In Praise of Popular Catholicism

At least 100,000 people came to see and hear Pope Francis yesterday, which means about 1,000 times the number who turned up in Miami last weekend to protest the Trayvon Martin verdict. Numbers alone don’t necessarily mean anything. A million people who believe 2 + 2 = 5 do not change the facts – or outweigh even one person who gets things right.

But large numbers of people, it’s been said, do make a constituency in modern societies. Or at least some do. Aparecida, where the pope said Mass, draws 10 million people a year (the most of any Marian shrine). Yet is all but unknown outside the region. It would be something to see what the reaction would be if 10 or 20 million Catholics showed up in NYC or DC every year for Catholic devotions.

As John Allen has observed, for most pilgrims, journeying to that shrine is a living engagement with faith. And Aparecida lies at the roots of the pope’s faith. When the bishops of the region wrote a document at Aparecida in 2007 (largely guided by then-Cardinal Bergoglio), alongside the usual recommendations about evangelization, they corrected a formula from a similar meeting at Medellin, Colombia in1968. Instead of  “a preferential option for the poor,” they spoke of “a preferential and evangelical option for the poor.”

One dimension of the evangelical option often recommended in the document is an appreciation of popular devotions and even folk Catholicism. The bishops at Aparecida were profoundly rightly to do that.

I have on my mantle a statue of St. Barbara, which I bought in Brazil years ago. Brazilian friends tell me she’s the Catholic saint (she holds a chalice to her breast and leans on a sword conspicuously shaped like the Cross). But she also represents one of the African orixás, the gods and goddesses of Candomblé, who are a pretty fluid bunch. My Barbara is, variously, Olokun or Iansã or Oyá – and maybe it doesn’t stop there.

I wouldn’t have a merely pagan statue in the house. But this one shows a common and shrewd practice by Catholic missionaries. They built on indigenous beliefs and practices that embody some portion of the truth. The Jesuits who converted the Iroquois and Algonquins looked for, and found, the rudiments of Catholic “sacraments” in native practices and worked from there. Even the great image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has associations with the traditional Meso-American Mother-Goddess Tonantzin.

It’s what has come to be known as inculturation, in the best sense of the word. Instead of reducing the Faith to what people are willing to hear, as usually happens today, the wiser missionaries drew native spiritualities towards Catholicity. Anyone who has traveled with eyes open in Mexico or Central and South America knows that the process is far from complete, even more than 500 years after Columbus set foot on these shores. But if the spirit is flowing in the right direction, it works.  

You can, I suppose, dismiss all this, calling it and many other practices “folk Catholicism” and try to ignore it, as if it would be better if we tried to turn the mass of world Catholics into strict philosophers and theologians. But your mother or grandmother didn’t have a devotion to the Sacred Heart or the Immaculate Conception because of some theory. Once upon a time, men and women saints – and even Jesus and Mary – were treated more like powerful members of the family. Mary especially, because it’s common knowledge that a good woman has the time to listen – and will help get the word to her busy Son.

Yesterday in Aparecida

Dogma, of course, is also important. Since Vatican II popular devotions dried up and, with them, most popular Catholicism. Some theologians I deeply admire – notably Cardinal Ratzinger – both valued those old devotions and said that they sometimes went too far, which they certainly did.

But we’re in a different moment now. John Paul II was the great world figure who brought Catholicism back onto the world stage as a respected moral voice. Benedict XVI was – and is – quite probably the most deeply intelligent man alive. Neither, however, was really able to turn the cultural tide that continues to overrun the Church in developed countries.

I’m going to use an exotic reference here to explain a crucial truth. Antonio Gramsci, the noted Italian Communist philosopher during World War II, used to advise the more supple Marxists to pay close attention to how the Jesuits carried out the Counter-Reformation. They developed a cultura capillare, a “capillary” culture, meaning it reached into every nook and cranny of society. As such, it was essentially impossible to dislodge. Communists, he believed, needed to do the same.

In many ways, that’s how we’ve gotten the modern liberal hegemony, even in large swaths of the Catholic Church.

Francis is not the charismatic figure JPII was, nor is he an intellectual like B16. But as his words at Aparecida yesterday show – and as his other acts and words are intended to be understood – he’s working in a line little appreciated in the developed world, but that forms the model for faith and practice virtually everywhere else. Popular Catholicism is Catholicism. What else could a universal Church be?

How this popular Catholicism meshes with the necessary dogmatic dimension, of course, remains a large question. Ratzinger was the culmination of two centuries of German scholarship in theology and Scripture studies – much of which took an unfortunate turn.  He turned it right again.

It may seem unlikely, but there’s much in Ratzinger’s work that speaks to the need for a popular Catholicism and would be fruitful to read together with Francis’s actions. They are very different souls, of course. But this is just one more area in which Catholicism can bring together and harmonize – inculturate, if you want – things we might never otherwise suspect belong together.

In our current situation, it’s at least worth a try. Francis certainly believes so.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.