Cultural appropriation: the label is increasingly applied in concert with those other derogatory words — bigot, homophobe, sexist —to smear those who violate the amorphous tenets of progressive ideology. Popular musician Rihanna was recently accused of cultural appropriation for donning traditional Asian garb for a recent Harper’s Bazaar photoshoot. Kim Kardashain, likewise, is an alleged cultural appropriator for her new fashion line, called kimono.
Woke media, in turn, provide helpful tips for how to avoid cultural appropriation. (Hint: it’s impossible to avoid this charge, because it’s impossible in 2019 to avoid offending someone.) The Catholic Church, for better or worse, will never be able to rebut accusations of cultural appropriation. Indeed, it’s the world’s greatest cultural appropriator.
And that’s a good thing.
Cultural appropriation goes back to the very beginning of Christian history. The Church in the years immediately following Christ’s resurrection was comprised almost entirely of Jews — indeed, the religion claimed for its holy books the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.
Yet those first Christians also wrote their own holy texts in the lingua franca of the first-century Mediterranean world, Koine Greek. St. Paul took this a step further, citing Greek philosophers and poets (Aratus and Menander in Acts 17:28, Epimenides in Titus 1:12), whose words thus appear as part of the Christian New Testament. Even more egregious, the conciliar fathers of Nicaea and Chalcedon appropriated Greek philosophical words and concepts (ousia, hypostases, prosopon, etc.) to describe various theological realities regarding the nature of Christ and the Trinity.
Not only would Catholicism’s theology be impoverished without its appropriation of Greek philosophy, so would its liturgy and ecclesial hierarchy. Those dastardly Christians in the Western provinces of the Roman Empire borrowed the language of their rulers, Latin, as the basis for the liturgy that became the standard for Western Christians until the Reformation. Then the Church had the nerve to make its capital in Rome, just like the empire. Moreover, as the Western empire collapsed, the popes even supplanted the role of the imperial political leadership. Take Leo and Gregory, both decidedly Great.
The Medieval period witnessed more of the same Catholic cultural appropriation. St. Thomas Aquinas, the leading light of scholasticism, not only borrowed heavily from Aristotle, Cicero, and other ancient thinkers: he was even willing to contemplate, and when appropriate positively cite, Jewish thinkers like Maimonides and Muslims like Averroes.
When the Church spread into pagan lands in Northern and Eastern Europe, it also permitted some syncretism with local pre-Christian customs, rituals, and holidays. The Catholic Renaissance — exemplified in such artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, and DaVinci — in turn relied heavily on classical Greco-Roman themes in art, sculpture, and architecture.
As Catholic missionaries accompanied explorers of North America, Africa, and Asia, they likewise sought to find common ground with indigenous populations and their cultures. Jesuit missionaries in China, Japan, and Korea sought to incorporate various Confucian customs in their evangelistic overtures to native peoples. This sometimes had success, and other times fostered confusion or tacitly allowed for the continuation of pre-Christian beliefs in conflict with Catholic teaching. Despite these occasional problems, none can deny that cultural appropriation has been a consistent feature of successful Catholic missionary efforts across the world.
Speaking of evangelism, perhaps the most scandalous example of Catholic cultural appropriation is visible in the many apparitions of Mary, mother of God. Mary has reportedly appeared as an Aztec princess in Mexico, a woman in traditional áo dài dress in Vietnam, “Nyina wa Jambo” (“Mother of the Word” in a local Rwandan language), and a lady “more brilliant than the sun” in Portugal, among many others. In Catholic art she is depicted as white, black, yellow, and more racial and ethnic varieties than there are colors of the rainbow. The nerve of Our Blessed Lady!
The third century Christian theologian and apologist Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” His answer, quite surprisingly, was… nothing.
In contrast to Tertullian, as has been noted above, the laudable wisdom of the early Church was exemplified in its willingness to liberally adopt the best philosophy and cultural traits of the paganism of the ancient world. St. Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor, understood the brilliance of this approach. Indeed: would Thomism be the intelligible, unparalleled theological system that it is apart from Aristotelian philosophy? Hardly.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that the Church is free to embrace and adopt any stream of thought or cultural tradition simply because it enables Christianity to reach some peaceable modus vivendi with the world around it. Many cultural traditions and beliefs, going all the way back to the Greco-Romans, are simply incompatible with the truths of the Christian faith.
The Romans aborted their children. Many Greeks indulged in immoral sexual activity. Pagans the world over worshipped other gods, often in ways that simply couldn’t be reconciled with Christ. And yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas attempted so zealously to prove, there is some good in the cultures and thought of people-groups around the world, including those largely untouched by Christianity. Whatever can be preserved, Thomas shows us, should be preserved.
Progressive, secular, often atheistic popular culture already throws a lot of pejoratives at the Catholic Church. It is, so they say, bigoted, sexist, prejudicial, and trapped in archaic, backwards ways of thinking and believing.
Fair enough. The Church, at its best, has never sought to change its beliefs or customs simply to appease her detractors. Rather, she has cleverly and judiciously adopted those beliefs and customs which retain some connection to the true, the good, and the beautiful.
If that means she must also be labeled a cultural appropriator, so be it. For two thousand years, cultural appropriation has served Catholicism quite well. That won’t change now.
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