Wednesday, January 4, 2023
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Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)

n an exclusive interview in 1985, on the state of the Church in the world, with the renowned journalist and author, Vittorio Messori, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI), was asked the following questions about Africa, African theology, culture and the Church in the continent:

"Many people in the Third World, and above all in Africa, are urgently asking: 'How can Christianity become an expression of our faith? How can it fully and completely enter into our own identity? How binding is the cultural expression it has exhibited hitherto? To what extent can we, in a sense, speak of beginning our Christian history again? And could not our Old Testament be not so much the history of the Jewish people as the suffering history and its traditional forms?'" ("The Ratzinger Report" (Edited by Vittorio Messori), Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1985, pp. 192-193.)

In his answers to these questions, which according to the interviewer, Africans are giving to those questions as time goes by, Ratzinger, says:

"The problems are quite clear, but it must be said that the desired théologie africaine, or African theology, is at present more a project than a reality. Furthermore, if we look more closely, we must say that very much of what is regarded as 'African' is really a European import and has far less to do with actual African traditions than the classical [European] Christian tradition has. The latter is de facto much nearer to the basic concepts of all mankind, much nearer to the fundamental inheritance of human religious culture in general, than the late constructions of European thought, which are often cut off from mankind's spiritual roots." ("The Ratzinger Report", p. 193.)

Continuing, Ratzinger adds:

"… We must recognize that there is no way back to the cultural situation which existed before the results of European thought spread to the whole world, as has been the case now for some time. On the other hand it must also be recognized that there is no such a thing as 'pure' African tradition as such: it is a many-layered reality and consequently - depending on the particular layer and origin - it is often contradictory." ("The Ratzinger Report", p. 193.)

In summary, Ratzinger says that there are two questions involved here. First, there is the question of 'what is originally African, and hence what must be defended against false claim to universality on the part of what is simply European.' Conversely, 'there is the question of what, although it is European, is actually universal. These questions are subject not only to human evaluation but also - as always - to the criteria of faith, which judges all traditions, all inheritances, ours and others.' Therefore, according to him, we must beware of over-hasty decisions and conclusions, for the problem is not only a matter of theory. Its solution also requires the living, suffering and loving of the whole fellowship of believers, in the sense of the great Catholic principle which has been forgotten nowadays, namely, that theology's subject is not individual theologians but the totality of the whole Church. (Cf. "The Ratzinger Report", p. 193-194.)

On the surface, however, and as was the case when first, he made those assertions on Africa and African theology and culture, one thing is certain, those criticisms of Ratzinger did not go down well with most of the theologians from Africa and beyond. Especially, the older generations of African theologians whose theological works reigned between 1970s and 1990s! Thus, to some today, it may sound strange to speak of Ratzinger's (Pope Benedict XVI) contribution to the development of contemporary African theology.

Such a reaction, from African scholars, in particular, is understandable. Since it is already in the public domain, that Cardinal Ratzinger, then secretary of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was also quoted to have "harbored some anxiety" about the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians. To be fair to him, however, he was not speaking and reacting on these subjects as a functionary of the church or representative of the CDF. Rather, he was simply reacting and speaking as a theologian.

In actual fact, however, in "The Ratzinger Report" (cited above), Cardinal Ratzinger did express some "anxiety" about the Catholic theologians joining the nascent 'Ecumenical Association of African Theologians', which was intended to unite African scholars of all denominations. And as mentioned earlier on, he expressed similar "anxiety" on the same subject of African theology, the African theologians' claims to what is specifically African, and on the relevance of African culture in Christian mission, in developing African theology, and in the modernization of Africa. (Cf. "The Ratzinger Report" pp. 192-197.)

On the surface, however, and to some uncritical minds, Ratzinger's criticisms may appear as something negative and antithetical to the development of African theology in course at the time. However, when we remember that, as Pope, Benedict XVI, he made the promotion of ecumenical dialogue the cardinal point of his pontificate. This means that he was not against the formation of the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians as such, nor was he against African culture and the development of African theology, or even of African Catholic theologians joining the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians.

