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  • Katherine Dugan

Catholicism as Contradiction

Katherine Dugan reviews The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader

Pope Francis’ recent trip to South America was one of the most embroiled of his five years as pope thus far. Protesters burned churches in advance of his visit, claiming that the Catholic Church in Chile had participated in the oppression of the native Mapuche people. Others protested the pope during Mass, citing the appointment of a bishop with close ties to priests found guilty of sexually abusing minors. At the same time, the devout came out in droves: an estimated one million people attended the papal Mass in Peru. During a ride on his popemobile, a police officer was thrown from her horse and Francis hurried to attend to her. A video of the incident went viral among the pope’s adoring fans. Media coverage in the U.S. highlighted his meetings with the poor and the two Chilean flight attendants he married aboard an airplane.

Pope Francis’ visit illustrates several contradictions embedded in contemporary Catholicism: the wealth of the Vatican and the world’s poorest people. The confidence of Catholic teachings paired with the questions of individual Catholics. The hierarchy’s assertion of moral virtue next to the atrocities of the sexual abuse crisis. The international presence alongside a multitude of local prayer practices. These contradictions are stitched into the fabric of Catholicism.

Catholicism is also an institution, a set of practices, a transnational population, and a cross-cultural phenomenon that cuts across historical contexts and social locations, withstands controversy and outlasts governments. In an effort to categorize this expanse, Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley once proposed that there is a “Catholic imagination”—a Catholic view of the world that assumes God is immanent in human life and that words, objects, and people of Catholicism can reveal God “lurking in daily life.” The editors of The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader ask readers “if there were such a thing as a ‘broader Catholic view of reality,’ what would it look like?”

The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader, ed. Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, Maya Mayblin.

Taking that question as a starting point, this collection proposes that the “anthropology of Catholicism” is an emergent subfield in the anthropology of religion. The twenty-four chapters outline the contours of the field from a variety of perspectives and disciplines. The first chapters gather the pieces of the discipline’s genealogy with excerpts from Victor Turner, Godfrey Lienhardt, and Caroline Walker Bynum. Their works describe the inheritances of the contemporary “anthropology of Catholicism.” The second part of the collection is several fine-grained ethnographies that illustrate the expanse of what the anthropology of Catholicism is uncovering about the global, contemporary Catholic landscape as well as the various approaches and theories scholars employ in doing so. The final section speculates about the potential interventions to be made by this subfield. These five essays query contemporary issues like the sexual abuse crisis, reconsider the nature of ethnography, and examines how this emergent field interacts with the broader study of religion.

Taken together, the authors of these essays manage to examine the multi-layered contradictions of Catholicism through the lens of agency. Over and over, they ask who and what is acting and being acted upon in Catholicism. What counts as a Catholic idea and a Catholic person? Why does Catholicism continue to have influence the twenty-first century? If there is a Catholic imagination, or Catholic imaginations, who acts in it? Three aspects of this are particularly compelling to scholars of Catholicism as well as more casual observes of Catholicism in the twenty-first century: Catholics individuals’ relationship with the hierarchy, Catholics’ relationships with material objects, and Catholicism’s longevity. Catholicism, here, emerges not as a static thing to be studied, but, as one author suggests, a “superorganic material” that engages both practitioners and scholars in a set of contradictions about who, what, and how Catholicism moves in the contemporary world.

Catholicism’s “Knot of Relations”

The ethnographic work of these contributors paints vivid images of Catholics around the world:  Mexican Catholics crawling to the Guadalupe shrine in Kristin Norget’s chapter. Mourning Catholics praying the rosary at a Marian shrine in France in Ellen Badone’s chapter. Guatemalan Catholic charismatics praying in tongues in Eric Hoenes del Pinal’s chapter and the charismatic movement in Cameroon in Ludovic Lado’s chapter. In each of these, these Catholics are simultaneously very local and also quite global. They are, at once, praying in a way that is unique to their social, political, and cultural location but also recognizable as Catholic prayer.

