Dr Antony Nariculam

 Antony Nariculam


The universality of the Church makes it imperative that the Church and her liturgy are inculturated. God became man to save humankind. This saving mystery in Christ must be presented to the whole world in a manner that is understood by the people of a given place.

There was a period in history when some Christian theologians considered the ‘Christian culture’ as a universal monoculture. For them this Christian culture was ‘normative’. But in course of time, the empirical approach in philosophy and sociology began to affirm pluralism in culture. Slowly these theologians had to admit a multicultural world which led to the realization that universality does not necessarily mean uniformity.

One of the greatest achievements of Vatican II and the subsequent magisterial teachings is the openness the Church has towards the wider world with its religions and cultures. This ‘cultural opening’ was initially received with great enthusiasm. But later, due to a variety of reasons, it came to be looked upon with suspicion and diffidence.

Vatican II, which allowed vernacularisation in the liturgy, was aware of the variety of cultures. Hence it suggested that provision be made in the revision of the liturgical books “for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in the mission countries”.[1] This view is theologically supported by another statement of the same document: “The liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed, with the passage of time, if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become less suitable” (SC 21).

Pope John Paul II, establishing the Pontifical Council for Culture on 20 May 1982, said that the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but is also of faith. A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not fully lived out.[2] In fact, there is never a cultureless Christianity and never yet a fully Christian culture.

On 19 November 1969, during the course of a General Audience, Pope Paul VI said: ‘The rite and the relative rubric are not in themselves dogmatic definitions. Their theological qualification may vary in differing degrees according to the liturgical context to which they refer. They are gestures and terms relating to a religious action – experienced and living – of an indescribable mystery of divine presence, not always expressed in a univocal way’.[3] This vision he already had as Cardinal John Baptist Montini when he stated on the floor of Vatican II that ‘Liturgy is for man and not man for liturgy’.[4]

This article is an attempt to point out how important is culture to express the Christian faith through liturgical celebrations.

  1. What is Liturgy?


The rule of prayer is the rule of faith. Liturgy is the celebration of our faith. It is a response of man (the ‘ascending’ man) to the ‘descending’ God who comes to save humankind. Being a response of man, it has to be a fully ‘human’ act. No human act can be dissociated from his/her culture and life situations. Here we should remember that the liturgical celebrations are not only celebrations of our faith in God and our relationship with Him. It is also a celebration of our lives and the relation among human beings, not excluding the realities of the created world. Thus the ‘verticality’ with God cannot be separated from the ‘horizontality’ with our fellow-beings.

One of the most important acts by which the Holy Spirit reminds the Church about the message of Christ is the liturgical celebration because it is the memorial (anamnesis) of the Lord. It is an expression of faith. So much so, history tells us that there was no recitation of the Creed during the celebration of the liturgy since the whole liturgy is an expression of faith. The Creed was reserved to baptism as an immediate preparation for it.

Liturgy, though an expression of faith, is not simply an act of worship. The New Testament worship, as we understand from the Letter to the Hebrews, is not merely a ritual act. In fact, Christ abolished all rituals and replaced them with symbols (Heb 10:5-10). The rituals are very often conventional, and they can be performed even ‘impersonally’, whereas the symbols are used between living persons as a means of communication. The language of the new worship inaugurated by Christ is a symbolic one in which the body is very much involved.[5] Human beings normally require bodily expressions to actively participate in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ through worship. The signs and symbols are the ordinary means to have this participatory experience.

Speaking about active participation in the liturgy, Vatican II states that it should be “conscious, active and fruitful’ (SC 14). In order to achieve this goal, choice of appropriate symbols that emerge from the cultural context of the people is a must. The transformation of the sacramental celebrations, as a “means of grace” rather than as an act of faith by means of signs and symbols, has led to a distortion of the understanding of the liturgy itself. Therefore, we need to rediscover their meaning and value for the man of today.

  1. What is Inculturation?


From a Christian point of view, inculturation means a dialogue between the gospel message and a culture. This message is not fully independent of a culture. In fact, the gospel message is not simply an idea or a dogma. It is the message about a person – the person of Jesus Christ himself. It is Christ who is coming into dialogue with cultures. Thus inculturation is a response to the call of Christ. It is a gradual transformation that has to take place in the community through individuals. No individual can impose it upon the community. The individuals can only act as agents of this transformation.

Thomas Groome describes inculturation as “a dialectical encounter between Christian faith and a particular culture in which the culture is affirmed, challenged, and transformed towards God’s reign, and in which Christian faith is likewise affirmed, challenged, and enriched by this unique instance of its realization”.[6] This description is based on the thesis that the Christian inculturation is a dialectical encounter between an already cultured version of Christian faith and another culture that is either new to Christianity or has aspects not yet explicitly permeated by it.

He further observes that for a meaningful application of the principles of inculturation one should be convinced of the following facts:

(i)                 There is never a cultureless Christianity or a faithless culture. That is, wherever the Christian faith is implanted, it has always taken elements from the local culture to grow, and that God’s saving presence is already planted in every culture.

(ii)               The ‘story’ and ‘vision’ of Christian faith continues to unfold throughout history. The Christian faith is a living tradition, and its vitality demands that it incarnates in every cultural and historical context.

