Popular or “folk” varieties of Catholicism are resilient and flourishing, though they don’t seem to be much of an impetus for social action.
Those are two of the conclusions of a world-wide study of popular Catholicism reported in the Jesuit America magazine (May 29). The study is based on seven case studies of areas where Catholic practices and beliefs are shaped by indigenous folk traditions. Researcher Thomas Bamat writes that “We found popular religious beliefs and practices to be enduring and evolving among local Catholics from urban Chile, where established Catholic piety and devotions endure while giving some ground to more rationalized beliefs and even “new age” practices, to Tanzania, where a Marian devotional movement harks back to pre-Vatican II practices and traditions while adopting a more African worldview and using public exorcisms, to Ghana, where emerging Catholic communities are beginning to transform tribal problem-solving strategies and rituals.”
Most of these “popular Catholics” neither showed “slavish attachment to tradition nor widespread hostility to the modern.” For instance, Dagomba Catholics in Ghana appreciate Western schools and medicine and have adopted more egalitarian relations between men and women. Hong Kong Catholics may venerate ancestors but they are firm believers in technology and representative democracy.
Bamat and his co-author Jean-Paul Wiest, who wrote the recent book “Popular Catholicism in a World Church,” found that “apart from prevalent community self-help and small-scale development projects, we found little organized action for change. This was true even in parts of the world where there has been notable social and political mobilization in recent years . . .”
They add that most church leaders ignore or, in two of the areas studied, actively oppose popular beliefs and practices.
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