Inculturation anyway

On vacation in a western state last week, at Mass with my family, I was struck by the way in which liturgical inculturation takes place whether we like it or not. The homily at this Mass — which I suspect was inspired by SCOTUS’s recent DOMA decision, though gay marriage got only a passing mention — was on the need for Christians to be countercultural and for the Church to resist calls to “update” itself or “get with the times.” Rather, disciples of Jesus are called to let their faith shape their identity, not the culture; they should not try to fit in, but to stand out.

It struck me as a bracing and challenging, if somewhat un-nuanced, message, though I wished examples had been drawn from across the American political spectrum of cultural forces that were contrary to the Gospel. But what also struck me was the way in which the liturgical context of this homily was thoroughly adapted to American cultural sensibilities. The presidential style was fairly folksy — the homilist eschewing the ambo and preaching from the center aisle, the interjection of humorous ad libs at various places, etc. The music was entirely in the contemporary idiom and performed in a notably “pop” style (this was commented on by my wife and kids, so it wasn’t just grumpy old me). The building was modern in both style and layout (the formerly ubiquitous “fan” shape).

None of this was particularly bad. The architecture was actually pretty good; the music wasn’t my thing, but the congregation joined in with something approaching gusto; the presider’s folksiness seemed to draw the people into the Eucharistic action rather than draw attention to himself.

But I found myself wondering if the priest who was preaching such a rigorous counter-cultural message was himself aware of the rather thoroughgoing inculturation that the liturgy he was celebrating had undergone. Had he drawn for himself a distinction between cultural accommodation in doctrine and morals and inculturation in liturgy, rejecting the former while affirming the latter? Is such a distinction even tenable? Or is it the case the inculturation of doctrine, morals and liturgy is simply inevitable? Is it the case that even if we are trying to be countercultural, it happens anyway?

The state I was visiting has a long-standing problem with wildfires. For years, the policy was to prevent them entirely (remember Smokey the Bear?). But it eventually became clear that wildfires happen anyway, and that if they are suppressed too long the result is a fire that is far more destructive than otherwise, because so much flammable material had accumulated that it becomes impossible to stop the fire from destroying human life and property. So now the policy is to let some wildfires burn, and even occasionally to have a “controlled burn” in favorable weather conditions to reduce the possibility of a more destructive fire at another time.

The analogy is obvious. Maybe inculturation, like a wildfire, is not something to be either recklessly promoted or totally resisted, but rather something that happens anyway, something to be monitored and, when opportune, promoted in a controlled way and, when inopportune and even dangerous to the life of faith, suppressed (perhaps Rita’s recent post on the threat posed to Sunday by American culture might be an example). Of course, then the debate becomes one of how to discern the inopportune time from the opportune (for example, are Saturday anticipated Masses the beginning of uncontrolled destruction or rather a “controlled burn”).

But that is a much more interesting and realistic debate than one over whether we should prevent or promote something that happens anyway.


  1. All the research indicates that our culture is shaped nationally rather than locally largely by the huge amount of media. When women (18-64) watch TV an average of 15.0 hours a week, and men (18-64) watch it an average of 17.3 hours a week, it is far more likely that the TV media is shaping our Sunday liturgies than that our Sunday liturgies are shaping our approach to the culture around us.

    See my Television, Time Use, Lent, and the Divine Office

    Summary of US diary studies: Total leisure hours from 1965 to 1995, persons aged 18-64:

    For women, leisure time rose by 4.7 hours from 34.0 hours per week in 1965 to 38.7 hours per week in 1995.

    For men, leisure time rose by 7.9 hours from 35.7 to 43.6 hours per week during the same time period.

    Much leisure time was channeled into television viewing. TV time rose by 5.7 hours from 9.3 hours per week to 15.0 hours per week for women; it rose by 5.4 hours from 11.9 to 17.3 hours for men.

    Increased television time not only absorbed time freed up from paid and unpaid work it reduced the number of hours spent socializing, reading and listening to stereo.

    Hobbies, fitness and sport time did increase, but not nearly as much as television. Religion time stayed constant.

    Sunday liturgies in most parishes are pretty bland and boring much like TV, except that we sit on pews rather than couches.

    Several years ago when I asked myself why I so readily accepted “folk” music into the liturgy, I concluded that it was because I had come to accept the idea in the media that we should have top 40 music hits, i.e. that our music should be constantly changing.

    I am always amused when preachers begin to talk about being “counter-cultural” especially since I cannot recall any of them suggesting that we give up the 15 plus hours devoted to our TV god.

    I particularly think it is interesting that the “counter-cultural” preachers seem to blame everything that has gone wrong with America in the last half century on anything else but TV. However the rise in TV time is certainly one of the biggest changes that has taken place, and Putnam’s careful research in BOWLING ALONE placed the blame in the decline of “community” largely on TV.

