Inculturation: John Paul II and the Third World (East Asian Pastoral Review 32 (1995) pp. 277-290)

            "The Split between the gospel and culture", said Pope Paul VI, "is without a doubt the drama of our time"[1]. The drama is still being played out today in two main theaters, each with very distinctive features.

            There is the drama of the "developed" countries - Western or Eastern succumbing - rapidly to an irreligious materialism that threatens to close minds and hearts to the gospel message of hope and love, and shut people up in a tired and aged selfishness. And there is the drama of the "new" countries of the so-called Third World filled with joyful vitality which, as always with youth, can fulfill its immense promise or easily be channelled into aimlessness, sterility or anarchy.

            There is of course also the drama of the interplay between both theaters with, up to now, the almost one-sided impact of the negative Western values on the life style and cultures of the young countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Can this one-way impact not be changed? Have the younger countries of the Third World not as many values - perhaps of far greater worth - to give as to receive? How can one "alert these young countries so that they not only defend themselves from dehumanizing influences from outside, not only see how it is on true gospel values that their authentic human and social development must be based, but also realize that, if they so let themselves be reinvigorated by the gospel, they will be the protagonists of a new stage in world history where gospel and culture are in dynamic harmony and people enjoy a way of life that, being evangelical, is thoroughly human.

The Drama


            This is the drama. Will the materially powerful countries of the developed world, in their human decline, pull the rest of the world with them? Or will the developing countries defend their own wholesome traditions from the powerful undermining influences by which they are being threatened from abroad (TV, videos, films, magazines; a whole life style of drugs, 'safe' sex, contraception, generation gaps, euthanasia, abortion...)? But not only that; will they purify whatever is still unchristian and less human in their own traditional life style and, by responding to the demands of the gospel, let themselves and their way of life be drawn up to a new ideal of generous and vigorous personal and social existence.

            The winning back of the older civilizations is no easy task, and one that, humanly speaking, can take centuries. A more immediate priority would seem to be to intensify and perfect the evangelizing of the newer societies of the Third World. This can conceivably be a far quicker task - because the people concerned are much more open to the gospel. But it remains a delicate task too. Apart from the obvious secular unbelief being thrust on the newer countries by the old, there is the more subtle but even greater danger of the "secularized Christianity" - not rooted in the thought or tradition of the Church - still being exposed from the West to the newer countries. And of course there is the danger of the misunderstanding, or the misuse, of the necessary process of "inculturation".



            Inculturation - as a term designating the process by which the Gospel takes root in local values, discovering and using their richness, as well as purifying their deficiencies - has its clear warrant in Vatican II. "There are many links between the message of salvation and culture... The Church has existed throughout the centuries in varying circumstances and has utilized the resources of different cultures in its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ... Faithfulness to its own tradition and at the same time conscious of its universal mission, "it" can enter into communion with different forms of culture, thereby enriching both itself and the cultures themselves"[2]

            Inculturation, therefore, enriches the Church; for she uses "in her preaching ing the discoveries of different cultures to spread and explain the message of Christ to all nations, to probe it and more deeply understand it, and to give it better expression in liturgical celebrations and in the life of the diversified community of the faithful" (ibid.).


            And, in turn, the gospel message acts as an enriching the purifying force on human cultures: "The good news of Christ constantly renews the life and culture of fallen humanity. It combats and removes the errors and evils resulting from sinful allurements which are a perpetual threat. It never ceases to purify and elevate the morality of people. By riches coming from above, it makes fruitful, as it were from within, the spiritual qualities and gifts of every people and of every age. It strengthens, perfects, and restores them in Christ..." (ibid.).


            In February, 1981, in an important message to the peoples of Asia broadcast from the Philippines, the Pope said: "Wherever she is, the Church must sink her roots deeply into the spiritual and cultural soil of the country, assimilate all genuine values, enriching them also with the insights that she has received from Jesus

            Given the mission entrusted to it by our Lord, the Church's priority is always the evangelization of all peoples and therefore of all cultures. Inculturation is a means of evangelization, being at the same time its consequence. Clearly, therefore, the key reference for inculturation is not "culture", but the Gospel itself. This is why the Council teaches that the acceptance of the Gospel implies an elevation of traditional values or local customs, and where necessary their purification. "The good news of Christ continually renews the life and culture of fallen humanity; it combats and removes the error and evil which flow from the ever-present attraction of sin. It never ceases to purify and elevate the morality of people" [4].

