“A People of Many Faces” is one of the more intriguing sections of Pope Francis’s The Joy of the Gospel, having to do with cultural incarnations of Christianity.
“We would not do justice to the logic of the incarnation if we thought of Christianity as monocultural and monotonous,” he writes.
Earlier he states, “The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression, but rather, ‘remaining completely true to itself, with unswerving fidelity to the proclamation of the Gospel and the tradition of the Church, it will also reflect the different faces of the cultures and peoples in which it is received and takes root.'" Here he is quoting John Paul II.
The direction of his argument appears to be that Western culture should not impose our cultural values on other cultures, affirming “it is not essential to impose a specific cultural form, no matter how beautiful or ancient it may be…we in the Church can sometimes fall into a needless hallowing of our own culture, and thus show more fanaticism than true evangelizing zeal.”
Quoting John Paul II once more, he encourages us “to work in harmony with indigenous Christians,” because no culture or tradition has a monopoly on Christian expression.
Progressive Christians would applaud that and have tried to apply that in attempting the globalization of our respective denominations and traditions.
In my view, we do so at the risk of compromising our own cultural values. The equality and rights of women as well as of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender women and men immediately come to mind.
The faltering Anglican Communion over women priests and gay bishops and the recent disappointment of the United Methodist General Conference to change its policies on LGBT Methodists serve as examples of the imposition of the values of other cultures, failing to respect Western and specifically American culture, which have “evolved” on both issues.
A step further: the logic of Pope Francis’s argument would also culturally contextualize conservative Christians’ reliance on church tradition regarding the place of women, the definition of marriage, and the treatment of sexual and gender minorities.
We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.
And here again the footnote doesn’t cite the progressive Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, but John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia.
Countless books, articles, and dissertations have been written that document how church tradition on issues of concern to progressive Christians has been held captive to previous cultural understandings, misunderstandings, and prejudice. The competition between the less egalitarian and more dualistic Christianity of Rome and the more progressive Celtic Christianity is but one example of how Christian cultures collided early on.
The Bible counters culture well: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” “You have heard it said of old…but I say to you.” “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” “For freedom Christ has set us free.” “Do not call unclean what God has called clean.” “God shows no partiality.” “Why should my liberty be determined by another’s scruples? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I condemned for that for which I give thanks?”
“New occasions teach new duties,” as the hymn “Once to Every One and Nation” proclaims. We may learn from other cultures, but multiculturalism cuts both ways. Other cultures may learn from us.