(iii)             Each cultural expression of Christian faith should be profoundly unique, while remaining bonded in essential unity with all other expressions. ‘Unity in diversity’ should be the motto of the process of inculturation. No cultural expression should be detrimental to the essential unity of faith.

(iv)             The values of God’s reign should be reflected in the very process of inculturation. Inculturation should not be at the expense of the values of God’s kingdom in this world – that of love, peace , justice, freedom, integrity of God’s creation etc.[7]1

One of the greatest insights of Vatican II on inculturation is found in Ad Gentes 22: ‘In imitation of the plan of Incarnation, the young Churches, rooted in Christ and built upon the foundation of the apostles, take to themselves, in a wonderful exchange, all the riches of the nations which were given to Christ as an inheritance’. In the past the Christians in general thought that they had a ‘finished product’ by way of ecclesiastical structures, including the liturgy. But, Ad Gentes 21 notes that the lay people must give expression to the ‘meaning of life’ given to them in baptism ‘in the social and cultural framework of their own homeland according to their own national traditions… They must develop it in accordance with modern conditions, and finally perfect in Christ’. Therefore, openness towards cultures, traditions, customs etc. is a sine qua non if we really wish to make the Church and her worship relevant for the modern era. That is why the Vatican II decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, while insisting on the need of returning to the sources and ancient practices, wishes that they are adapted to the needs of different times and places (OE 2).

Incarnation is one of the most important theological bases of inculturation. It is a redemptive incarnation. Christ became similar to us in all things but sin. Through his death and resurrection he redeemed the humankind. This leads to the conclusion that inculturation “recognizes the presence of evil in the world, the reality of sin and its imprints, forces and consequences in all realities of the world and human life”.[8] Any element taken from the cultures should be made to pass through the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, the yardstick to judge the appropriateness of inculturation is the mystery of Christ. Consequently, inculturation has a double task: of liberating the cultures from sin, evil and error, and of giving them a true Christian meaning, orientation and fulfilment. Thus inculturation calls for a prophetical critique and a Christian interpretation. It calls for “dying and rising” on the part of the Church for new flowers and new fruits.

In this process of inculturation, it is not sufficient that we make the Christian formulae intelligible to the peoples of various cultures. Rather, it implies a genuine experience of Christ in every culture through authentic signs and symbols taken from the culture concerned.

  1. What is Liturgical Inculturation?


To speak about the need of inculturation in liturgy is to repeat the obvious. Nobody seems to have any objection to its relevance and the need though there are apprehensions with regard to how to go about it and how far we can go with it. The renewal and updating of liturgy practically means inculturation in the same.

The Pan-Asian Consultation on Inculturation and Liturgy made the following statement after their meeting in 1995. “All Asian countries struggle with the issue of inculturation. Our sharing revealed that liturgical developments in Asia have consisted mainly

in the translation of the typical editions of the Roman liturgical books in the wake of Vatican II. This has, by and large, marked the first phase of inculturation. The translation of liturgical texts composed in another time and culture is an extremely difficult task. The transplantation of signs and symbols is even more difficult. Even supposedly universal signs and symbols, when transplanted into another culture, often hide or even distort the very mysteries they are meant to convey. No universal model can speak with equal clarity and force throughout the world. Moreover, no Christian community can become creative in language and symbol system that is basically alien to it. Unless the Word of God becomes flesh in our cultures, the soul of Asia will remain untouched”.[9]

What is liturgical inculturation? A. Shorter defines inculturation as “the on-going dialogue between faith and culture or cultures. More fully, it is the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture or cultures”.[10] And then he makes three observations about inculturation. First, it is an on-going process, and hence even the so-called ‘Christian’ nations need to undergo inculturation. In other words, it should not be confined to the newly evangelized missions. Second, the Christian faith transcends all cultures. At the same time, it cannot exist except in a cultural form. Third, there is need of a reciprocal and critical interaction between the Christian faith and culture.[11]These observations are of prime importance when we deal with the whole question of liturgical inculturation.

The issue of liturgical inculturartion is primarily an ecclesiological one. It cannot be understood and practised separate from the life of the Church in all its aspects. One reason for the relative failure of liturgical inculturation is the inadequate understanding of the liturgy as a vertical celebration in a numinous sphere unrelated to the real life situations of the celebrating community. There is a close relationship between a ritual and the community that enacts it. Ritual, in fact, is a symbolic expression of the structure of the society.

What are the areas of inculturation in the Church? There is no area of the Church that does not need inculturation. The liturgical inculturation should not be reduced to the exclusive sphere of worship. But, of course, one needs to fix priorities.

To worship God is a fundamental need of a religious minded person. It affects the core of his/her religiosity. It is a personal, deep experience of the human soul. Being persons with senses, they require visible signs and symbols to express this experience. This visible expression becomes meaningful and communicative only when it is understood by the generality of the people. Hence it is imperative that it is expressed through the symbols of the people of the place.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy underlines this dimension of the culture in relation to the liturgy in the following words: “Even in the liturgy the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather she does respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations… She sometimes even admits such things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (SC 37). The Council is also in favour of allowing ‘legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission countries’ (SC 38). Conscious of its absolute need, the Council also notes that ‘in some places and circumstances however an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed’ though it entails ‘greater difficulties’ (SC 39).