            In the whole process of inculturation, therefore, with the Gospel as the standard, one has to discern the local human and cultural values that are in harmony with Gospel values, as well as those that contain positive elements but stand in need of purification. But moreover, one has to be on guard not only against native traditions that may be irreconcilable to the proper living of the message of Christ, but also to foreign elements that stand in clear opposition both to positive native values as well as to Christian living.



            During his visit to Latin America, Asia, and especially Africa, this subject has been dealt with extensively. The extraordinary rich variety of native traditions characterizing the African Continent naturally made the question of inculturation one of particular importance in the African context. At the very start of his first trip to Africa he said to the bishops of Zaire:

            "One of the aspects of ... evangelization is the inculturation of the gospel, the Africanization of the Church. Several people have told me that you set great store by it, and rightly so. That is part of the indispensable effort to incarnate the message of Christ. The gospel, certainly, is not identified with cultures, and transcends them all. But the Kingdom that the gospel proclaims is lived by people deeply tied to a culture; the construction of the Kingdom cannot dispense with borrowing elements of human cultures. Indeed, evangelization must help the latter to bring forth out of their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought. You wish to be at once fully Christians and fully Africans. The Holy Spirit asks us to believe, in fact, that the leaven of the gospel, in its authenticity, has the power to bring forth Christians in the different cultures, with all the riches of their heritage, purified and transfigured" [5].

            On his 1982 African journey, he explicitated this further to the Bishops of Nigeria: "The Church truly respects the culture of each people. In offering the gospel message, the Church does not intend to destroy or to abolish what is good and beautiful. In fact she recognizes many cultural values and through the power of the gospel purifies and takes into Christian worship certain elements of a people's custom. The Church comes to bring Christ; she does not come to bring the culture of another race. Evangelization aims at penetrating and elevating cultures by the power of the gospel. On the other hand, we know that God's revelation exceeds the insights of any culture, and of the cultures of the world put together ... Therefore it is clear, as I have stated before, that the power of the gospel everywhere transforms and regenerates. When that power enters into a culture, it is no surprise that it rectifies many of its elements"[6].

            As can be seen, the Pope constantly brings together two aspects to the subject:

            a) the value of so many native and local traditions, which therefore must not be lost (and, as he frequently points out, they are being attacked by alien influences);

            b) the purifying and enriching effect of the gospel on these values.

            In other words, his approach - fully in line with Vatican II - is that these good human traditions or cultural values, must be upheld, on the one hand; and must be uplifted, on the other.

Traditional Native Values


            The first aspect was particularly expressed in what was no doubt intended to be a main address on "Africa". It was given to the Diplomatic Corps in Nairobi in 1980, he devoted it largely to a consideration of "the true identity of the African." He pinpointed salient and "refreshing" features of the distinctive African character:

            1) his accepting, "with his whole being, the fact that there is a fundamental relationship between himself and God" (In Accra, he expressed this as: "a vision of the world where the sacred is central; a deep awareness of the link between Creator and nature");

            2) along with this, a distinctive "set of moral values":

            - a "strong sense of community ... especially in the family"

            - an "innate propensity for dialogue: "a sense of celebratiion expressed in spontaneous joy"

            - a "reverence for life and the generous acceptance of new life" [7].

            In Zaire, he commented at greater length on these values as related to the family. And he clearly gave to understand that, in so many aspects of this sense of family, it is not Africa that has to learn from more "advanced" countries, but vice-versa: "All the positive values of the family feeling, so deeply rooted in the African soul and which takes on multiple aspects, which can certainly give so-called advanced civilizations food for thought: the seriousness of the matrimonial commitment at the end of a long process, priority given to the transmission of life and therefore the importance attacheed to the mother and children, the law of solidarity among families related by marriage which is exercised especially in favor of old persons, widows and orphans, a kind of co-responsibility in taking charge and bringing up children, which is capable of relieving many psychological tensions, the cult of ancestors and of the dead which promotes faithfulness to traditions"[8].

Salvation and Transformation


            The second point - the enriching and uplifting effect of the gospel— appears just as constantly and clearly. In Brazil, he insisted that the effect of evangelization is always "to perfect the the basic elements of native culture, without distorting it or falsifying it" [9]. In his farewell speech, at the end of his first visit to Africa, he said: "Jesus Christ came for Africans, to raise and save the African soul, which is also waiting for salvation, to show it its beauty but also to enrich it from within"[10].

            To show Africa the beauty of its soul ... Africa, just as other native cultures elsewhere, is in danger of being dazzled by the standards or life style of technologically developed countries. Christianity can serve as a mirror held up to the African soul, in which she can see again the human beauty of so many of her traditions. Otherwise she may turn her back on these traditional values and succumb to the temptation of thinking they are less attractive or admirable than 'values' of so-called advanced civilizations: e.g., to think that children are a burden, not a blessing; or that motherhood is a limitation of woman, and not a noble mission that fulfills her.

