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Inculturation defends human, cosmic life


“In the light of the words of Christ, this poor South will judge the opulent North” -- John Paul II

Colonization produced the Third World. The colonial expansion of the West in Latin America, Africa and Asia was from the outset a global process that was ethnocentric, authoritarian, patriarchal and destructive of nature.

The global paradigm of the conquest identifies the domination of the Spaniard over the Indian with the domination of man over woman, of adult over child and of humans over nature.

Ethnocentrism follows the same logic as androcentrism, authoritarianism and the anthropocentrism that oppresses nature. The schema is presented as just and based on the natural law.

The paradigm’s most important element is the identification of all the dominations with the supremacy of the soul over the body and of reason over appetite. The Spaniard, the man, the adult and the human represent the spiritual (soul) and the rational (reason); the Indian, the woman, the child and the animal are only body and appetite. Spirit and reason are consequently not present in the Indian, the woman, the child or nature.

This Western and colonial paradigm provides a perfect justification for destroying the indigenous, the woman, the child, nature and the very body itself. The modern process of globalization, now based on the free market economy, follows the same colonial, ethnocentric, androcentric, authoritarian logic, a logic that is spiritualistic and destructive of nature and of the body.

The crucial issue of inculturation was present from the first days of colonization. Many missionaries as well as some indigenous thinkers offered inculturation as an opponent of colonization, identifying it as the defense of life, especially the endangered life of the indigenous peoples and of nature. Inculturation not only defended human and cosmic life but in addition affirmed the presence of the Spirit precisely where colonization denied it: in the Indian, the African slave, the woman, the body and nature.

Inculturation was opposed to the destructive and excluding globalization, but it was not opposed to the universality of humanity or to the catholicity of Christianity. Every colonialization and globalization that is excluding is by definition less than universal. The Western colonial conquest and contemporary market globalization are contrary to universality and catholicity. Only the defense of life, of the Spirit and of the cultures of excluded peoples have the dimension of universality and catholicity. The oppressed people demand universality and they need the catholicity that Christianity offers them.

The church must choose

The church has to choose between inculturation and globalization. The church’s catholicity can only be established in defense of life, of the spirit and of the cultures of the peoples who are oppressed and excluded by Western and modern globalization. Today, the church’s catholicity faces the challenge of confronting a tradition that is still alive, a tradition of globalization that is ecclesial, Eurocentric, patriarchal, authoritarian and hostile to the body.

A Christianity that reached the Third World by the path of European colonial expansion can only regain its authenticity by the path of inculturation. If colonial and modern globalization traveled from the North to the South, inculturation will travel from the South to the North. Globalization oppresses the South; inculturation judges the North.

Inculturation of the gospel or incultured evangelization is the great tribunal of history in which the West is called to judgment. In this judgment, the church must be the defender of the life and the cultures of the oppressed in opposition to globalization.

Inculturation insists that the church break with the paradigms that are proper to colonial domination and Western modern globalization. Inculturation is possible if the church rejects Eurocentrism, authoritarianism, patriarchism and the spiritualisms that are destructive of nature and of the body. This entails also the declericalization and decentralization of the church’s own structures.

By responding to these challenges of inculturation, the church will be a truly universal and Catholic church, a church meaningful for the peoples of the Third World. Our Third World peoples desperately need a church that is catholic, inculturated and universal. That is why we who live in the Third World have such a deep love for the church.

Brothers in ministry

Inculturation does not cause fragmentation or sectarianism. Fragmentation results rather from the exclusion that globalization produces. An inculturated church, to the extent that it defends the life of all, is a universal church. Only a church that accepts and appropriates all the cultures of the Third World is really universal. This universal, inculturated church has greater need than any other of the primacy of Peter, which in the Catholic church tradition is exercised by the bishop of Rome.

We believe that papal primacy can be exercised in many different ways. The pope himself, in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, places himself on the side of a “communion of communities” model when he relates the primacy of the pope to the universal collegiality of the bishops: “When the Catholic church affirms that the role of the bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, it does not separate this function from the mission confided to all bishops, they also being ‘vicars and ambassadors of Christ.’ The bishop of Rome belongs to his ‘college,’ and they are his brothers in the ministry.”

The problem arises when the Roman curia interferes between the primacy and episcopal collegiality. Primacy and collegiality are of divine origin. If the curia, an administrative entity of human origin, assumes a role higher than that of the universal college of bishops, the papal primacy runs the danger of following the logic of global authoritarianism. On the contrary, by communion with all the bishops, the pope ensures the catholicity and universality of the entire church, according to the logic of inculturation.

Episcopal collegiality enables the primacy to exercise unity in a church that is inculturated, multiethnic and pluricultural. This exercise of the primacy integrated into episcopal collegiality is more necessary than ever for the churches of the Third World, churches that are threatened by the danger of sectarianization and fragmentation as a result of the process of globalization. Because the Roman curia is more vulnerable to the authoritarian process of globalization, it should be under the control of the primacy of the bishop of Rome and of his episcopal college. It is the local churches, united to the bishop of Rome, that ensure the catholicity of the church.

