.

Enough for today. We’ll pick up this topic a bit more tomorrow, then address it as we examine GDC 203-214 a few months from now. Meanwhile, any comments?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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