The above photograph has been greeted in some traddy circles with cries of alarm. Certainly it raises concerns about the questionably syncretistic intentions of some Indian clergy. But the true seriousness of the incident only becomes apparent when it is put into the context of wider developments.
Once it was the unspoken assumption of Catholic ecclesiology that ‘one size fits all’; that the Catholic doctrine was a seamless garment which applied in every culture and clime. This obviously did not apply to the adventitious trappings of religion – the liturgical furniture, as one might say. But it most certainly applied to the cardinal doctrines. They were, as Fr Austin Farrer wittily described them, like inebriates returning from a party. Mutual pressure held them upright: remove only one, and all would end in the ditch.
This is no longer the case.
Doctrine is now, by some, deemed to be subject to geographical variation. Orders, for example, hitherto deemed universal – the very fabric of unity – are now thought to be subject to local, cultural modification, so that those who are priests in one place might not be acceptable (or deemed to be such) in another. What is deemed in one place to be an adulterous relationship might properly be accepted as godly and righteous in another.
This volte face is generally explained by the demands of ‘evangelisation’. In order for it to take root the faith must be indigenised, and certain tenets and practices adapted to local conditions.
This – not the wearing of saffron robes – is the real syncretism. And it is more likely to be found in the prosperous Churches of the West, surrounded as they are by godless paganism, than in missionary outposts set amongst rival religions.