Crossing the Limits of Inculturation?

Crux has the story of a Spanish bishop apologizing for a priest allowing an image of the Hindu diety Ganesh to be brought into a Catholic church and lauded with a Marian hymn.

One interesting aspect of the story is that the initiative apparently came from the Catholic side; the Hindus, who were celebrating a feast of Ganesh, initially planned to simply stop at the front of the church and leave an offering of flowers. It was apparently the Catholic priest who had them come into the Church, bring the statue of Ganesh before the altar, and have the Marian hymn sung.

From a Hindu perspective, such syncretism makes sense: Mary might be seen as an avatar of Ganesh. But from a Catholic position it makes little sense: Mary is a human creature, not a divine avatar. So it is ironic that the Hindus set out to be more respectful of Catholic theology than the Catholics themselves were.

Perhaps this is a reminder that, in the encounter of cultures, enthusiasm for openness and toleration must be balanced with a certain sobriety and concern for theological and liturgical integrity.


  1. “Crossing the limits of inculturation” is, I suppose, one possible modern euphemism for actively encouraging the proactive violation of the First Commandment, and engaging in blasphemous idolatry. Or, at the very least, giving the hyperdulia due to the most blessed and immaculate Theotokos, to an elephant-headed demon instead (cf. Ps 95:5 LXX).

    1. Amen.
      There’s a reason why inculturation was left to the discretion of the Bishop’s Confrences. I hope the bishop makes this priest publicly repent and renounce syncretism, sacrilege, and blasphemy during the church’s reconsecration.

  2. I believe that the missionaries who had first contact with the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico and Central America did this sort of inculturation swaparama – the local goddess(es), especially agrarian/fertility ones, were re-identified with Mary.

    Wasn’t a function of the communion of saints to be a substitute for the pagan pantheons of Carolingian-era Europe? I’m having some recollection of encountering that as well in Church history courses.

    Of course, all of this was part of the larger-scale supplanting “My God can kick your god’s behind” mindset of the missionaries. (As Sarah Vowell says: “Missionaries are people who show up uninvited to tell you that you’re wrong.”) Not so sure this same methodology works as well in a 21st century global religions awareness.

    It’s not an out-and-out violation of the 1st commandment, since Mary is not a deity. But the underlying dynamic or principle sure seems similar.

  3. Regarding: “It was apparently the Catholic priest who had them come into the Church, bring the statue of Ganesh before the altar, and have the Marian hymn sung.”
    – If expressing hospitality was hoped for end, then perhaps the congregation would have met the Hindu faithful in the narthex of the church. Then all, maybe, would have repaired to the church’s community room, were there one, for a collation; no doubt vegetarian based.

  4. I admit my first reaction was similar to Tom Bako’s – this is simply wrong. I believe we have to hold that and say that at some level.

    Where I differ with him, though, and even more with Steve Hartley, is in tone: our orthodox response has to be wise, judicious, constructive, and loving. Faithful Christians always have to take into account the era they live in and how their words will be heard by others in a given context.

    Our context is that lots and lots of people think we Christians, we Catholics are narrow-minded, arrogant, judgmental, mean-spirited, awful people. So we have to be careful – more than in other cultural contexts in past eras – to de-fang that impression in our manner of remaining orthodox. I’m not saying anyone on this site is those things. I am saying, though, that all of us, me included, have to work extra hard to make sure we make clear that we’re not that.

    We also have to take into account – unlike our forebears in the Patristic or medieval or Tridentine era – the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, with a new emphasis on respect for other world religions. This is now part of our orthodox, Catholic faith.

    Our challenge is to be totally rooted in our convictions and faithful to them, but always with a starting and ending point of love. Minus that – and you can have all the orthodoxy in the world but count me out and I want nothing to do with it. I mean that. It’s repulsive and it makes even me think that maybe organized religion really is a bad idea.


    1. Agreed on these points. Let me also add the priest’s approach strikes me as rooted in something of a superiority, noting that he was the agent who “controlled” the encounter, apparently not bothering to collaborate on a shared meal or a shared act of charity for two communities. That kind of stuff is best handled by lay people. Perhaps the laity were disengaged from the possibility, but still: it’s a pastor’s job to make sure his people get that done. not to do it himself.

      Ganesha is hardly a demon. If that god’s thing is good fortune, I suppose the self-styled orthodox would have to be a little more vocal about criticizing things like gambling, the prosperity gospel, Powerball, bingo, and the seemingly “innocent” devotions and superstitions of the First World toward power, cash, and even Saint Jude and such.

      “Minus that – and you can have all the orthodoxy in the world but count me out and I want nothing to do with it.” Agreed.

      1. I was also puzzled about the reference to Ganesha as a “demon” – – after refreshing my memory a bit, I’m still puzzled. Unless the intent was that any deity whatsoever from any non-(Judeo-)Christian religion is automatically categorized as a demon. The disrespect to another faith tradition aside, it seems to be just willful ignorance.

        Singing the Marian hymn to Ganesha also puzzled me – if it had been a statue of Agni, the fire goddess (listen to Holst’s “To Agni” on youtube – it’s a great piece of music!), I might have understood. It’s no accident that Ganesha is portrayed as an elephant, usually with a large (ahem) trunk.

        This just seems to have been a scrambled encounter all around.

      2. [Vg] Ps 95:4-5 – “Quoniam magnus Dominus, et laudabilis nimis; terribilis est super omnes deos; quoniam omnes dii gentium daemonia; Dominus autem caelos fecit.”

        The NAB has chosen “idols” where Jerome opted for “demons,” but there are some more passages to contend with.

        Deut 32:15-17:
        “They forsook the God who made them and scorned the Rock of their salvation. With strange gods they incited him, with abominations provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons, to “no-gods,” to gods they had never known, Newcomers from afar, before whom your ancestors had never trembled.”

        1 Cor 10:19-20:
        “So what am I saying? That meat sacrificed to idols is anything? Or that an idol is anything? No, I mean that what they sacrifice, [they sacrifice] to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to become participants with demons.”

        One might complicate this a bit by asserting that the gods are non-existent in se but that demons masquerade as the gods to draw humans away from the true God. But whether in this fashion or by simple equivalence, I had been under the impression that the identification of pagan gods with demons was a Christian commonplace.

  5. “I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.” — St. Teresa of Calcutta

  6. It’s probably best to just share a meal and leave the “shared worship” out. Food is the great equalizer!

  7. Hindus are a God-loving and nature-respecting people. Their ability to love, forgive and build bridges keeps on taking them to every nook and corner of the known world. Strong family bonds and their commitment to networking in community, continues to be the backbone of their way of proceeding.

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