“Poorly Catechized” – Part II

27 10 2008

Michael P. Carroll begins his book, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy with an anecdote meant to shock the modern reader. After the Council of Trent, mendicant orders were sent into the Italian countryside to better inform the peasants about the Catholic religion. They were shocked and dismayed about what they found, to the point that they began to call the region, “the Italian Indies”. On what they thought were the essential questions of the Faith, these peasants were hopelessly ignorant. The most shocking incident was when the preachers asked how many gods there are. Some peasants would say three, ten, one hundred, and even more. When asked what a god was then, they would answer that the local priest or boss was a god, or the Pope, or their picture of the Madonna.

Carroll points out that this is a loaded question. Real polytheism had been dead in the Italian peninsula for a thousand years. The average peasant could not really be a pagan even if he tried. To ask, “how many gods are there?” to an “ignorant” peasant hints at the implication that there are several gods. In a hierarchical society where people venerated those who could read, an attempt to impress them by trying to come up with as many “gods” as you could think of might appear silly to us, but perfectly logical to them. In the end, it was a bit of a cruel joke, a transportation of the concerns and obsessions of the clergy onto a peasant class whose religion was quite different from their own. 

My mother growing up in Mexico petitioned God in her rosary that “el hereje vea sus yerros“: that the heretic might see his errors. My mother, or her parents for that matter, probably didn’t know what a heretic was. My mother also tells the story of first coming to this country at the age of nine and not knowing what a Protestant church was; she would make the sign of the Cross every time she passed a building with a cross on it and assumed that it was a church. If you had asked someone in my mother’s village who was an “hereje“, he probably would have told you that the local corrupt politician was a heretic, or the bad priest in the village next to them, or the neighbor who probably stole his goat. In spite of this, these prayers were passed down by the clergy to the people and made their own, and to this day they still have them memorized.

Dr. Carroll’s book has too much good stuff in it, and one is tempted to write a post about all of it. However, here we will limit ourselves to examining the more dominant trends that would differentiate popular Catholicism in Italy from its more official counterpart. I do apologize if this essay is a bit disorganized, but for any more organized sense of the book, you are directed to the text itself. The main point I would like to draw out is the dialectical encounter between the official top-down system of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and the popular religion of the people.  I will not make the stark contrasts that Carroll makes that I think put too much enmity between the two. However, what is most surprising is that many of the popular practices and beliefs that we label “medieval” hold-overs of a peasant past were really creative reactions to the new concerns of Tridentine Catholicism. In other words, there “ancient” practices were really not so ancient after all. The two main categories in this regard are people’s views of images and their views of the intercession of the dead.

One of Tridentine Catholicism’s main concerns was the preservation of the cult of images against the attack of Protestant iconoclasm. On the Italian peninsula, such iconoclasm never took hold, and images were always popular. There was thus no problem instilling the veneration of images into the people. But what happens if this veneration for a sacred image goes so far that ecclesiastical authorities began to cover them, even when they are being processed through the streets? This was done not just to preserve the sacredness of the painting, but to protect people from the “Madonnas that maim” (to steal a phrase from one of Carroll’s other books). These images of the sweet girl from Nazareth were not just miraculous, but outright dangerous. Carroll cites one anecdote from the cathedral of Pisa when the newly appointed archbishop, obviously from out of town, wanted to see a veiled image of the Virgin. Before he could uncover it, he was seized with a shivering fit and yelled out, “Cover it! Cover it!” He died soon afterwards. One of the canons also present committed suicide by cutting his own throat with a razor, another canon died as well, and the workman present came out relatively unscathed: he merely went blind.  Though veiled images were relatively rare, they were veiled for a reason. They could have miraculous healing powers, but they could also have the opposite effect if disrespected.

The cult of images also made itself manifest in the more public byways in the form of roadside shrines to the Madonna known as edicola. There were many stories of men playing games of chance near these shrines and blaspheming the Madonna when they lost. Some even cut the cheek or hand of the Madonna in a fit of rage, and blood instantly came out of the gash as if he had cut flesh. Most stories involved the assailant dying a violent death soon afterwards, either by the hand of man or of nature. Sacred images could also get jealous of one another, as Carroll reveals in one chronicle of the Church of the Pietà near Naples:

Thirty four years ago there was an image of the Madonna della Pietà that had been painted on a wall in the garden of Francesco di Sangro, Duke of Torremaggiore… Not wanting to be held in such low regard the image began to dispense a great number of miracles and favors.