Not at all. Rather, as a learned and seasoned theologian, an experienced pastor and church leader, as well as someone coming from his native German background, Ratzinger chose that path of constructive criticism towards African culture, theology and theologians, for one major reason. Namely, to spur African theologians themselves, especially, the Catholics among them, and challenge them to a more fundamental theological work that contextual theology and inculturation demands. That is, in such a rigorous pursuit of scientific research and work of developing an authentic and genuine inculturated African Christian theology, that is both Catholic and African at the same time. In essence, Ratzinger, in those criticisms, was thinking of an authentic African inculturated theology that would be developed according to a threefold fidelity; namely, fidelity to the apostolic faith, tradition and magisterium teaching, to the Catholic theology, and to the religious and cultural patrimony of the African people.

At the same time, however, Ratzinger was reminding African theologians to take into account in their theological work, the two fundamental aspects of the process of inculturation, namely inculturation "ad intra" and inculturation "ad extra." And that in the theologians' efforts towards developing an authentically, African Christian theology, it is necessary to distinguish between the two aspects in the inculturation process. In a lay man's language, the two aspects in the inculturation process entails: the "being present" of the Church in the culture of her people, and its renewal by means of an intimate transformation of authentic cultural values of the people in contact with the truth and the Christian life. Here is a single process that has two aspects of opposing "intent": to the one, it is the implantation of the Church through proclamation of the Gospel, Catechesis and Christian witness, etc. And to the other, the renewal of culture. The first aspect more directly concerns the historical reality of the Church, according to the cultural reality of her people.

The first therefore, has, in a certain sense, the function of "means" but for the second, it is equally true that without a culture that can begin to express more clearly the glory of the freedom of the children of God, it will be difficult for the Church to find a ground to be rooted. We can say that these two dynamisms in the same and identical process of inculturation are contemporaries and that they have, before the emergence of this process in history, their pre-training in the ministry of the Church that is open to all peoples, and comparatively, a corresponding mystery of the universal vocation to salvation, of which one of the components is the praeparatio evangelica in cultures of humanity.

In fact, the two aspects or dynamism that we have distinguished in the process of inculturation can also be indicated in the commitment of inculturation, as a task that the Church must play in the fulfilment of her mission. The first, which concerns the insertion of the Church in the culture or cultures of the people that she constitutes, could be called "inculturation ad intra." The second, which has as its purpose, the renewal of culture, may be called "inculturation ad extra." The point of departure is always the revealed message and the presence of the Risen Christ, in the midst of the community of believers.

It is evident that the specific location of the realisation of the inculturation is the particular (local) Church, which, in the communion of the universal Church, lives in the midst of the people where it has taken root. It is equally clear, that the task of inculturation is not meant only for the particular Church. Nor is it meant only for the so-called "Young Churches" (which African Churches are part of). But, given the dynamic character of the cultural reality, it should also be complemented in a continuous process of discernment of new cultural forms through collaborations and mutual theological dialogue and exchange between the young churches and those churches with ancient Christian roots.

This is the point Ratzinger was trying to communicate in "The Ratzinger Report" under consideration. In other words, he is not in any way talking down on African culture, or on African theology and theologians. As the Ghanaian theologian, John Pobee once said, "To announce the need for African theology is easy and reasonable. But it is far more difficult to construct it." Part of the problem, again, is that in Africa we have a plethora of African cultures. Partly as a result of the fact, that Africa is a continent of immense diversity, not only on the level of its geographical contrasts, but especially, on the cultural, sociological, political and economic levels. Therefore, in speaking of Africa, one should take into account the reality of its diversity so as to guard against the danger of facile generalization about the continent and its peoples and cultures.