Liturgy is the expression of the experience of the risen Lord manifested in various cultural forms. One and the same experience is expressed by different peoples in different historical and geographical contexts. In this manifestation there are universal and unchangeable, as well as particular and changeable, elements. The universal elements are celebrated by a particular community in a particular place. The unchangeable truths are celebrated with changeable elements. And, the Divine is celebrated by human beings.  This is something marvellous in the universal Church. A successful liturgical inculturation depends upon striking a balance between these elements.

Jesus did not hand over to us a ‘prototype’ of liturgy, but an experience. Since this experience is linked with cultural manifestations, its expressions vary. This variety, however, is not to be determined by laws and regulations, but from the cultural experiences of a living community of a given place. Therefore, liturgical inculturation is defined as “a process of inserting texts and rites of the liturgy into the framework of the local culture”.[12]

In order to attain this goal, it is not enough that we merely adapt some cultural elements into the institutionalized form of Christianity. Rather, “we need to undergo a process of symbiosis by which our faith becomes an experience in the context and expresses itself in a symbol system that is capable of communicating this experience to others”.[13] Hence the liturgical inculturation is not simply a matter of discovering adequate cultural symbols to express the content of faith and worship, but is a question of ecclesiology and a pastoral methodology.

Regarding a practical methodology of liturgical inculturation  A.Chupungco suggests a three-step process. It consists of Dynamic Equivalence, Creative Assimilation and Organic Progression.[14]

Dynamic Equivalence is practically an adaptation of the editio typica. Though some creativity is involved in this process, it is dependent on the typical editions of the liturgical books. Creative Assimilation is a methodology used in the Patristic era. The giving of a cup of milk and honey in the baptismal Mass, renouncing Satan looking towards the West and making the profession of faith turning towards the East, the celebration of Epiphany on 6th January and Christmas on 25th December are examples. In Organic Progression comes the question of ‘new forms’ in worship which are unknown till then. Though they are ‘new’, they have to respect the principle of “organic growth”.[15]

Vatican II has identified certain areas of the liturgy where this process needs to be undertaken. Besides SC 37-40, which we have referred to above, the document mentions also the Christian initiation rites (SC 65), the rite of Marriage (SC 77), the liturgical music (SC119) and the liturgical art (SC 123).

In this process, the sacramentals, especially the blessings, have a special place as most of them are closely related to the day to day life of the people. Though there are sacramentals that have some sort of a universal character, mostly they are attached to the culture and the customs of the people. Therefore SC 39 names them among the liturgical books wherein the Conferences of Bishops have a free hand to make adaptations.

  1. Local Church: The Venue of Inculturation


The Church being the sacrament of Christ is the visible manifestation of Christ. The institutional Church which is localized must have a visible expression congenial to the community of the people. The Church becomes authentically local in so far as she bears the imprint of the place and the people where she lives. “The Church becomes Church when it is incarnated in a place and this localization is called the local Church”.[16]

We know from history that liturgy developed in the local Churches resulting in liturgical diversities. Only later they began to be unified, a phenomenon more prevalent in the Western liturgy. In the East, maintaining the unity of faith, liturgies continued to flourish in diversity. As the decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches notes, the universal Church is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government. But they combine into different groups which are held together by their hierarchy and so form individual Churches keeping their own particular liturgy, spirituality and discipline (OE 2-3). From this it is clear that the liturgical celebration is not a ‘universal act’. It is always an action of the community of faithful ‘here and now’. That is why the Eastern Churches are very particular about insisting on the universal Church as a ‘Communion of Individual Churches’. As Pope Paul VI notes, the universal Church is in practice incarnate in the individual Churches that are heirs of a cultural patrimony, of a vision of the Word of God, of an historical part of a particular historical substratum.[17] It responds to the deep aspiration of peoples and human communities to find their own identity ever more clearly.[18] One of the important characteristics of an individual Church is the manner in which it expresses its faith in worship form.

A local Christian community is not a ‘fraction’ of the universal Church. Every worshipping community manifests the full mystery of the Church. This manifestation is based on its social, cultural and religious milieu, and hence appropriate signs and symbols congenial to the people are to be employed. History of the Churches – both in the West and in the East – gives evidence to this fact. The existence of the liturgies according to the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian Rite, the Spanish Rite, and later the Indian Rite, the Philippino Rite, the Congolese Rite etc. are examples. The five liturgical families – Alexandrian, Antiochian, Byzantine, East Syrian and Armenian – with 22 individual Churches bear ample witness to it in the East. Even within an individual Church there can be diverse liturgical expressions according to the culture, place and the context of the people as we see in the Western and Eastern ecclesiastical traditions.

  1. Liturgical Inculturation: An Historical Review


Inculturation is essentially an historical phenomenon, and the history of the Church is practically a history of inculturation.