  2. If one is to truly preach the Gospel, he/she will necessarily be countercultural. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, takes everything most societies and cultures (especially ours) have held as prime values and turned them all completely upside down.
    Faith doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is always mediated and lived with a certain cultural “dressing” and is expressed liturgically, pastorally, educationally, i.e., in every aspect of one’s faith life. Some cultures may emphasize some aspects of the faith over others (without ever denying them), but that just contributes to a healthy kind of ‘theological pluralism” as understood by Paul VI: Looking at the truths of our faith and expressing them from different perspectives. It’s the old image of the body– it isn’t all eye or all ear, etc. but working together makes a healthy organism. Like society should be, the church is not a mleting pot (wherein individual identity is lost) but rather a mosaic where there is a unity among differences.

  3. Deacon – that experience could be mine in West Texas July 4th holiday. Would suggest that the *counter-cultural* homily was, in fact, *cultural* – fit in perfectly with the current narrow Republican influenced catholicism you find among some clergy and in many small, rural, and Western states. Counter-cultural for my family’s community would be to preach the *inclusiveness* and inherent *invitation* and *welcoming* of the Jesus to rural communities that are influenced by nativism, afraid of immigrants, do not understand or resent the appropriate role of givenrment (local, state, federal); fear homosexuality; we could go on.

  4. Does anyone know of any study on Roman Catholics in the U.S. explicitly imitating the practices of conservative evangelicals in terms of preaching , music, rhetoric, etc?
    I think that, a certain Republican-rite Catholicism has emerged. I don’t really care for it…

  5. It’s important to remember that priests sometimes must preach on a certain topic, especially if a hierarch or national episcopal council has issued a letter. The priest might not agree with what he has to say. Many in the assembly likewise might not agree. I find it worrisome that the circle of anathema has spread to include not just medical devices, procedures, or pharmaceuticals, but also personal identities (even if this is not explicit in some bishops’ condemnation of the recent SCOTUS decision on DOMA etc.). When sermons get abusive, shoes are made for walking. I should make sure mine have sufficient tread.


    As many on PTB know, many eras of Church liturgical history have drawn upon popular music for inspiration. For that reason, it’s difficult to reject the Praise and Worship genre out of hand. My main concern with P&W and other pop music hymnody styles is the way in which the explicit pop influence blurs the distinction between the workaday world and the merger of the temporal and eternal in the Mass. Contemporary metrical hymns are a more ideal medium for worship given that their musical structure does not purposefully derive from a Top 40 track.

    In all fairness, I do not consider the liberal use of orchestral pieces or polyphony suitable for EF Masses for somewhat similar reasons. It’s true that the opera, for example, is no longer popular entertainment. Even so, one might say that the use of Enlightenment era “classical” liturgical compositions places an undue focus on performance and performers, rather than the unfolding of liturgical action.

    Certainly, plainsong is ideal for both forms. I respect that the Church now permits other musical expressions in the ordinary rite. However, if people attend a certain church “because the band is really good”, the pastor and the leaders of the parish should take heed.

      1. @Mike Burns – comment #7:

        As a protest song, “All Are Welcome” fits the bill well. I’ll remember to sit near the pulpit that Sunday. My singing voice is especially poor in an irritating way.

  6. I am not sure that I would describe this as inculturation but more as trendiness that is becoming quite stale. Unfortunately most who attend Mass like this are not equipped to critique it for what it is.

  7. >>But I found myself wondering if the priest who was preaching such a rigorous counter-cultural message was himself aware of the rather thoroughgoing inculturation that the liturgy he was celebrating had undergone.


  8. “All are welcome”, and by “all” we really mean: people who prefer a post-1970s semi-enculturated liturgical praxis but who also hold to the strictest interpretation of Catholic sexual morality as it specifically applies to civil authorities regulating non-religious legal practices and the federal tax code.

    That must be a vanishingly small population.

  9. The song All Are Welcome is a favorite in the repertoire of a great many parishes including the one I serve. I have never understood the attempts to vilify this song. It is a song that celebrates the universal call to holiness. It’s lyrics in no way imply that the all who are welcome are exempt from repentance. I wish more people would speak up for this powerful song.

      1. @David Haas – comment #15:
        You have been around a long time. I think it is quite naive of you to think those words are always true. As someone who I think writes music that is inclusive, you know there are those who are not around the table with us. They don’t feel welcome. This is evidenced in the huge absence of 18-34 yr olds. Granted they are absent for various reasons. Some of these people are preached against as mentioned in the deacon’s orginal post. There is nothing wrong with the song.
        However, we must always examine what we do and say at Liturgy so that it indeed is true to what we do and say!