            But, further, Christianity can enrich the African soul. First of all on the natural level: by insisting, for instance, on the equality of the sexes, as expressed in a monogamous concept of marriage. The process of enrichment does not of course stop at the natural level. The supernatural power of Christianity goes on to effect an uplifting and, even more, a transformation. This is the truly important aspect of inculturation, and it is bound to be a delicate task and a long process with its peculiar difficulties. At Kinshasa, after his detailed praise of African family-centered traditions, the Pope immediately went on to say: "Certainly, the delicate problem is to assume all this family dynamism, inherited from ancestral customs, while transforming it and purifying it in the perspectives of the society which is springing up in Africa...".

            It is interesting to note that when he touched on the same point in Benin almost two years later, he seemed more emphatic on the need for sacrifice, in the process of accepting the demands of the Gospel: "Evangelization should enlighten, purify and enrich all those customs and traditions which scndeeply permeate the soul of your compatriots, in order to draw from them everything that could foster a way of life more in keeping with the Christian faith and more truly human. People must be helped to make a conscientious discernment in this; and so, having overcome their hesitations, the faithful will be able to make progress in peace, in developing the best in themselves, with the cultural riches they can and should preserve, while accepting the demands of the Gospel and making the sacrifices it imposes. In this way, Christians will be truly worthy of Christ; the salt will not lose its savor nor the leaven in the mass its power. Their faith will not be weakened by the ambiguities of a dangerous syncretism"[11].

Original but Christian


            On his first visit to Kenya, John Paul II repeated to the Bishops there almost literally what he said to their confreres of Zaire: "The 'acculturation' or 'inculturation' which you rightly promote will truly be a reflection of the incarnation of the Word, when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expression of Christian life, celebration and thought"[12].

            So, inculturation, by a delicate process of preservation and purification, brings forth from a living (i.e. genuine) tradition forms of social or family life, modes of liturgical celebration, etc., that are original but at the same time Christian. In this process it is clear that originality comes from the uplifting of a native tradition and not from any downgrading of Christianity. To the Kenyan Bishops he went on: "by respecting, preserving and fostering the particular values and riches of your people's cultural heritage, you will be in the position to lead them to a better understanding of the mystery of Christ, which is to be lived in the noble, concrete and daily experiences of African life. There is no question of adulterating the word of God, or emptying the cross of its power[13], but rather of bringing Christ into the very center of African life and of lifting up all African life to Christ."

Integration into the Universal Church


            He said much the same again to the bishops of Ghana. In the process of inculturation: "Cultures themselves must be uplifted, transformed and permeated by Christ's original message of divine truth, without harming what is noble in them. Hence worthy African traditions are to be preserved".[14]

            But on this occasion, he also drew attention to a major point which must be cared for if inculturation is not to follow a mistaken path: "A reflection on the essential and constitutional patrimony of the Catholic faith, which is identical for all peoples of all places and times, is a great help to the pastors of the Church as they ponder the requirements of the 'inculturation' of the Gospel in the life of the people."

            One notes the insistence that the essential Catholic patrimony is identical for all people, places and times. Africanization, therefore, or Orientalization, cannot mean "de-Catholicization." He emphasized this point in a homily in Brazzaville: that the local church can only bear fruit for Christ if it is integrated into the universal Church; grafted onto the tree, it bears its own proper fruit -but only because it draws its sap from the tree: "I am thinking of your integration in the universal Church. It is a great and beautiful mystery. The tree of the Church, planted by Jesus in the Holy Land, has not ceased to develop. All the countries of the old Roman Empire has been grafted on to it." ... (his own country, Poland; and now the countries of the new worlds) ... 'The graft lives on the sap that circulates in the tree; it cannot survive unless closely united with the tree. But as soon as it is grafted, it brings to the tree its heritage and produces its own fruit. It is only a metaphor. The Church causes the new peoples that have come to her to live by her life. No new community grafted onto the tree of the Church can live its life independently. It lives only by participation in the great vital current that makes the whole tree live".[15]

            In the Philippines, he insisted: "We are a local church only to the extent that we are part of the universal Church established by Christ our Lord. We are a legitimate part only because we belong to the whole." And, emphasizing that because the Church is universal, it must "preach the same doctrine, practise the same worship, observe the same law of love and be shepherded by one holder of the keys,' he went on: 'This same Church is the fountain of truth and source of spiritual power that assimilates all cultures of all places and times. The assimilation does not result in the destruction of the human and local cultures but in their sublimation. Christian truth, in turn, is made incarnate in each local culture, purifying elevating and solidifying its values".[16]

            In Familiaris Consortio, he very succinctly expressed the "two principles" of inculturation: "compatibility with the Gospel of the various cultures to be taken up, and communion with the universal Church" [17].

