Why do we need Lived Catholicism?

In: Ecclesial Practices
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  • 1 Doctoral Researcher in Lived Catholicism, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, Durham, UK,
  • | 2 Ph.D, Associate Professor of Theology & Assistant Director of the Centre for Catholic Studies, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, Durham, UK,
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The thematic focus of this edition of Ecclesial Practices is the study of Lived Catholicism. The growing establishment of this field of academic study serves as a critical point of reflection for both the study of religion as well as Catholic theology. Is the intentionality of Lived Catholicism simply bringing into focus that which has long been studied?1 Or is a new critical field of enquiry being formed? The papers in this edition suggest that its significance is not merely the focus given to Catholicism under the rubric of Lived Religion; rather, it is the conjuncture of critical turns in both the study of religion and theological ecclesiology that gives integrity to the study of Lived Catholicism.

Lived Religion

The study of Lived Religion was inspired by the history of religion and the ethnographic turn within cultural anthropology; it embodies the turn towards the everyday aspects of religious practice and explores those sites often marginalised by the classical study of religion. It employs categories and methodologies from critical theory and new trends in sociology and history, such as a focus on material culture and visual histories. However, at the heart of this endeavour lies three critical interventions which help to define the field.

First, Weber was right: Protestantism was a shaping force in the formation of Western culture, but that goes for the sociology of religion too. Its force can be discerned in shaping the classical concerns of sociology, such as the habit of defining religion in terms of belief. Likewise, Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993) has made a compelling case from the perspective of power. Notwithstanding the antiquity of religious cultures, ‘religion’ as a sociological category remains an entirely modern construction, tied to the need for liberal consensus within the emergent nation-state and their imperial Empires. From this perspective, the classical study of religion risks perpetuating those ideological drivers. Lived Religion takes its critical orientation from sociology’s self-critique, further highlighting the critical issues of race, imperialism, gender, class, and their intersection in people’s everyday lives.

Second, Lived Religion rejects the secular assumption that the enchanted imagination of religion has either lost ground to the iron cage of modernity, or that its persistence remains anachronistic and out of step with contemporary life – sociology’s positivism. Instead, new possibilities of re-capturing the religious lives of practitioners opened up much that was ground-breaking. It recognised people’s potential for religious action in many areas of their lives, not just in sacred places and times. In doing this, it broke down normative expectations of what religiosity might look like, allowing for personal creativity in which the strands of spirituality at large in modern culture could be woven together in entirely personal ways. While debates around the conceptual nature of religion and spirituality, between secularisation and post secularisation theory, continue, the study of lived religion has allowed for micro descriptions of otherworldly activity in areas as diverse as birth and death practices, food, apparel, social media and online practices, and even the decorating of homes. This in turn has allowed a new understanding of religion as active in migration, identity formation, and intergenerational practice.

Thirdly, while the study of popular religion or folk religion has been longstanding, the emphasis has often been on precisely that, the popular, at the expense of the various institutional forms that religious life takes (in such a way as to further render the study of religion hostage to the secular thesis). However, the institutional forms of religion are as much a part of religious life as the popular expressions, and the lives of those who inhabit those institutions, no less significant and should be a part of the study of Lived Religion.

Theological Concerns

Catholic ecclesial interest in the practices of everyday Catholics – institutional or otherwise, has, in contrast to sociology, been far more reticent. Nicholas Healy’s Church, World and the Christian Life (2000) famously set out the fault line within contemporary Catholic ecclesiology in terms of ‘blueprint ecclesiologies’.2 Such approaches, he argues, fail to take into account the lived realities of church, offering instead reductively abstract and theoretical views of the Church. However, the adoption of ethnographic approaches within ecclesial thought brings its own set of methodological, psychological, and theological concerns.

First, in terms of methodology, there is always the danger that the adoption of ethnographic and other empirical approaches to the everyday will fail to recognise the way that these too are heavily theorised; i.e. ethnographic descriptions of ‘everyday life’ can obscure the role that prior values play in structuring both the descriptions given and also the choice of descriptions.3 While the study of Lived Catholicism helps correct the Protestant bias within sociology, the issue here requires a more thorough honesty in the articulation of the presuppositions at work within the study of Catholicism.

