... to Ecclesiology and Ethnography: Durham, 2015

Lieve Orye

Under Saint Martha's gentle gaze

St. Martha  by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

St. Martha by Gianbettino Cignaroli (1706-1770)

My hope, expressed in the previous blog, to experience that what draws theologians to ethnography is precisely the same drive of reconnecting with the people in the pews and with the world in an ‘off the grid’ kind of way proved justified. The Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference was a vibrant gathering of about 55 scholars, all with an interest in exploring the possibility to enrich ecclesiology and theology through ethnography. As with the ‘Beyond Perception’ conference, this one as well was in many ways ‘off the grid’, giving participants the experience that the quality of a conference does not depend on the availability of name tags and paper versions of the program but on those who participate both within the official time slots as in the times between.

The venue this time was St. John’s College, in the vicinity of Durham Cathedral. It is itself a building that tells of different times and ‘on the spot’ adaptations to new times, not a building erected on an empty surface with conference purposes in mind. Rather, one could feel that the place had grown over time into what it is now. The non-linear lines and odd shapes of corridors, as well as the pictures of people on the wall made the hallway wanderer wonder about times gone by, yet still somehow present in the place. The experience in each of the session rooms was different as well. One room was rather big, full of light coming in, with a youthful modern feel; clearly a recent addition for which some of the garden must have been sacrificed. Another room, long and dark, teased those in it to suspect the disappearance of a wall and moved them to ‘make the space work somehow’ and to attempt through a reconfiguration of two long lines of tables and chairs to reweave the space into a texture more suitable for conversation and discussion. The third one had a yet totally different feel, as if one was being transported in time into the living room of a wealthy family of a century or so ago, with luxurious long curtains and a chandelier whose central sphere silently reflected all that was going on. A picture on the wall behind the speaker intrigued me, sometimes to the extent of taking my attention away of what was being said. A label underneath informed me that it was Saint Martha painted by Giambettino Cignaroli in the 18th century and a brief internet search afterwards clarified that it was Saint Martha of Antioch, a virgin martyr of the fourth century who miraculously tamed a dragon with an aspergillum or holy water sprinkler. According to the Golden Legend, it was “half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than a horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, that dwelt in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon. Holding a cross in her hand, Martha sprinkled the beast with holy water. Placing her sash around its neck, she led the tamed dragon through the village” (Wiki). In light of Ingold’s text ‘Dreaming of Dragons: On the Imagination of Real Life’ that was discussed at the ‘Sensibilities Beyond Science’ session at the previous conference, Saint Martha’s gentle overseeing of Ecclesiology and Ethnography sessions might be considered rather appropriate. As Ingold argues in that article, the rupture between imagination and reality must be healed, and my feeling is that such an aspiration informed many of the discussions within both the session rooms and hallways.  

Taking Theology & church ‘off grid’ through ethnography or rather the other way around?

Maybe Ecclesiology/Theology and Ethnography projects can be understood as an attempt to take theology ‘off the grid’, away from the cocooning spaces where the world is kept safely outside and is only let back in in shapes and forms that are domesticated; away from spaces where the body can be kept quiet as if in hibernation, protecting it from interfering noise and concerns that 'distract' so that the mind, apparently capable of existing on its own, can reflect on what it thinks to be the really real behind the real that everyone else experiences; away from places where imagination and reality have been ruptured, where theories and understandings easily remain idealist, at an hygienic distance from everyday life. Ecclesiology, the complaint is, has remained too much at a distance from concrete life in the churches and in the world outside and this distance must be bridged - theology must be ex-posed, pushed out into the world. Discussions revealed, however, that a key difficulty might be to avoid simply jumping off one grid onto another, selling theology short in the process. Luckily, qualitative research, action research, data and statistics, empirical observations and fieldwork descriptions did not silence the discussion of how ethnography can be theological.