However, in spite of the diversity, one could still speak about the continent as a whole. And in our context, behind the diversities found in Africa, South of the Sahara, there are elements common to many of the peoples and cultures. In fact, Africa remains a diversified whole, multiple and one. Unity is not only continental, it is political, linguistic, sociological and psychological. There is also unity of spirit among Africans, perhaps, because of long experience of torments they have had as a people at the hands of foreign powers and from the present corrupt leaders and dictators. In the Final Communiqué of the Pan African Conference of Third World Theologians held in Accra, Ghana (December 17-23, 1977, Accra, Ghana), the theologians note:

We realize that African unity is the unity of spirit and soul, an indivisible historical unity that may even transcend geographical differences. Our unity contributes to the total community of God without being blown away in the wind of unspecified universalism. We also realize that there are threats to this unity of our people. We deplore anything that seeks to shake the solidness of our deep-rooted unity, whether economic isolation, power manipulation, or even styles of life. (Cf. K. APPIAH-KUBI & S. TORRES (eds.), African Theology en Route (Papers from the Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians, December 17-23, 1977, Accra, Ghana), Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1979, p.190).

It is from this context that one could appreciate such phrases as "African theology", in the singular, or "African Philosophy", "African Personality, Negritude, African mentality, authenticity and Africa-ness". Moreover, in the ecclesiastical circle, the continent's multiform reality is recognized, but it is not seen by the Church as a living chaos. It is diversity in unity and a unity in diversity. The Church always keeps these two aspects in mind while dealing with Africa. For instance, we speak of Synod of Bishops, Special Assembly for Africa, the SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar), and so forth. It is in this context that we speak of Africa in this write-up as a continent of a diversified whole.

Benedict XVI's Teaching on Inculturation of the Gospel

Benedict XVI, in his magisterium, highlights the need for inculturation and intercultural dialogue. This is evident from the following two of his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortations, Sacramentum Caritatis (2007), and Verbum Domini (2010). In these documents, he speaks of inculturation as an effort for the evangelization of cultures. In the Sacramentum Caritatis, referring to the Eucharistic Mystery, Benedict XVI says that the Eucharist is a Sacrament, which puts us in dialogue with different cultures, but also in a certain sense, a challenge. 'We need to recognize the intercultural character of this new worship, this logiké latreía', he says. The presence of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are events that can stably face with every cultural reality, to ferment it evangelically. This consequently involves the commitment to promoting the evangelization of cultures through inculturation, in the awareness that Christ himself is the truth of every man and of the whole of human history. In conclusion, he says:

The Eucharist becomes a criterion for our evaluation of everything that Christianity encounters in different cultural expressions. In this important process we can feel more significant than ever more, the words of Saint Paul that invites us in his First Letter to the Thessalonians to "test everything and hold fast to what is good" (cf. 5.21) (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 78).

As regards the inculturation and the Bible, Benedict XVI teaches that the Johannine (Gospel of John), announcement concerning the incarnation of the Word reveals the indissoluble bond that exists between the divine Word and human words by which it communicates to us. It is within the scope of this consideration that one can speak of the relationship between the Word of God and culture. In fact, God does not reveal himself to man in the abstract, but assuming languages, images and expressions related to different cultures. This is a fruitful relationship, amply testified in the history of the Church. Today this relationship also enters a new phase due to the growth and to the firm establishment of evangelization within different cultures. (Cf. Verbum Domini, 109).

Furthermore, Benedict XVI says that the Word of God has inspired various cultures over the centuries, generating fundamental moral values, excellent artistic expressions, and exemplary lifestyles. Therefore, in the perspective of a renewed encounter between the Bible and cultures, the Pope calls upon all cultural operators that have nothing to fear to be open to the Word of God; it never destroys the true culture but constitutes a constant stimulus to the search for human expressions ever more appropriate and meaningful. Every authentic culture truly meant for man must be open to transcendence, ultimately to God. (Cf. Verbum Domini, 109).

Furthermore, Benedict XVI adds that in this context it also includes the value of the inculturation of the Gospel. The Church is firmly convinced of the intrinsic capacity of the Word of God to reach all human beings in the cultural context in which they live. "This conviction is derived from the Bible itself which, from the book of Genesis, assumes a universal orientation (cf. Gen 1,27-28), maintaining the blessing promised to all peoples, thanks to Abraham and his descendants, (cf. Gen 12,3; 18, 18), and confirms it by definitively extending the evangelization to all nations ". Benedict XVI insists that because of this, inculturation must not be exchanged with adaptation processes of superficial and even with the syncretistic confusion that dilutes the originality of the Gospel to make it more readily acceptable.

