On the Margins of Theology – I

24 08 2009

altar nino

The phenomenology of the numinous in Catholic devotional practice

(photo found at this site)

During my Internet browsing, I became acquainted with this essay on the work of Orlando Espin, a kindred spirit it seems who has done work in the academia regarding Latino popular Catholicism. The author of the essay is critical of Espin’s work saying that the scholar pits the faith of the clergy against the faith of the popular classes. This excerpt is particularly illuminating in this regard:

I told Shirley that Professor Espin says that popular Latino Catholicism, even in Mexico, has never identified the Virgin of Guadalupe with Mary of Nazareth. He goes further: “Why can’t the Virgen be the Holy Spirit?” Espin wonders. “Is the Mary-Guadalupe identification really the people’s creation and discovery? Or is it possibly a historically understandable, defensive cover, naively (though sincerely) imposed by theological and ecclesiastical elites on themselves and on the people’s symbol system?”

Shirley agrees with Espin about one thing: “None of the people that I know say that it’s the Virgin Mary; they say it’s Our Lady of Guadalupe.” On the other hand, “everybody I know doesn’t separate the two.”

The rest of the essay has a rather snarky and cynical tone, portraying Espin as a scholar profoundly out of touch with the “orthodox” faith of the masses. For the essayist, Espin reads too much Derrida and not enough St. Thomas; he is trying to use religion as a means of subversion when it is really nothing of the sort.

While I can appreciate some of the author’s criticism, I do not think he is being fair to Espin or popular Catholicism in general.


I have yet to get around to reading Espin’s work, but having been acquainted with popular Catholicism from various diverse cultures in both theory and practice, I think this conservative critic misses the point of such studies into folk religioisity. For it was very much the case in many parts of the world that people did not associate the numinous spirits that helped them in their daily lives with the figures that appear in orthodox Catholic theology. I believe I have cited before the scholarship of Michael Carroll when he writes:

Suppose, for instance, they had asked the missionaries, How many madonnas are there? Good tridentine Catholics that they were, these missionaries would have said, One. After all, the position of the Church has always been that every madonna is a representation of the Virgin Mary… But the answer would have seemed absolutely ridiculous to ordinary Catholics living in the Italian countryside… To ordinary Catholics it would have been obvious that there were several madonnas, all differing in the amount of supernatural power they possessed, all capable of acting independently of each other, and each associated with a particular image located at a particular sanctuary.

In Catholic theology, that which can be worshiped or revered has to be attached to a human being, either living (as is the case of Our Lord or the Holy Virgin) or deceased. This is the principle; how it works in practice was much more complex. For, as Carroll points out in Italy, there could be numerous images of the Virgin of Mary, the Deipara or Dei Genitrix in Latin theology. Each represented her and was deemed to take its power from her. But that did not mean that they were all the same. They would often “fight” amongst each other, competing for devotees by granting more miracles to supplicants than others. Others would literally kill people if looked at directly, as one bishop of Pisa found out when he wanted to take a peak of the image unveiled. Similar answers to Dr. Carroll’s hypothetical inquiry would probably be found if asked in France, Mexico, or Poland. Just because the Virgin didn’t cure you when you went to that shrine doesn’t mean that she won’t cure you. Maybe you went to the “wrong Virgin”.

If you interogate our imaginary devotee further, he wouldn’t know why this is the case. In the back of his head, he may know that all these “Virgins” are the same as the woman described as the mother of Jesus in the Bible. But it would not matter that much on a practical level. The same is the case with my great-grandmother who took an image of the Holy Face and hung it outside in the cold in order to blackmail it into granting her wish. Did she have in mind that she was “messing with” the Incarnate Word of God, an image of the eternal splendor of the Father of Lights made flesh? Maybe, but that didn’t stop her from presenting it with an ultimatum. Nor does it stop people from burying statues of St. Joseph in New Jersey, or hanging statues of St. Anthony upside down in Louisiana, or from throwing a party for a statue of St. Cajetan for a favor granted in Argentina.

Things become even more complex once we move away from images altogether, and get into the realm of reverence for inanimate objects. Sacred groves and wells were also very much in the religious vocabulary of the European Catholic peasant. In Ireland, it is quite likely that “holy wells” venerated before the “devotional revolution” of the nineteenth century and given the thin Catholic veneer of being associated with a saint were really areas of numinous power left over from paganism. Sacred fountains, from Lourdes to the pools of Maria Lionza in Venezuela, also have been the object of pilgrimage for their enchanted waters, all with various degrees of ecclesiastical approval. Holy rocks in the northern Argentine deserts, the holy dirt of Chimayo in New Mexico, and even plants being associated with the power of a certain saint (rosemary, garlic, the aloe vera plant)… all of these are phenomena very much at the periphery of “official Catholicism”, but as integral to it as holy water or blessed palms.

What we have here is what I would call an ad hoc Neoplatonism: an idea that there are forces at work that transcend the personal and are infused with the divine. It is a theurgy for the uneducated Catholic masses, similar to a Hindu devotee bathing in the Ganges or Aymara shamans praying towards a sacred mountain. The Christian universe may be one governed by a personal God, but that personal God does not behave in the same way that we behave. For two millenia, the official voices of the Church have tried to steer clear of theorizing upon these ideas precisely because they smack of “paganism”. Perhaps it is time to finally start bringing these ideas of the Catholic subconscious into the realms of “learned discourse”. Maybe it is time to bring what has been at the margins of Christian theology into the body of the text itself.


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26 08 2009
Is there something to be learned from Catholic Syncretism? « Castle of Nutshells

[…] praying to saints, saints, syncretism, Virgin, virgin mary trackback Arturo Vasquez writes about popular Catholic syncretism. On one hand, he describes cases where it seems like previous attitudes were simply absorbed into […]

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