The second concern is more specific to the theological reception of ethnography (than an issue within ethnography as such): the role of normativity and what counts as Catholic. Theologians appear to harbour a certain anxiety that the field or object of study will unravel before our eyes. For example, Healy argues that the ethnographic approach to Church can undermine the very notion of Church, in a way which proves unhelpful for theological reflection:

Indeed, the worldwide church . . . when considered with a focus on detail, particularity and the exceptional, is arguably little more than a congeries of diverse forms of life, languages and meanings of the word ‘God’.4

Recent developments in synodal ways of being church would suggest the opposite. The Universal Synod 2021–23 seeks to engage every baptised Catholic and many outside the Church in conversation. It is precisely in the “diverse forms of life, languages and meanings of the word ‘God’” that meaning can be found. The instructions for writing up the diocesan synthesis are practically a mandate for Lived Catholicism:

The diocesan synthesis should reflect the diversity of views and opinions expressed and pay particular attention to the lived experiences of participants, both positive and negative. The synthesis should be faithful to the people’s voices and to whatever emerged from their discernment and dialogue, rather than a series of generalized or doctrinally correct statements. Points of view that are contrary to one another need not be omitted but can be acknowledged and stated as such. Views should not be excluded simply because they were expressed by a small minority of participants. Indeed, sometimes the perspective of what we could call the “minority report” can be a prophetic witness to what God wants to say to the Church.5

Unlike Lived Religion, within which the notion of religion is often unstable and contentious, Lived Catholicism does not have to contend with ‘what counts’. Anything that identifies, or is identifiable as Catholic, can be counted, whether this be the ethical stance behind the curriculum of a Catholic business school, interfaith weddings in Mumbai, or the agricultural work of a largely Catholic village in Ghana.6 Holding to a strong centre allows for blurred and fuzzy boundaries.

Finally, in terms of theological methodology, it is not always a given that theologians arrive at the religious or theological significance of a given practice from the standpoint of sociological or political convictions, but as Clare Watkins says, ‘as a deeply held, obvious consequence of our theological faith about the kind of God that the Christian God is.’7 From the standpoint of theology this adds a specific layer of complexity to the question: what can the study of Lived Catholicism bring to bear on Catholic self-understanding and ecclesial reflection? There is the perennial question concerning the relation of the practices described to the theology or doctrine of church: the authority of experience over tradition; and how one bridges the gap between empirical modes and theoretical methods of ‘being Catholic? And questions remain as to the extent that the study of Lived Catholicism be transformative of the Catholicism it studies – if at all: to what degree should it change the field of study through its involvement or influence or correct those elements of systematic theology in ways which maintain the integral nature of the Church as both human and divine?

The Approach of Lived Catholicism

Lived Catholicism is not interested in the opposition between the institution and the everyday, or differentiating between high and low culture, as is common for historians of popular culture.8 Catholics define themselves and each other in relation to the institutional church. Catholic-ness pools in the nooks and crannies of peoples’ lives and persists long after the practice of church going has ceased: whether they describe themselves as a former Catholic, or as ‘raised Catholic’; whether they continue to treasure the little pot containing a rosary given to them by their grandmother on their first Communion; or whether the food painstakingly made and eaten on Christmas Eve has a particular religious meaning. Hand-in-hand with this is the importance of communal and public practices. These became more important after the Second Vatican Council, with the shift from private devotion to public celebration particularly in the Sunday mass, and calls for accounts of practices that encompass the private and individual within the wider Diocesan or national contexts.

Implicit within the notion of Lived Catholicism is a capacious understanding of the universality of the Church which celebrates and expects a variety of ways of expressing Catholicity: between generations in a single family; between different ethnic groups in the same country; across the world and through time. This requires withstanding the heavily normative understanding of institutional Catholicism which still expects weekly Mass attendance, orthodox belief, and a particular morality, despite all evidence to the contrary. Resisting this normative view allows for a wider and more interesting variety of practices and beliefs to surface. It becomes possible to see individuals as active in crafting and negotiating their own Catholicity which changes over the course of their life, and according to the circumstances they find themselves in. Just within the scope of this special edition we can see these processes at work as broadly as within the Catholic lgbt community in 1920s England, among contemporary young Spanish women recreating their village festas, and among the Adivasi Catholics of India.

Many of the above issues are picked up the Roundtable discussion that followed the first Lived Catholicism Conference held in 2020.9 Here, we find contributions from sociologists, theologians, and academic practitioners in the study of Lived Catholicism, including Robert Orsi, Tricia Bruce, Alana Harris, Avril Baigent, Stephen Bullivant, and Marcus Pound.

In the other contributing papers, we see Lived Catholicism pushing boundaries explored in one of two directions, looking inwards and looking outwards. First, looking outwards: Lived Catholicism allows for hidden voices and secret histories to be heard. Kathryn LaMontagne’ account examines the life of Radcliffe Hall as a lesbian Catholic convert in early 20th century England. LaMontagne’s careful uncovering of accepted routes for gay people becoming Catholic converts is as surprising as the knowledge that being Catholic made being gay a more acceptable in Edwardian England. It raises questions around other forms of accommodation and negotiation between Catholicism and the lgbt community in the past and around the world, questions that are being responded to by Robert Orsi and Maya Mayblin among others. Although, as LaMontagne shows, the presence of queer Catholics at the turn of the century is known within literary, historical, and queer studies, reading this article under the umbrella of Lived Catholicism brings a whole new resonance to our understanding, not just of the past, but of current relationships between the church and the lgbt community.