Images, far from being the “catechism for those who cannot read” that the official Church posited them to be, were in themselves powerful. They sought the devotion of the worshipper and punished him for disrespect if this was merited. In Carroll’s world, they take on a life of their own, and even if we can come up with an explanation to marry both visions, the contrast between the two remains.

The cult of the dead also took new forms as a popular response to the ideas of the Counter-Reformation. Carroll tells of the older vision of the afterlife in the Italian Catholicism known as the “Ponte di San Giacomo”, which was a bridge (in some versions made of the Madonna’s milk) that allowed the soul to pass over to the other side after death. This bridge, however, was also full of daggers, spears, and other sharp objects that made passage difficult. Popular folk traditions at the point of death such as opening the roof of the dying person’s house allowed the soul a safer passage across the dangerous bridge. The idea of Purgatory in this sense came along relatively late after the Counter-Reformation, but it often took forms that were unexpected in the eyes of Tridentine Catholicism.

The main problem that official Catholicism faced in the introduction of purgatory was the idea that you were supposed to pray for the souls in purgatory, not to  them. Many times, chapels would emerge to plague victims or executed criminals that became the focus of devotion (this is seen as well in Latin American religion). While Counter-Reformation theologians would see the idea of Purgatory as mainly an issue of the Church’s institutional power to distribute the merits of the saints, the average Italian layman saw the soul in Purgatory as a last ditch intercessor who could respond to one’s petition in a time of dire need. This relationship took the form of a quid pro quo: in exchange for indulgences earned by the living, the dead could grant terrestrial favors. The more in need the soul, the more disposed she was to answer the prayer. From this idea came an Italian version of the “anima sola“: the soul who has no one to pray for her, very common as well in Latin America. While the officials of the Church were happy that people were taking to heart the idea of Purgatory, all of this is probably not what they had in mind. This was the common people’s reaction to an idea that had been building momentum since the twelfth century, and it was one that created a whole other beast from the one that came before it.

Unlike Carroll and Antonio Gramsci, I don’t draw such stark lines between official Catholicism and popular Catholicism. Both need each other, and both have been in constant dialectical and creative tension since Pentecost. The people need shepherds to guide them, and the shepherds need the people to create a Church for them to guide. There is no simple, by-the-book answer as to who is more correct and who needs to learn from whom. As we have seen, popular Catholicism has no problem accepting many complex theological concepts and making them organically fit into the life of the Church. We see this in the idea of Purgatory in Italy and in the Immaculate Conception that entered into the devotional consciousness of the Spanish Church. On the other hand, the Church has for the most part been lenient in accepting and canonizing the devotions and the piety of its people, as it should be.

In the last fifty years of the Church, I would argue, this balance has been upset by internal and external problems. Externally, secularization has swept away the sacred and mechanized the human spirit to the point that it has cleared away all else except the universal reign of technocracy. On the other hand, the hierarchy underestimated how important the lay devotions and worldviews of yesteryear were to the health of the Church. In this sense, there is no longer a dialectical struggle between official and popular Catholicism since both have been leveled and stripped of their color, extravagance, and meaning. Not only did modern Catholicism get wiped away by the tsunami of modernity, but it chose to swim mightily with its current. In a real sense, then, from the pro-abortion politician to the crusading Catholic apologist of cyberspace, there has never been a people so poorly catechized in the history of the Church; a people so rootless that religion has become a matter of fancy in a cultural wasteland.


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18 responses

27 08 2010
Mark of the Vineyard

As for vengeful images, I have a story I’d like to share, about my grandfather.

He was born in the Old Country, but was only baptised in his late 20’s, before he was married. You might see he was poorly catechized: the priest told my grandmother to teach him to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary and that things would be ok. He’d go to Mass every Sunday, had a devotion to Our Lady of Fátima, etc (he stopped going to Confession after a talk with some priest after moving to the US).
Anyway, while still here in the Old Country he used to have an image of the BVM glued to his “vespa”. One day, he gave a ride to a friend who spat on the image out of spite. The man came down with throat cancer some while later and died. My grandfather (and my grandmother and my mom) always said that it was punishment for having spat on the image.

