Challenged by Pluralism: Churchly Expansion into Magic and Prophetism - the New Roles of the Catholic Church in Latin America

By Thorsen, Jakob Egeris | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Challenged by Pluralism: Churchly Expansion into Magic and Prophetism - the New Roles of the Catholic Church in Latin America


Thorsen, Jakob Egeris, Ibero-americana


I. Introduction

Doña Concha is a sixty-five year old lady in a lower middleclass barrio of Guatemala City. She is a devout Catholic, a lector at mass and a so-called extraordinary minister of Communion. But she is also a preacher and a healer. She heals physical and psychological illnesses and she tumultuously exorcises demons in the basement of the parish church, where she gathers with her Charismatic prayer group every Wednesday. Doña Concha and the Charismatic Renewal movement, of which she forms part, embody the new religious roles into which Catholics and the Catholic Church in Latin America are expanding at the beginning of the twenty-first century. These new areas include quasi-shamanic faith-healing, which earlier belonged to the popular religious realm of the curandero or the wise woman, far outside the guise of the official Roman Church. It also includes ecstatic celebrations where participants fall into trance, speak in tongues and receive divine messages. Such celebrations were hitherto reserved to Afro-Caribbean cults and - more recently - to NeoPentecostal church communities. Finally Doña Concha and her group provide strong intercessory prayers for people with family and marital problems, men who suffer from unemployment and people who believe to be victims of spells and witchcraft, all afflictions against which one could also have sought up a wise women or a "white" (or "black") witch.

In an article entitled "Priests from the Charismatic Renewal of the Holy Spirit: Witch Doctors, Magicians or Professional Sorcerers?" (2008) \ the Mexican anthropologist Luis A. Várguez Pasos points out all the similarities between the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (and the priests attached to the movement) and the characteristics of magic and shamanism in 'primitive' religion as described by Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Marcel Mauss and others. He concludes that the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) has created a magic version of Catholicism with a much broader popular appeal than traditional dogmatic Catholicism (2002:81). By allowing and embracing the CCR, the leadership of the Catholic Church, the bishops, has created a platform from which the Church can effectively counter the increasing religious pluralism in the form of Pentecostals, esoteric movements, fortune tellers and witches, that challenges the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Mexico (ibid.:79).

Várguez's observations are valuable and his comparison of Catholic Charismatic practice to classic theory of magic and religion is compelling. In this article I will expand his argument, building on both Weber's sociology of religion, as applied by Varguez, and by its interpretation and further development by Pierre Bourdieu in his theory about the religious field and the competition found therein. Both Weber's and Bourdieu' s theory will be presented below; here it suffices to remind that both operate with three basic types, forms or aspects of religion: the priestly, the magic and the prophetic. My argument is as follows: The CCR represents not only a Catholic expansion into the realm of magic religion, but also into the prophetic sphere.

In a situation of increased religious pluralism and competition, this double Catholic expansion enables the Catholic Church to play on three religious strings and in that way more effectively than a solely priestly religion to counter Evangelical/(Neo-)Pentecostal, resurgent pre-Columbian and Afro-Caribbean, and expanding esoteric and occult religious agents. The price of the Catholic expansion into magic and prophetism is a relative loss of priestly authority that is reflected in a downgrading of Catholicism from being an integral common religious -cultural grid of Latin America to becoming one confessional actor among others.

In order to unfold the argument, I will (a) briefly introduce the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) in its Latin American context, (b) present the theories of Weber and Bourdieu, and (c) apply the theoretical framework to the CCR and to the contemporary religious landscape of Latin America.

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