Avril Baigent’s piece reveals other gaps in our understanding. Lived Catholicism encourages exploration not just of the controversial but also the commonplace and taken-for-granted. By breaking down our normative expectations, we come to see it operating in quite surprising ways. Exploring the Lived Catholicism of Catholic teenagers in the UK, Baigent uncovers the manifold ways in which Catholicism is crafted by young people within a repertoire – passed on by parents and grandparents, and scaffolded by the wider community – but recreated by themselves in response to the cultures in which they live. This study throws light on the delicate dance between young people and the expectations of those around them, and the ways in which Mass-going is negotiated to meet their social, cultural and religious needs. What is in question, however, is the mysterious gap in their self-understanding of the Mass, how far back through the generations this gap originated, and whether researchers have just not seen it due to the normalising forces of institutional Catholicism. This research shows the possibilities for new understandings to emerge from everyday accounts.

Toke Elshof’s paper starts with an assumption of the institutional church – that many parents of children in Catholic schools do not have the time or the energy to invest in their children’s Catholicity – and notes that, although this is an underlying assumption behind Catholic education policy, it had not been tested with parents. Her research reveals the subtle ways in which parents negotiate their relationship with the Church, and the longevity of Catholic identity which manifests in their desires for their children. It also calls into question the traditional home-school-parish partnership and finds new ways of assessing Catholicity.

In an article that bridges young people and Catholic education, Patricia Kieran explores the expanding spiritual worldview of student teachers in the Republic of Ireland. Catholicism in Ireland has undergone rapid change since the 1990s particularly with the sex abuse crisis, and Kieran’s research unpacks the complexities of a cultural, national and religious identity. Resisting the headline data showing that young adults in Ireland are among the most practising in Europe, she explores a diversity of beliefs and practice, many from outside the Church. Connections between identity and normative belief are shown to be weak, while at the same time participants were active in crafting a Lived Catholicism that is coherent with their worldview. Schools play an essential role in transmitting Catholicism in Ireland. Examining the beliefs of student teachers allows researchers to speculate about the implications of this research for the future of Religious Education in schools.

Then secondly, looking outwards, Lived Catholicism reinserts Catholicism as a category of interest in other disciplines. Rinald de Souza’s account of Adivasi Catholics counters the often-held perspective of Christianity purely being a product of Western imperialism. By exploring the ways in which the Adivasi create agency through their Catholic identity, even in the face of considerable difficulties, de Souza overcomes both Indian nationalist and western paternalist narratives.

Josep Chanza’s account of the re-traditionalisation of public spaces in contemporary Spain comes squarely from a human geography perspective. Drawing on theology and sociology of religion, he brings to light the complex balance between tradition and invention in the renewal of festas in Spanish villages. By using a Lived Catholicism frame, however, he is also able to explore the intricacies of family and community power structures, exploring the ways in which Catholicism can be a bounded space for improvisation, and how ritual and religious worldview are passed down through the generations. This study also connects to wider themes of communitas, ‘homo festus’ and sacralising public spaces within the disciplines of anthropology and human geography.

In the roundtable discussion Avril Baigent makes the point that all Catholicism is lived: ‘there isn’t an ‘unlived’ Catholicism’. The papers in this journal testify to the abundance of life within Catholicism and the liveliness of this emerging field of study.


Emerging from the doctoral work of Avril Baigent concerning the religious identity and practices of Catholic teenagers.


Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology (cup, 2000): 26–52.


Martyn Hammersley, ‘What’s Wrong with Ethnography? The Myth of theoretical description’ Sociology Vol. 24, No. 4 (November 1990), pp. 597–615. See also Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, Maya Mayblin (Eds), The Anthropology of Catholicism: A Reader (University of California Press, 2017); James Clifford & George E. Marcus (Eds), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, 25th Anniversary Edition (University of California press, 2010).


Nicholas Healy, ‘Ecclesiology, Ethnography and God: An Interplay of Reality Descriptions’ in Pete Ward ed. Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans, 2012): 182–199, p 189. The point is critically addressed by Clare Watkins in C. Watkins, Disclosing Church: An Ecclesiology Learned from Conversations in Practice (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 30.


Synod of Bishops. ‘The Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality’. Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, September 2021.


All papers from the first Lived Catholicism conference,


Clare Watkins, Disclosing Church: An Ecclesiology Learned from Conversations in Practice (London: Routledge, 2020), p. 42.


David D. Hall, Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton University Press, 2020).


Archive 2020 – Lived Catholicism.

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