On the dialectical nature of modern Catholicism

17 08 2010

And notes on modern Pentecostalism

Catholic Dissent – When wrong turns out to be right

Murray was clearly shaken by this clear message to cease and desist. The following year he suffered a heart attack, but after recovery he continued to develop his theory.

By 1954 the Vatican’s patience had been exhausted. A Roman censor forbade the publication of an article that Murray had written and considered crucial to his case. Murray’s Jesuit superior ordered him to cease writing on the subject. When Murray inquired what he could write about, the superior said he might consider poetry…

Armed with all his scholarship, he publicly debated the issues with Fenton and Ottaviani and became a major drafter of the council’s Declaration on Human Freedom. In its final form, approved in a vote by the world’s bishops, 2,308 to 80, in 1965, the declaration said, “This synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, or any human power . . . This synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and reason itself.” The words reflect Murray’s thinking and may very well have been written by him.

In spite of more recent posts, I feel I have no horse in this fight. I do find it odd that the attitude of the higher-ups in the Church is one of “up to here, and no more”. The rhetoric prior to the Council was for laity to be “against the world” to a certain extent. The brief explosion of the Council was all for the Church to be perfectly synchronous with the world. Now, there seems to be some backpeddling for everyone to be in the world, but not “of it”. Maybe that can be based in Scripture, but it is easier said than done. We are supposed to “love the homosexual”, but hate gay marriage; we are supposed to hate divorce but offer automatic annulments to those who would want to come in the Church; we are supposed to be open to “dialogue” with other religions and within our Church, but be at the same time constantly on guard against “relativism” and “disobedience”. Perhaps this balance has always been demanded by the hierarchical Church. Or perhaps it was maintained by a bunch of government thugs busting down your door to drag you off to the dungeon for being a heretic. In any case, I don’t see such a balance as very sustainable.

Once you concede to Hegel’s dictum, “the real is rational, and the rational is real”, whatever you are stuck with now is correct by default. The problem is, time and society don’t stop moving, especially in the context of modernity.

Pentecostalism: Protestant ethic or cargo cult?

The most active individuals in the area of Pentecostal studies are careful scholars and not inclined toward polemics. Thus the disagreement is not without nuance. Still, there are two distinct views on how Pentecostals relate to society. David Martin, the British sociologist who has pioneered in this area since the mid-1980s (Tongues of Fire, 1990), has been proposing that Pentecostals are a new embodiment of what Max Weber called the “Protestant ethic”—a morality of self-discipline, hard work and saving—which, he argued, was an important factor in the birth of modern capitalism. The research center which I founded in 1985 at Boston University supported Martin’s early work, which focused on Latin America. I liked to give nicknames to our projects. This one I called “Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala” (that country, for reasons I don’t quite understand, has the highest proportion of Pentecostals in Latin America, somewhere between one third and one half of the population). If Martin is right, Pentecostalism is a modernizing force, certainly in terms of economic behavior, possibly also as a “school for democracy”. Not least of its revolutionary qualities is the transformation it seeks in family life and the role of women—broadly speaking, toward gender equality. Bernice Martin, David’s wife and collaborator, has paid special attention to this aspect.

The other interpretation sees Pentecostalism very differently—as a kind of “cargo cult”. This was a curious movement in Melanesia in the first half of the twentieth century. Its core belief was that ships (and, later, airplanes) would come and shower the inhabitants of those Pacific islands with all the material goods of modernity—and that magic and ritual practices could make this happen. No special effort was required by the recipients of the “cargo”, other than the faith that the magic would work—certainly not sweaty Protestant entrepreneurship. Two scholars who, cautiously, tend toward such a non-Weberian approach are Birgit Meyer in the Netherlands (Translating the Devil, 1999) and Paul Freston, who has been teaching in Brazil and North America (Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America, 2008). If that interpretation is correct, Pentecostalism is not modernizing at all—in fact, is a carry-over from a pre-modern worldview that actually inhibits modernization.

Neither, actually. Religion is a very complicated thing, and sociologists have a temptation to treat American Protestantism as being more rational than it actually is. Even the original revivals here were rural bacchanalias of sorts, and today many are Christian due to the “name it, claim it” ideology of the prosperity gospel. What is popular about American-style religion is that it is a religion of self-help, whereas traditional Catholicism was a religion of the collective. (Self-help was usually done in private, either in burning a candle to a certain saint, saying a novena, and so forth.) When traditional collectives begin to break down, that is when the Protestant sects come in to fill the void. In this case, I don’t think that Latin Americans and others turn to Protestantism out of modernizing, adopting a specific work ethic, or to “get rich quick”. Some might, but I think the pull has more to do with establishing a community of individuals where there used to be a collective of community. In this context, the modern exists side by side with the miraculous, the ecstatic with the doctrinal, and the old religion is felt to be insufficient in the face of contemporary realities.

In other words, I don’t think that the explosion of sects, at least in Latin America, will result in a more rapid modernization, or create more squalor than there already is. I think they merely address a reality that is there on the ground: urbanization, greater levels of education, and the historic dearth of clergy in many poorer areas. But in that context, common religious archetypes will continue to manifest themselves, but in other forms.



9 responses

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18 08 2010
Jared B.

“…that doesn’t mean that if we make the Church more and more into a cult, somehow that will increase its numbers overall.

