1. Introduction
  2. The theory of primitive Revelation
  3. II The strategy of adaptation
  4. Inculturation
  5. A comparative Table
  6. The Oblates and inculturation


“The richness of the native heritage of the peoples of Africa can teach the universal Church new ways of Christian living.” [1]

“Being aware that the “seeds of the Word” are already present in other religions and cultures (EN, 53), our task is to enter into dialogue with them so as to discover in them those values which resonate with the Gospel.” [2]

Inculturation is a recent manifestation of new insights and practices with regard to the mission of the Church. This mission has its roots in Christ’s mission and involves a continuation of the mystery of the Incarnation in everything human, more specifically, each and every culture. Peter Charles, S.J., the great Belgian missiologist, introduced the term inculturation into the field of missiology, but he gave it the same anthropological meaning as enculturation which means the process by which one assimilates one’s own culture [3] J. Masson, S.J., was the one who, in 1964, [4] invented the expression “inculturated Catholicism”. However, we had to wait almost fifteen years for the term inculturation to be used with its present theological meaning. It seems that the first use of the term should be attributed to the 32nd Congregation of the Society of Jesus, December 1974 to April 1975. Likewise, the term seems to have been first introduced to the 1977 Synod of Bishops on catechesis by Father Peter Arrupe, the then Superior General of the Jesuits. [5] Pope John Paul II officially adopted it in his 1979 Apostolic Letter Catechesi Tradendae, and by this very fact, gave it a universal value. Since then, it has been impossible to keep track of all the books and articles that have been written on this subject, even if the term is not always understood in the same way and remains a rather fluid concept in the thinking of many.

The theory of primitive Revelation.

To get a good grasp of the new light shed on the theology of mission by the idea of inculturation, it must be compared with the strategy of adaptation [6] which it was meant to replace, and with the concept of primitive revelation [7] developed in the nineteenth century, which was based on the theory of semina Verbi of the Fathers of the Church, especially Saint Justin the Martyr, though significantly different from it. The theory is that each nation or human group retained some traces or vestiges of a primitive Revelation, that of Genesis in particular, a revelation made by God at the dawn of the human history and passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition. For this reason, missionaries strove to uncover traces of this Revelation in the peoples they went to evangelize. A fine example of this attitude is an unpublished article by Francis Le Bihan, O.M.I., who from 1859 to 1916 was a missionary, first among the Zulu and then the Basotho. In the wake of an article by Father Frédéric Porte, O.M.I., a younger confrere, entitled, “Memoirs of a Missionary in Basutoland” [8], an article he felt was too negative with regard to the religious culture of the Basotho, Father Le Bihan wrote his own “Reminiscences on the Kaffir Religion”. [9] In his conclusion, he summarizes his thought in this way: “I have spoken of the idea of God among these pagans […] From this, I deduced the issue of prayer, of future life and the immortality of the soul. I also noted the ideas surrounding the final end of man, then the enduring presence of moral truths, including the gloomy sentiment that this fall left in the spirit and in the heart. Then I ended with the dogma of Redemption”.

“In view of such a testimony, how could it be that this universal and perpetual belief did not flow from one same and unique source? How is it that a people, whom it is said the Arabs called Kaffir because of their unbelief, and who were foreign to any other nation because of their migration to the South [10], should be able by pure chance to agree on these principles of dogma and morals? Neither reason, nor emotion, nor imagination could have contributed to creations of this kind. The only way these traditions can be explained is by the fact of a revelation”.