Moreover, concerns about the future - about the future of churches but also, maybe even more about the future of our common world - lie behind these pleas and discussions. The mix of these concerns for the future, for the theological and for the world brings forth interesting reflections. The refusal to sell theology short seemed to work against taking up a distancing, objectifying relationship to the people one works with. Concern for the future, for this world furthermore directs the attention towards both signs of and possibilities for change and transformation. One argument that I think should receive further attention is being developed by Derrick Watson. He sees practical theology entangled in a distortion, even an elision of poiesis through a specific understanding of and emphasis on praxis. To me, Watson’s understanding of poiesis seems to imply a rather ‘off the grid’ being in the world that seeks a ‘changing of the world’ through tactile attentiveness to what is locally ‘to hand’, collaborating with the materials and beings of the world. Change here occurs within life as an ongoing, forward going process in which imagination and reality are continuously interwoven and the future is grown rather than made. The understanding of praxis he critiques, on the other hand, seems rather more an ‘on the grid’ understanding where the future seems a matter of shaping people through the repetition of practices with some internal telos, while reality, in Watson's example the garden, is cleaned out to leave only the residue of ‘spiritual life’, as it is found in the statements of people about their gardening. The concrete ongoing processes of mutual responsiveness within an ongoing world have fallen through the cracks again, imagination and reality torn apart again.

At the conference concerns about both the immunization against change as well as the too quick ‘catering kind of change’ in churches could be heard. Maybe, though, we should start to think about how to get churches, the people in the pews, more ‘off the grid’ as well, or as William Greenwood noted in his talk, about ‘how to open them and us up through companionship to opportunities’. This might involve a rethinking of praxis such that poeisis can flourish again. It might mean to help churches and Christians develop a non-negligent relation to ‘what is to hand’, learning through the Gospel and liturgy, to see, to wait and to respond to the call that can be heard in the ‘here and now ’ gathering of people, other beings and materials. My feeling is that this might first of all necessitate thinking through theology’s own being too much ‘on the grid’ participating in the rupture of imagination and reality. Maybe this might be our beast to tame. Under the gentle gaze of Saint Martha participants in the Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference were clearly wrestling with it.

The Church and Human Rights – an anthropological challenge


Julia Meszaros

The Catholic Church has made a name for itself as an advocate of human rights. For long, it was, to be sure, skeptical, even antagonistic to the emerging human rights discourse. Pope Gregory XVI had decried the right to liberty of conscience as an ‘absurd and erroneous opinion, or rather insanity,’ a view shared also by his successor Pius IX. The freedom of conscience and of religion, as well as free speech and free press, were all rejected by the Church. Yet with Pope Leo XIII there emerged a gradual change of perspective, an opening to the world and its concerns and discourses, that enabled the Church’s increasingly large role in the articulation and promotion of human rights. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, advisor of both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, famously played a central role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and wrote the foreword of the same. The Church explicitly endorsed human rights in the encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII (1963) and embraced the human right to freedom of religion in the second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae (1965). Since then, it has been so vocal an advocate of human rights that Pope John Paul II was asked to address the United Nations on the occasion of the 50 year anniversary of the Universal Declaration.

However, the Church’s relationship with human rights does not lack ambiguity. Despite calling the nations of the world to sign the declaration of human rights, the Holy See has not done so itself. And while ecclesial canon law lists the ‘duties and responsibilities’ of the faithful, it lacks a declaration outlining the inalienable and universally possessed rights of the individual. Moreover, while the second Vatican Council’s defense of the dignity and freedom of the human individual follows the line of reasoning that undergirds the UN Declaration, it does not adopt the latter’s secular phraseology. Most importantly, perhaps, there appears to be a gap between the Church’s advocacy of human rights in the world and its respect of human rights in its own, inner affairs.

Such at least was the assumption of a recent conference on the Church’s implementation of human rights 50 years after Pacem in Terris: http://www.uni-muenster.de/Religion-und-Politik/aktuelles/2013/aug/News_Tagung_Massstab_Menschenrechte.html. The Church, this critique suggests, falls short of its own insight that, as Walter Kasper has put it, ‘if we understand the Church as the institution of Christian freedom, its task should be to stand up for human rights within the Church and outside of it as the fundamental precondition of Christian freedom.’[1] The Church’s failure to enable the individual’s democratic participation in Church politics, its rejection of freedom of conscience in the secular sense of the term, its limitations on the speech of theology professors and its failure to come anywhere near contemporary understandings of gender equality constitute only some of the Church practices that are often perceived as violations of human rights on the part of the Church. As such, they undermine the Church’s credibility, and hence compromise her ability to mediate in international conflicts that violate human rights. The perceived discrepancy between the Church’s stance on human rights ad intra and ad extra increasingly creates tensions also with the modern state and its attempt to ensure respect for human rights: calls for state interference in Church affairs are arguably bolstered by the Church’s seeming inability to live up to its own standards.

