On institutions

28 06 2010

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What is it? I am reading the term through a Hegelian lens. In our usage, “institution” refers to a collective structure that embodies a particular ideal in a given society and governs its members strictly according to that ideal. In Hegel, the State is the institution par excellence. For our purposes, institutions are usually interpreted as political entities, churches, and movements in civil society.

What is wrong with institutions? Nothing in general. Also, it depends on what ideal the institution seeks to embody or propagate. “Institutionalization” can be, however, very problematic. Institutions tend to “flatten” all variations and localisms that do not totally conform to the defined ideal of the institution. That ideal is many times determined by the hegemonic dominance of one variation of an idea or polemic against positions deemed to be outside the ideal. When such ideals are then applied to local or individual circumstances, they tend to subvert or even do violence to local manifestations of culture, life, and thought.

What do you mean by “organic”? “Organic” manifestations of culture, thought, and life are ones that have emerged almost unconsciously over the course of millennia. Following Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Neoplantonism, and other sources, such patterns are really the primordial archetypes at the heart of human consciousness: manifestations of the divine vestiges in the soul itself. While these patterns are often corrupted with the passage of time and what in Christian thought is known as “original sin”, they are nevertheless the foundation of all philosophical thought, religious thought, the arts, and the hard sciences.

How is modernity “inorganic”? Modernity becomes “inorganic” when it seeks institutionalization as a goal in all aspects of life. Modern cosmological thinking can be best defined as the creation of a grid that can encompass and measure all things through the use of discursive reason. The purpose of this grid is to create information that can be manipulated to bring about ever more practical improvements in the material conditions of society. In this process, if a societal practice, belief, or symbol is deemed to be irrational or inefficient, it must be disposed of, no matter how old or venerable it has been in the history of a particular society. Such a process inevitably takes a “top-down” and not a “bottom-up” methodology in terms of organizing society. Gone are the sage and the elder, to be replaced by the expert and the technocrat.

Aren’t you being a bit simplistic? Generalization is a necessary but problematic hermeneutic tool. In many parts of modernity, there are patches of resistance: overgrown and anti-modern pockets even in the most advanced societies. These take forms as varied and strange as “gutter-punks”; traditional religious orders and sects; ecstatic forms of amusement; the keeping of ancient festivals; and the veneration of pop stars. These are all due to the fact that the patterns that govern the spiritual existence of man are so deep that even if local traditional forms cannot be preserved, they can mutate in order to manifest themselves into new circumstances.

How does this affect religious belief, and Roman Catholicism in general? Roman Catholicism since the Counter-Reformation has more greatly honed its message to create an internalized and institutionalized ideal of belief and practice. Roman Catholicism is the only Western form of religion that until recently had kept an organic if unstable balance between the local and the institutional, the external and the internal, the image and the letter. According to the “experts”, the ideal was often lost in the cultural. In other words, there was not enough “Jesus” in the Church. One could define the ideal of “Jesus” as clarity of monotheistic belief, the conformity to a morality beneficial to the general society, and loyalty to the visible hierarchy. From the long march of the Council of Trent, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, and the sobering up of lay devotion, came the modern ultramontanist and liturgical movements, Vatican II, and the secularization of church life in general. All things that did not conform to the “Jesus” ideal would be flattened to make way for beliefs and practices that would better conform to the institutional ethos.

Why is this so bad? Inevitably, such a process uproots many aspects of ancient religiosity that have been past down to us as our patrimony. This is often done with the excuse that in order for the “essential” to be followed, the “accidental” elements must be de-emphasized, or disposed of altogether. In my opinion, there is nothing in this process that prevents religion from becoming a tool of totalitarian discourse. When the ideal becomes absolute, it has nothing by which it is judged. Any sort of novelty can be imposed, and where there is only novelty, there is no truth. That is because humans are traditional creatures, and tradition is the fountain of wisdom, since tradition is the life of God Himself.

What is to be done? Traditions and localisms must be preserved. No longer should we obsess over institutionalized or generalized forms of thought and action. By all means, they should be studied, but they should not be imposed as the absolute norm by which to judge local traditions. It is not so much an issue of complete resistance, but a re-establishment of balance. And we must realize again that the success of a given culture or society must not be judged strictly according to the rules of material gain. While human beings should always seek to improve themselves materially, they must also see that religious, cultural, and artistic creation is the true goal of human existence. This is the living and tangible manifestation of the contemplation of the absolute, who is God.



18 responses

7 07 2010
on institutions « Anastasis

[…] here (H/T: […]

30 06 2010
Jared B.

