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Jenne asks: “I would like to know more about how to “baptize” some of the different Native American spiritualities. The Church has been incorporating pagan ideas for thousands of years and I’d really like to see that happen with some of the Native American principles, especially their emphasis on stewardship of the earth/resources. How would we best go about that without watering down Catholicism or moving towards some kind of pantheism?”
The Church does have a long history of incorporating the cultures of a converted people into the Christian life. Pope St. Gregory the Great, for example, urged St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was evangelizing England at the time, to refrain from tearing down the pagan shrines to the various gods. Instead, Pope Gregory suggested using the temples as churches, clearing out the idols, of course, but keeping the location and even the building, as it was more comfortable for the new converts. Likewise, we see throughout the Church a variety of cultural traditions that have sprung up from local, pre-Christian customs that were baptized, so to speak. And, of course, we have intellectual contributions like the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato in our Christian intellectual tradition.
As far as Native American culture is concerned, I agree that the Church can and should incorporate what is naturally good in Native American spiritualities while not embracing what is detrimental to the Faith. In fact, such cultural appropriation has been practiced since the earliest missionaries came to the Americas. Think, for example, of St. Jean de Brebeuf, who served the Hurons in New France (Canada). Instead of merely trying to teach French to the Hurons, St. Jean learned their language. It was EXTREMELY difficult, and he spent years learning how to speak it, eventually creating a written language for the natives, with which he translated a catechism and composed a Huron/French dictionary. He even used the language to write the “Huron Carol” for Christmas time.
There are also examples of using different prayers for Masses and feasts among Native American Catholic communities (translated into the Native American languages) that might merit classifying these liturgies not merely as translations of the Latin Roman Rite into Native American languages, but perhaps even the development of new, diverse forms of the Roman Rite.
Many of the earliest missionaries met with hostile responses or martyrdom from several native tribes and confederations, but their sacrifice produced great fruit. Think, for example, of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and her beautiful story. There are also several later, notable converts to Catholicism from various Native American tribes, including, perhaps most famously, Black Elk and Red Cloud of the Lakota Sioux. However, converts from various native religions did have to abandon aspects of their native culture in the process of becoming Catholic; Black Elk in particular demonstrates this tension between the Native American pantheism and Catholic monotheism. Black Elk was a medicine man who became a catechist and worked with Jesuit missionaries to evangelize other members of his tribe. Of course, I can’t talk about Black Elk without mentioning that his cause for canonization was opened last year.
What is so wrong with most Native American religions? While most of the native religions have some sense of a Great Spirit, there is often a strong thread of pantheism. Everything in nature is divine, not merely sharing in the existence of God, to use Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysics. Pantheism does not allow for monotheism by definition. There can’t be one god if everything is god.
Which leads to Jenne’s original question. Where can we have overlap? If we seek proper cultural appropriation with Native Americans, we must incorporate the good aspects of their religious practices and beliefs. What would that look like?
To an extent, visible forms of this cultural appropriation began soon after the close of the Second Vatican Council. The liturgical changes following the Council, while disruptive in many parts of the Church, were helpful in evangelization efforts in the developing world and among Native Americans. The result was the Catholic liturgy with Native American trappings. One report describes the following:
At St. Augustine’s [Indian Mission in Winnebago, Nebraska] for example, [Director of the Mission Fr. Steve] Boes burns sacred cedar branches instead of incense, spreading the fragrance with an eagle feather instead [of] an ornamental censer.
“The Winnebago and Omaha people believe cedar purifies– it helps to take away sin,” Boes said. “That natural symbol fits perfectly with the penitential rite of the Catholic Church … we ask God to lift us up and to purify us.”
Such inclusion of Native culture follows the tradition of the Church, saving what is good in a society and directing that goodness to God.
For most Catholic Native Americans (and there are a lot of them, making up about a quarter of all Native Americans), the idea of a conflict between their Catholic Faith and their cultural heritage is strange. Many of their tribes teach there is one Creator God, rather than holding a pantheistic view of the world. They pray to God using rituals and prayers similar to those practiced before their conversion to Christianity.
The Church teaches that we are custodians of the environment. A similar thought runs through most Native American cultures. While they use the environment, it is not an abuse of nature, but rather with the intention of working with it. You find in Native American, and many other cultures around the world, a sense of gratitude towards natural things for allowing people to use them. Following the call of Pope Francis for a more proper “human ecology,” we might see in this respect for nature a model for our own interactions with the natural world.
The condition, as always, is to make sure we ultimately praise the Creator of the world, not the creatures that inhabit it. All thanks we give to the world for working with us should have as its final end praise and glory to God.
Jenne (and anyone else interested), I encourage you to check out resources the Church has put out in recent decades about Native American spirituality. One is a homily given by Pope St. John Paul II at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Ontario, Canada in 1984. There was also a recent directive distributed by the USCCB.
[Update: Recently, specific dioceses have published instructions for working with Native American Catholics within their borders, as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles did the day after this post was originally published].
For Further Reading (all by my friend Peter J. Smith)