Decree on missions gave greater dignity to young churches

February 3, 2014

It is often said that the Church thinks in terms of centuries and that it often takes that long for the Church to "catch up" with what the rest of the world has already realized.

Sometimes, this is true, other times not. The Church was, for example, long suspicious of modern biblical studies, mainly because so many practitioners of the art denied the existence of the supernatural. However, once Pope Pius XII opened the door to using modern methods with his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, Catholic scholars were among the world's leaders in using those methods within a couple of decades.

The same might be said about the Church's attitude to missionary evangelization. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church too often failed to distinguish between preaching the Gospel and imposing European culture on "primitive peoples." There were glorious exceptions to this rule, Canada's Samuel de Champlain being one of them.

However, the legacy of the Indian residential schools is clear testimony of the Church's general failure to respect the dignity of First Nations' cultures.

It does need to be said that missionaries were generally tossed into foreign cultures without the sort of knowledge that any undergraduate anthropology student today would have in spades. Respect for and knowledge of indigenous cultures did not exist to any degree prior to the mid-20th century.

Once the Church understood the problem, it responded as quickly as anyone, certainly quicker than, for example, the Canadian government which is still mired in paternalistic policies and attitudes toward native peoples.

A nun teaches children in Africa in the image from the archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.


A nun teaches children in Africa in the image from the archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The Church's new appreciation of enculturation can be seen throughout the Vatican II documents, but none more so than the Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes).

Ad Gentes was approved on the final working day of Vatican II, Dec. 7, 1965. It was also, significantly, approved at the end of the era of colonialism during which missionaries had too often been de facto agents of the colonizing powers.

The basic premise of the decree can be found in its article two, which states, "The Church on earth is by its very nature missionary." That premise is rooted in the nature of the Trinity. Through the three-person Divinity, God "graciously calls us to share in his life and his glory."


God should be understood, not as a dictator issuing edicts on what to do and not to do, but rather as the divine dance of love who beckons us to come and join in the joy.

Within the Godhead, there is plurality for there can be no love without difference. Moreover, God is not trapped in transcendence apart from his creation; traces of his love can be found throughout creation, including in human cultures.

"Seeds of the word" lie hidden in every culture, the decree says (AG 11). Goodness exists in the customs and cultures of every people. Brought into contact with the Gospel, that goodness, far from being exterminated, "is purified, raised to a higher level and reaches its perfection for the glory of God, the confusion of the demon and the happiness of humankind" (AG 9).

The decree explicitly states that no one should be forced to accept the Christian faith just as "no one should be frightened away from the faith by unjust harassment" (AG 13).


The establishment of the Church in missionary lands must proceed through enculturation. That means borrowing "from the customs, traditions, wisdom, teaching, arts and sciences of their people everything which could be used to praise the glory of the Creator" (AG 22).

One should not conclude from that statement that everything in any culture is good and that a culture can be above criticism raised in the light of the Gospel. Syncretism – the belief that no religion is better than another – is unacceptable.

Establishing the Catholic Church in any society requires "a liturgy that is in harmony with the character of the people" as well as Church law that is sensitive to local needs (AG 19).

"Young churches" must also gradually acquire their own diocesan structures with their own clergy. Moreover, a mature Church requires laity who work hand-in-hand with the hierarchy. "For the Gospel cannot become deeply rooted in the mentality, life and work of a people without the active presence of lay people" (AG 21).


The decree was criticized during the council for being overly hierarchical in its orientation and for thus not paying sufficient attention to the role of the laity in enculturation of the Gospel. One might respond that other conciliar documents do give a greater role to the laity in witnessing to the Gospel.

The decree also failed to anticipate the extent to which post-Vatican II missionaries would become involved in the struggle for justice in developing nations.

The decision by numerous missionaries to make a preferential option for the poor was one of the most striking features of the Church following the council. It also became a major feature in official Church documents hailing from both the Vatican and the Latin American bishops.

Given all that, it must be said that the basic premise of Ad Gentes – that the Church is in its very nature missionary – has still not become part of Catholic awareness. Sadly, this may be one insight that it does take the Church centuries to come to bring into reality.