The Concept of Inculturation in Roman Catholicism: A Theological Consideration
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The Concept of Inculturation in Roman Catholicism:
A Theological Consideration

Inculturation is the term that Catholic leaders and theologians have used in recent decades to denote a process of engagement between the Christian Gospel and a particular culture. The term is intended conceptually both to safeguard the integrity of the Gospel and to encourage sensitivity to various cultural contexts. Inculturation as a theological notion has been specifically associated with John Paul II’s strategy for evangelization, including what is known as the “new evangelization” that focuses on cultures that had traditionally been Christian but which are now not clearly so. Yet inculturation, understood with a somewhat different emphasis, has also been associated with the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s theological interpretation of Vatican II.

This essay explores the theological meanings of the concept of inculturation as it has been used in Roman Catholic thought in recent decades. First is explained how Vatican II’s concept of culture, as relatively progressive as it was, contained safeguards against favoring diverse cultures to the detriment of the integrity of the Gospel. Then a discussion of theological divisions after the Council sets the stage for understanding John Paul II’s concept of inculturation within the context of his agenda of correcting the course of the Council’s reception and implementation. John Paul II’s theological connection between inculturation and Incarnation is then explored in comparison with Rahner’s use of inculturation in his theological interpretation of Vatican II. An examination of how the issues that surface carry through in a range of postconciliar theological uses of inculturation is followed by a naming of major challenges that arise in any consideration of inculturation today.

Theology and Culture at Vatican II

From the Journey of the Magi to witness the birth of Jesus to the symbolic presence of the Twelve Tribes of Israel at Pentecost, the theme of catholicity and culture has been an integral dimension of the story of Christ and the Church. At the time of [End Page 1] the Second Vatican Council, the relation of theology and culture was of particular importance for several interconnected reasons.1 The unfinished Vatican I (1869–70) had placed an imbalanced emphasis upon the papacy and the church universal in relation to the episcopacy and local churches. A strong papacy held several advantages for the Church in its struggles with an often hostile nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world, but the stress on the “universal” was not conducive to a focus on diverse cultures. There was a need to redress the balance by giving due attention to bishops and to particular churches. There was a significant connection between valuing the role of particular churches and valuing the contributions of diverse cultures.

These inner-church concerns were related to the background issues of the credibility of the Church in Europe in the wake of the two world wars as well as the growing sense of disgrace of the colonial powers in their treatment of native peoples of various lands. In Catholic theological circles as early as 1938, Henri de Lubac, citing John Henry Newman, identified cultural adaptation as a key element of Catholicism.2 De Lubac argued that Christian salvation cannot be segmented off to another realm but is truly linked with human destiny and connected with human societies in a real way. Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic 1951 work, Christ and Culture, explores the strengths and weakness of various models, highlighting finally the need for faith.3 In the background of his work lingers angst over the awareness that the faith of many European Christians during World War II had proved to be more nominal than real and that European Christianity overall had failed in its obligations to transform culture as well as to oppose elements of culture that had become manifestly evil. At the same time another Protestant, Paul Tillich, was developing his theological method of correlation by which human experience, understood with sensitivity to cultural diversity, poses questions to which Christianity must provide the orientation for an authentic response if it is to be existentially relevant.4

The theme of engagement with the world, and with it, inculturation, would be...