Inculturation is a two-way street

For many Catholics of traditional orientation (myself included), the word “inculturation” often sends shivers down the spine. In the years since the Second Vatican Council, the idea of “inculturation” is often invoked to justify all sorts of novel introductions into the liturgy, frequently resulting in liturgical abuse.

The Church’s primary resource on inculturation is Varietates legitimae (hereafter “VR”), a 1994 instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (hereafter CDW). According to VR, inculturation is “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church“. It signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implementation of Christianity into different human cultures”.

Notice that inculturation includes two dimensions; the first involves bringing Christ into the culture, while the second involves bringing the culture into Christ.

In recent decades, we have seen an overemphasis in favor of the first dimension, that is, adapting the liturgy to local cultures. I (and many others) have come across several such incarnations across the United States; these include, but are not limited to: “Polka Mass”, “Teen Mass”, “Contemporary Mass”, “Clown Mass”, “Children’s Mass”, “Puppet Mass”. All these are (failed) attempts to relate the glory of the Roman liturgy to modern culture which ultimately trivialize and banalize the Mass.Modern culture (or, to use the language of Vatican II, “the modern world”), is in itself neither good nor bad. No culture, much less the current one, carries with it an absolute value. One of the great flaws of Gaudium et spes is indeed the fact that the “modern world” is left undefined. The Apostle Paul’s admonition to “test everything, retain what is good” is valid advice for all ages and cultures, and thus, the Church must examine, probe, and discern modern culture, separating its vicissitudes from those aspects which are open to Christ’s salvific significance.Moreover, citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, the VR reminds us that “innovations should be made when the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing”, meaning that cultural adaptations of the liturgy are never arbitrary mutations to the liturgy, and that they must exhibit continuity with the received liturgical tradition.Again citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, VR articulates this point in no uncertain terms

Adaptations of the Roman rite, even in the field of inculturation, depend completely on the authority of the Church. This authority belongs to the Apostolic See, which exercises it through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; it also belongs, within the limits fixed by law, to episcopal conferences and to the diocesan bishop. “No other person, not even if he is a priest, may on his own initiative add, remove or change anything in the liturgy.” Inculturation is not left to the personal initiative of celebrants or to the collective initiative of an assembly.

The Church takes great pains to emphasize this in order to protect the liturgy from idiosyncratic novelties which are out of step with the true spirit of the liturgy. For an adaptation to be an authentic act of inculturation, it must not be unique to one priest or one parish; it must resonate with the whole culture at large. True inculturation cannot sanction practices which would separate one parish or community from its neighboring parishes, nor can it authorize acts which deform the integrity of the liturgical rite. I have already alluded to this idea in “On the stability of liturgical form“:

If the difference in liturgy from one place to another (or from week to week) is so different that the common elements are hardly discernible, how can one fittingly say that in each Mass, man enters the same mystery? When somebody imposes a personal idea on the liturgy, especially when such an idea has little or no basis in the received tradition of the Church, that person effectively breaks the communion of solidarity which unites each individual Mass with every other Mass in the world. Liturgy devolves into a personal production, when in fact the true and decisive actor in the liturgy is the Triune God himself…

So far, we have considered the first aspect of inculturation, that is, bringing the liturgy into the culture. The overemphasis on this dimension conceals a deeper malaise which ails many modern Catholics; namely, that the liturgy is somewhat of a plaything which we can adapt to ourselves. This attitude is inimical to the second dimension of inculturation, which I believe is even more important than the first. This second aspect, namely, bringing the culture into the life of the Church, is far more challenging. It is a call to continual conversion, a summons to change ourselves, that we may more consciously enter into a mystery that is ultimately received and not created by men.

Much of the contemporary conversation concerning liturgical inculturation largely ignores the fact that the Roman Rite, like every other Catholic rite, is itself a culture sui generis. It has proper linguistic, literary, artistic, theological, gestural, and intellectual qualities which cohere into a substantial unity. This rite is an expression of its own inner logic that is distinct and distinguishable from other the other Catholic rites, rooted in a vibrant and robust historical tradition.

Proper inculturation, therefore, must also involve bringing the People of God into contact with this culture by retaining the great elements of the received liturgical tradition. It is not solely a question of adapting the liturgy to ourselves, but– more importantly– of adapting ourselves to the liturgy. When the Second Vatican Council decreed that “the faithful should be able to say or sing in the Latin language those parts of the Order of Mass which pertain to them,” it did so in harmony with the Liturgical Movement begun in the 19th century and fostered by Pius X, which held that liturgical reform is first and foremost a reform of Christian souls, and only secondarily a program of ritual adaptations. This is ressourcement and instauratio in the true sense, a recovery of the ancient depth and beauty of the liturgy.Now more than ever, the Church has a need to inculturate the People of God into the ancient and venerable liturgy. The Roman liturgy, as organically developed in the Church, is an inexhaustible treasure of artistic, theological, and spiritual wealth which, unfortunately, is often obscured by an overemphasis on adapting the liturgy to local cultures. It is certainly a challenge to maintain the delicate tension between bringing the liturgy to the people and bringing people to the liturgy, but by bringing people to authentic liturgy, the Church brings people to Christ. Catholics must embrace their liturgical-ritual culture even more than their merely human cultures, for a healthy culture of worship (=cultus!) can heal the soul and bring it to life eternal.

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