Everything you’ve said may be true but what alternative have we except the Tridentine rites? Who has any pre-Trent (much less pre-Luther) sacramentaries available? And if they did, any use we made of them would necessarily be a reconstruction, an exercise in text criticism and source analysis…a fully Modern construction, play-acting at being medieval.

30 06 2010


What do you mean by “personal decision”? You seem to imply that “cultural Catholics” do not, in any way” take the Gospel to heart. And what is so “personal” about a “personal decision”? There are all sorts of “coercive” factors in personal decisions. How many “altar calls” are the result of family pressures, etc.? Isn’t the notion of the “personal decision” a bit overblown?

30 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

The problem of any religious system is that it is only as strong as its weakest link. In Christianity, we can say that, on the contrary, we don’t really know what the weakest link is, as clerical scandal at the highest levels seems to tell us. We tend to experience orthodoxy and religious normality through the printing press and means of mass communication. In an oral culture, I think our experience would be far different. Also, if our way of life was not so safe from the struggle for life that our peasant ancestors experienced, and that many still experience throughout the world, we would not be so eager to speak of “spirituality”.

Nietzsche of course called Christianity “Platonism for the masses”, and as in any popularized ideological system, it must have grades of participation. More than any other system, however, and certainly more than Platonism itself, it does not necessarily require a certain grade of scholarly initiation. “Transcendence” in any system, however, is quite relative, and no system can be completely “personal”. Indeed, the “personal” I would argue is a modern construct, one born of devotio moderna that did not exist prior to the rise of Rhine mysticism in the early modern period, and it did not exist in many parts of the world prior to modernization.

In other words, there have always been the sadhus, the Sufis, the monks, and so forth who are “radically committed” to union with a transcendent One. However, modern man tends to misinterpret these phenomena as not needing the contribution of the metaphysics at the heart of particular cultures. Perhaps this is why the Dalai Lama has tried to dissuade Westerners from becoming Tibetan Buddhists, or why all forms of modern spirituality tend to degenerate into personal consumerism: a bad faith version of “me time”.

In other words, there is no spiritual discipline, no true “personal relationship with Jesus”, the One, etc. without the intermediate contribution of culture. Indeed, I would go further in saying that there is no “Jesus” without Christendom that does not inevitably degenerate into personalist fantasy.

30 06 2010
Jason C.


Thanks, I’ll check out the book.

I mean, I guess I would say that Christ is “above” culture in some sense (“there is neither Jew nor Greek,” etc.)…but at the same time, I don’t think that the Church can be. It just seems to be a human thing that religion is tied to the daily and social life of the people.

But what really bothers me is, for example, something like how Rigoberta Menchu discusses Catholicism in her autobiography. She seems to see Catholicism as a sort of “add on” to the Mayan rituals (which the people retain).

Now, I wish that the peoples of the Americas had been able to find a way to express the faith that was truly their own cultural expression (i.e., without having European culture imposed on them). But I don’t think that the kind of syncretism that Menchu seems to hold to in her autobiography, is an authentic expression of Christianity and culture.

I think the Christian relationship to culture, like the Christian relationship to “the world” in general, is fraught with tensions. Christians have one foot in this world, and one foot in Eternity…and yet mysteriously they are already living in the Eschaton. Christians are always trying to navigate the tensions between the temporal and the eternal (celibacy vs. marriage, etc.). So, I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to the true Christian relationship to culture. But I am wary of what I see as the tendency to turn Christianity into a sociocultural entity…whether this is done through institutions or through “folk Catholicism.” When the Faith becomes a sociocultural entity, then I think it becomes divorced from its inherently personal character, because “society” or “the institution” can preserve such an entity…but only each individual person can preserve the faith as a living choice and a living act, in all its radical transcendence.

29 06 2010


You might be interested in “Christ and Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr. I think you’d fall under the first/third viewpoints he presents: “Christ above Culture/Christ against Culture” Correct me if you think I’m mistaken.

29 06 2010
Jason C.

I certainly agree that Christianity is going to produce cultures (I deliberately say “cultures” rather than “culture”).

I should probably amend this, because I agree with you that culture is probably inseparable from Christianity. I don’t mean to suggest that there can be an a-cultural Christianity.

But how can Christians have culture without things like colonialism, is the kind of question that raises in my mind. How can Christians have culture without having the situation like we have in the United States were “cultural Catholics” are just part of the Catholic landscape (they aren’t seen as an aberration, at least not by “the world”). Those kinds of questions.

29 06 2010
Jason C.

I certainly agree that Christianity is going to produce cultures (I deliberately say “cultures” rather than “culture”). But I think this is also one of the very dangerous aspects of Christianity, because I think culture can easily function like institutions…i.e., they serve to give the Gospel some permanence, but at the same time they make the Gospel less and less a personal decision. This is what we mean, I think, by the term “cultural Catholics”…i.e., people for whom the faith is important in some socio-cultural way, but because the faith has become a matter of “culture,” they can remain attached to it without really embracing it in the depths of their heart.

