When the Lord God, set apart His chosen people, He gave them a set of rules to adhere to. First of them, was “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:2-5) The first commandment reveals who God is, and enjoins us to love God in the totality of our beings – above everything and all creatures for Him, and because of Him. (CCC. 2093).

Throughout the years, the Church has had to grapple with how to bring about the message of who God our Father was and is to the rest of the world. As the mandate of Christ reflects, “Go, therefore,  and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 19-20) Intrinsic to this discussion, is the encounter that the Culture of the Gospel, has with the cultures of the world. The question of evangelisation is not so much concerned about the mere act of creating visibility and awareness, but the penetration and permeation of the Gospel into all levels and all circumstances of humanity. While the Culture of the Gospel is a divine culture that is independent of the cultures of the world, the Kingdom which the Culture of the Gospel proclaims is lived and experienced by humanity in ways that draw heavily from the material realities of living. To make this expression of the Culture of the Gospel tangible and alive, it borrows the language and the tropes of human culture, so that the humanity that experiences the Culture of the Gospel in our finite capacity, can understand the bits and pieces of the Culture of the Gospel that have been divinely revealed to us. Like the parables that Jesus spoke to His disciples, we come to understand the Divine through the unpacking of the metaphors and symbolisms that are engrained in our everyday material cultures. Until the day when we can encounter God face-to-face, and can understand what is plainly spoken to us, we can only encounter the Divine through a fraction of human senses.

The Pontifical Council for Culture (1999) reminds us:

“The evangelization of cultures and the inculturation of the Gospel go hand in hand, in a reciprocal relationship which presupposes constant discernment in the light of the Gospel, to facilitate the identification of values and counter-values in a given culture, so as to build on the former and vigorously combat the latter. «Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community. She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within. Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission» (Redemptoris Missio, 52). «Necessary and essential» (Pastores dabo vobis, 55), inculturation, the very opposite of backward-looking archeologism and worldly mimicry, is «called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures». In this encounter, not only are the cultures deprived of nothing, but they are actually stimulated to open themselves to the newness of the Gospel’s truth and to find in it an incentive for further development. (cf. Fides et Ratio 71).

In tune with the objective demands of faith and its mission to evangelize, the Church takes account of the essential fact that the meeting of faith and culture is a meeting of things which are not of the same order. The inculturation of faith and the evangelization of culture go together as an inseparable pair, in which there is no hint of syncretism:(8) this is the genuine meaning of inculturation. «In the face of all the different and at times contrasting cultures present in the various parts of the world, inculturation seeks to obey Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to all nations even unto the ends of the earth. Such obedience does not signify either syncretism or a simple adaptation of the announcement of the Gospel, but rather the fact the Gospel penetrates the very life of cultures, becomes incarnate in them, overcoming those cultural elements that are incompatible with the faith and Christian living and raising their values to the mystery of salvation which comes from Christ» (Pastores dabo vobis, 55).” (Pt. 5, Para 1 & 2)

This weekend, the celebration of the Lunar New Year coincides with the celebration of the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and perhaps the readings for this week, which remind us to consider disease and contamination, cleanliness and uncleanness, and the steps needed to restore a person back into the community, are a poignant reminder to discern carefully the differences between inculturation where our faith finds expression in culture, and that of syncreticism, where we adopt other beliefs and other deities from other religions, and thus contaminating our own faith. The Lunar New Year is an event with deep cultural nuance and is celebrated largely by descendants of Asians from East or South-East Asia. Heralding the change in seasons from Winter to Spring, central to its unfolding is the narrative of reunion, friendship, kinship, blessing, and prospering.

While the Church has inculturated the use of oranges as a symbol of God’s abundant blessing during this period of time, there are some grey areas that need addressing. For example, some Chinese Catholics firmly believe that the welcoming of the god of Fortune, or Cai Shen Ye, is but a mere cultural expression. Having grown up with this, this is something that is so deeply entrenched in the culture, that some would even go to the extent of arguing that it is not the celebration of the Lunar New Year without the god of Fortune. These perpetuate the erroneous belief that it is okay to have the god of Fortune alongside the God whom we worship. Yet, does not the First Commandment say, “You shall have no other gods beside me”? It is in fact anathema to the teachings of the Church, for the god of Fortune is in fact worshipped as a deity in the Taoist patheon of deities.

The Church has seen its fair share of controversies, in Galatians 2, we see the funny incident of St. Paul rebuking St. Peter for retaining Jewish customs and practices in the Christian faith. Catholic Syncreticism is very real and dangerous. While we uphold and recognise the truth that is found in other religions, there is no room for syncreticism and relativism in our faith. Unfortunately, under a false impression of dialogue and a gross misinterpretation of Vatican II, we find many errors of syncreticism in the Church. This happens because many Christians are themselves ill-formed and ignorant about the teachings of the Church, and know very little of Scripture, or misquote it. They pick and choose the tenets of the Faith that they are comfortable with, while discarding others that are inconvenient to them. Fr. Bernard Green (n.d.) proposes that,

“The syncretistic tendency can be defined as the attempt to appropriate ideas and practices from a variety of spiritual traditions without any attempt to discriminate their truth or value on the basis of Catholic faith. One way in which the equality and compatibility of various religions is justified is by subsuming their various dimensions under generic categories. So, the writings of different religions are all put on the same level by being labelled “sacred.” Similarly, different deities are subsumed under the general category of the Transcendent, and various rituals are all considered to serve the same function of contacting and establishing unity with the Transcendent.”

A possible solution to this madness is found in this Sunday’s Gospel – we must return to Jesus and beg him to make us clean again. Jesus came to perfect culture. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal what is an idol in our lives, what is hindering us in our culture, and what we need to leave behind so as to embrace fully the new culture that the living of the Gospel and following Christ offers us.


By the Grace of God,

Brian Bartholomew Tan





Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1999). Article 1. The First Commandment. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Green, B. (n.d.). Catholicism confronts new age syncreticism. EWTN. Retrieved February 10, 2024 from https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/catholicism-confronts-new-age-syncretism-11322

Pontifical Council for Culture. (1999). Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.