When we examine the history of the Roman liturgy, we find that the so-called “classical period” (5th – 8th centuries) was a time of ‘classical’ inculturation too. It was a period of liturgical creativity with original composition of liturgical texts for the people of the time. The Popes like Gelasius, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great have contributed their insights for its growth. In the 8th century, as the Church spread to Franco-Germanic world, it underwent another type of liturgical inculturation.  Liturgy was transformed from its Roman simplicity and sobriety to a charming, dramatic and colourful one to suit the temperament of the Franco-Germanic people.

The first half of the first millennium was a period of intense inculturation in liturgy. Some examples will clarify this point.[19]

  • Though Christianity was in close relationship with the Jewish religious tradition, when it required the liturgical vestments the West adopted the festive attire of the Greco-Roman world and the East that of the Byzantine Empire.
  • From the Jews she inherited the Bema – a platform for reading from the Torah – for the proclamation from the Bible.
  • The morning and evening holocaust of the Jews appears in the form of morning and evening prayers in the Christian tradition.
  • The language used in the liturgy was the language of the people.
  • The apophatic (negative –  Neti, neti of the Indian tradition) approach towards God’s name (YHWH: I am who am) without a positive affirmation is adopted from the Jewish understanding of God as IN-visible, IN-comprehensible, IN-expressible, UN-fathomable etc.
  • The Christian litanic prayers are an imitation of the Roman manner of prayers.
  • The liturgical gestures like kissing the altar, the prostrations, the use of incense and the candles, etc are taken from the non-Christian practice.
  • The prayer turning to the East has its roots in the Sun-cult of the pagans.
  • The Christian tradition of fasting on Wednesday and Friday was influenced by the Tuesday and Thursday fasts of the Jews.
  • The pre-Christian mystery cults have influenced the Christian practice of exorcism, the imposition of hands and the anointing.
  • The architecture of the ancient churches followed that of the Roman basilicas’.
  • The “May they rest in peace” (R.I.P) in the funeral rites has its origin in the pre-Christian Roman funeral acclamation.
  • The feast of Transfiguration on 6th August is related to the Jewish commemoration of Moses’ transfiguration on Mount Sinai.
  • The feast of Epiphany on 6th January recalls another ‘epiphany’ (manifestation) of a ruler to a province of his kingdom.
  • The feast of Christmas on 25th December is inspired by the birth of the Invincible Sun-god.
  • The feast of the “Cathedra” of St. Peter is in imitation of the anniversary of the Roman emperor’s assumption of office.
  • The feast of martyrs, saints, etc originated from the pre-Christian practice of venerating the tombs of the dead.

In the later period of the Church too we have luminous examples of inculturation. The history of the St. Thomas Christians of India before the 16th century is a classical example of how the Christians could find themselves completely at home in the Indian culture. In their social and religious practices, and worshipping customs they were very much like their non-Christian neighbours.[20]

The Chinese experimentation of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) with the cult of the familial dead that was administered with prostrations, the burning of incense and the offering of food at their tombs was condemned as superstitious practices. Roberto Nobili’s (1577-1656) attempts with Indian culture were frowned upon by his confreres, and later they had to be abandoned. Even during this period, we come across some silver lining by way of official sanction in favour of liturgical inculturation. Thus in 1615 Pope Paul V allowed the Chinese to use the Chinese language in the liturgy though this permission was withdrawn in 1661 due to the objections of the missionaries themselves. In 1659 Propaganda Fide wrote a letter asking the missionaries not to make attempts to persuade the people of the mission lands to change their rites, customs and ways, provided they are not very manifestly contrary to religion and morals.[21]

  1. Challenges of Inculturation


One of the notable limitations of liturgical inculturation is the non-permanent nature of culture. Given culture’s susceptibility to change, the product of any attempt at inculturation is bound to be an unstable mixture. Therefore at no time can we have a complete and perfectly inculturated liturgy. It is a continuous search and a constant struggle. Only a genuine local Church can cope with the ever new demands of the changing culture.

All religions carry with them some cultural expression. Christianity, for example, has many semitic elements. For some people these cultural expressions are part and parcel of their religion, and any change in them is considered a threat to their religious experience. In other words, the cultural expressions are equated with religion itself. This is nothing short of religious fundamentalism.

In the process of liturgical inculturation a crucial factor should be borne in mind. Faith transcends all cultures. Faith in Christ can even purify and transform cultures. Therefore some hold that the duty of the Christian faith is to purify the cultures and make them ‘Christian’. As a matter of fact, culture is not good or bad, holy or sinful. Human choices make them bad or sinful. In this perspective, the Christian inculturation can also mean a purification of the sinful culture through the intervention of the Christian faith. At the same time, we should also remember that the mysteries we celebrate in the liturgy transcend all cultures though the expressions of the mysteries and the people’s response to it in the liturgy are culturally conditioned. Here the role of culture in relation to worship needs to be properly understood. “Christian worship should not end up being a mere ingredient of the local culture, nor should culture be reduced to an ancillary role. The process of interaction and mutual assimilation brings progress to both; it does not cause mutual extinction”.[22]


Pope Paul VI once warned that evangelization would lose much of its force and effectiveness “if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life”.[23] Among them the signs and symbols employed in the liturgy are of great relevance because “the religious symbols have the power to render the real more real. They induce faith, conviction, commitment because they act upon the creative power of the human intellect and galvanize the will towards action… No religion can exercise this power if its symbols are not inseparable from those of culture”.[24]

However, we need to make a distinction between inculturation and ‘culturalism’. A religion, when it assumes various external forms by way of inculturation, should not lose its essential identity. If it loses its identity, it is no more inculturation, but ‘culturalism’, that is, absolutization of culture. Besides, the Christian religion cannot take cultural symbols of a place if they are inseparably associated with the religious faith of another religion.