Father Le Bihan is stating here that the moral truths and teachings that he discovered among the Zulu and Basotho [11] illustrate without a doubt that, like the other nations they were heirs of the primitive revelation offered to the human race from its very inception. That is why, he says, it is easy to preach the Gospel to the Basotho. They immediately recognize it as a truth they always believed. Father had already written at the beginning of his article: “The proof that our words find an echo here is the fact that this word brought about the conversion of a large number. This paganism that seems to be nothing more than a heap of superstitious and immoral practices [according to his young confrere], conceals some basic elements that bear the genuine stamp of an enlightenment or a knowledge left in their souls by the One who created all of us and brought us into this world. That is why when the word of the one sent by God falls upon it, it is received not as something foreign, but as if it belonged, speaking a language which is understood […] Every missionary welcomed in the midst of a people, no matter how Kaffir it might be in its beliefs and its customs [here again an allusion to his confrere’s way of speaking], should not fear that his words fall into a void. On the contrary, it falls like the water of life-giving rain upon the soil in whose depths there is a hidden seed, planted there by the hand of the Divine Creator. The work consists in removing all the undergrowth and turning over the soil”.

Father Le Bihan ends with this advice to young missionaries (he was 64 years old when he wrote this text): “In conclusion, I do dare, therefore, to offer encouragement to the young fathers. Let them have confidence in their mission. The seeds are there in the depth of souls. Their words, falling like the water of a life-giving rain, will cause the seeds to sprout, grow, bear fruit for eternal life, thus fulfilling this prophecy of Isaiah: “Lauda sterilis quae non paris; decanta laudem, et hinni, quae non pariebas: quoniam multi filii desertae magis quam ejus quae habet virum, dicit Dominus. Dilata lacum tentorii tui et pelles tabernaculorum tuorum extende, ne parcas; longos fac funiculos tuos, et clavos tuos consolida” (Isaiah 54:1-2). [12]

It would certainly be possible to find similar texts in the writings of a number of Oblate missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. But the one we quoted here will suffice for our purposes.

Today, with the theory of inculturation, we no longer speak in the same way. First of all, we no longer understand Genesis as the historical narrative of a revelation given to the first human couple, a revelation transmitted by oral tradition from generation to generation to our day while becoming partially vitiated in the course of the ages. [13] We speak more of the divine presence among the nations in the course of their history and of the action of the Holy Spirit active among them from the beginning. For example, the 1986 General Chapter expressed its conviction that “we can recognize God’s Spirit working within people of differing beliefs and cultures. In this dialogue with them we are certain that we shall encounter God.” [14] That is why today we believe it is possible for the missionary to discover the traces of this presence and this action in the culture of the people to whom he is sent. In this sense, when he arrives among his adoptive people, the missionary does not come to bring Christ, but he comes to reveal Him as being already present and active from the very beginning. Consequently, the culture of a people is not lacking in kinship to the Gospel, even if it can appear to be very different at first blush because of the language and the symbols it uses, language and symbols that do not correspond to those of the Gospel as found in the Bible. The Scriptures trace their origins to languages and cultural milieus of another age, those of the Middle East of several thousand years ago. In spite of this disjuncture, Mateo Ricci was able to establish a link between the Gospel and the culture of the Confucian Chinese of the sixteenth century, as did Roberto de Nobili with that of the Brahman Indians. We believe we can do the same thing today with the contemporary cultures of our world.

But we have rushed things a bit. Because, before the theory of inculturation came to prominence, it was the theory of adaptation which ruled. What are the main characteristics of this theory and why was it not yet inculturation?

The strategy of adaptation.

It really seems that at the origins of Christianity, the Christian faith never existed without being assimilated into the culture of those who accepted it. In the churches of Paul, the Jews and the Greeks were able to feel completely at home. The Gospel of Jesus Christ as well was written according to four different cultural situations in the New Testament. These are the four Gospels we know. However, after Constantine, when what until that time was called religio illicita became the state religion, Christianity became the vehicle for a culture, the culture of Rome. [15] The missionary movement from the civilized world to that of the Barbarians, that is to say, from a superior culture to inferior cultures, was to bring them into subjection, if not suppress them. [16]

During the last few centuries, western colonialism with its attitude of cultural superiority had its impact on the missionary endeavor. We went to evangelize primitive peoples and, because of this language and this outlook, the concomitant objective was to civilize them. For example, in his instruction on foreign missions, [17] Bishop de Mazenod divided what were then known as foreign missions into two groups: civilized heretical countries and uncivilized pagan countries: “The Congregation accepts missions both in heretical countries and in pagan countries. In the former, we are dealing with an educated and already civilized population; in the latter, the milieu is generally rough, uncivilized, with little or no knowledge of the basic idea of religion” (p. 6).