Can this be avoided? Can you have Christian “culture” and Christian “institutions” without them replacing the personal decision at the heart of the Gospel? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It’s probably unrealistic to expect Christians not to have institutions or culture…but I think we have to be aware of the dangers inherent in those things vis a vis the Gospel.

I’d be curious how Arturo sees “cultural Catholics” (which to my ears has more of an American ring) to “folk Catholics.”

29 06 2010


You can see the people in the Middle East as both. Of course, these Christians are witnesses to Christ, but they are also in need of defence and they are also a socio-cultural group.

The notion that Christianity exists in a cultural vacuum is a curious one. Since the Gospel has to be incarnated in order to be communicated at all, it stands to reason that the Gospel and thus Christianity does become cultural because it’s instantiated among a particular group of people. Only in theory does the Gospel exist apart from culture and only in theory did/does Jesus exist apart from culture.

29 06 2010
Jason C.

Are you objecting to getting a lot of people into the “tent”? Is salvation only for the few?

I’m not sure how to answer this, except to quote Our Lord:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

The few who can memorize the Catechism or have the luxury of deciding about the “radicality” of the Gospel?

Of course the Gospel is not about “memorizing the Catechism.” You don’t have to be able to read to be a Saint. But I don’t think “deciding about the ‘radicality’ of the Gospel” is a luxury.” I would say it is a gift. The Gospel is an invitation to become a new creation in Christ.

And by the way, Christianity IS a socio-cultural phenomenon, whether you like it or not.

Yes, I agree that it is…just as it’s an institution, just as it’s (in some places) a business, etc. My point is that the Gospel, in reality, is something greater than these things that we often “see” it as. In my opinion, treating the Gospel as a “culture” or as a “society” or as a “Civilization” misses the point. For example, I have a problem with how we see persecuted Christians in the Middle East. We see them, not as transcendent witnesses to Christ, but as “religious minorities” in need of international defense…in other words, we see them as a socio-cultural group…and I think that misses the real point of what Christians are supposed to be in the world.

29 06 2010


With all due respect, you sound a little sectarian to me. Are you objecting to getting a lot of people into the “tent”? Is salvation only for the few? The few who can memorize the Catechism or have the luxury of deciding about the “radicality” of the Gospel?

And by the way, Christianity IS a socio-cultural phenomenon, whether you like it or not. Just as the Judaism of Jesus’ day was. And Jesus observed the folk religion of His day as well as the institutional requirements of that religion.

29 06 2010
Jason C.

For me, of course, it begs a number of questions. First and foremost, what is Catholic “orthodoxy”? What is the most important part of the religion? That everyone be devoted to the institution, have all of their doctrines lined up like chicks in a line, and have the “correct” understanding of the truths of the Faith? Or that they use Catholicism to get through their daily lives, and possibly get to Heaven in the process?

I don’t know much about what you call “folk Catholicism.” But it seems to me that, at least in Latin America, syncretism is the inevitable result of the colonization that accompanied the introduction of the Gospel.

Being a great admirer of the thought of the late Ivan Illich, I am very uncomfortable with the “institutionalization of the Gospel” as he calls it. But I also don’t think that “using Catholicism to get through their daily lives” really gets at the point of the Gospel, either.

I think that the Gospel is a very radical calling. It seems to me that both “institutionalization” and “folk Catholicism” are motivated by the same desire: to make Christianity palatable and easier for people to be a part of. But they both, it seems to me, fail to take seriously Gospel teachings such as “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). They both turn Christianity into a socio-cultural phenomenon, and try to bring as many people as possible into the “tent.”

At the same time, I see in both institutionalization and folk Catholicism a certain reflection of the “mercy” of Christianity. They both cater to the many people who would, like the Rich Young Man of the Gospel, “go away sorrowful” (Mark 10:22) if they had to live up to the Gospel in all its radicalness.

So, I do think that the “true faith” is very important to Christianity. I think part of this “true faith” is a serious communion with the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church (and by that a mean taking seriously what they passed on to us). I can *understand* why people are drawn toward “folk Catholicism,” just as I can *understand* why people are drawn toward the institutionalize the Gospel; and to some extent, I can sympathize with their reasoning. But at the same time, I think we have to recover the radicalness of the Gospel. That radicalness is not found in “liberation theologians” nor in defenders of the institutionalization of the Gospel. I think the radicalness of the Gospel consists, first, in absolute recognition of Christ and the Holy Trinity. But in terms of the Church, I think it consists in calling people to transcend this world. That is what I think the so-called “harsh” penances of the early Church reflected…it reflected a Church that was not a common denominator…the early Church was a Church that you had to PROVE you belonged in; belonging to an institution or being a “folk Catholic” was not enough.” And in the midst of that radicalness, there was mercy…”oikonomia” as the Eastern Christians might perhaps call it.