      2. @Mike Burns – comment #18:

        You have been around a long time. I think it is quite naive of you to think those words are always true. As someone who I think writes music that is inclusive, you know there are those who are not around the table with us. They don’t feel welcome. This is evidenced in the huge absence of 18-34 yr olds.

        I think we’re all agreed that we need to be inclusive in the proper sense – the Church is for everyone. As Oscar Wilde put it: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican church will do.” Or: Here Comes Everybody.

        The difficulty is that some Christians (not just Catholics), no doubt well meaning, feel that this must extend to something more than just evangelizing or being welcoming. It’s one thing to say: We want you here even if you have had an abortion. It’s another to say: Abortion is your choice, we won’t judge that. Deep down, I believe people want to be felt included, but they also want a religion that makes demands on them.

        Why aren’t young people in the Church? Well, I think some are, and I certainly know plenty. I think it varies according to where you are. In the aggregate, we know what the national surveys say, regardless of what our own parish or circle looks like. But I think most of these lapsed Catholics likely were never in the Church in the first place. Their parents’ Catholicism had been ephemeral anyway, and now they’re another generation removed from a Catholicism that was bone deep in a household. I feel strongly, from personal experience, that things like LifeTeen are not the answer. Young people know when they’re being pandered to.

        “All Are Welcome” is too touchy-feely, too therapeutic, too treacly for me. Yes, I know some people seem to want that. I just have to think there are better ways of making the Stranger feel welcome.

      3. @Richard Malcolm – comment #21:

        It’s one thing to say: We want you here even if you have had an abortion. It’s another to say: Abortion is your choice, we won’t judge that.

        Richard, neither you or I have any need or right to objectify women who have had abortions. Jesus’ encounters with the “stranger” always restore and strengthen human dignity. The “for many” of the Mass is not abstract or notional, but rather the radical message of the atonement: all persons are not just dignified but offered eternal life in Christ. Is it not better to reflect our Lord and extend an unconditional dignity to all rather than nail preconceived ideas onto straw arguments? The statement you have made is a double objectification: either attend Mass and be objectified, or prejudge and objectify as reprobate those who are perceived as accomplices to evil.

        Certainly, objectification is also in many cases projection. I remember a priest who delivered an apoplectic and abusive sermon the Sunday after the passage of same-sex marriage here in Connecticut. Again, wear comfortable shoes just in case. Because of human frailty, instruction on moral theology inevitably requires the objectification of Others. The alternative strives to emulate the radical inclusiveness of Christ’s atonement, but our dimmed reason cannot truly and fully comprehend death in Christ. Sadly, the temptation towards a particularly malignant objectification, combined with the self-anger of objectifiers, turns persons away from the universal call for salvation contained within every Mass.

  10. “All Are Welcome,” because of its lyrics, naturally comes off as ironic and mean when experienced by someone who wasn’t welcomed by those singing it. Then it becomes All Are Welcome Except Me.

    I never cared for the song myself, it’s like an after school special in hymn form. Now it reminds me of the parish that drove out us EF folks. They loved singing it.

  11. I attended Mass at the cathedral in the major American city where I live. The rector preached a very tiresome homily on religious liberty, which was in the context of the mandatory contraception debate. Not only was the homily about 25-minutes too long (it lasted 30 minutes!), I wondered how it related to the majority-minority congregation. I have not returned.

  12. Had he drawn for himself a distinction between cultural accommodation in doctrine and morals and inculturation in liturgy, rejecting the former while affirming the latter?

    In fact, you could argue that this is, with a few nuances here and there, the John Paul II/Francis approach.

    While not a traditionalist, Benedict XVI obviously had more reservations about the project.

    Is such a distinction even tenable?

    In the long run – I have very considerable doubts. Not just for the reasons that Jordan gives for his skepticism about P&W and pop music, but something more basic: lex orandi, lex credendi. (Which leaves me wondering what the Latin might best be for “folksy chatter.”)

    But what that means for what the Church in America looks like in 25 or 50 years – it’s harder to say.

  13. Helpful to remember that Jesus welcomed everybody but noone who allowed Jesus to enter into his/her life remained unchanged. Yes, Jesus welcomes all but if we walk away from Jesus unchanged, then we haven’t really welcomed him.

  14. When I was a seminarian years ago, our basic “Ancient and Medieval Church History” course was structured in a very interesting manner. Each week the professor would cover one particular era in two separate ways. On Tuesdays, he would describe how the church influenced the culture during that era, and on Fridays he turned it around to lay out how the culture influenced the church. Not only did he make ancient history come alive, but demonstrated vividly how the church and the world influence one another — often simultaneously.

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