There is the need to evolve a liturgy which speaks for itself, and which requires not much commentary. Therefore, clerically inspired and clerically managed inculturation is likely to fail. Inculturation is a way of life. It is an on-going search. Failures are possible. But they should not deter us from continuing our search. As Pope Benedict XVI rightly remarks, the abuses that have occurred in the process of inculturation  should not “detract from this clear principle , which must be upheld in accordance with the real needs of the Church as she lives and celebrates the one mystery of Christ in a variety of cultural situations”.[25]

[1] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, SC 38

[2] L’Osservatore Romano, 28 June 1982, p.1-8

[3] Jacob Manathodath, Culture, Dialogue and the Church, Intercultural Publication, New Delhi 1990, p.141.

[4] J.Manathodath, Culture, Dialogue and the Church, p.139

[5] Paul Puthanangady, Challenges of Cultures and Religions in Asia to Christian Liturgy, in Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference – Office of Education and Student Chaplaincy, Asian Worship in Spirit and Truth, Madras 1995, p.11

[6] “Inculturation: How to Proceed in a Pastoral Context”, Concilium 2(1994) 120-133. Here p.122

[7] “Inculturation: How to Proceed in a Pastoral Context”, p.122-129

[8] D.S.Amalorpavadass, Inculturation is not Hinduisation but Christianization, NBCLC Bangalore 1981, p.7

[9] FABC-OESC, Asian Worship in Spirit and Truth, p.201-202

[10] Aylward Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, Geoffrey Chapman  London 1988, p.11

[11] Toward a Theology of Inculturation, p.11-13

[12] Abscar Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity and Catechesis, The Liturgical Press Collegeville:MN 1992, p.30

[13] P.Puthanangady, Challenges of Cultures and Religions in Asia to Christian Liturgy, p.4

[14] A.Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturaion: Sacramentality, Religiosity and Catechesis, p.37-51

[15] SC 23, OE 2. Antony Nariculam, The Holy See, The Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Conference and the Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Synod on the Inculturation of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy: A Study, in Bosco Puthur (ed.), Inculturation and the Syro-Malabar Church, LRC Publications Kochi 2005, p.66-68

[16] D.S. Amalorpavadass, Gospel and Culture, NBCLC Bangalore 1978, p.22

[17] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) 62

[18] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 63

[19] Julian Saldanha, Inculturation, St.Paul Publication Bombay 1985, p.25-28

[20] For details see Antony Nariculam, “Evagelization and Inculturation Eastern Church’s Perspective”, Ishvani Documentation and Mission Digest, January-April 2000, p.95-108

[21] Referred to in Cyprian Illickamuri, Inculturation and Liturgy, in Antony Nariculam (ed.), Inculturation and Liturgy, Star Publications  Alwaye 1992, p.85

[22] A.Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity and Catechesis, p.29

[23] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 63

[24] A.Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, p.41

[25] Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) 54

Dominus Jesus and Mission

Dominus Jesus and Mission

Dr Vincent Kundukulam
Dr Vincent Kundukulam

Vincent Kundukulam

 No other Vatican document has produced so many storms in the recent past like Dominus Iesus,(DI), a Declaration prepared by the Office of the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith (CDF) and by the Pope John Paul II and published on 6 August 2000.  There ensued many discussions about DI in the form of study seminars and symposiums and through the publication of books, theological journals and popular magazines both inside and outside the Catholic Church. The conservative groups in different religions and Christian denominations came out with severe criticisms against it. Among the Indian catholic theological journals, Jeevadhara brought out a special issue in May 2001, a collection of reactions from theologians representing various continents. We are not in a position to examine this voluminous literature and that is not our objective too. Our aim is to understand the concerns of Dominus Jesus from a missiological perspective and the reasons for which it is known as a polemic document.

 1. Nature of the Document

 The Declaration Dominus Jesus besides the introduction and conclusion contains six small chapters and is spread in 23 numbers. Compared to other Vatican teachings like Redemptoris Missio or Fides et Ratio which have 92 and 108 paragraphs respectively, DI is not a very big document. It does not contribute any new insight regarding the uniqueness of Christ or unicity of Church. It reiterates only what has been taught in previous magisterial documents about this subject. Then naturally one may ask why does it create so much uproar.

A look into sources of this Letter gives us a glimpse on the nature of the document. Apparently this heavily documented Declaration is largely based on the open perspectives of Second Vatican Council. For, among the 102 citations 42 belongs to Second Vatican Council and 30 are taken from the encyclicals of John Paul II. But a close scrutiny of these citations shows that the drafter is very much selective in his references. He has chosen mainly the orthodox statements, which reinforce the primacy of Christ, Church and mission and seldom refers to the passages of inclusive and integrating order. The 7 citations from Ancient Councils and 5 from CCC add to its exclusive language.

