Interview, “The Journal of Global Catholicism”

In 2016 a new open access journal, The Journal of Global Catholicism, was launched in conjunction with the Catholics & Cultures program at College of the Holy Cross. We recently caught up Dr. Marc Loustau, one of the journal editors, to talk about this exciting new forum. 

Participants: Marc Loustau (College of the Holy Cross); James S. Bielo (Miami University)

James: Marc, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about The Journal of Global Catholicism. The inaugural issue was published in late 2016, and consists of six articles on Indian Catholicism. Very exciting for anyone interested in “lived Catholicism” (a category we’ll circle back to), and certainly exciting for the editorial team. Could you start by explaining a bit about the project’s background. How did this project get started?

Marc: The Journal of Global Catholicism (JGC) works in tandem with the Catholics & Cultures initiative at College of the Holy Cross. Both are programs of Holy Cross’ McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture. I am the Editor, working with Mat Schmalz, Associate Professor in Holy Cross’ Department of Religious Studies, who is the JGC’s Founder and Senior Editor. We also work with Tom Landy, Director of the McFarland Center’s Catholics & Cultures program where the JGC has its institutional home.

After launching the Catholics & Cultures web site in 2015, the Catholics & Cultures program has focused its efforts on using this digital platform to provide teaching resources for college-level educators. (For instance, and forgive the shameless plug, you can find my pedagogy blog “Teaching Global Catholicism.”

It has been a pleasure to be part of a vibrant dialogue with the Editorial Team at the JGC, and in particular to develop the JGC’s vision in conversation with Mat Schmalz. Mat originally hatched the idea of the JGC after years of participating in conversations about the study of lived Catholicism. Through our work on the JGC, we’ve discovered a shared excitement about expanding research and debates in this field, which, for all its richness and recent growth, has been unintentionally parochial. More precisely, the study of lived Catholicism has been defined by the histories of Western European and American academic traditions, and conversations in this field have largely taken place among scholars working in Western European and American academic institutions. If the JGC has a niche, it is intentionally fostering generative conversations among scholars working within and without the Western European and American academic tradition. We’re not aware of any other scholarly venue in Religious Studies and Anthropology that has this as a primary goal.

More importantly, we see these conversations as a resource for groundbreaking scholarship that could potentially challenge the accepted limits of academic knowledge as we know them. As the C&C program got going, it was Mat Schmalz’s sense that the Catholics & Cultures website’s strength in providing teaching resources didn’t make it the right venue for publishing scholarly work with the theoretical and historical depth that a journal allows. With all this in mind, Mat moved to create the JGC as a stand-alone, peer-reviewed journal that complements the work of the Catholics & Cultures program. I came on board in 2015 as Associate Editor (later Editor) to help the JGC continue to grow and develop its mission.

James: Very helpful background, thanks. I want to follow up on two things. First, what kinds of issues, questions, and problems of theory and method does the JGC team envision emerging out of this robust dialogue among non-Western and Western contexts? And, what kinds of “accepted limits” do you have in mind?

Marc: I’m a little hesitant to define the JGC’s contributions to scholarship ahead of time. In part, this is because I see the role of Editor as a champion of excellent research, not someone who controls access to scarce resources. I’m also part of an Editorial Team and one of the JGC’s strengths is the fact that we have fostered an open-ended dialogue as part of our work together. To pre-define what questions or problems contributors to the JGC should be concerned with would feel too much like making the editorial process be like gatekeeping. Personally, I am really excited to see how conversations in the JGC unfold over time, how various contributors speak up and change the tone and goals of the dialogue we’re having in the pages of the journal.

That being said, I don’t want to leave you hanging. How about I give a few examples of questions that the JGC’s Editorial Team has gotten excited about since we’ve been doing this work? One of the JGC’s goals is to foster generative cross/inter/trans-disciplinary conversations. We’re interested in knowing more about how the practice working across multiple disciplines might look when it is placed within the frame of the study of lived Catholicism.

At the JGC, we want to avoid describing divisions of intellectual labor as “boundaries.” Divisions of labor have succeeded in concealing rivalries between different disciplines only by refusing them any ground to meet on. When scholars from different disciplines do actually meet, we feel like we’re talking past each other. This is the more benign result, I should say. Less congenially, breaking down disciplinary boundaries can be like crossing a demilitarized zone, and the anxiety is that philosophy will destroy sociology, or anthropology destroy Christian theology, and so on. Maurice Merleau-Ponty once called intellectual divisions of labor a form of “cold war.” Merleau-Ponty’s comparison is especially resonant for me because critical approaches to cold war models of stark and opposing East-West divides have been increasingly popular among scholars who do research where I conducted fieldwork – in Hungary and Romania.