Dangers from Without and from Within


            The work of inculturation is necessary and beautiful. But it is also challenging and anything but easy. Nor is it free from dangers and the possibility of mistakes. We mentioned earlier the need to protect true native values from foreign elements that are clearly opposed to them, as well as to Christian living. In this context, one notes that, on one of his early trips to Africa, when listing the problems facing true inculturation, the Pope included "the baneful influence of some aspects of the European mentality, which, far from being a progression are in fact a degradation of faith and morals".[18]

            But the Pope is also clear about the need to critically evaluate and where necessary regenerate, native values. As he stated in Cameroon in 1985: "the Gospel message does not come simply to consolidate human things, just as they are; it takes on a prophetic and critical role. Everywhere, in Europe as in Africa, it comes to overturn criteria of judgment and modes of life (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 19): it is a call to conversion. It comes to regenerate. It passes through the crucible all that is ambiguous, mixed with weaknesses and sin. It carries out this function with regard to certain practices that have been brought by foreigners along with faith, but also with regard to certain customs or instructions which it has found among you".[19]

Inculturation Depends on Having the Spirit of Christ


            Experiments or decisions designed to forward inculturation will avoid mistakes or excesses only insofar as they are carried out by persons who have reflected deeply and thoroughly on the essential patrimony of faith, who have been "formed" in it, and love and revere it. In recent visits to the Third World the Pope has dwelt perhaps even more on this need for a strong faith and interior life. "All attempts in our day to express this ineffable Word in the cultural realities of a people or race must likewise ensure that nothing is lost from or added to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Only those who truly know Christ, and truly know their own cultural inheritance, can discern how the divine Word may be fittingly presented through the medium of that culture. It follows that there can be no authentic inculturation which does not proceed from contemplating the Word of God and from growing in likeness to him through holiness of life".[20]

            Only with holiness of life can one distinguish genuine modes of inculturation (such as are adequate to give an expression, in local idiom, of the riches of the faith) from other unacceptable modes whose effect is to obscure, rather than to clarify, the message of Christ, often pressing liturgical celebrations (in particular) into artificial moulds that do not do justice to local culture, and less still to the reverence required by the true spirit of the liturgy[21]. Mistaken 'inculturation' of this type can only have the effect of debasing the faith and impoverishing a people's awareness of it.

            One of the worst mistakes to be most guarded against, would be that of inculturating a community in a way that would make it less aware that its essential riches are possessed in common with all Catholics everywhere: anything that would make it value its Africanness" of "Orientalness" more highly than its catholicity, or draw it into the temptation of thinking that it could "live its life independently" of the universal Church, or even of other local churches.

            In Ghana, touching on this danger, the Pope referred specifically to the history of his own native country. Poland's strong culture, and its very sense of nationhood, grew out of its Catholic faith. It was a slow process; and the Pope clearly wished to warn against the danger of being in too much of a hurry in this field.[22]

            The point was repeated once more to the Bishops of Madagascar in 1989: "In the task of inculturation, dialogue with the Universal Church and other Churches in Africa is important so that the originality of the Christian message may be safeguarded, with its theological and ethical framework".[23]

Gifts that the World Needs


            Another point to be stressed is that inculturation must have an outward-looking, not an inward-looking effect. The countries of the Third World must preserve and develop their soul, enriched by the Gospel, so as then to give. The Pope's conviction that the world badly needs this gift was specially apparent in Africa.

            In Ghana, he emphasized: "Africa has something distinctive to offer to the world." And "Africa is called to bring fresh ideals and insights to a world that shows signs of fatigue and selfishness. I am convinced that you Africans can do this".[24]

            The developing peoples need material aid. The Pope often refers to this need. But he seems anxious to help raise their eyes above their own needs, so as to realize that others too have needs - needs perhaps of a different type - that they can answer, and indeed may have a providential mission to answer. On his very first day in Africa, he said: African peoples need aid; but "they also need to give; their heart, their wisdom, their culture, their sense of man, their sense of God, which are keener than in many others. Before the world, I would like to make a solemn appeal on this occasion, not only for aid, but for international mutual aid, that is, this exchange in which each of the partners makes its constructive contribution to the progress of mankind".[25]

