CHAPTER III: PARTICULAR CHURCHES (d)
No. 22 of Ad gentes begins with an image of the word of God as a plant that absorbs water and nutrients from the soil around it and transforms them into itself. This, the document says, is what happens in the mission Churches: “They borrow from the customs, traditions, wisdom, teaching, arts and sciences of their people everything which could be used to praise the glory of the Creator, manifest the grace of the Savior, or contribute to the right ordering of Christian life.”
Some of us get nervous when we hear talk of adaptation in the Church, for we fear that Church teaching and practice will be compromised. This, however, is not what the Council Fathers had in mind when they spoke of adaptation, as another sentence of the same number illustrates: “This manner of acting will avoid every appearance of syncretism and false exclusiveness.”
The Fathers wanted the Faith to be studied, first of all, to find contact points with the thinking and ways of life of the new peoples coming into the Church, so that the Faith could be explained to them better. But they wanted this study of the Faith to be done “in the light of the tradition of the universal Church,” i.e. to search through all the history and dogma of the whole Church to find ways of thinking or acting which can be used with this particular people, not to trim down universal Church teaching or practice to fit one culture.
The movement, then, is from Church teaching to the new peoples to learn to speak to them in the best possible way and prepare them to be good soil for the Church. Then there will be a movement of the Church to take back into its life and worship everything of the local culture that has been examined, corrected if need be and found good.
To achieve all this, the Council Fathers say that it is necessary for theological investigation to go on in all the great cultural areas. In fact, in the final sentence of no. 22, they imply that theological centers should be set up in such areas for that purpose: “And so it is to be hoped, and indeed it would be a very good thing, that episcopal conferences should come together within the boundaries of each great socio-cultural region and by a united and coordinated effort pursue this proposal of adaptation.”
The Council Fathers want the new mission Churches to do this work of adaptation so that these Churches will take their rightful place among the Churches of the Universal Church: “So new particular churches, each with its own traditions, have their place in the community of the Church, the primacy of Peter which presides over this universal assembly of charity all the while remaining intact.” Then all humanity will be brought back to God in the unity of the Catholic Church: “Local traditions together with the special qualities of each national family, illumined by the light of the Gospel, will be taken up into a Catholic unity.”