This perspective of Benedict XVI, is also reflected in the Magisterium of Pope Francis. For instance, in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013), Pope Francis speaks of inculturation as a means through which the Church, "which is a community of missionary disciples, need to grow in its interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of the truth" (Evangelii Gaudium (EG), 40).

Like Benedict XVI, Pope Francis underlines the task of theologian exegetes (Biblical scholars) in this regard, because with their research as experts, they help, "to manifest and develop better the different aspects of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel" (cf. EG 40). Furthermore, like Benedict XVI, Pope Francis also explains that the enormous and rapid cultural changes require that we pay a constant attention to always try to express the truth in a language that allows it to recognize its permanent newness. That is, since in the deposit of Christian doctrine, "One thing is the substance … another is the method of formulating its expression" (EG 41).

This is the goal of inculturation, so to speak. In this sense, following in the footstep of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is also telling us that, "the evangelizing commitment moves between the limits of language and its circumstances. It always tries to communicate effectively, the truth of the Gospel in a given context, without renouncing the truth, goodness, and the light that it can shade when perfection is not possible. A missionary heart is aware of these limitations and makes himself "to the weak, I became weak … everything to everyone" (1 Cor 9: 22; see also, EG 45).

It is interesting to see how Pope Francis, himself, gathers together, correctly, his teaching on the inculturation with his vision of a Church that is a "mother with open hearts" (EG 46). In other words, the process of inculturation also becomes a means to the "Church outlet" which is a Church with the doors open. "If the whole Church assumes this missionary dynamism of inculturation, it must reach everyone without exception" (EG 48).

According to Pope Francis, the Church, "in her constant discernment, may also come to recognize its own habits which are not directly related to the core Gospel, some of which are deeply rooted in the course of history, which today are no longer interpreted in the same way and the message of which is usually not adequately perceived. Although they can be beautiful, they do not offer the same service to transmit the Gospel. We are not afraid to look at them again" (EG 43). All this demonstrates that inculturation is an indispensable means of evangelization. It implies a vigorous research and extreme patience; however, it is something that must be encouraged if Christianity must have a real sense among the people being evangelized.


For Pope Benedict XVI, however, the authentic paradigm of inculturation is the very incarnation of the Word - the Word of God made flesh in human form, in Jesus Christ. The acculturation or inculturation, will truly be a reflection of the incarnation of the Word, when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition, original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought, by fermenting from within the local culture, giving value to the semina Verbi and what is present and positive in it, and opening it to evangelical values. (Cf. Verbum Domini, 114).

Therefore, in all, Benedict XVI encourages the translation of the Bible into local languages as a means necessary for the diffusion of the Bible itself and of the Christian message. According to him, if the inculturation of the Word of God is an inseparable part of the mission of the Church in the world, a decisive moment of this process is the diffusion of the Bible by the precious work of translation into different languages. In this respect, it must always keep in mind that the work of translation of the Scriptures "began since the times of the Old Testament when the Hebrew text of the Bible was translated orally in Aramaic (Ne 8:8. 12), and later in writing in Greek. A translation is in fact always something more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily entails a change in the cultural context: the concepts are not identical, and the flow rate of the symbols is different because they are put in a field relevant to other traditions of thought and other ways of living" (Verbum Domini, 115).

Thus, Benedict XVI underlines, and rightly too, the fact that the Word of God overcomes the limits of cultures. The Divine Word can penetrate and express itself in the cultures and different languages, but the same Word transcends the limits of individual cultures by creating communion between different peoples. The Word of the Lord invites us to go toward a wider communion, says Benedict XVI. (Cf. Verbum Domini, 116).

In conclusion, therefore, it is not an overstatement to say that, Pope Benedict XVI has contributed in no small major, in promoting African theology. That is, through his provocative criticisms of the theologians at the early development of the Vatican II post-conciliar African theology, as well as through his Magisterium teaching on theology of inculturation - theological reflection on the meeting of the Gospel and culture in a particular cultural context. Through those efforts, Benedict XVI has contributed greatly, in highlighting that essential path of African theology, which is inculturation, and in promoting the universal value of African theology itself.