Cardinal Koch: The Gospel Must Incorporate and Purify Culture

President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity addresses proper protocol for inculturation, one of the prominent topics of the Amazon synod.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The head of the Vatican’s Christian unity office says inculturation of the Gospel is a necessary part of evangelization, but also requires discernment of what in that culture may need “purification.”

“Evangelization always needs inculturation, so that the Gospel will be understood in different cultures,” Cardinal Kurt Koch told EWTN News Oct. 23.

“But I think we must see two things,” he continued, “first of all, inculturation, and on the other side, purification of the culture, because not all things in other cultures are good.”

“We have different challenges and different problems, and we must have a clear discernment of spirit of what we can accept and receive from these cultures for the better understanding of the Gospel; and on the other hand, we must purify something in this culture.”

The Swiss cardinal previously served as bishop of Basel from 1996 to 2010, when he was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s office dedicated to ecumenism.

Cardinal Koch is participating in this month’s Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region because of his position as head of a Vatican dicastery. The Amazon synod will end Oct. 27.

Cardinal Koch said he has had the impression during the Amazon synod that “bishops speak above all about inculturation and not much about purification.”

The cardinal added that he has asked the group, what are the elements of the native Amazonian cultures which need to be purified, but “I haven’t received a clear answer.”

The need for inculturation has been one of the prominent topics of the Amazon synod.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that inculturation is a necessary step on the Church’s mission of evangelizing the world.

“Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the Gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are ‘a sign of God's presence in the world,’ and leads to the foundation of local churches. It must involve a process of inculturation if the Gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture” (854).

In No. 1207, the Catechism explains that “it is fitting that liturgical celebration tends to express itself in the culture of the people where the Church finds herself, though without being submissive to it.”

“Enculturation,” or “inculturation” when in reference to Christianity, means having a deference in Church practice, specifically in the liturgy, to the local circumstances of a culture.

The Catechism also says, in 1149, that “the liturgy of the Church presupposes, integrates and sanctifies elements from creation and human culture, conferring on them the dignity of signs of grace, of the new creation in Jesus Christ.”

Father Mark Morozowich, the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, explained to CNA in March the principles that govern such “inculturation.”

“The Church has always enculturated the liturgy,” he said.

“This is something we’ve done through the centuries in every single place from the very beginning.”

Starting with the first ministry of the apostles, he said, “the Church lived Jesus Christ, proclaimed his cross, death and resurrection. The Church proclaimed Jesus Christ being present body and soul in the elements of the Eucharist.”

He said that there have been, and continue to be, some regional differences in the matter used in the celebration of the Eucharist, but those differences are limited by the Church’s doctrinal teaching.

The Mass is not, Father Morozowich said, about enacting an exact historical re-creation of the Last Supper, “but at the same time, the Church has said there are some core elements of this reality of the presence of this way the [Christian] community has celebrated throughout its lifetime.”