 2. Purpose of the Declaration

The objective of the document, as made explicit in its beginning, is to recall to bishops, theologians and the faithful certain indispensable elements of Christian doctrine which would help them develop answers consistent with the content of faith and refute erroneous or ambiguous positions regarding faith (no: 3). This intention is again repeated in the last number: “Faced with certain problematic and even erroneous propositions, theological reflection is called to reconfirm the Church’s faith and to give reasons for her hope in a way that is convincing and effective” (no: 23).

 What are the erroneous doctrines that the document refer to? Mainly, these are propositions originating from relativism. DI rules out the mentality of indifferentism, which leads to the belief that Jesus is one of the manifestations of God and that one religion is as good as another. It takes extreme care to defend the uniqueness of Christ and unicity of Church. But a cautious reading of the Letter will show that these Christological and ecclesiological concerns are led by another objective namely to rejuvenate missionary preaching and baptism. The propositions coming from relativist ideologies had cast shadows of doubts regarding the need of missionary proclamation.

This missiological concern is very clear from the document, which laments that inspite of two thousand years of missionary efforts the mission still remains far from complete. DI cites St. Paul crying, “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Cor 9, 16) (no 2). Moreover the fact that the document begins with the missionary command of Resurrected Jesus to the disciples to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world and to baptize all nations shown in all the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, 28, 19-20; Mk 16, 15-16; Lk 24, 46-48) make evident the priority of the Declaration for mission. (no 1)

 3. Affirmations of DI

            From the above explanation the three theological disciplines in which the document likes to put certain order is very clear. They are Christology, Ecclesiology and Missiology. Though the sixth chapter deals with the salvific value of non-Christian religions it is not a major preoccupation of the Declaration. If it were so, the document should have positively defined their role in building the kingdom of God.

 3.1 Christological: Jesus, the only Unique Redeemer

One of the main assertions of DI is that Jesus Christ is the mediator and the universal redeemer. Christ, the Son of God Lord and only Saviour, through the event of incarnation, death and resurrection, has brought the history of salvation to fulfillment and there is no other name under heaven among men by which they can be saved (no 13). God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalted and placed at his right hand constituting him judge of the living and the dead. This gives him unique, singular, exclusive, absolute and universal significance as the mediator of the world (no 15)

The document rejects the concept of limited, incomplete or imperfect character of revelation of Jesus Christ which will be complementary to that found in other religions. It denies also the underlying relativist theory, which says that God cannot be grasped and manifested in its globality and completeness by any historical religion. According to the document this theory is not applicable to the person of Jesus. The truth about God is not abolished or reduced even though it is spoken in human language by Jesus because he who speaks and acts here is the Incarnate Son of God (no 6) The attitude of perceiving Jesus as a particular, finite, historical figure manifesting one of the many faces of Logos communicating with humanity in course of the history does not conform to the faith of the Church. (no 9)

DI cautions against the different sorts of separation made by the progressive theologians: between Jesus of history and Christ of faith; between humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ and between the economy of salvation realized through the Three Persons of Trinity in order to create space for the mediations of other religions in the salvific project of God. The document denies the view that there are two economies of salvation: one of the Eternal Word, which is valid even outside the Church and another of the Incarnated Word, which is limited to the Christians. (no 9) The declaration does not accept any separation between the Word and Jesus Christ and the salvific actions of the Word as such and that of the Word made flesh (no 10)

            DI admits the work of the Spirit extending beyond the visible boundaries of the Church and affecting other cultures, peoples, and religions. It quotes Gs 22: “For since Christ has died for all and since all men are called to one and the same destiny we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the Paschal mystery”. But the declaration does not accept a separate economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word. It is the same Spirit who is active among other religions and who was at work in the life death and resurrection of Jesus and now present in the Church. The action of the Spirit is not parallel to that of Christ.  (no 12)

 3.2 Ecclesiological: Necessity of Church

            The fourth and fifth chapters of the document defend the Unicity of the Church. Because there is an historical continuity between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church DI argues that she has the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery. Just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute single ‘whole Christ’. Just as there is one Christ so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ, a single Catholic and apostolic Church. Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. (no 16)

            Church being the legitimate continuation of Christ claims the declaration: ‘none can empty or deny the intimate connection between Christ, the Kingdom and the Church’. The declaration is aware that the kingdom of God is not identical with the Church in her visible and social reality. Church is oriented toward the kingdom of God, of which she is the seed, sign and instrument. Yet while remaining distinct from Christ and the kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both. Church is the kingdom of Christ already present in mystery. (no 18) On account of the indissoluble mysterious relationship that Church has with Christ, it would be contrary to faith to consider Church as one way of salvation along side those constituted by other religions. Other religions cannot be seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if they will converge with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God. (no 21)

 After affirming the specificity of Church DI alerts the Catholics not to boast of their exalted condition: ‘if they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed, not only they shall not be saved but also they shall be more severely judged’. (no 22) In fact these chapters reveal drafter’s tension to keep two truths together: the necessity of the Church for salvation on the one hand and the possibility of salvation for all mankind in Christ on the other. DI finds Church necessary for salvation because of Christ’s presence in her. Since Church is united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, she has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being. She is the universal sacrament of salvation. But at the same time DI affirms that to those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation is accessible by virtue of a grace. (no 20).