Anyway, these are some general thoughts. I don’t know where I’m going with them…I still have a lot of unanswered questions myself.

29 06 2010


For Italian speakers, I’d point out a similar anti-folk Catholicism at the Cose dell’Altro Mondo website, where they interview a priest who doesn’t even believe in the Church’s official blessings (the example he uses is the “crossed-candle” blessing on St. Blaise’s day), let alone the Cattolicismo popolare. But the priest’s (the one you mention) comparison with “worms in the stomach” makes me wonder, is there any parallel for lo scandu and i vermi in Curanderismo?

29 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

For Spanish-speakers, I offer this particular essay:


This is sort of my nightmare scenario when it comes to this topic. Basically, a trasplanted Italian priest in Mexico compares devotees of popular Catholicism to children with worms in their stomach. Of course, he characterizes a crusade against popular Catholicism as a revival of the Old Testament prophets, a battle against idolatry, and so on.

For me, of course, it begs a number of questions. First and foremost, what is Catholic “orthodoxy”? What is the most important part of the religion? That everyone be devoted to the institution, have all of their doctrines lined up like chicks in a line, and have the “correct” understanding of the truths of the Faith? Or that they use Catholicism to get through their daily lives, and possibly get to Heaven in the process?

Truth be told, the best Catholics that I have known have been marginally catechized cultural Catholics. Many of the well-catechized people that I have had the misfortune of knowing were a bunch of charlatans. So what more do you want people to do? Stop going to the spiritist and witch? Okay, but at least learn to distinguish between that and legitimate forms of white Catholic magic, or rather, to use another’s words, “enacted prayer”. Make distinctions between Christ and the saints? I don’t think Christ Himself even wants us to make too much of a distinction. Not credit statues with their own power? How else do they work, I’d like to know!?

I have known Catholics in Latin America who look down on popular Catholicism for the same reason that American Catholics do. But they also have the exact same politicized ideologies that they often use Catholicism to shield. For my Argentine friends, Catholicism was often merely a way to be a better counter-revolutionary. For many in Latin America, of course, “correct” Catholicism is a sign of modernization and development (Opus Dei’s dollarization of Catholicism), or a vehicle of social justice (liberation theology). Here, some want to either turn Catholicism into another liberal Protestant denomination, or transform it into the Republican Party in prayer.

I don’t think that the Gospel has anything to do with this, nor a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s people using Catholicism as a means to an end, and all of the anti-superstition talk plays right into the hands of these interested ideologies. Fine, a church-going Catholic going to a botanica for Money Come to Me soap may be abusing Catholicism, but so is the EWTN talking head becoming an apologist for bigotry, wars, and greed. Tit for tat.

28 06 2010
random Orthodox chick

I can’t tell if you meant this to read like a Baltimore Catechism or if that’s just the irony of it. Thanks for taking me to school!

28 06 2010

Arturo, thank you for highlighting the profound change that the counter-reformation, ultramontanism, and modernism have had on contemporary Catholicism. Traditional and traditionalist Catholic positions that the Tridentine rites are organic and the reformed rites are synthetic fall flat against the encompassing institutionalization of post-Reformation Catholicism. It’s true that certain aspects of the Tridentine liturgy are pre-Reformation and pre-early modern. Nevertheless the current revival of the 1962 missal cannot escape the profound modernist and secularist trends of the past two centuries. Both postmodern Catholic liturgy and “traditional” Catholic liturgy rely on abstraction, intellectualism, and appeals to authority to construct idealized liturgical worlds foreign from folkways.

I have often sought to pare liturgy down to syntax and semantics, as if the liturgical text itself could glimpse beyond its institutional moorings. I’m convinced that philological analysis of liturgical text inevitably contributes to idealization and further institutionalization.

28 06 2010

One other thing modernity has done, at least late modernity, is that it has made obsolete the idea of a people geographically homed. Folks don’t go to there local parish’s baptism registry to find out about their ancestors, because the odds today are that there parents didn’t attend the same parish, let alone their ancestors. It is impossible to have tradition in a place with a full churn every 30 years, let alone organic development.

28 06 2010

Well said. I think this is the most straightforward you’ve been about why you support “folk Catholicism.” I like that you identify the Absolute as being in the place between (God in the middle) these two extremes—hierarchical extremism and questionable superstitions.

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