Evangelization too often included regrettable culture clashes


While skiing in Mont Tremblant this weekend, we drove through Brébeuf, Quebec, obviously named for Saint Jean de Brébeuf, one of the North American martyrs who worked with the Huron populations in what was then called New France. He was tortured and killed for his efforts in 1649.

Anyone who has read Brian Moore’s novel “Black Robe” understands the violent clash of civilizations that took place during this period, and the complex themes of evangelization and colonialization which are still inextricably interwoven and have real-world consequences into our own day.

Just as we Anglophones do in a particular way, any Quebecoise person continues to live this unique tension between pride in an inherited culture and language, and the shame of a history of excluding or eliminating the legitimacy of some people’s rituals, philosophies and worldviews in favor of others.

A growing awareness of themes like dialogue, inculturation and mutual exchange mandate that we carefully hold in equilibrium the inspiring motives of spreading the Gospel at great personal cost with the church’s complicity in the eradication of pre-existing cultures through at least a tacit silence (or oftentimes a worse vociferous benediction and sponsorship) of the rapacious thirst for robbing and hoarding resources and contributing to vast systems of economic inequality and injustice.

Discernment is always necessary in appreciating the contours of such events. Some elements of particular cultures were and are objectively evil and the church could not stand idly by and condone them. (I think here of historical realities like human sacrifice, or contemporary ones like racism or female genital mutilation). As members of a People of Faith, no Christian can allow such atrocities to unfold without prophetic countercultural action opposing them. But no less odious were the Eurocentric pride, greed and enslavement of peoples, often tainted with religious overtones, distortions of doctrine, and misguided self-righteousness.

Whether the Spanish and Portuguese in the jungles and thriving megacities of Latin America, the French in the snowy mountains of Quebec, or the English in the ports of Massachusetts and Virginia, the church(es) of the Age of Exploration saw a divine mandate to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth, and so blessed these quests, even if those claiming the standard of the Prince of Peace were wielding swords and cannons beneath it.

Quebec is a beautiful and unique place; the language, food, vistas, and history are worth experiencing if you never have. A French Mass in the Alpine-style Chapelle Saint-Bernard surrounded by deer grazing outside was memorable and restorative. And I continue to hold the North American martyrs in high personal esteem, especially since my mentor Cardinal Avery Dulles chose to be buried at one of the shrines of their martyrdom, instead of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or Arlington cemetery with other members of his family. But authentically celebrating the missionary contributions that brought the faith to these lands also mandates that we speak honestly about elements of their culture that were, like the church always is, in need of purification and reform.

As Pope Francis, indebted in many ways to the thought of theologian Rafael Tello, has pointed out: interculturality based on the praxis of encounter demands proximity, inter-dependence, and genuine cooperation — “the ability to see yourselves in the face of others.”

As he reminds us, we as Christians “do not love concepts or ideas; no one loves a concept or an idea. We love people.”

Weighing how cultures can best reflect the Gospel, and where they have fallen short in the past in doing so to all peoples of the world, is part of our vocation as followers of Christ in a global society.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.