The Anthropology of Catholicism

A Reader

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, Maya Mayblin
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Anthropology of Catholicism is a concise volume that overflows with memorable case studies and insightful theories on the study of religion. In less than 400 pages, the editors manage to include 24 chapters and an introduction, all with an eye towards encapsulating just what, both universally and precisely, makes interdisciplinary ethnographies of Catholicism distinctive within the broader landscape of lived religion.

In the introduction, editors Kristin Norget, Valentina Napolitano, and Maya Mayblin begin by asking, “If there were such a thing as a ‘broader Catholic view of reality,’ what would it look like?” (1). Rather than staking out the definitive limits of a new sub-field, the editors aim to provoke further thought about the tensions, ambiguities, and challenges inherent to the study of contemporary Catholic practices. Thus, the introduction highlights nine major areas of ambiguity that future ethnographers might productively explore, such as “the tensions between individual experiences and institutional prescriptions” (11) and “Catholicism’s capacity to absorb difference and opposition” (17).

Although the introduction is bookended by brief references to Andrew Greeley’s “Catholic imagination,” both the editors and contributors engage much more substantively with the political theorist Carl Schmitt, whose concept of the complexio oppositorum (complex opposites) is cited frequently throughout the book. The editors summarize Schmitt’s complexio oppositorum as describing the institutional Roman Catholic Church’s capacity for “containment of different and multiple forms of life via the figure of the pope and the impersonal nature of his office as vicar of Christ, an office that rests on both divine (theological) and human (political) powers” (17).

Schmitt’s centrality becomes even more evident within several of the main chapters. For example, chapter 12, by Andreas Bandak, uses Schmitt’s term to argue that, in lived Catholicism, “tension keeps this complex of differences together” (168). In chapter 9, David Mosse warns against the tendency among Schmitt’s disciples to attribute agency to “Catholicism” itself, as though its rituals and beliefs have led intrinsically to its imperial legacy. Mosse simultaneously argues that anthropologists are equally mistaken when they “focus on processes of localization without an account of the distinctive Christian institutional, social, and semiotic” structures (106). 

The volume is arranged into three parts. Part 1 reproduces excerpts from eight classical anthropologies of Catholicism, including by Robert Hertz, Edith and Victor Turner, and Caroline Walker Bynum. Part 2 contains eleven original essays by contemporary ethnographers of Catholicism. The volume then concludes with a much shorter part 3, where five prominent scholars offer theoretical reflections on the proposed enterprise of “an anthropology of Catholicism.” On the whole, the contributions are of exceptional quality. Here I will discuss several of my favorite chapters, bearing in mind that these inevitably reflect some of my own research interests.

Hillary Kaell’s chapter 10 investigates why 2,500 large wayside crosses continue to be preserved and celebrated in rural Quebec, even by caretakers who talk about the crosses more as national symbols than as devotional objects. “A robust anthropology of Quebecois Catholicism,” Kaell writes, “must encompass two lieux de mémoire (realms of memory) at once: contemporary religious practice and the heritage work that seeks to reposition Catholic devotionalism vis-à-vis national identity” (136). In addition to its rich texture and lucid theorization, Kaell’s chapter argues for analyses that recognize the lived tensions inherent in Catholic material culture, even and especially when competing claims run parallel rather than polar to one another. The large crosses are a vivid example of the dynamic interplay between religion and modernity, where, Kaell recognizes, “the result is not necessarily (or inevitably) ‘belonging without believing’” (136).

Chapter 11 by Mayblin is a powerful reflection on “the discursive understandings of sin and grace as particular kinds of objects – objects that are differently contagious or containable” for different genders (142). Mayblin combines contemporary ethnography with feminist theology to produce a refreshing analysis of the classical category of ritual contagion. She concludes that sin and authority are discursively gendered in an inverse configuration. From the viewpoint of Catholic womanhood, Mayblin summarizes, “We might say that where authority wants to be contained, sin wants, instinctively, to be shared” – a semiotic example of Schmitt’s complexio oppositorum (153).

One of the most memorable vignettes in the book is Kristin Norget’s description of wading alongside fellow pilgrims as they approached the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe during the annual festival in Mexico City. Drawn from her fieldnotes, Norget’s use of thick description grounds her invocation of Schmitt’s complexio oppositorum, which she both builds out and critiques in order to unpack tone and mediation at the festival. Norget summarizes intense and complex events like the festival “as material forms ‘in concert,’ yet always exceeding interpretation within a single frame” (198). Neither uniform nor static, pilgrimage sites present ethnographers with the opportunity to study “the spectacularization” of Catholic bodies, discourses, groups, and performances (198).

Within part 3, Robert Orsi’s chapter stands out for its depth of ethnographic conversations with clergy abuse survivors. The central section grapples with a survivor’s insistence that “There is no one. . . who was not abused in a Catholic way” (285). By beginning to theorize the multiple dimensions of this “in a Catholic way,” Orsi argues that survivors have retained a distinctively Catholic “charism,” even when they no longer identify as Catholic. Unhealed but also unrelenting, survivors “persist in their fierce, unforgiving, and open-eyed engagement with Catholicism” (292).

Part 3 also highlights the range of scholarly tensions and counter-perspectives within the volume itself. Its contributors do not even agree, for example, that the anthropology of Catholicism ought be recognized as a subfield. Simon Coleman and Birgit Meyer are particularly lucid on this question. Coleman invites readers to pause and reflect on “how naming and designating” an anthropology of Catholicism “involves choices, with their inherent politics, particularistic framing, and limited temporality” (275). Coleman points to scholars’ frequent reification of widely accepted but over-determined generalizations of Catholic difference, such as the presumption that “Catholicism is focused on the body in a way that Protestantism is not” (275). 

Meyer’s stance is even more provocative. “I would like to make clear from the outset,” she states, “that I do not follow [the editors’] call to take part in inaugurating the anthropology of Catholicism” (305). In addition to resisting the fragmentation of the study of religion into “ever more ‘anthropologies’ of specific phenomena” (305), Meyer, objects to the oft-supposed Protestant-Catholic divide as “an essentializing dualism that ties each of these two Christian traditions to a distinct, hierarchized type of religiosity” (306). Moreover, Meyer argues, the dualism risks reducing both Catholicism and Protestantism into over-simplified caricatures of themselves, masking the texture and complexity of how each of these traditions are lived and experienced on the ground.

The Anthropology of Catholicism is an invaluable resource. In the classroom, it offers concise case studies of Catholic practices on five continents, most of which explicitly address the interplay between religion and modernity. For scholars of religion, it provides theoretical arguments that invite engagement and debate. Indeed, one of the most impressive qualities of the reader is its insistence on scrutinizing its own examples. The editors issue a clarion call less for a new subfield than for a return to textured case studies which acknowledge their own ambiguities and limitations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Clites is associate director in the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, and Instructor in the department of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Date of Review: 
May 6, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristin Norget is Associate Professor of Anthropology at McGill University.

Valentina Napolitano is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Maya Mayblin is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.



Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.