Blogs > The Church urgently needs to stop seeing itself as a Western export

11 December 2013 | by Fr Robert Kaggwa

The Church urgently needs to stop seeing itself as a Western export

Pope Francis’ comments on the need for the Church to develop non-Western expressions of the faith are a breath of fresh air. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he wrote: “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.” He thus reaffirmed the spirit of the Second Vatican Council that had been obscured in the past decades by a militant restorationism.

Coming from Africa, I have seen how the Church has been Western not only in its liturgy but also in its personnel, finance and theology. Although recent decades have seen dramatic improvements, one can still see how this dependence is not going away soon. While a lot has been achieved in new forms of worship, and today one can speak of Christianity already becoming a truly African religion, a lot remains to be done, particularly in the area of theology.

In his interpretation of the significance of Vatican II, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner argued that the Church had shifted from being a Western Church to becoming a world Church: Pope Francis is reminding us of what his fellow Jesuit said.

One could point to how developing non-Western theologies could be a risky business. In a way, theologians in Africa, Asia and Latin America are on a pioneering venture: the task of breaking new ground; and it is not guaranteed that they will not fumble and even make mistakes in the process. Who has not made mistakes? Peter? Paul? Tertullian? Augustine? Aquinas? Rahner?

In the Catholic Church and particularly during the last two papacies, we have seen an effort to block the contextualisation and inculturation of Christianity in local cultures. The achievements of Vatican II have been weakened by a call to a uniform, standard, mandatory way for all. Today we know that this presumed standard theology is simply the accumulation of traditions, methodologies, topics and questions that have served to answer the needs of the Western world over the past few centuries.

When the Christian faith came as the Good News to non-Western peoples, there were many elements of its theology that did not address the questions raised by the new believers in any satisfactory or relevant way. The message was then found to be scratching where its hearers did not itch. The task of non-Western Christians has been to make the Christian message address and challenge these new contexts of people’s lives.

Unless this is done, Christian faith will tend to be seen as a system of venerable ancient formulas that make much of issues that very few people (in this case some isolated groups of specialists in Church circles and academia) are interested in.

Worse still, its theology will seem to be an irrelevant exercise of complicated reasoning over matters which make the Christian faith look like the promotion and defence of an outdated system, rather than the welcome promise of a God who liberates and empowers ordinary people.

The Christian faith has shifted its centre of gravity away from the affluent Western nations into countries where the majority are victims of poverty, powerlessness, violence, exploitation, disease and oppression. It is these people in the first place that are waiting to receive the Good News. Theology has to give priority to the task of listening to these people and of seeking ways of speaking about God in ways that make sense to them. Pope Francis’ message is thus a welcome reminder and a true message of joy.

Ugandan-born Fr Robert Kaggwa is a Catholic chaplain and lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Roehampton, south-west London. One of his courses is Theologies from the non-Western world.

Above: Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba, South Sudan, presides over the ordination of three deacons. Photo: CNS/Paul Jeffrey

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User Comments (5)

Comment by: Mielcito
Posted: 15/12/2014 21:47:02

, which I completely agree with, that if we fail to enxetd the grace and mercy to those who truly need it, then there is a good chance we never really experienced what it was like to recieve Christ's overflowing mercy and forgiveness. The way we understand and internalize the meaning of grace from Christ's point to us, will reflect the way we externalize the enxetd of our grace to those who are broken, unwanted, unloved, different, outcast, and neglected. If you have found yourself being ungraceful toward other people (not you Siggy, but anyone who reads this) because you know Christ and they don't. You need to pick up this book or at least re-read the Gospels again .or a hundred times. God's word should have been more convicting to us the first time, but in case it isn't, Manning does a great of showing us what we missed when we read the Gospels.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 30/12/2013 22:36:17

I think that the West has forgotten how some of the non-Western churches have adapted Eurocentrism to local cultural norms, such as

Comment by: deipnosophista
Posted: 24/12/2013 20:28:21

"Dipconsult" is right of course to say that Christianity in Africa is older than colonisation: both the Ethiopian and the Coptic churches have an unbroken tradition going back to the early church, before the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. An encouraging development following Vatican II has been the increased concern of the Western church for rapprochement with the ancient churches of the East and Africa; and the latter have preserved documents from early times which cast new light on theological debates and on our understanding of the early tradition of Christianity.

Comment by: dipconsult
Posted: 20/12/2013 14:04:14

I find that it is not only in Europe (I have lived in Croatia and now in France) that people forget that Christianity is a religion that has its roots in the Middle East and which got exiled to Europe east and west.
It was not only the Arab invasions which drove much of Christianity from the Holy Land, most of the Middle East, Egypt and the entire southern littoral of the Mediterranean.
The Governments of the US and the UK (under Messrs Bush and Blair in particular and particularly as a result of their catastrophic invasion of Iraq) have seen to it that most of the remaining Christians have been expelled from, or have been obliged to leave, the Middle East and suffer persecution in Egypt and other predominently Muslim areas. Fortunately before Christianity lost much of its hold in Europe, the Europeans, from the XVI century brought Christianity to Africa and the Far East and bolstered its foothold in India. Now it is African priests who are helping to sustain a post-Christian Christian presence in Europe!
It is vital for everyone from all countries to remember that Christianity is not a European (or Western) religion. And that salvation came from the Jews, themselves exiles, in Palestine. Too few even realise that Christ was a Jew living in occupied Palestine as was His Mother and the disciples.
And is it not the case that Ethiopia was the first 'Christian country'?

Comment by: Fr John Wotherspoon
Posted: 13/12/2013 12:11:18

This excellent article has been added to my file "The Church is too Western" at May the Good Lord strengthen Pope Francis is his efforts to decentralize the Church, to de-Westernize the Church. A powerful classic on this theme: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan


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