I think that’s where many of those ‘new ecclesial movements’ come in. Everyone — members and outside observers — has talked to death about the movements existing out of a need for community that modern parishes don’t fill, so there’s no need to belabor that point.
A parallel explanation is that a minority of Catholics really did want, not be treated like sh** (but then, there was Regnum Christi…) but definitely to be told what they should be doing and how to do it to a much greater degree than the average Sunday homily was covering. That minority gets big enough and they naturally start to form movements, many of which do behave just a little bit (we’re not considering Regnum Christi here! :-p) more like cults than the Church as a whole. I think it’s kind of a safety valve: let them organize themselves into groups like that, and you don’t get so much pressure to re-form the whole Church that way.

I’m not a member of any of them but I definitely appreciate many of them, like Opus Dei and Communion & Liberation. I can listen to / read a talk from one of their leaders and am immediately struck, “Wow, unlike the lovely but vague platitudes coming from every Pontiff in my lifetime, I can actually apply that to my life, here and now.” Kind of scary that from the more mainstream Catholic point of view, ‘practical’ entails ‘cult-like’.

18 08 2010

Pentecostalism if anything represents a rejection of the systemization of modern life. Pentecostalism is growing as individuals respond to the strain of modern systems. Equating modern Pentecostalism with the New England Congregationalists or the early followers of Calvin seems a very large stretch indeed.

18 08 2010

I would answer that of all the religious possibilities Pentecostalism is the most coercive. The Catholic must conform to some outward structure which implies an inward attitude which may or may not be present. This inward dimension is more or less left untested by the authorities; this is the reality of cultural Catholicism. There is a minimum which must be met and it really is not much. Outwardly conform and that is enough. Not so with the Pentecostal. It is all encompassing, equipped with its own jargon and standard responses to everything in life. Radical movements are always more repressive than the status quo being rebelled against.

17 08 2010

Arturo: “the people want to be treated like shit. You know you like it.” […] The only problem is that strict regimes always involved coercion, either political or cultural. Never was there a time in the last sixteen hundred years where people were Christians without any coercion whatsoever.

Precisely. The peril and profound wisdom of JC Murray and Dignitatis Humanae rests on his affirmation of a Church subsistit in rather than est. Murray called for the Church, and the laity in particular, to overthrow ecclesiastical coercion not only by exercising conscience through magisterial formation but also conscience as compared to “human experience in general” (ack). I also agree that postconciliar pronouncements have veered back towards an intellectual/ritual/spiritual BDSMesque view of coersion and compliance. Dignitatis Humanae‘s call for polyvalent conscience formation is needed now more than ever in a church that has since shut many windows to aggiornamento.

17 08 2010

Pentecostalism has always had a subversive character. The birthplace of the modern Pentecostal movement, the Azusa Street Church was interracial in it’s makeup which was considered highly controversial in early 20th century America. Even today, many of the larger independent (i.e., not associated with Assemblies of God or the Church of God in Christ) pentecostal churches are multiracial. Racial politics aside, pentecostalism further democratizes the notion of the priesthood of believers by assuming that all persons can have a direct experience of the Holy Ghost without any sort of mediator. However, I don’t think that pentecostalism nessesarily means the creation of a “Protestant work ethic,” especially if you live in a country or region where a strong work ethic isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have the right contacts. Another example might be the American South, which has always had a sizable “Holy Roller” influence, but was very much an agrarian until a few decades ago. It wasn’t unusual in the 1930-50s to see Southern writers deny that the South was a capitalist region (because capitialism was an evil Northern innovation) and had more of the supposed charms of ancient regime Europe or a Jeffersonian-type rural democracy, untouched by the evils of modern society.

17 08 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Sort of as an unrelated addendum, I will add the following:

Stockholm syndrome religion:

I used to fall for the whole line that “people want to be challenged by their religion. If the priest doesn’t exhort the people to holiness, or scream, ‘down with the world’, they won’t want to get out of bed on Sunday morning. Just look at the radical Muslims…”

I can concede that if churches remove the spiritual coercion aspect of church participation (hell fire and brimstone), and have to compete with other entertainments where the Church once had a monopoly, church attendance will fall inevitably. But that doesn’t mean that if we make the Church more and more into a cult, somehow that will increase its numbers overall. In fact, the often talked about “smaller but purer” goal so in vogue at least in the Catholic Church seems to reflect this erroneous assumption.

What is even more bizarre for modern people is the rigorous logical conclusion to this rhetoric, which just sounds like, “the people want to be treated like shit. You know you like it.” Make them fast, do penance, sit through long ceremonies that they don’t understand, root out all of the fun superstitions, and tell them they are messing up. Because the people love that stuff. They know that they are pieces of garbage that can’t think for themselves, and need the clergy to think for them. The only problem is that strict regimes always involved coercion, either political or cultural. Never was there a time in the last sixteen hundred years where people were Christians without any coercion whatsoever. Perhaps the early Church, but really, we know so little about the daily workings of the Church before Constantine that any thing we could say would be mere speculation. It is pretty evident that we are all descendants of “bad Catholics” anyway, because all of the “good Catholics” died as martyrs, or were really, really lucky.

Am I advocating a new “Quietism” of a sorts? Not really. I’m just keeping it real.

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