Postsecular Catholicism

Relevance and Renewal

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Michele Dillon
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Academic activism can take a variety of forms. In Postsecular Catholicism, Michele Dillon articulates her vision for the future of Roman Catholicism via an intriguing dialectic between sociological theories, papal statements, and surveys of Catholic life in the United States. As its title suggests, the book argues that Catholicism has arrived at its “postsecular moment,” with an opportunity “to step in (anew) and articulate an ethical path for contemporary society” (33). This parenthetical “anew” hints at the author’s hope that the Holy See might soon fulfil what some Catholics perceive as the unfinished business of Pope John XXIII’s call for aggiornamento, an updating and modernizing of the ChurchSuch a reconciliation might even be ushered in by Pope Francis, who “recognizes that Catholics’ lived realities are secular realties and simultaneously are infused with God’s presence” (157).

Although Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio) emerges as her primary interlocutor, Dillon carefully distinguishes between his celebrity and his power. She cautions us against “the tendency to overstate or misrecognize a ‘Francis effect’” (58). Postsecular Catholicism is thus less interested in evaluating Francis’s policies than in modeling his charisma. Francis’s essential feature, says Dillon, is that “he projects postsecular authority, an ability to be listened to and taken seriously by religious and secular audiences alike” (48). In her analysis of Francis’s statements on the environment, for example, the author notes “that there is little evidence Francis’s discourse is changing how people think about climate change” (57). In short, what makes Francis exceptional is his willingness to use secular language and ideas to appeal to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

Postsecular Catholicism is also an implicit appraisal of Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Indeed, Dillon frames the book within a 2004 conversation between Jürgen Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Dillon is empathetic to Ratzinger’s recognition “of modernity’s one-sidedness” (10), and even more inspired by Habermas’s notions of “contrite modernity” and “postsecular society.” Contrite modernity allows for a reassessment of modernity that both celebrates its rational, democratic, and scientific gains while simultaneously criticizing its systemic imperfections (for example, the perpetuation of racial and socioeconomic inequality). Meanwhile, in Dillon’s assessment, postsecularity entails “appreciation of the mutual relevance and intertwined pull of the religious and the secular” (7). Dillon extends these Habermasian concepts to their explicitly Catholic corollaries, arguing for a “contrite Catholicism” that could “provide the Church a way forward from the defeatism that has creeped into the Catholic narrative” (9). Shorn of the collective shame of both the sexual abuse scandal and the abortion debates, Dillon suggests, future Catholics could usher in a truly universal church that “has public relevance and culturally useful resources for addressing contemporary social ills” (7). 

The present is a particularly opportune moment for the Church, Dillon reasons, because in the five decades since Vatican II, Catholics and Catholicism have become increasingly “secularized.” Dillon elucidates her use of this expansive term, “the secular,” primarily through data that emphasizes the growing gap between lay practices and ecclesiastical authority. For example, she provocatively points out that “78 percent say that one can be a good Catholic and use contraception … two-thirds of Catholics today favor gay marriage … and 14 percent of American LGBT adults identify as Catholic” (22). The author argues that these statistics, which are synthesized from prior studies, amount to compelling evidence of the growing “interpretive autonomy” of today’s Catholics, who feel increasingly “liberated” from Church teachings, particularly on issues of gender and sexuality. Dillon also rightly points out the deficiency of the term “cafeteria-style Catholics,” arguing instead for the notion of “nonassenting Catholics,” defined as those who are “unable, in conscience, to give deliberate assent to a particular moral teaching” (28). Although we have little evidence to demonstrate precisely how Vatican II changed the lived experiences of US Catholics, Dillon follows the extant methodology of presuming that the theological potential of the Council’s official documents produced a seismic shift in lay autonomy. 

Like any volume of such ambitious scope and remarkable accomplishment, Postsecular Catholicism also has its shortcomings. In particular, I was distracted by the incongruence between the author’s methodology and her theoretical insights. Throughout the book, for example, Dillon argues that episcopal statements do not correlate to actual Catholic practices and beliefs: “A Catholic’s positive view of the pope should not be conflated with deference to his decisions, pronouncements, or authority” (23). This is not an inconvenient aside; rather, non-assent and interpretive pluralism are at the very heart of Dillon’s definition of “postsecular Catholicism.” As she frames the issue in the introduction, the key question is simply “Who and what speaks for Catholicism?” (11). Dillon’s answer, in theory, is both clergy and laypersons. And yet, the only Catholic voices presented in the book are literally the official statements of popes and bishops. The opinions of everyday priests, women religious, and other laypersons are conveyed only in statistical aggregate, such as the percentage of American Catholics who say that it is acceptable not to attend weekly mass. The author is surely aware of this tension, which explains, perhaps, her reminder in the book’s final paragraph that “the interpretive work of Catholicism is not confined to any single site, voice, or issue. This is so, notwithstanding the structural significance of the Church hierarchy” (165).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian Clites is Associate Director of the Baker-Nord Center for Humanities and Instructor of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michele Dillon is Class of 1944 Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire.


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