Online Catholic Communities

Community, Authority, and Religious Individualism

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Marta Kolodziejska
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2018.
     154 pages.
     $149.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138059757.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is early yet in the Religion and Media or digital religion fields of study, and Marta Kołodziejska’s work in Online Catholic Communities: Community, Authority, and Religious Individualism makes a valuable contribution to this burgeoning discipline while also demonstrating the downsides of working within a subject area that lacks an agreed-upon theoretical framing—or even consensus on such fundamental concepts as “community” or “religion.” Indeed, as the field now stands, there are a plethora of in-roads and methodologies for scholars to choose from when engaging the intersection of religion and media. On the positive side, Kołodziejska does us a service by outlining the current state of the discipline clearly and cohesively, thereby also laying-out nicely the theoretical groundwork of her primary research. On the other hand, there is a good deal of framing, defending, and defining through which one must wade before arriving at the heart of her findings about Polish Catholics online. Furthermore, once arrived, there is less intellectual risk-taking than might be hoped for. In other words, Kołodziejska’s book reads much like a dissertation (as it began life), but she also hits her mark within the limited parameters of her study. 

Kołodziejska did a close examination of three of the most popular Roman Catholic online forums in Poland. All three were founded between 2000 and 2003, and were active at the time of publication. “All portals offered several services, such as Bible reading, Catholic world news, prayer resources, or blogs. They also host popular forums” (62). The author brought three primary concerns to her material. These were defining an online community, the symbolic boundaries of online communities, and the formation of religious authority online. With regards to the nature and boundaries of online communities, Kołodziejska concludes that it is important that these are thought of as in-flux and continually changing. They are also “communication communities in that they are defined by communication practices: interaction is their purpose, foundation, and mode of functioning” (129). She also notes that, despite their limitations, forums were environments that were “conducive to the creation of shared identity.” More interesting is Kołodziejska’s examination of how participants established authority in these communities, being as they are, outside the parameters of official church sanction and influence. On this matter, Kołodziejska observed that the “knowledge dimension of religious engagement” was, by far, the most important factor of those she considered for establishing authority within the forums (54). Discussion in this vein formed the majority of the content and led to the rise of new, informal religious experts—people who exhibited, in these contexts, “in-depth, specialized knowledge in a certain domain” (74). This is particularly interesting given the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. As she observes, bottom-up authority based on “knowledge and reflexivity” isnot something one would often find in mainstream Catholicism (particularly in Poland)” (136). Such observations suggest to me, at least, that the most interesting findings in the realm of digital religion may come from the examination of particular religious communities, where the nature of the medium fosters, for example, some unexpected or unorthodox action in the participant. In the meantime, Online Catholic Communities is a helpful book to have on-hand, whether one needs a summary of the state of the discipline, or as a well-done case study of digital religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie L. Derrick is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
July 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marta Kolodziejska is Researcher at the Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of Warsaw, Poland.

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