Friday, June 17, 2011

Pro religione populum

Everyone who knows me (and who know me?) knows that I am an enthusiast for folk or popular expressions of religion, particuarly in the West, and particularly in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  I am currently writing a book about popular religion in the aforementioned faiths.  Here is a review of an excellent book about popular Catholicism in Italy.


Michael Carroll wrote Veiled Threats with the intention of showing us that popular Roman Catholic religion, as expressed in a variety of customs and practices, is ultimately in the driving seat of Italian religious life. He makes a convincing case; it is well-known that Marian and saint veneration in Italy, especially in the south, is far more popular than more normative expressions of Catholicism (i.e. worshipping Christ).

Carroll shows how the Church needed to work with these folk tendencies after the Council of Trent so as not to alienate the Italian people. The Church, when possible, channeled image worship, cults of the dead, relics, and saint's remains, into somewhat more acceptable forms. Often they did this by ignoring the motivation of people when engaged in a religious practice. They did not care if a person prayed to an image or saw it as a reflection of the higher spiritual power it represented. The form was enough, and the rest would take care of itself.

Carroll's view of the Church after Trent shows a remarkably tolerant institution, able to adopt and adapt to the most un-Catholic of folk practices. Other scholars may take issue with this, seeing religion as primarily top-down rather than down-up. I'm not in a position to judge. But as someone who has seen Italian religious folk practice up close, his conclusions make a great deal of anecdotal sense

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