Narrative in the Ecclesial Present

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Natalia Imperatori-Lee
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , April
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the decades since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic theologians from a range of perspectives have surfaced the limitations of deductive ecclesiological works that develop abstract dogmatic principles to only later apply those principles to the lives of the laity. These critiques are often accompanied by ecclesiological proposals that center on the need for an inductive method—an ecclesiology from below—that foregrounds the lived reality of the people of God. Natalia Imperatori-Lee joins her voice to that well-established conversation even as she initiates a new one of her own. In CuéntameNarrative in the Ecclesial Present, Imperatori-Lee does not merely advocate for an inductive ecclesiology. Instead, she performs one. And then she invites others to do the same.

The methodological heart of Cuéntame is an embrace of narrative as both source of and resource for ecclesiological reflection. Informed by an emphasis on practice and experience that is a hallmark of Latinx theology, itis an invitation to and a demand for more truthful accounts of the church as it is, over and against idealized images of the church that never seem to touch the ground. Of particular concern to Imperatori-Lee is the way in which dominant narratives about Catholicism in the United States often render the stories of its significant and growing Latinx membership invisible or irrelevant. At stake for ecclesiology in this omission is not only that it prevents the possibility of anything like a faithful account of the church, but also the ways in which those stories might contribute to the flourishing of the whole church in a time of significant institutional change.

Imperatori-Lee performs her narrative method in three primary ways. First, through attentiveness to works from novelist Rosario Ferré and visual artist Yolanda López that foreground Guadalupan devotion, she explores the ways in which art and literature can serve as rich sites of testimony to the sense of the faithful (chapter 2). In conversation with Orlando Espín’s insights into the relationship between popular Catholicism and the sensus fidelium, Imperatori-Lee breaks open the ways in which these two works depict Guadalupe in subversive ways that are saturated with intuitions about the holiness of the laity in general and of women in particular. Second, she reads a novel by Daína Chaviano (El hombre, la hembra, y el hambre, Planeta, 1998) as an allegory for ecclesial relationships between the magisterium, laypersons charged with particular roles within the church (e.g., academic theologians and lay ecclesial ministers), and the lived reality of the whole people of God (chapter 3). Juxtaposed with Ada María Isasi-Díaz’s insights into Latinas as multi-sites persons, Imperatori-Lee uses Chaviano’s work to argue for a remapping of ecclesiology that makes space for more diverse and more truthful stories about the church that foreground the experiences of Latinas as loci of theological reflection. Finally, she turns to demography to tell the story of the church in the United States in a time of rapid institutional reconfiguration (chapter 4). Drawing on demographic data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the ethnographic work of Kaya Oakes, and her own close account of Agrupación Católica Universitaria, Imperatori-Lee presses beyond flat narratives of decline that often plague conversations about institutional affiliation to argue that greater attentiveness to the practices of Latinx Catholics—from base communities to popular religious practices—hold particular potential to serve the needs of a church whose story is being rewritten in profound ways by an emerging generation. 

A particular strength of Cuéntame is Imperatori-Lee’s attentiveness to the ways in which the stories of everyday lifeare not separate from, but are rather integral parts of the living tradition of the church. Drawing on the work of Roberto Goizueta and the International Theological Commission’s 2014 document “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” Imperatori-Lee makes clear that her intention is not to advocate for an uncritical embrace of every story as one that contains the sense of the faithful, nor even that ones that do testify to that sense should replace traditional ecclesiological frameworks as important ways to think about the church (chapter 5). Instead, she insists that the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church provide a skeleton that can only be enfleshed through attentiveness to the lived reality of the church. To authorize the multiple stories of the Christian community as true traces of the sense of the faithful, Imperatori-Lee develops the notion of connaturality as the practice of discernment of the truth of the instinct of the faithful (thesensus fidei), found in particular stories in conversation with the whole church.

In the four decades since Latinx theology emerged as a discrete field of theological reflection, Cuéntame is the first monograph centered on ecclesiology. In light of its method, it is neither comprehensive nor is it essentializing. For Imperatori-Lee, no single story or set of stories—no matter how richly told or carefully studied—will be fully truthful to the work of an inductive ecclesiology. In light of that commitment, Imperatori-Lee models one way of reading literary and other artistic works as sources of and resources for ecclesiological reflection, but she does it in a way that acknowledges the necessarily fragmentary and incomplete work of any faithful ecclesiology. And so she reads stories of particular relevance to her concern for the absence of Latinx voices in contemporary ecclesiology and ones of personal relevance to her own experiences as a Cuban-American Catholic woman. In claiming that particularity, she invites the reader to listen in on pieces of her own ecclesial story so that others may do the same. 

Cuéntame would be an especially effective book in a graduate-level course where it would have the potential to unearth the diversity of stories in the classroom to discern how they both reflect and shape implicit ecclesiologies. Cuéntame might inspire students to readthe ecclesial stories enfleshed in a home altar, embedded in a corito, or expressed in an episode of Jane the Virgin. But as much as students might benefit from that invitation, I hope theologians and members of the magisterium alike will take seriously Imperatori-Lee’s demand not only to tell stories, but to be better listeners to stories of the joys, hopes, griefs, and anxieties of the whole people of God, especially those told in a different language, accent, or genre than those with which we are most comfortable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Antonio (Tony) Eduardo Alonso is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of Catholic Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Natalia Imperatori-Lee is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, NY, where she teaches in the areas of contemporary Catholicism, U.S. Latino/a Theology, and gender studies.


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.