Folk Catholicism vs. Pop Catholicism

9 10 2008

A distinction without a difference?

In conversation with others, I have found myself coining the term “pop Catholicism”. Well, I didn’t exactly coin the term, but I think it is a good working one. First of all, “pop Catholicism” invokes commercialist and individualist tendencies; the superficiality of a technicolor dream. It is consumerist, it wears its Catholicism on the sleeve as a “personal choice”. It also transcends the dichotomy of right and left; EWTN and America Magazine are both consumeristic from a social persective. “Pop Catholicism” is felt banners, Catholic rock music, apologetics CD’s and radio, along with other kitsch that is associated with modern culture. It is Catholicism for a non-Catholic, post-industrial, and postmodern society. It is the synthesis of many tendencies from formerly Catholic societies and their grafting onto a non-Catholic, inorganic context.

Is there a difference between this and what is known as “Folk Catholicism”? In certain countries, the difference is negligible. No doubt folk Catholicism has always been more open to popular elements than its mainstream counterpart. And within the context of modernization, folk Catholicism will no doubt develop in parallel terms along with American “pop Catholicism”. In some ways, the parallels may be striking if not at all surprising. The obsession of left wing Catholics in this country with the New Age  is similar to the rise of spiritism in many places in Latin America prior to Vatican II, and many folk saint curanderos  were also mediums and played around with spiritism [the cult of Niño Fidencio (pictured above) in northern Mexico and the syncretic religions of Brazil are examples of this.]  Modern themes also emerge in folk Catholicism: sports, homosexuality, migration, computers, and other phenomena of the modern age.

To make a glib statement, “pop Catholicism” is folk Catholicism with money, stripped of its need to create supernatural helpers and enemies in the struggle for survival. Folk Catholicism at its worse reverses the premise of the Lord’s Prayer: not “Thy will be done” but rather “MY will be done” in a world where what is contrary to your will could also be very hazardous to your health. When we have reached a point when our will is usually done within the context of consumerist gratification, the Catholic believer disposes of the helpers in the Christian cosmos that get him out of unpleasant binds. Man no longer has need for prayer, and if he does pray, it usually is to celebrate his own dignity and equality with other men (one only need look at the content of modern Catholic hymns).  Pop Catholicism is folk Catholicism without the need, and when man finally finds himself in need in the modern context, he knows not who or how to ask.

Religion no longer is seen as something necessary for survival, but rather another component of good citizenship and self-fulfilment. And if the former gets in the way of the latter, it is obvious what needs to be ignored. In both its right and left wing manifestations, it is a profoundly personal choice. Before, people picked what saints would go on their personal altar to invoke in life and death situations. Now, they pick dogmas and liturgical ceremonies of their own chosing.

Pop Catholicism is all about choice. Folk Catholicism is all about necessity. A modern Catholic rejecting a particular dogma does so because it does not suit him. A medieval mother kidnapping the Christ Child from the arms of the Virgin to ransom Him for the life of her own child, or an old woman lighting a candle to the Grim Reaper so that he won’t snatch her in the night does it out of necessity.  If we return to the state of necessity instead of that of choice, if poverty becomes the norm and not the exception, will we know then how to spiritually survive?


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7 responses

23 11 2009
Jared B.

Really interesting post! I’m curious to learn more about “folk Catholicism”, but I hit upon a problem right from the outset: What the blog calls pop Catholicism has things like books, websites, CDs, radio & television, all making it very accessible. So I suppose a “folk Catholic” would find it easy to see what “pop Catholicism” is all about. How does it work the other way around, if folk Catholicism is characterized by not having any of those things?

Am I sort of like that beach-goer in Jaws who asks “When do I become an islander?” unaware that if I wasn’t born on the island, the answer is ‘never’?

31 08 2009
Are we all Hindus? « Reditus: A Chronicle of Aesthetic Christianity

[…] phenomenon do we have in modernity then, and how is it (dis)continuous from what came before? I have used the term “Pop Catholicism” to explain the remnant of lay Catholicism as it has manifested itself in late capitalist society. […]

14 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I was speaking of them more as an industry that can often homogenize, commercialize, and distort Catholicism into something that is thorougly modern and far from authentic. All you have to do is listen to five minutes of Catholic radio to realize this.

14 10 2008
David Wagner

Good post over all. A minor quibble: If “pop Catholicism is all about choice” (and it may well be), then including the New Apologists in pop Catholicism is problematic. The New Apologists are not about choice, but about making arguments (popularized, but rooted in serious theology) as to why some choices in doctrine and morals are right and others are wrong. Sure, one can prefer one apologist to another, but that hardly makes the current apologetics movement “all about choice,” any more than folk-Catholic saints’ cults were all about choice because one could choose a favorite saint.

I also wonder how you’re using the word “for” in the context of pop Catholicism being “for a non-Catholic, post-industrial, and postmodern society.” Surely Catholics are supposed to do apostolate with, to evangelize, that society. In that sense, at least, being “for” that society would seem to be praise, not blame.

10 10 2008
christina

>When we have reached a point when our will is usually done within the context of consumerist gratification, the Catholic believer disposes of the helpers in the Christian cosmos that get him out of unpleasant binds. Man no longer has need for prayer, and if he does pray, it usually is to celebrate his own dignity and equality with other men (one only need look at the content of modern Catholic hymns).

This may be true of the “left” wing, but the “right” wing really seems to really go for the saints, apparitions, old-time devotions, etc. Scott Hahn recommends devotion to ones guardian angel. The Pieta Prayer Book contains prayers of exorcism, against storms, a “letter from Heaven” (Himmelsbrief?) and other things which smack of folk Catholicism, and it’s sold like six million copies.

9 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

To clarify, I do not mean to say by this post that one of these phenomenon is better than the other per se. Obviously, I think folk Catholicism has much more to teach us that pop Catholicism ever could: the Christopher Wests’, Andrew Greeleys’, Commonweals’ and New Oxford Reviews’ of the world. Absolutely speaking, both are similarly corrupt from the “official” stand point. I am just not so sure about the “official standpoint” anymore. I think in my own life, “folk religion” has always come first in a lot of ways, and that is why perhaps I have been a little harsh on those who have not had similar experiences. Folk religion has more to do with life than it does with dogma, and in many ways, it is its foundation. As I have said, if I like Cardinal Newman have to make religion a subject of after dinner toasts, I would toast to my grandmothers first (magical eggs, folk saints, kitschy statues and all) and then to the Pope. That seems to be all but obvious, and it would be profoundly disturbing if it were the other way around.

9 10 2008
Mike L

Pop Catholicism is all about choice. Folk Catholicism is all about necessity.

I like that. You’ve pretty much summed the difference between rank-and-file Catholicism in the West and its outliers, such as Australia, and rank-and-file Catholicism everywhere else.

Material plenty is the pivot, of course. (I don’t just say ‘money’ because what’s important is the time and the other luxuries that money can buy.) For folk Catholics, the supernatural is the reality beyond the reality which oppresses them. For pop Catholics, the supernatural is a sophisticated way to relieve the boredom of materialism—all the better if a small thumb can thereby be stuck in the Church’s eye.

Best,
Mike

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