            As he said to the Diplomatic Corps in Nairobi: "Africa constitutes a real treasure house of so many authentic human values. It is called upon to share these values with other peoples and nations, and so to enrich the whole human family and all other cultures. But in order to be able to do so, Africa must remain deeply faithful to itself".[26]

Finding the True Way of Development


             Each of the new countries must remain "faithful to itself." There is where the Popes sees a special danger today. The task before their rulers, in this moment of development, is not easy. As he said in the Ivory Coast: "It is a question of creating an orderly whole, in which none of the best products of the past are denied, while drawing at the same time from the modern world what can help to elevate man, his dignity, his honor. There is no real development or real human progress outside that". [27].

            Time and again the Pope insists that not everything that comes to the Third World from the "developed" and "advanced" world helps real development. In many of their human values, the "developing" countries are more advanced than the "developed." What Pope John Paul said at the end of his first African visit, he would undoubtedly wish to apply to all the Third World countries: "How I would like to contribute to defend Africa from invasions of every kind, views of man and of society that are one-sided or materialistic, and which threaten Africa's way towards a really human and African development!".[28]

            Almost ten years, he was repeating the same point: "I put before you today a challenge - a challenge to reject a way of living which does not correspond to the best of your local traditions and your Christian faith. Many people in Africa look beyond Africa for the so-called "freedom of the modern way of life". Today I urge you to look inside yourselves. Look to the riches of your own traditions, look to the faith which we are celebrating in this assembly. Here you will find genuine freedom - here you will find Christ who will lead you to the truth."[29]

            "Africa is still in search of herself" [30]: in search, that is, real identity, where she has combined the best of her traditional values with the uplifting power of Christianity. The Pope senses how important it is that Africa discovers this true identity of hers; how important this is not only to Africa herself, but to the whole world.

            The African countries - and the Asian and the Latin American, - with their young populations, their natural vitality and their traditional values, need to be reminded that, in terms of truest human values, they are not backward. Their values, sustained and uplifted by the gospel, are desperately needed by a world that is in danger of a radical dehumanization. Missionaries who have thought for too long only of the needs of their mission fields, and native clergy who too perhaps are still inclined to accept the idea of being simple recipients vis-a-vis the 'advanced" world, are being urgently called by the present Pope - a universal man, if ever there was one, and a man aware of the deep problems facing modern civilization - to realize that the Third World Christianities, in full fidelity to the gospel and the universal Church, have to spearhead the new missionary age that is dawning.

            The West is lapsing into aged materialism. The Third World countries, filled with youth and vitality, are faced with a tremendous alternative: either succumb to the attractions of materialism, and quickly age and decline; or accept the demands of the Gospel and be uplifted: and with purified and intensified vitality, accept the God-given role of being, at the dawn of the Third Millenium, the new heralds of the Gospel for the whole world.


[1] Evangelii Nuntiandi, No. 20.

[2] Gaudium et Spes, No. 58.

[3] Feb 21, 1981. Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, IV-I, pp. 458-459.

[4] G.S. no. 59.

[5] May 3, 1980, Insegnamenti, III-I, p. 1084.

[6] Feb. 15, 1982, ib. V-1, p. 464.

[7] May 6, 1980, ib. III-I, p. 1190.

[8] May 3, 1980, ib. III-I, p. 1077.

[9] July 1, 1980, ib. III-2, p. 22.

[10] May 12, 1980, ib. III-I, p. 1354.

[11] Feb. 17, 1982, ib. V-I, p. 4.

[12] May 7, 1980, ib. III-I, p. 1223.

[13] cf. 1 Cor 1:17.

[14] May 8, 1980, Insegnamenti, III-1, p. 1266

[15] May 5, 1980, ib. p. 1159

[16] Feb. 20, 1981. ib. IV-1, p. 420.

[17] no. 10

[18] Feb. 18, 1982, Insegnamenti, V-1, p. 614.

[19] August 13,1985. ib. Vni-2, pp. 371-372.

[20] To the Bishops of Uganda. Kampala. Feb 7. 1993.

[21] cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 37.

[22] Insegnamenti, III-l, p. 1240.

[23] April 29, 1989. ib. XII-1, p. 998.

[24] May 8, 1980. ib. III-1 pp. 1239-1240.

[25] May 2, 1980. ib. p. l073.

[26] May 6, 1980. ib. p. 1195.

[27] May 10, 1980. ib. p. 1309.

[28] ib.

[29] May 6, 1989. ib., XII-1, p. 1183

[30] May 10, 1980. ib. III-l, p. l311.