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Priests, Prophets and Healers

The Expanded Catholic Roles within Latin America’s Religious Field and the Ecclesiological Consequences

The background of the project is the current process of religious transformation in Latin America, which is characterized by an expanding pluralism: The all dominant status of Catholic Church has been challenged by new Protestant churches, flourishing Afro-Caribbean cults, revived pre-Columbian religious practices and individualized and non-institutional Christianity. Within the Catholic Church, the most numerous lay movement the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) with around 100 million participants, challenges the traditional authority of priests and bishops. Enthusiastic lay men and women increasingly operate as preachers, exorcists and religious healers, mostly outside or parallel to the existing Catholic ecclesial structures. The common characteristic for all these religious transformations are that they spring from a grass root level. In Bourdieu’s notion of the religious field, priestly, prophetic and magic forms of religion and their representatives compete for the attention and human and economic resources of the lay people. In this postdoctoral project, I apply this theory on the transformation currently taking place in the religious landscape of Latin America and within the Catholic Church, in order to pursue a threefold purpose:


  1. To achieve a new understanding of the mutual relationship between different actors within the religious field in Latin America in general, and within the Catholic Church in particular. This will be achieved through a 4-month ethnographic fieldwork in Guatemala and by studying existing ethnographic accounts within a new theoretical framework.
  2. To contribute to a new theoretical understanding of the role of the lay people within Pierre Bourdieu’s theory about the religious field that dissolves the distinction between religious producers and consumers.
  3. To formulate a new and more practice-oriented ecclesiology (understanding of the church) on the background of the interplay between ethnographic data, sociology of religion and the classic theological tradition. This new ecclesiological model will better than the existing avoid idealizations of the church and make it possible to incorporate contradictions within the church theologically.