We’re proposing – purely as a starting point – a modestly humanistic approach to working in a cross-disciplinary way. In the pages of the JGC, anthropologists can approach Catholic theologians as people like themselves who work with and are shaped by another expressive mode or style. The same goes whether we’re talking about philosophers approaching historians, media scholars approaching psychologists, and so on.

Here’s another example that’s a bit more specific to my own research: Western Euro-American social scientists are just turning onto the possibilities of a dialogue between Christian theology and anthropology. In Romania’s largely Hungarian-speaking Catholic communities, where I have done fieldwork, some scholars of lived Catholicism describe their work as “sacred ethnology.” Not all Hungarian-language practitioners of sacred ethnology are clergy, but what is more interesting is that the boundaries and possibilities constituting academic reading and writing are quite different in this region. One 20th century university-based ethnologist – Sándor Bálint 1904-1980 — has performed miracles after his death; the Vatican is currently investigating these miracles as part of his case for sainthood. It is perhaps unsettling for anthropologists steeped in a Western Euro-American academic conversation to think that they could end up performing miracles after their deaths, but probing such unsettled reactions is precisely how learning happens. What are the possibilities for rethinking scholarly reflections on life and death, not to mention on subjectivity and objectivity or intentionality and agency, when our own (social scientific) work could lead us to have miraculous afterlives, whether right now we want this kind of afterlife or not?

James: Fascinating case; among other reasons, for how it illuminates a different potential for the relationship between scholars and their publics. As a prelude to the example, you observe the burgeoning dialogue that is active between Christian theology and anthropology. How would you characterize the current state of this dialogue? And, what role might the JGC play in clarifying/advancing the dialogue? If you like, feel free to highlight some illustrative examples from the inaugural issue on Indian Catholic cultures.

Marc: Thanks for mentioning the JGC’s inaugural issue! This issue came from a workshop the Catholics & Cultures program organized along with partners at Asian Horizons, the Dharmaram Journal of Theology at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore. The conference featured both Catholic theologians and social scientists. Mat Schmalz edited the articles in the resulting JGC Special Issue to highlight the live and pressing issues of authority, power, and representation that came up during the conference when (local and Western) Catholic theologians and (local and Western) social scientists entered into conversation with each other.

To answer your question from another angle, I’d actually point you to the JGC’s upcoming second double issue on Catholicism in Africa. All the articles mix academic pursuits with a deep sensitivity to lived Catholicism in sub-Saharan Africa. I’d highlight Walter C. Ihejirika’s article, in particular. Ihejirika has published in Catholic theology as well as in the field of religion, media, and culture. He describes his piece as applied research. For anthropologists over the last decade, the model of “applied research” has been increasingly compelling. This piece shows that Catholic theology has its own notion of application, which focuses not necessarily on undoing structural, social, or systemic oppressions but rather, in Ihejirika’s words, “immediate practical problems” (32). Even if some applied anthropologists don’t find Ihejirika’s model compelling, his article is useful to prompt us to interrogate the cultural and theological contexts that inform the notions of “applied research” that have recently circulated in this discipline.

I’m really excited by the recent conversations between Christian theologians and anthropologists. Things are just starting to get going. My sense is that this conversation could be just as ground-shifting as the 1990s “post-modern” and “self-reflexive” turns proved to be in anthropology. This dialogue has the potential to be even more unsettling because it has the potential to turn upside down basic approaches to epistemology and reality that underlie anthropological endeavors. I’m particularly interested in the way anthropologists have approached the practices of reading and writing. When people write anthropological texts about divine beings, who is doing the writing? Anthropology’s secular understanding of reality would say, well, human beings of course. But in the post-modern moment of the ‘80s and ‘90s, we discovered that there was a lot to learn when we did not assume that anthropologists were the only ones writing and reading anthropological texts. What could we learn if we did not assume that human beings are the only ones writing and reading anthropological texts? Do divine beings read what we write, when, and for what purpose? Christian theologians might help us in exploring different ways of answering questions like these.