 3.3 Missiological: Urgency of Mission

            Apart from relativism, what put down the missionary zeal in the Church is misunderstanding caused by some forged concepts of dialogue. Some missionaries doubt the need to work for the conversion of the gentiles if the latter are already on the way of salvation while they obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Responding to this situation DI explains the basic reason for evangelization: God has made himself in the fullest possible way known to Christians. Since Church possesses the definitive revelation of God she has by her nature to be missionary. (no 5)

According to DI though the followers of other religions can receive divine grace in their own religions, it is also certain that they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who in the Church have the fullness of the means of salvation. Hence the Church, to whom the fullness of Truth has been entrusted, has the duty to bring them the full truth. Guided by charity and respect for freedom Church must commit herself to proclaim the truth revealed by the Lord, to announce the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of the adherence to the Church through baptism and other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (no 22)

 With regard to dialogue DI says that the inter-religious dialogue does not relegate the necessity of mission. Dialogue is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes. Inter-religious dialogue as well the mission ad gentes today as always retains its full force and necessity. Dialogue does not replace but rather accompanies the missio ad gentes. In brief the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish but rather increase the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ. (no 22)

4. Attitude towards other Religions

            In some instances DI endorses the open outlook of Second Vatican Council. For example, the first chapter quotes NA 2: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”. Referring to the universal salvific will of God DI admits that ‘the sacred books of other religions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace for God who desires to call all people to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation. God’s love does not fail to make himself present in many ways not only to individuals but also to entire people through their spiritual riches. Hence other religions are the main and essential expression of God’s revelation even when they contain gaps, insufficiencies and errors’ (no 8). A similar attitude is obvious in the last chapter: “Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements, which come from God, and which are parts of what the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions” (no 21)

 But in many other parts DI compares Christianity with other religions and thereby downplays their value. First of all, the document makes a distinction between faith in Christianity and belief in other religions. Theological faith gives Christians revealed truth whereas beliefs of other religions are the sum of experience of human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which are still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself.  (no 7) Secondly DI makes a distinction between the sacred writings of other religions and Bible. The Scriptures of other religions contain however some elements to nourish and maintain inter-relationship with God but they can not be considered as inspired texts, a title which is reserved only to the Canonical Books of the Bible as they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. (no 8) Thirdly, DI compares the Christian prayers and rituals with that of other religions. DI recognizes some of them as preparation for the Gospel but it does not attribute to them a divine origin or ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. (no 21)

 In the light of above pages we can certainly say that Dominus Jesus projects an ambivalent attitude towards Non-Christians. In one context, it would say that other religions receive elements of goodness and grace from God and in spite of the errors contained in them, are essential expressions of God’s revelation (no 8). But on other occasions DI does not hesitate to affirm that other religions are in a gravely deficient situation (no 22) and that they are the sum of experience of human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which still lacks assent to God’s revelation (no 7). Such sort of incoherence happens partly due to the presence of members having diverse sensibilities in the redaction committee. When Pope John Paul II convened the meeting of leaders of the World Religions at Assisi in 1986 there were some misgivings already in the Vatican and Pope had to give a special address to the Roman Curia explaining the theological foundations of that initiative. We will now see non-Catholic reception of Dominus Iesus.

 5. Reactions from outside Church

            Abd-al-Haqq, the director of Institute for Islamic Higher Studies at Paris thinks that Dominus Jesus is “taking a step back”. He observes that for the first time in the history of humanity the religions coexist in different continents and above all they encounter and know mutually. We can no more understand Truth in the same way as in the past. God does not want to be exhausted by one faith. Haqq regrets of the exclusive attitude in Dominus Jesus and he is afraid that such kind of text reinforces the rigid attitude in Islam. (La Croix, 7 September 2000, Paris)

Olivier Clement, an orthodox theologian who has been engaging in ecumenical dialogue since years comments that “this abrupt way of saying things make me to think that this text is a reaction of those who have difficulty in the Curia to accept the open attitude of John Paul II. I don’t see any continuity between this text and Ut unum sint (1995), an encyclical on the unity of Christians. Rabbi Korsia, the director of College of Rabbis in France, does not understand why a text from Vatican takes position on Judaism. When the Association of Rabbis makes a declaration to the Jews, it does not discuss any issue related to the Catholic Church. It is true that each religion must be able to articulate for its own members where lays the Truth. The only thing that we accuse is the fact of imposing one’s own truth on others. (La Croix, 7 September 2000, Paris, p.11)

            The Hindu world, the Sangh Parivar in particular, could not digest the premises of Dominus Iesus. N.S. Rajaram, an ideologist of RSS writes: “In a just released document titled Declaration of Lord Jesus the Vatican proclaims non-Christians to be in a gravely deficient situation” and that even non-Catholic churches have “defects” because they do not acknowledge the primacy of Pope. This of course means that the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the spiritual right (and freedom) of non-Catholics. This consigns non-Christians to hell, and the only way they can save themselves is by becoming Christians, preferably Catholics, by submitting to the Pope. (Organizer, 3 June 2001, Delhi, p. 19)

 6. Lacking pedagogy of encounter

 As we mentioned in the introduction a bundle of articles had already come out criticizing this document. Due to constraint of time we will discuss about only one aspect, namely language of DI.