Further on, in the second part of the instruction entitled, “Directory for Foreign Missions,” he adds: “[…] Far from considering the work of educating savages [18] in the rudiments of social life as being foreign to their work, on the contrary, the members of the Society will look upon this as an excellent means of contributing to the good of the mission and of making their apostolate more fruitful. That is why they will leave nothing undone to bring the nomadic tribes to give up their life of wandering [19] and find places to settle where they will learn to build houses, cultivate the land and learn the basic arts of civilization. […]”

“To the Christian and social education of savage tribes, the missionaries will unite their concern for progress, even material progress, of their flock. They will, therefore, be formed to maintain peaceful relationships with their neighboring tribes, to maintain harmony among themselves, protect unity in the homes, and finally, through work and wisdom, develop the habit of maintaining and even increasing the family savings” (p. 13).

Western Christians were not aware of the cultural limitations of their theology. They believed their theology to be above culture and universally valid. They thought that theirs was a Christian culture and identified with their faith. Consequently, it was fully exportable along with their Christian faith since the two were indistinguishably one. It must, however, be noted that Bishop de Mazenod, in the previously quoted document, asked his missionaries “to apply themselves to the study of the sciences most suitable to their vocation,” [20] an approach which proved its worth in particular in Lesotho. This latter point refers to visiting the villages and families: “[…] The missionaries, since they are to be at the service of everyone, will travel from place to place to visit the families and tribes and to offer the benefits of religion to the most neglected souls”. [21]

However, little by little, they grasped the fact that to foster and favor conversions they would have to make certain adjustments. This was called the strategy of adaptation. In the process of evangelization, it was necessary to accept certain elements that were not in contradiction with the Gospel.

After having stated that “never before have we talked so much about adaptation […] as we have in the last ten years,” Father Albert Perbal, O.M.I., described it this way in a 1936 article: “There lies the whole principle of adaptation. To offend the least possible, to treat with respectful tact everything which contains a legitimate value, to carefully keep that which is not in contradiction with the rules of supernatural life, that which will never jeopardize the solid make up of a society living the Gospel, to love that which is typical of a people, to accept that they have the right to remain as God has made them, that is what the pioneers easily understood; that is what the Propaganda, in its marvelous conception of the apostolate has never ceased to recommend to all the missionaries.”

“We will limit ourselves to quoting this passage from a 1659 Instruction, almost at the time of the Propaganda’s foundation. “Since it is in peoples’ nature to prefer what they have long possessed, to hold in high regard and love above all what makes up their nationality, nothing is more irritating, nothing raises their ire, nothing makes the foreigner hated and rejected more than to see him try to change their traditional customs, to overthrow what their ancestors have built up, especially when they notice that these destructive moves have as their goal the introduction of European customs to replace those they considered hallowed by time-honored memory.” [22]

Moreover, most of the time, it was only a question of incidentals such as liturgical vestments, artistic expressions, music, etc. This missionary movement encompassed the following characteristics:

– There was absolutely no question of changing the western (Roman) theological idea which was considered universal and immutable.

– It was a question of a concession to Christians of other cultures such as those in the Third World. Adaptation was a problem for the young churches. In the Western world, adaptation was an accomplished fact, so they thought. Their culture was Christian.

– The young churches were therefore allowed to use certain elements of their culture in the expression and practice of their faith.

– But the only elements allowed were those that were indifferent or naturally good.

– Cultures were not considered as indivisible wholes, but rather as a collection of elements independent one from the other that could be isolated or brought together at will without doing them violence in any way.

– It was likewise a marginal activity. The core was distinguished from the bark. Adaptation dealt only with the external trappings, the outer surface of the deposit of faith and not the faith itself.