Were the Roman curia to impose an authoritarian globalization on the local churches, it would make impossible the church’s catholicity. Episcopal collegiality, joined to the primacy of Peter, makes possible inculturation and catholicity at the same time. Let us not forget that most of the local churches are in the Third World, and that the future of the church is in the South rather than the North.

The ministerial structure of the church today follows the logic of globalization more than that of inculturation. Ministries are structured in a hierarchy of power within a model in which authoritarianism, patriarchalism and ethnocentricity predominate.

Inculturation demands a new ministerial model that can evangelize the excluded and all who live on the periphery of the system. Inculturation is possible only in a missionary church that stretches beyond the limits imposed by globalization. The social space of the excluded and marginated peoples is a space abandoned today by a church that follows the excluding logic of globalization.

The space the church has abandoned is the privileged location for the activities of the sects, the new religious movements and the free churches. Its present ministerial structure makes the church incapable of evangelizing the suburban conglomerations of the big cities. A church that follows the logic of globalization cannot reach the excluded and marginated.

Ministry for the excluded

This logic, however, is beginning to be overcome today by the Christian base communities, by the experiences of religious life inserted into the community, by religious movements that arise inside popular social movements, and by experiences of evangelization from inside indigenous cultures. All these incultured experiences teach us that we need to reform the church’s entire ministerial structure. Let us hope that this reform is not delayed until too late, namely, when the church has irretrievably lost the majorities that the system of globalization excludes and marginalizes.

The current exercise of the priestly ministry is distinguished by a certain type of academic preparation, by obligatory celibacy and by the exclusion of women. In sociological terms, quite apart from the theological bases, this confers on the church’s ministerial structure an androcentric, authoritarian and ethnocentric character based on the logic of globalization.

Evangelization, according to the logic of inculturation, requires -- and that on a privileged level -- the participation of women, of indigenous peoples, of people of African descent and of all those who are excluded by the system of globalization. The intellectual training, the obligatory celibacy and the exclusion of women all follow the same logic, a logic that also excludes the indigenous, people of African descent and the poor in general.

Celibacy is not in itself the problem, but only the logic of its imposition as obligatory for the exercise of the priestly ministry, the same logic by which women are excluded.

The Third World church finds itself extremely challenged, not so much by modernity and secularism as by the process of globalization and its neoliberal ideology. The church that defends the life of all, but especially that of the excluded groups and of nature, is a church that places itself in a position of radical contradiction to the economic, political and cultural power of the system of globalization. This church, opting not for power but for the poor, enjoys today in the Third World an overwhelming power that is specific to it: the power of the Spirit, of the word and of theology.

The church is not able to construct an alternative to the system of globalization, but it can construct an alternative to that system’s spirit. The church lives in the system, but does not have its spirit. We cannot live outside the system, because globalization encompasses everything, but we can live in opposition to its spirit. The church is in the world but not of the world. Globalization, to the extent that it is authoritarian, patriarchal, ethnocentric and destructive of nature, has a culture, an ethic and a spirituality that is more of death than of life.

Resisting the system

The church that defends the life of the excluded and does not have the spirit of the system of globalization can construct within that system a cultural, ethical and spiritual resistance to the system itself. As St. Paul says: “For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the sovereignties and powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens.”

The church, as the communion of saints that defends the absolute sacredness of life, would thus be what is holding back “the mystery of iniquity,” the Pauline expression that denotes the globalization of death.

The word of God, communicated and listened to, is the highest authority in the church, as Vatican II formally taught. Hermeneutics, the science of biblical interpretation, can be practiced in the church with different -- and even contradictory -- understandings, depending on the model of church adopted. A church of power, structured according to an authoritarian, patriarchal and ethnocentric logic, will have a hermeneutics consistent with its structure and logic. The church as people of God, communion of communities, the apostolic church faithful to the tradition of the kingdom as preached by Jesus and his disciples -- this church does not interpret the Bible with the spirit of the system but with the Spirit with which the Bible was written.

In this Spirit the word of God recovers the liberty and authority that are its birthright not according to the logic of globalization but according to that of inculturation.

Every historic transformation is possible when a theoretical space exists that makes it possible. The rise of a new practice of faith and of a new model of church in the Third World became possible only because of the development of liberation theology. In the world of the poor and of the excluded, theology is more necessary than ever, just as the power of the Spirit and of the word is more necessary. The theology of liberation is a new way of conceiving the Spirit and the word in the contemporary situation of the Third World.

At the present time more than ever before, this theology is acquiring the rationality of inculturation, the logic of a society in which there is room for all women and men, and in which the defense of life -- especially the life of the excluded -- is posited as an absolute. If the universal church seeks to adopt the logic of inculturation and not that of globalization, it should also adopt the historic power of those theologies that are being born today in the Third World.

Pablo Richard lives in San José, Costa Rica. He has degrees in theology and scripture, and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Paris. As director of the Department of Ecumenical Investigation, he trains pastoral workers for all of Latin America and the Caribbean. His 12 books include Death of Christendom, Birth of the Church, and a recent study of the Apocalypse.

This is the 10th of 11 articles, edited by Gary MacEoin, that will be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books.

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 1997