Whether or not we share the view that various aspects of the Church’s inner structure and practices violate human rights, we must note that they, at the very least, sit uneasily with a host of the human rights the Church advocates in the world. Indeed, the very perception of an inconsistency between the Church’s stance ad intra and ad extra can be seen as a reflection of the Church’s own unclarity about its position with regard to human rights as they are currently being proclaimed and endorsed.

What does this unclarity consist in? As I would suggest, the Church champions the dignity and inviolability of each and every human person, yet struggles to convey this in its own traditional language. It is in the face of this communicative impasse and a general opening of the Church to the world, that the Church has been on a keen lookout for new ways of defending some of its core beliefs about the human person and their moral implications. This is one factor in the Church’s endorsement of human rights. At the same time, it seems that the Church remains uneasy about the plurality of principles undergirding the concept of human rights. Despite Jacques Maritain’s eloquent defense of it, the pragmatism underlying the drafting of the Universal Declaration always sat ill with the Church’s universalizing tendency and its missionary spirit. The ever growing list of (increasingly contradictory) human rights seems to cast further doubt on the sustainability of embracing human rights on different principles. It is, indeed, hardly obvious whether, when speaking of human rights, Church and world even have in mind the same subject. This is complicated by the fact that the Church is struggling to formulate a contemporary account of the human being, while many other signatories of the Declaration are skeptical of (and hence uninterested in) the mere attempt to  develop a systematic answer to this question. Hence, it remains unclear, for instance, to what extent the idea of human rights can or cannot be separated from the kind of modern notion of human autonomy that Veritatis Splendor (1993) rejects (VS 46). (This may be one reason why the Church today seems more sympathetic to social rights as opposed to political rights, where the divisive issue of human autonomy becomes most pressing).

If the contemporary Church has an uncertainty regarding the question of whose rights we are even talking about, it seems hardly more confident regarding the concept of rights itself. In imagining the societas perfecta, and hence the kind of humanity we must strive to foster, the Church has arguably taken recourse to a language of Love more than to one of rights – a tendency perhaps exacerbated by the modern crisis of natural and, to some extent, canon law(neither of which enjoys particular respect among contemporary theologians). The Christian ideal, one might say, is not one of mutually recognizing one’s rights but of being united in the Spirit, who is Love. Such an account does not, of course, rule out the notion of rights but has trouble elevating this to the status of an ideal. In effect, however, it arguably obstructs its own cause: without the mutual respect of one’s rights, neither freedom nor love will take root.

If the Church wishes to continue its advocacy of human rights in the world, it must clarify its stance towards them also in respect to its inner life therefore. This arguably requires a creative appropriation of the concept in relation to Christian anthropology and to the Church’s natural law tradition, without which the idea of human rights might never have come underway.

[1] Walter Kasper, Theoloische Bestimmung der Menschenrechte im neuzeitlichen Bewusstsein von Freiheit und Geschichte, in Johannes Schwartlaender (Hg.) Modernes Freiheitsethos und christlicher Glaube. Beitraege zur juristischen, philosophischen und theologischen Bestimmung der Menschenrechte, Muenchen 1981, 285-302, 301-302.


Public Role of the Church: Justice or Love?

