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Questioning Church's multicultural nature

US-dominated globalization is not compatible with cultures of the south

  • Michael Amaladoss, SJ
  • India
  • February 17, 2012
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Among the 22 new cardinals  receiving a biretta on February 18 from Pope Benedict XVI, 10 hold positions in the Roman Curia. Italians comprise seven of the 22, making them the largest group. Only three are from outside Europe or North America. So this consistory hardly reflects the recent demographic shifts in the Church, or the increasingly important part played by the developing world.

This has prompted the leading Indian theologian, Michael Amaladoss SJ, to reflect on the Church’s attitude to multiculturalism in general.

This report first appeared in the Indian Jesuit magazine Jivan.

One of the major concerns about globalization is that, through market forces and media bombardment, one single consumer culture could come to be enforced upon the rest of the world; a culture that emanates from the USA.

It insinuates itself via mass media, technology, communications and the way people dress and feed themselves. It does not concern itself so much with deeper cultural elements such as language, philosophy, literature and ways of living, thinking and relating.

Thankfully, this is still a multicultural world. I was surprised to hear that stated recently by the French Bishops' Conference, as the French are usually exceptionally fierce on matters of national culture. However, a statement from them last October spoke of the end of the West’s traditional, distinctive identity, due to waves of immigration.

The desire to impose one culture upon another remains a constant temptation, locally as well as globally. In India there is a dominant culture that seeks to make all others subordinate, which has an impact especially on the Dalits and indigenous peoples. Indeed, some would say that the unity of a nation depends on the unity of its culture; some would like to see total religious homogeneity.

So the defense of multiculturalism and religious pluralism is a necessary and constant duty, and we are pleased that they both receive protection from the Constitution of India, with special measures for the protection of minorities.

But there is one area that is often overlooked in debates on global homogenization: the Church.

This is an institution that has a history of attempting to impose its culture in the name of God. According to theologians like Karl Rahner, it was Vatican II in the 1960s that first made the Church aware that it is a global Church.

Rahner and others promoted inculturation, which complements multiculturalism, in various fields. In the liturgy, for example, the new criterion proposed was that of "full, conscious and active participation" by the faithful, with the translation of prayers left to local bishops’ conferences. Taking the attitude that everything can be changed except what has been divinely instituted, it encouraged the emergence of new forms and rituals.

Nevertheless, and despite the existence of many small Eastern Churches, the Latin Church has continued to dominate, and it continues to defend strenuously the pre-eminence of the Latin rite.

The recent controversy over the new English Missal is an example: here we saw the Church revert to a more literal translation of the Latin text, despite objections from some bishops and experts.

The notion of praying in one’s own language, except in private, received a new, formal stamp of disapproval.  Now all languages of the world must translate the Latin text literally and obtain Vatican approval of their efforts.

Multiculturalism, recommended to the world, does not seem to be respected in the Church.

I was not surprised to read a recent article by Sandro Magister Espresso. Asked if Benedict XVI is allowing the Roman Curia to assume too much dominance, the Italian replied: "the Church historian Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio Community and a reputed liberal, has positively defended this development.

“He has repeatedly emphasized that the Holy See should not behave like a major international organization, a kind of UN, because it is primarily a part of the Roman Church, and must maintain its bond with that Church.”

It is certainly not a problem, of course, if the Roman Church wants to stay Roman. But it should not try to impose that  identity on the universal multicultural Church.

How many Church documents show more concern for the cultural problems of Europe and America than the rest of the world?

It is now clear that the Church's center of gravity is shifting to the south, although that shift is still only demographic, not cultural.  We also notice religious congregations becoming more international; this can be seen very clearly in India.

However, while an Indian can be elected Superior General of his congregation, the senior roles are still mostly taken by Europeans and Americans.

Perhaps this is because of their ability to communicate in English, French or Italian. Certainly the documents they produce are mainly focused on issues in Europe and America.

And the Jesuits? For several years, one has wondered what will happen to them, as more and more people enter from the southern hemisphere.  This line of thought could well be a worrying one.  Our general congregations have prided themselves on being largely multicultural, but some recent developments and attitudes seem to be threatening that status quo.

In Rome we claim to remain an international institution. But can we validate that claim?

When looking for new people to enter and lead these institutions, the trend has not been to choose theologians who have experience of teaching and theological reflection in India, and who could thus bring an Indian perspective to Rome. Instead, people are brought there virtually straight from school, to be trained in Roman theology, preferably in Italian. Is that multiculturalism or globalization?

One other thing: our home-grown theologians, who may already know two Indian languages besides English, are typically asked to learn two or three European languages. But are Western theologians who teach in our multicultural institutions required to learn Asian or African languages?

And even if they do not know these languages, should we not at least expect them to be familiar with the theologies and cultures of the south, given the high number of students who come from those continents?

Michael Amaladoss SJ is director of the Institute for Dialogue with Cultures & Religions, based in Chennai
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