But a new awareness of the relativity of each culture, especially of western culture, began to develop little by little. The coming of age of the young churches which sometimes accompanied and sometimes lead the way (in Lesotho, for example), the independence movements in the Third World, made people aware that the Gospel can be lived in many ways. Benedict XV’s Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud (1919), even if it was far from speaking of inculturation, was strongly opposed to any kind of domination by the Catholic missionaries, and the Pope strongly requested that they avoid any manner of operating which would make them the instruments of the colonial policies of their countries of origin. He asked as well that the mission churches should no longer be considered as colonies under foreign dominance and strongly recommended the formation of a local clergy that was capable not only of working under the guidance of missionaries, but also of taking the responsibility for governing their own people. [23] Rerum Ecclesiae (1926) by Pius XI and Evangelii Praecones (1951) by Pius XII went even further in this direction and local hierarchies were set up little by little in Africa and Asia. [24] But it is really only in the time of Pius XII’s letter that adaptation began to enjoy a general consensus even if the ultimate goal was still to set up a monolithic Catholic or Christian culture. [25]

After Vatican II and because of this Council, even if the churches of the Third World had played a rather secondary role at it, a change took place in missionary thinking and practice in spite of the fact that the term adaptation continued to be used. [26] People became more and more aware of the point of view and the development of the young churches, especially at the Roman synods of bishops where a growing number of participants from the Third World made their voices heard. This was especially evident in the 1974 Synod on evangelization where Africa made an important impact with its idea of “incarnation” which was already the harbinger of the term inculturation, though it did not explicitly use this term. But what do we really mean by inculturation and what is so novel in this new missionary approach?


First of all, a brief definition: “Inculturation is the unwritten response of a given culture to the first proclamation of the Gospel and subsequently to ongoing evangelization”. [27]

A second definition, which is the transposition of the anthropological definition of the term transculturation, [28]the normal evolutionary process of a living culture, reads as follows: “Inculturation is the internal evolutionary process of a culture in response to the proclamation of the Gospel, with the Gospel working upon the culture as an internal agent guiding the process”.

These definitions indicate that inculturation does not necessarily imply a violent clash of the Gospel with a particular culture. Quite the contrary, it can be a peaceful process where Gospel and culture come into contact in a dynamic and fruitful way. [29] That is not to say that painful moments may not be experienced at one point or other of the process. For this reason, inculturation theologians label this as kenosis patterned after the kenosis of Christ. But culture must be understood as the product – at least in part – of the action of the Holy Spirit in a people to whom God has always been present from the time of their coming into being. From this perspective, we cannot view culture as necessarily opposed to the Gospel. At the same time, to say this does not mean that culture and the Gospel are identical. The dynamics of a culture, its symbolism and its content can be very different. But even there, that is not saying that it is evil or false for all that and that it is in opposition to the Gospel. To be different does not necessarily mean opposition or contradiction. Trying to discover and perceive similarities to the Gospel in a culture can prove useful in an initial proclamation of the Gospel, in view of anchoring the Gospel to the values, symbols and profound expectations of the people being evangelized. But we cannot reduce a culture to the possible similarities it could have with the Gospel, and inculturation cannot be reduced to simply adopting those cultural elements which resemble Gospels elements. Such a process would do violence to the culture, and indeed, destroy it as an integral organic whole. This would not be inculturation, it would still be adaptation.

Pope John Paul II seems to imply that cultures can contribute something to the Gospel when he says that, thanks to inculturation, the Church recognizes and expresses in a better way the mystery of Christ. [30] In order for that to happen, it really seems that culture would have to contribute something authentic and new which is not or is not yet expressed by the Gospel. Should we, then, say that cultures complement what is lacking in the Gospel, somewhat like Saint Paul who completes in his flesh that which is lacking in the passion of Christ? What is certain is that we do not yet understand, that we are far from grasping all the consequences and implications of inculturation.