I am hopeful that this conversation would open up new horizons for the study of epistemology from an anthropological perspective, but what will come of this might be hard to predict – precisely because, by entering into conversation with Christian theologians, anthropologists might explore how divine beings are themselves unpredictable makers of humans. My inclination is simply to gesture toward a starting point for this conversation, which is: let’s begin with the gods themselves. This means questioning the premises of questions like, what kind of evidence will we need to recognize the gods in our research? I wonder: Doesn’t this question presume that we can decide this issue before and apart from the gods’ own decisions about what counts as evidence? If the growth of research on lived Catholicism has taught us anything, it is that divine beings intervene in human affairs all around the world and all the time, so the gods are already doing this work of recognizing human beings – at the JGC, we are open to seeing how anthropologists are coming to be responsive to divine recognition in this manner.

James: The new issue sounds really promising, thanks for giving us a glimpse of what’s to come. Along with advancing the anthropology-theology dialogue, what are some other interdisciplinary dialogues the journal hopes to engage? And, could you explain a bit for our readers here what “lived Catholicism” is addressing?

Marc: We’ve taken to using a rough-and-ready shorthand definition of “lived Catholicism:” Lived Catholicism delineates an interest in learning about Catholic practices and beliefs as they are understood by those who live them. As an allied emphasis, we think of the study of lived Catholicism as understanding those practices and beliefs in the context of the cultures they navigate and variously reflect, shape, and oppose.

Lived Catholicism has a specific genealogy in the recent history of the American and western European academic study of religion. It emerged in the 1990s as an alternative to the study of “popular” Catholicism. Scholars like Robert A. Orsi, David Hall, Nancy Ammerman, and others argued that these terms and their various cognates (low, vernacular, little tradition) were simply too ambiguous and imprecise to carry forward. Moreover, they were too compromised by their history of involvement in the structures of power that had defined the study of religion as the study of “good” (and often liberal Protestant) religion through the mid-20th century.

We have discovered something fascinating, though: Lived Catholicism means different things to different people. Maybe not a complicated idea, but still it was pretty startling. Since the JGC’s inception, we’ve taken initial steps to breaking down the walls that have kept the Anglo-American academic conversation about Catholicism an insular affair primarily involving academics working in the Global North. In the process, what we have learned is that Lived Catholicism’s American and Western European genealogy in the study of religion is by no means the only controlling history that shapes this term’s meaning.

For instance, Lived Catholicism means something different for scholars who make their home in the field called Catholic Studies. My colleagues on the Editorial Team have sometimes found it easiest to explain that they work primarily with laypeople, which means not with clergy or religious. In a Catholic Studies context, the definition of Lived Catholicism that seems to make the most sense is, “laypeople, and especially their beliefs and practices.” Of course, the notion that Lived Catholicism is about laypeople is pretty widespread in Catholicism – it is not distinctive to the Global South. But, as an invitation to future research and scholarship, perhaps it is enough to note that this assumption exists. Naming it in this way might suggest the possibility that other ways of imagining Lived Catholicism also exist and that there is no single genealogy that will tell us ahead of time what this concept has meant or will mean for people in different communities.

Here’s another example: In March 2018, we’re organizing a two-day conference with partners at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest, Hungary. We’re targeting scholars from Eastern Europe and calling the conference, “Lived Catholicism from the Balkans to the Baltics.” We’ve already received panel and paper proposals that focus on “folk” practices in Eastern Europe. Lived Catholicism also makes a lot of sense as cultural heritage and patrimony in this part of the world. So, the study of Lived Catholicism can mean studying “laypeople,” “folk,” or “cultural heritage.” There’s a wide range in just that short list. We see that as a good thing. Sure, it might mean we find ourselves in confusing situations, using the same word to mean different things. But we’d like to respond to confusion with an attitude of openness and flexibility and in the final count we hope to learn something.

I would also like to see the JGC play a role in the emerging engagement between the study of Catholicism and media studies. I can think of several questions that might be interesting here: How Catholics around the world might do media differently, and how that difference emerges in conversation with the various cultures in which Catholic beliefs, practices, values, and histories manifest themselves. One difference, I think, is a Catholic emphasis on institutions. Not long ago I heard Catholic historian John McGreevy say that the study of global Christianity has said a lot about “networks,” but very little about institutions. The former term is useful, but fuzzy. I think I agree with McGreevy on this. McGreevy made this comment in a presentation about his book, American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global. He had in mind the religious order of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) as an institution. The current proliferation of religious media includes a number of Catholic media institutions: World Family of Radio Maria, EWTN, Vatican Radio, and so on. What kinds of media institutions do Catholics use to imagine and engage with the globe, link into circuits of travel, and evangelize close by and abroad? Of course, the study of media institutions opens onto debates about agency, power, and authority, issues that Mat Schmalz, reflecting on the JGC conference in Bangalore, highlighted as crucial concerns in the study of Global Catholicism. In addition, it invites descriptive questions about the nature and being of the entities that people call “gods,” “saints,” or “divine” and who appear to them on television, the radio, and the internet.