These Catholics’ prayer lives reflect the contested relationship Catholics have with the hierarchy. Catholics are tied into a sort of dance with the structures and hierarchy of Catholicism. Catholics’ practices are refracted within the hierarchy, even when those moves try to shatter that institution, as Maya Mayblin’s essay on the Women Priest movement makes clear. The study of Catholic individuals and communities is necessarily tied into a study of the “mysterious superorganic body that Catholics view as the church.” The institution is entangled—creating, sustaining, morphing—in the daily life of Catholicism. The idea of an “agentic institution” runs counter to long-held anthropological sensibilities, which have historically centered on questions of individuals’ agency. Yet, this emergent field of the anthropology of Catholicism requires sustained engagement with the complex relationship between Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy.

In an effort to interpret this entanglement, Michelle Molina’s chapter draws on the philosophical phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty to describe how Catholics and scholars of Catholicism live in a world constituted by a “knot of relations.” The task confronting scholars is to pay attention to how the meaning of Catholic things is “emergent, knotted into embodied relations.”

Positing Catholicism as a “knot of relations” also elucidates the need for attention to a co-dependency between Catholic prayer and Catholics’ daily life.  Hillary Kaell provides one example as she probes the role memory in contemporary Catholic practices. In her chapter on roadside shrines, she studies the “devotional labor” of Canadian Catholics who care for crosses across the rural Quebec landscape. Nostalgia allows caretakers to remember a “memorialized past and an everyday reality.” This style of moving between the past and present is the work Catholic imagination does for the devout Catholics in Kaell’s work. But it is also the work of Catholic imagination for not-so-devout Catholics elsewhere. For example, William Christianson, in his excerpted work, argues that medieval Spanish Catholicism always involved a “degrees of belief in immanence.” These two examples make clear that the Catholic imagination is itself made up of contradictions. Attention to Catholics’ memories and their “degree of delight and wisdom” provide glimpses into an interpretation of Catholic divinity manifest in daily life.

The anthropology of Catholicism requires attention to the ways Catholics are entangled with social forces, contemporary life, as well as their prayer lives. This knot of relationships also reverberates in the materiality of Catholic practices.

Catholic Things

In addition to Catholics’ relationships with their institution, Catholics’ relationship with things—with material objects ranging from prayer cards to saints’ statues to the Eucharistic hosthas long fascinated (sometimes troubled) observers of Catholicism, as illustrated in the volume’s excerpt from Victor and Edith Turner on Marian devotion. What is the relationship between the thing and the idea? Why do Catholics insist on material objects in their religious lives? In his innovative contribution on Maltese Catholics, Jon Mitchell describes this relationship between the material and immaterial as a “Catholic sensorium.” His work proposes the Catholic body as a porous entity that mediates between Catholics and saints. However, Catholic bodies are often inseparable from the things that mark them: prayer cards shoved into tattered sleeves, tattoos of Guadalupe on men’s backs or arms across Mexico, and the small pins that have taken the place of habits for many women religious in the U.S.

The overwhelming presence of this Catholic stuff forces scholars to ask so what? This Catholic attention to material manifestations and mediations of divinity has sometimes made them seem tribal, as the excerpt by the Turners suggests, or somewhat stunted, as the excerpt from Robert Hertz on devotion to St. Besse implies. But what happens when scholars suspend value judgement of these past scholars and pay attention to the nature of religious practice in the contemporary world? It is not, as Simon Coleman helpfully points out in his chapter, that Catholics are alone in their reliance on bodies and objects in ritual practices. But it is the case that Catholics have become categorically linked to embodied practices and materialized prayers, usually in order to distinguish them from the purportedly less-encumbered Protestant world.