Consequently, when we speak of inculturation, we need to have an adequate anthropological definition of culture, a definition that is comprehensive and all-encompassing. For culture does not consist only in the accidental and superficial elements belonging to a given people, for example, their dress, their food, even though these too are part of culture. Culture is not even exclusively the artistic expression of a people, as the term is often commonly understood. Culture is the way a more or less homogeneous group of humans [31] have of perceiving, understanding, expressing, living the reality (which they are and which surrounds them) and experiencing it. This reality includes the world of nature and the universe, human beings and the world of the transcendent. Such a definition leaves nothing out. It includes language, thought, the entire symbolic system, social and political organization, economics and especially religion which, in the mission sciences, is one of the most important aspects or which is of major concern for these sciences. Culture embraces the whole human reality and it is only when it is understood in this way that we can truly speak of inculturation.

To understand well what new contribution the idea of inculturation makes in missionary thought and practice, we need to compare it to the theory of adaptation which preceded it. Here are their most outstanding characteristics:

1. First of all, they differ in the agent involved. In the case of adaptation, the missionary (most of the time a Westerner) was obliged to instigate or guide with a benevolent hand the encounter between Christian faith and local cultures. The process was unilateral in the sense that the local community was not the main mover. For inculturation, the main mover is the group of people who is the recipient of the Gospel and is integrating it through the action of the Holy Spirit, [32] patterned on the Incarnation where the agent is the Holy Spirit with the collaboration of the Virgin Mary. It is not the missionary, nor the hierarchy, nor the magisterium which control the process. That does not mean that the missionary has no role to play. Quite the contrary is true; he is the essential condition for inculturation. He must proclaim the Gospel, otherwise it could not become incarnate in the new people who receive it. The missionary is the sower. His role is essential. Without him, nothing would happen. He must plant the seed. But it is not he who makes the seed sprout and grow; he is not the effective agent of inculturation.

2. Inculturation focuses on the local situation, on the birth of a local individual church. The Church, one and universal, exists only in the individual churches. So it is not a case of establishing the Church brought from some place else by the missionary, but to bring about the birth of the local church of each people, a localized and individualized church. The theory of adaptation spoke of implantation, with only some possibility of adopting certain local accidental characteristics. Inculturation embraces the whole cultural context in the broadest sense of the word: language, symbolism, the world of imagination, the religious dimension, education, social life, etc. We should refer to the definition of culture given above.

3. As was already implied, inculturation is not only based on the Incarnation as its model, it is its continuation. The incarnational dimension of the Gospel, which is identified with Jesus Christ, incarnates, incorporates itself in the people and their culture. This is an ongoing incarnation, not so much of the Church which spreads and grows as of a new church being born.

4. Inculturation is a process with a two-fold movement: There is simultaneously inculturation of the Gospel and evangelization of the culture. The Gospel remains Good News while it becomes a cultural phenomenon adopting and integrating the system of meaning of the culture in question. At the same time, it gives this culture “the knowledge of the divine mystery” while allowing it to bring to Christian life from its own living traditions, some original expressions that the Gospel has not yet expressed. It is in this that we can see how inculturation goes far beyond the metaphor of the core and the bark used in the theory of adaptation. A more adequate metaphor is that of the seed cast into the earth of a particular culture; it sprouts, grows, flowers and bears fruit.

5. Just as culture is a reality which encompasses everything and makes up an indivisible whole, so it is with inculturation. Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi still spoke of “certain elements of human culture” (art. 20). We now recognize that it is impossible to isolate cultural elements and customs and christianize them. When the encounter between the Gospel and a given culture remains at this level, the meaning of the encounter is diminished. It is only when the encounter is all encompassing that culture can renew itself from the inside. [33]