29 10 2008
FrGregACCA

Link didn’t work. “Chicago’s Mary Alice Quinn”

http://www.graveyards.com/IL/Cook/holysepulchre/quinn.html

29 10 2008
FrGregACCA

Christina:

And, historically, Roman Catholics of Northern European descent have had their folk saints as well. My favorite is Chicago’s

29 10 2008
M.J. Ernst-Sandoval

I’d be curious to see a paper or book on the cultus of images in Protestantism (and not just one on Anglo-Catholics or Confessional Lutherans).

29 10 2008
christina

>Yes, but if you look at who attends those spontaneous prayer meetings, it’s overwhelmingly Hispanic and Asian women, many of whom are probably immigrants. John and Jane Suburbanite tend to be embarrassed by such displays.

I disagree. My very suburbanite mother-in-law is a devout Catholic who made a pilgrimage with her neighbor to the alleged apparition site in Conyers, GA about fourteen years ago. She brought back water from a spring on the site & gave it to us. Last year she gave us blessed oil to anoint my children with (they have a developmental disability) from another group dedicated to the alleged Rosa Mystica apparitions in Montichiari, Italy. The Church doesn’t officially recognize either Conyers or Montichiari, last I checked at least.

I also saw many white people coming to see a small plastic statue of Our Lady of Grace that was found inside a tree in Manhattan in 1990. It was a few blocks from my college, so I went to check it out. Lots of white Catholics get into stuff like burying St. Joseph statues to sell their homes, pilgrimages to Medjugorje, etc. Folk religion still has its appeal for white American Catholics.

29 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I should say that the idea of “what God has said” is what is at issue here. To say, “God has only said X and nothing else” is what is reductionist.

29 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

“For Lutherans, religion begins with God’s commands and promises.”

Josh,

I think this is where the difference lies. Protestantism is reductionist. It is symptomatic of the paranoia of modernity that wants absolute, mathematical certainty when it comes to truth, divine and otherwise. But more on that tonight.

29 10 2008
Josh S

Arturo, I of course don’t speak for Protestantism, but for Lutheranism. Now, if “aesthetically gifted” means having local pantheons, living in fear of statues, or informing your faith with stories of ghostly apparitions, then I will gladly embrace the title of “aesthetically challenged.” But otherwise, it’s not something you can really accuse Lutheranism of (although 21st C American Lutheranism is far too “21st C American”).

But where it leaves us is with a completely different understanding of what true religion is. For Lutherans, religion begins with God’s commands and promises. God speaks, and we respond. Where we create (and we must create), it ought to on principle be informed by and in response to what God has said, whether the writing of a prayer-book or the construction of a church.

If we go on pure aesthetics alone, yes, pantheons of local saints are colorful and interesting, as are tales of holy statues getting angry at each other and religious sub-cults centered around stories of apparitions. But that doesn’t make such things true or a real means to God–Hinduism is equally as interesting from an aesthetic standpoint; perhaps more so. I always marvel at the Buddhist aesthetic that is everywhere in certain Chinese films, and who needs to say anything about Egyptian religion? I do not doubt that the synthesis between Torah-religion and Canaanite paganism in the Northern Kingdom was aesthetically fascinating and engaging. But what did God have to say about it?

28 10 2008
CNI

“How does this dynamic play out in the regions/countries that were baptized into the Eastern churches? Any thoughts on that?'”

Folk Orthodoxy probably kept a more “medieval” or even “pagan” spirit as opposed to the counter-Reformation spirit of folk Catholicism.
Being quite familiar with the Romanian Christmas carols, I can say that as full of Orthodox imagery as they are, all of this Orthodox stuff is interpreted according to, and integrated into an older agricultural/pastoral/peasant religion.
We have St. John the Baptist at times ranking higher than Christ, since he is, well, Christ’s godfather; we have all sorts of “folk saints” too, such as “the holy Sun and the holy Moon”, the “Holy Sunday”, the “holy Friday”; God’s rival is not the devil, but rather Judas, who is defeated not as much by Christ, as by
St. Elijah; God is not all-knowing and he can be tricked some times, therefore he needs the help of saints such as St. Peter, Elijah; St. John the Baptist was cursed by his mother to become a hare “for nine years, and nine days and nine weeks” and many other beliefs like these.

28 10 2008
Leah

>Isn’t that what happens when people pray in front of a stain under an overpass or condensation on a hospital window that looks something like a traditional depiction of the Madonna? Or a tree in a cemetery that’s shaped like the Good Shepherd? Popular piety still sprouts up in the secularized West.