What this means for the anthropology of Catholicism is that Catholic things themselves are implicated in the web that constitutes religious imaginations. The stuff of Catholicism—material objects, bodies—spill out of the neat containers of agency. It is not always clear that the things of Catholicism are not agentic; that rosaries are not actually mediating divity; that prayer cards are not actually conduits of the saints. This is a vivid example of the contradictions embedded in Catholic imagination. Catholics move in the modern world while also engaging with prayer cards and rosaries.

Catholicism’s Longue Durée

The editors of The Anthropology of Catholicism observe, with a tone of incredulity, that Catholicism has outlasted presidents and dictators; it has survived pressures of schism and wars over theological disputes; it has faced scandals and resisted change—and has still managed to thrive. Catholicism is one the largest and long-lasting institutions in the history of humanity.

The editors push scholars to ask, “To what should we attribute this remarkable resilience?” This question is both institutional (how has the hierarchy maintained its power?) and intimate (why does Catholic identity matter so much to individuals?).

Robert Orsi’s contribution asks about Catholicism’s resiliency from the perspective of the sexual abuse crisis. He proposes that part of the answer to both his query and the resiliency of Catholicism might be found in the ways Catholics are taught to be Catholic, describing “how this formation gets so deeply pressed into their bodies and imaginations that it becomes a subjectively internalized and experienced objectivity.” It is not that Catholicism’s resilience rests only in the power of tradition and the Vatican’s economic might; it is that somehow Catholicism burrows into the bones of practitioners. The force of this discipline happens on such an intimate level that it is easy to forget or miss when we talk about who and what Catholicism is in the contemporary world. To examine about Catholicism’s resilience, then, challenges scholars to move between individuals’ histories as well as institutional history.

The contradictions embedded in Catholicism’s long durrée are also reflected in the global context of Catholicism. Examples abound in this collection, including the Cameroon’s charismatic movement, Mexican evangelism in Mexico, Catholics in Syria and India, as well as various Marian shrines around the world. More than simply ethnographic snapshots, these examples illustrate the spatial presence of Catholicism’s longue durée. The anthropology of Catholicism has to contend with the simultaneously local and global manifestations of Catholicism.


Catholic agency, like a Catholic imagination, is a many-headed thing. During his 2018 New Year’s address, Pope Francis criticized what he called the “banality of consumerism.” Supporters cheered and affirmed the pope’s willingness to discuss social issues. Detractors worried about an over-emphasis on social issues. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Catholics around the world continued with their daily lives. This dailiness matters: how Catholics pray and why they don’t go to Mass; the worries they have about their children and how they maintain church spaces and when they decide to walk away from Catholicism or convert to it all shape the Catholic imagination. Likewise, agency is important for modern, Catholic individuals, of course. But Catholic hierarchy, Catholic objects, and Catholic history also act in the contemporary world. To think in terms of a Catholic imagination—or, perhaps, Catholic imaginations—is to think in terms of multiple locations of agency. One of the takeaways from this reader is just how uncomfortable that can be. The idea of stuff acting in the world or institutions with agency runs counter to the modern, liberal imagination.

But the contradictions of Catholicism force attention to these multiple agencies. Why a woman would even want to be a Catholic priest or why a victim of sexual abuse by a priest would maintain Catholic identity or why an impoverished Chilean would want to touch the pope’s expensive ring cannot be understood without thinking about Catholic agency that falls out of the tidy containers of contemporary religion. The essays in this collection make especially clear how Catholicism overwhelms and expands the available categories. Catholicism challenges the containers we have for religion.

Catholicism has never been just one thing, nor has Catholic agency and Catholic actors been located in only one segment of the Catholic world. To engage in and around Catholicism is to look in unexpected places and sometimes confusing locations for Catholic agency. The contradictions of Catholicism are not aberrations or contra-facts. Instead, these contradictions cut to the heart of a Catholic imagination.


Katherine Dugan, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Religion in the Humanities Department at Springfield College. She studies American Religions with a specialization in contemporary Catholicism in the U.S. She teaches courses on American religion and introduction to world religions. Katherine’s research interests are in religious experience, women in religion, and the intersection of religious practice and American culture.


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