Adaptation Inculturation

Prime mover of the process

The missionary or the Church who sends

Local Christian community under the inspiration and impulse of the Holy Spirit

Objective of the process

Establishment of the local Church as an extension of the universal Church

Birth of a local Church with distinct local characteristics

The way the process operates

Spread of the universal Church

Integration into the local culture

Level of application of the process

Accidental, limited to certain neutral and naturally good cultural elements

Assimilation of culture as an organic and indivisible whole

Justification of the process

A concession and privilege granted to a “mission” Church

A need and a right to express one’s faith in one’s own culture

Beneficiaries of the process

The young Churches

Every Christian cultural community

The focus

Unity with a certain tolerance of diversity

Unity in diversity

Preferred approach

Good will and practical sense of the missionary

Dialogue of the Gospel and local culture

The Oblates and inculturation

1. As missionaries, inculturation does concern the Oblates, but not as agents, since the missionary as such is not able to act directly on the process of inculturation. [35] The fact of belonging to a culture different from that of the people we are called to evangelize deprives us of the ability to intervene directly in the process of inculturation. What concerns the missionary first and foremost on a personal level is acculturation, the process by which someone moves toward (ac-culturation, from ad, towards) another culture and strives to understand and assimilate it. That is precisely the situation of a missionary involved in the mission ad extra. Since he does not belong to the culture of the people he is called to evangelize, the missionary must meet this culture and assimilate it as much as is possible, but he never succeeds perfectly in doing this. Because he cannot live this culture, he cannot interiorize it as perfectly as he lives and has interiorized his own culture, by osmosis so to speak, by being born into a given family and group and by growing up in them. The culture of his adoptive people will always be something external to him, something he acquired as set in contrast with his own culture because the knowledge he has of it remains indirect and rational (achieved through reasoning) and not experiential like that of his own culture.

In this sense, even if in his time Bishop de Mazenod could not have conceived of inculturation, he did have a deep concern for acculturation, without knowing what to call it, and exhorted his missionaries to acquire a thorough knowledge of the people they were to evangelize. We know how he preached in Provençal to communicate with the humble folk of his little corner of France and to enable them to better understand the Gospel. We also know how he demanded that his Oblate missionaries “make every effort […] to learn as soon as possible the languages it is necessary to know in that country”. [36] He wrote to Father Stephen Semeria in Ceylon: “Insist firmly that our missionaries learn the languages. This is an indispensable duty for them, and you yourself must apply yourself to it. See what advantages the Jesuit Fathers gain by doing this.” [37] Bishop de Mazenod gives equal emphasis to visiting the people as we indicated above. He did so himself when he preached missions. Visiting families was the first task he took on in the first days [of a mission]. That is what he recommended to Bishop Jean-François Allard whom he found did not move around enough: “I would be pleased to see you going out and surveying your territory a little. Missionary bishops do not fix themselves in one residence never to leave it. You should build up relations with your Kaffirs to whom you have essentially been sent.” [38] The 1986 Chapter also expressed itself in this way: To “establish Christian communities rooted in the local culture” (C. 7), Oblates have to be “very close to the people with whom they work” (C. 8). In communion with them and with an attitude of profound respect, we shall discover new aspects of the inexhaustible riches of God in the hearts of the people, in their history and religions. “We shall let our lives be enriched…” and thus we shall hear “in new ways the Gospel that we proclaim” (R 8) [R 8a in CCRR 2000]. [39]

2. The missionary’s second task is one of translation, translation of the Gospel into the language and thought patterns of his adopted people. But this remains more or less accurate and imperfect until the people being evangelized assimilate the missionary’s proclamation and express it in their own idiom and way of thinking. It is only at this stage that the missionary finally knows how he should have translated the Gospel. I can give personal testimony to this from my experience as a missionary in Africa. Since the end of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the ecclesial Sesotho language that the French and Canadian missionaries had helped create developed very rapidly from the time when some Basotho took part in the task of translating the Bible and the liturgical texts. We were often faced with astonishing surprises which compelled our admiration in spite of all the efforts we had expended previously.

3. And this points to the missionary’s third task, that of discerning whether inculturation has really taken place and been carried out as it ought. Obviously, this discernment cannot be done alone. It must be done in dialogue with those who have accepted the Gospel, assimilated it, let themselves be transformed by it. Because, ideally, the results of inculturation must be consistent, must be totally evangelical and totally of the culture of those who have accepted the Gospel.