Vincent van Gogh,  The Good Samaritan

Vincent van Gogh, The Good Samaritan

Ellen Van Stichel

If one wants to discuss the public role of love within Christian theology, one cannot escape the question of the relationship between love and justice. For rather than love, justice is generally conceived as the public virtue. Within the Christian tradition, however, the Gospel message focuses on love. Hence, should not the public role of Christianity be identified with love as expressed in the 7 works of mercy and exemplary shown in the parable of the Good Samaritan? One cannot deny that this kind of charity belongs to the core business of our faith. But has not a one-sided focus on love as charity often resulted in so-called ‘agapism’, which is very good in treating the symptoms of social issues by fulfilling immediate needs, without having to deal with the structural causes grounding these problems?

What is often minimalized in this ‘agapist’ approach is the importance of justice in Christianity. A mere glance into the writings of the prophets in the First Testament immediately shows the importance of justice for the Jewish people. Amos, for instance, famously reacts against well-intended offers by the Jewish people if they are not accompanied by acts of justice, understood as care for the anawim, the excluded (i.e. the poor, the widows, the orphans, etc). In fact, the harsh distinction between justice and love/charity seems to be a particular interpretation; for, as the biblical scholar John Donahue (1977) has argued, “[t]he traditional contrast between obligations in charity and obligations in justice is foreign to the Bible.”

Besides the Bible, Catholics can also refer to their social teachings, which have emphasized the importance of justice from their official beginnings in the 19th century. That justice should be realized within society is unquestionable; whether it also belongs to the task of the Church to make this happen, however, is the object of debate. Inspired by Latin-American developments, the synod of bishops of 1971 was very clear: supporting the Jewish idea that liturgy without acts of justice is insufficient, the bishops firmly stated that “action on behalf of justice is a constitutive element of preaching the Gospel.” Quite some ink has flowed on the meaning of ‘constitutive’ here, but I would stand with those who see justice as an essential characteristic of Christian faith and thus as part of the mission of the Church.   

Moreover, the bishops laid the groundwork for a particular concept of justice that was later much elaborated upon by the US Bishops in the letter on the economy (1986), a letter with sustained relevance for today.  The synod introduced the idea of justice as participation in Catholic social teaching. It is not enough to ensure one’s needs are met or respected, they argued. Rather, we should consider whether all have the opportunity to participate in society as political, social and cultural actors. Do people have access to the global economy? And if so, in what way? Do they belong to their political society? In fact, this notion of justice as participation is nothing else than updating Amos’ call: include into society the excluded.


All this may seem very abstract, but during the expert seminar on Politics of Love, Leo Penta sketched for us how this might look in practice with a concrete example: the German movement of broad-based community organizing. His main challenging question was “how can diverse people in and through their civic groups and institutions act collectively in the public arena for the common good over the long term?” By building relationships, this community organizing aims to bind people who can then act politically in search of justice.

From a theological-anthropological point of view, what is interesting here is Penta’s view on personhood. One the one hand, the project is realistic enough to realize that self-interest is at the basis of the involvement of concrete persons: it is because they are worried about something, or find themselves in a particular situation, that they are looking for relationships which can help them. Because they are on their own, they lack the necessary political power to resolve their problems. On the other hand, relationality is considered as ‘constitutive’ of the human person, which makes them also willing to undertake this collective action. In this context, “actively building relationships across boundaries” is considered as “an act of public love”. In contrast to many civil society actors, community organizing does not start from a single issue, but from the need to build relationships in order to gain collective empowerment. Penta summarized this in the notion of “enabling community”: it is the community as such that needs to be enabled; but at the same time, it is the community which enables. Its end goal is exactly the participation and inclusion of outsiders, such as ‘immigrants, disabled and disenfranchised persons’. For this reason, community organizing is an example of the Church actively participating in the struggle for justice while giving flesh to its mission of love.

Maybe things should not be so black and white. We cannot ignore the amazing results and implications of this focus on short-term loving acts for society, as the majority of current public services in the field of health care and education arose from Christianity through its religious congregations and orders. And although they fulfill certain (immediate) needs, one can hardly hold that these are mere acts of charity, considering their structural consequences for those who benefit from them. On the other hand, there will always be ‘tears which the bureaucracy won’t see,’ such that love, as seeing the face of the other in its particularity through the structures, will always be necessary. 

Ellen Van Stichel is a post-doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies (KU Leuven) and member of the Anthropos research group.