Yes, but if you look at who attends those spontaneous prayer meetings, it’s overwhelmingly Hispanic and Asian women, many of whom are probably immigrants. John and Jane Suburbanite tend to be embarrassed by such displays. That kind of popular piety isn’t widespread in American Catholicism, at least not outside of immigrant enclaves.

28 10 2008
christina

>Popular devotions just sprout up with no assistance from the hierarchy or other outside forces. Could such things somehow occur in today’s environment or is the American Catholic laity too mired in materialism for lay devotions to arise?

Isn’t that what happens when people pray in front of a stain under an overpass or condensation on a hospital window that looks something like a traditional depiction of the Madonna? Or a tree in a cemetery that’s shaped like the Good Shepherd? Popular piety still sprouts up in the secularized West.

27 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

tony c,

In terms of the Eastern Church, I think there is less of a distinction between folk religion and official religion for a number of reasons:

1. Lack of centralization: Just as it does not appear that the relationship between folk religion and official religion was strong in the Middle Ages in western Europe, so I think the same is the case in eastern Europe historically. Codification of what is the “official line” only arises when there is conflict within a religion. This occurred in the west with the rise of Protestantism; this did not occur in the East, so centralization was not needed.

2. Church organization: It is arguable that in Orthodoxy, there are not as many tiers in clerical organization as in the West, thus the Church cannot splinter into as many factions. Since the clergy are either monastics or married, they are in some ways more removed from daily life or more integrated into it. There was no separate clerical class in the East as in the West, so the dynamics of religion would have been different.

3. General cultural differences within the Church: The liturgy being generally in the vernacular perhaps meant that people were less disposed to create a piety outside the bounds of “official religion”. Also, the difference between a “folk saint” and regular saints would have been less pronounced since canonizations were less centralized; the same would go for devotions in general.

This being said, there is a cute anecdote recounted in one of the books of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. He tells of a monk in a monastery of Mount Athos who worked as a cook in the monastery refectory. When he realized that the feast of the Ascension had come and he had nothing special to serve his brother monks, he was beside himself with worry. He decided to ask the saint of the day to help him with his problem. He stood by the monastery window that faced the ocean, stuck out his hand, and said, “St. Ascension, bring me a fish!” And it lept right into his hand. So much for poorly catechized!

27 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Where does that leave Protestantism, then? An aesthetically challenged paganism with no class?

27 10 2008
Josh S

Well, the conclusion I draw is that man is naturally pagan, and any religion he creates is bound to be pagan.

27 10 2008
Arturo Vasquez

Who said anything about appropriation? I guess I can take heart a bit that I am at least taken care of in the sense that a lot of this stuff was passed down to me personally. All the rest of you, I guess you will have to make do the best you can.

Well, that’s a little mean, but that was the first thought that popped into my head. On the other hand, if things keep going the way they are going, perhaps this stuff will spring up on its own. I am not in the business of fixing things or making utopias. That might seem a bit cynical, but I think I am just being realistic. The best thing you can do is take yourself out of bad faith as much as possible and take care to cultivate the self. To live with the idea that the sky is falling or that things have never been better are both naive positions. The Church and society can (and perhaps will) go to Hell in a hand basket; the only person who will face Judgment on the last day will be you; not the Church or the rest of society. I just lay out the problems here so I won’t go bonkers wondering what is happening in the world, in thought, in art, etc. You the readers have to find your own answers.

27 10 2008
Leah

The question is, how do we reverse this situation? Popular devotions just sprout up with no assistance from the hierarchy or other outside forces. Could such things somehow occur in today’s environment or is the American Catholic laity too mired in materialism for lay devotions to arise? I don’t think any of the visitors to this blog are happy with the status quo, but we can’t just engage in cultural appropriation and take other peoples’ practices.

Also, to what extent do popular devotions continue to exist as assimulation occurs? Would a third or fourth generation Mexican-American seek recourse to Jesus Malverde or would he or she be frequenting the local Hispanic evangelical mega church instead?

27 10 2008
tony c

How does this dynamic play out in the regions/countries that were baptized into the Eastern churches? Any thoughts on that?

27 10 2008
triunepieces

In a real sense, then, from the pro-abortion politician to the crusading Catholic apologist of cyberspace, there has never been a people so poorly catechized in the history of the Church; a people so rootless that religion has become a matter of fancy in a cultural wasteland.

In either case, we are the children of a terrible divorce.

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