Latin America: The Dialectic Transcended in a Time of Both Religious Revival and Secularization

Pope John Paul II undertook a campaign of beatifications and canonizations with the intention - presumably - of encouraging a revival of popular religion. But if we look more carefully at the sort of revivals which Catholicism is currently experiencing, can they be called 'popular religion'? They are led by a multiplicity of devotional movements such as the Neocatechumenals or Neocatechumenates, the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (a Society for Apostolic Life), Communione e Liberazione, Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ and more besides. Each has distinctive features, so these few paragraphs cannot do justice to the variety. Among the most visible is the Charismatic Renewal and its multiple offshoots and loosely connected branches, in the massive Youth Festivals which Popes have attracted in Paris, in Sydney and Rio de Janeiro (2013) and in the mediatic success of celebrity priests like Brazil's Marcelo Rossi whose little book of moralisms entitled Agape ('Hope' or 'Love') (Rossi 2010) sold two million copies in its first six months in 2010-11. The revival is patchy but intensely expressed in local charismatic groups across the world whose practices are often largely indistinguishable from those of Pentecostal churches. Despite their advertised mysticism, their direct receipt of Gifts of the Spirit and their inclination towards corporeal expressiveness, the charismatic movement is developing a religious culture which is distinguished by its this-worldly orientation in contrast to the traditional themes of the eternal, the Kingdom, the transcendent, and does not share the dimensions of community and heritage associated with classic conceptions of popular religion, of which that of Carlos Brandao seems to me the one which best combines theoretical and practical dimensions (Lehmann 2002; Brandao 2007). Marcelo Rossi's book consists of a series of moralisms and exhortations to love and do good with little reference if any to salvation and few exhortations to sacrifice: the themes include 'love', 'light - which brings lies and vice out of the shadows' - and persistence, more even than faith. In a series of studies of new Catholic communities, Brenda Carranza and Cecilia Mariz describe ventures (not only charismatic in style) like the creation of abstemious alternative communities, charitable works, evangelizing activities, self-realization programmes, evangelizing radio stations - but the common factor is their vocation to change people and to make them live better lives in accordance with officially approved Catholic morality and also in accordance with their own inner selves (Carranza et al. 2009). Catholic popular religion in the classic image, whether veneration of world-famous patron saints or innumerable local saints and Virgins, or prayer groups led by lay women saying their rosary, is not particularly concerned with the policing or reform of morals, let alone with self-realization.

What Carranza calls 'a new religious genre oriented by emotion' (Carranza 2009: 50) has much in common with Woodhead's 'tactical religion', like a religious version of the vast culture of self-realization and self-exploration described by Eva Illouz and many others as a pervasive feature of modernity (Illouz 2008, 2012). It calls on adepts to abandon a world of superficiality and consumerism by, for example, embracing the opportunity to serve (looking after street children among many other possibilities), or to retreat from the world and take a vow of poverty or chastity: a 'utopia of a profane neo-Christendom' (Carranza et al. 2009: 143). Taken together the studies by Carranza and her colleagues reveal a space within Catholicism for choice and entrepreneurship: numerous alternative paths to the life of a good Catholic. Even the fasting and abstention is not for the sake of the rest of us, as it is in traditional Catholicism: as part of the therapy culture of self-exploration and self-improvement, such sacrifices and bodily afflictions are chosen by individuals as and when they see fit rather than as part of a ritual cycle as in heritage religion (Jews fast on Yom Kippur and certain other specified days; Catholics used to abstain from meat on Fridays, etc.). Woodhead in her Cambridge lecture specifically mentions this shift whereby devotions or supernatural communication cease to be dictated by official calendars and follow instead the needs or desires of the subject. But Véronique Altglas has cast some doubt on the spiritual explanation of these phenomena, bringing to light the ways in which their sponsors and entrepreneurs respond to the material and emotional needs of their adepts, as well as the sometimes quite ephemeral affiliations they involve. Altglas has brought a more down-to-earth interpretation which undermines much current interpretation in which spirituality is accorded an unjustified analytic status (Altglas, 2014).

So in delineating these new forms of non-official Catholicism from what I have called classic popular religion, three themes stand out: (1) 'tradition'; (2) therapy or healing; and (3) authority. The new forms detach themselves from tradition and heritage as expressed in public celebration at local, national and global levels; they distance themselves from the immediacy of healing but delve instead into therapy and self-exploration; but they share with classic popular religion a conformity with the hierarchy and erudite religion. To be sure, classic popular religion may engage in unorthodox practices (animal sacrifices in the highland Andes for example), but these are not of the kind to undermine priestly or episcopal authority. The Lourdes and Padre Pio examples show that the hierarchy can regain control when, so to speak, 'things get out of hand'. The difference, in the relationship with authority, is that the devotional movements place much more emphasis on morals and doctrine than these saintly cults, not departing one iota from the Papal message.

This can be interpreted as a modern, secular ethos which propagates hope as the building of a new world on earth and in this life : the element of exchange with the supernatural, in the way of votos and ex-votos, of pilgrimages and sacrifices, is out of the picture. Charismatics invoke gifts of the spirit which are bestowed upon them for the sake of achievements in this world - for example that they can preach, that they can heal or be healed. They need priests and bishops as safeguards or guarantors of the acceptability of their practices, but they tend to invent ritual 'on the hop'. Even the most deeply traditionalist of devotional movements, Opus Dei, has also engaged, so we understand, in liturgical and ritual innovation forms - the classic modernist device of reinventing tradition and, in this case, making it more rigid than ever, like the Jewish ultra-Orthodox.

 
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