Religious Studies Faculty Publications

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2012

Publication Source

U.S. Catholic Historian


Inculturation is the term that Catholic leaders and theologians have used in recent decades to denote a process of engagement between the Christian Gospel and a particular culture. The term is intended conceptually both to safeguard the integrity of the Gospel and to encourage sensitivity to various cultural contexts. Inculturation as a theological notion has been specifically associated with John Paul II’s strategy for evangelization, including what is known as the “new evangelization” that focuses on cultures that had traditionally been Christian but which are now not clearly so. Yet inculturation, understood with a somewhat different emphasis, has also been associated with the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s theological interpretation of Vatican II.

This essay explores the theological meanings of the concept of inculturation as it has been used in Roman Catholic thought in recent decades. First is explained how Vatican II’s concept of culture, as relatively progressive as it was, contained safeguards against favoring diverse cultures to the detriment of the integrity of the Gospel. Then a discussion of theological divisions after the Council sets the stage for understanding John Paul II’s concept of inculturation within the context of his agenda of correcting the course of the Council’s reception and implementation. John Paul II’s theological connection between inculturation and Incarnation is then explored in comparison with Rahner’s use of inculturation in his theological interpretation of Vatican II. An examination of how the issues that surface carry through in a range of postconciliar theological uses of inculturation is followed by a naming of major challenges that arise in any consideration of inculturation today.

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