The new Anthropology of Catholicism reader put together by Valentina Napolitano, Kristin Norget, and Maya Mayblin has great pieces that represent important steps in this direction. I’m thinking here about Valentina’s work on immigrants in Italy and Hillary Kaell’s piece on roadside crosses in Quebec. I’ve also assigned Kristin’s piece, “The Virgin of Guadalupe and Spectacles of Catholic Evangelism in Mexico” in a course this fall. I’m excited to see how my students puzzle over media’s role in Catholic pilgrimage today. What makes a spectacle a spectacle, or a festival a festival? I’m curious to know if these concepts – coming from the study of public events that was big in the 1990s – even make sense anymore given the new context of Catholic evangelization and the proliferation of media. In other words, what are the ideal qualities of an event that makes for more deeply engaged or faithful Catholics, whatever those terms mean to the people who participate in pilgrimage today.

James: Your reference to the Hungarian conference returns to a central mission of the journal, to break the parochial trend and foster a truly global dialogue. To that end, what are some early insights the JGC editorial team has had in learning from non-Western scholars of lived Catholicism? Finally, would you like to close with something of an invitation to interested contributors? Without risking delimiting the field of possibilities, what are some themes, questions, problems, topics, etc. the editorial team would be excited to receive proposal on? And, given the open-access, digital platform that JGC is working on, is the journal open to un-orthodox scholarly formats? For example, is there an interest in publishing multi-modal essays?

Marc: We’d love to hear from scholars interested in publishing with us. We’re in the process of setting up a big tent at the JGC, so if folks have ideas about alternative ways of presenting research and pushing forward debates in various fields, we’re definitely open to receiving your proposals.

The JGC has an exciting lineup of regional theme issues in the works for the next two years. We have another group of essays in the works for the second volume of the African Catholicism series. After that, we have pieces from the conference, “From the Cradle to the Grave: Religious Lives and Practices of Filipino Catholics.” This was an event we organized with partners at the Institute of Religion, University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. The issue will have a concluding commentary by anthropologist Smita Lahiri who did fieldwork at the Mount Banahaw Catholic pilgrimage site. We also have regional Special Issues on Mexico and Poland in development.

We are not limiting ourselves to a regional focus, though. We welcome proposals for thematic Special Issues. For instance, we have a Special Issue that is in development on Multi-Sited Pilgrimage Research called “Pilgrimage Palimpsests.” It features five ethnographic essays by young scholars who did fieldwork at Catholic shrines around the world. Simon Coleman will provide a foreword and Jill Dubisch is going to conclude and summarize the SI.

The JGC is a biannual journal; we have a strong set of editions scheduled through 2018. We will soon be opening up to individual article submissions for our upcoming editions in 2019. We are also considering going to a quarterly schedule given the strong level of interest we’ve received. Early on we decided that publishing Special Issues would be easier to set the tone we wanted for the JGC. This approach will also help us draw attention to the big questions that emerge when we break down the barriers the have kept academic conversations about lived Catholicism divided from each other.

As for the “big questions,” how’s this for a short list:

  • What kinds of beings are gods and humans? Or, put another way, what kind of being is a divine being and what does that description tell us about the nature of human beings?
  • What is generativity? How are human and divine beings born and reborn together? While death (in the guise of mourning, afterlives, and memory) has been an axial theme in the study of Catholicism, we’re interested in seeing research about this equally important universal human experience.
  • What lies beyond the genealogical critique of religious experience? We know that the notion of religious experience was part of a productive colonial system that made religion in the Global South, experiential and in the Global North, theological. But divine beings are still appearing and sending messages to Catholics, both in the Global North and in the South. And this is happening amid rapidly changing social and political circumstances around the world. We believe there is much more to be learned from these and other phenomena that have conventionally been coded as “religious experience.”

This is only a starting point; we believe that research attuned to the dynamics of lived Catholicism has the potential to address both new and perennial scholarly questions.

James: Fascinating issues, and really a great deal for readers to anticipate! Thanks again, Marc, and we wish you and yours colleagues working on the journal much success in the years to come.