No doubt, the tone, style and language of the Declaration are very different from that of the Second Vatican Council. The Council Decrees by its inclusive style generates in the reader a feeling of harmony. Reading them we are moved to work with all peoples, cultures and religions. For example see the human fellowship outlined in Nostra aetate: “All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock” (no 1) Gaudium et spes writes: “Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. (no 16).

But this spirit of commonality or togetherness is unseen in Dominus Jesus. Exclusive language, imposing style and comparative statements of DI nourish a ghetto culture. Referring to the language of DI, Felix Wilfred has rightly observed that Church still lacks the pedagogy of dialogue. Many misunderstand tolerance, compassion and the concern for other’s faith as compromise. We are afraid to follow in our relationship with other religions the path of renunciation and kenosis showed by Jesus. The only way to get rid of this fear is to let us be touched by the neighbour (La Croix, 28 September 2000).

Some may underestimate Felix’s comment, as he is a theologian, known for his modernism. But Joseph Dore, Archbishop of Strasbourg, known for his orthodoxy and allegiance to Vatican, also confesses that the style of DI is different from that of the Council. There are expressions of command like “In fact it must be firmly believed that” (no 5) “It must be firmly held” (no 7) “all the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that” (no 22), etc. in the document, which may badly affect its reception by local Churches. (La Croix, 6 September 2000). Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, CBCI Vice-President said, “Dominus Iesus is immediately relevant to the multi-religious and multi-cultural situation in India but it was felt that the document has to be toned down”. (The New Leader, vol. 114, no:10, June 1-15, 2001, p.30.)

            As Jacob Parappally notes, DI cannot but be exclusive because its language is confessional. Our task is to proclaim the faith of the Church in the context of plurality of religions and ecclesial communities. It is the charism of the local Churches to evolve a language in which the faith affirmations can be meaningfully communicated. Overemphasis on the historicity of Jesus in DI reduces him to be one among the founders of religion. DI makes Jesus Christ small and his Church a sect. (Parappally, Profession and Proclamation of Faith, Jeevadhara, vol, 31, no 183, May 2001, pp. 225-227)

            Against the above-mentioned accusations CDF’s response was that DI is not destined to other religions. But this argument does not stand in Asia and Africa where to be religious means to be inter-religious. Whatever is said by one religion affects all others. Nobody can seek God in isolation here. In such a context the Church teachings must be expressed in local cultures. “Doing Asian Theology in Asia Today’ (DATAT), a document published by FABC in October 2000 seems to be a glaring example. It begins with addressing the threat of relativism, as does DI. But DATAT does not equate relativism with pluralism; instead as Second Vatican Council, DATAT advocates pluralism in theology.  At the same time it warns against irresponsibility or indifferentism with matters affecting the faith of the Church. When DI relegates other religious traditions to beliefs still in search of truth DATAT draws nourishment from Asian cultures. DI presents Church as custodian of Truth but DATAT consider Truth as mystery, to be approached with reverence. This reverence does not allow FABC make judgment upon other religions (Jeevadhara, vol, 31, no 183, May 2001, pp. 230-233)

            The absence of the theology of incarnation has also affected the missiological perspective of DI. It finds the source of mission in Jesus’ missionary command to the apostles after resurrection. To base mission on this mandate is an outdated approach. The Second Vatican Council accepts the Mystery of Incarnation as the source and model of evangelization. As Jesus who, being sent by the Father, assumed what is good in humanity the missionary must assimilate the fruits of Spirit already present in the local culture before announcing the Gospel. Unfortunately, DI is silent about inculturation, dialogue, liberative actions, witness, etc. which should precede mission.

7. There is yet to hope for

Inspite of all the above noted drawbacks DI cannot be, in my view, totally discarded because all along with the rigid standpoints it has also retained inclusive attitude of Second Vatican Council. For example, the document still believes in the participatory mediation of other religions: “The unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation, which is, but a participation in this one source. These participatory forms of mediation acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation. They cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.” (no: 14)

Similarly, DI has not totally identified Church with Christ and the Kingdom: “The kingdom of God is not identified with the Church in her visible and social reality. In fact the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries must not be excluded. Therefore, one must also bear in mind that the kingdom is the concern of everyone: individuals, society and the world”. (no 19 On the contrary if DI had equated Church with Kingdom there would have been no room left for dialogue and inculturation.

 It must also be noted that the Declaration believes in the salvation of those who remain outside Catholic Church by means of a special grace from God: “For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace, which while having a mysterious relationship to the Church does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way, which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit (no: 20).

 Above all, the document promotes the freedom of theologians to cogitate over the mystery of salvation. DI invites the theologians to explore in what way the historical figures and positive elements of other religions fall within the divine plan of salvation. (no 14) It encourages them to find out the meaning of the statement in AG 7 saying: “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him “(no 21). The present Pope Benedict XVI during the Holy Mass that he offered on the subsequent day of his election (20th April 2005) promised to continue the efforts of dialogue commenced by his predecessor. Let us hope that Church will rediscover the vision of the Council about other religions.