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Catholic Re-Visions

Research and Me-Search: A Conversation with the new Catholic Re-Visions Conveners

As Catholic Re-Visions welcomes two new members to its leadership team, the three co-conveners sit down for a conversation about their backgrounds and the blog’s direction.

Catholic Re-Visions is happy to announce the addition of two new co-conveners to its editorial team. Mary Kate Holman and James Padilioni, Jr. join the team with new excitement and energy for the blog.

With Mary Kate and James’ introduction, we say thank you to Vincent Lloyd, who has taken a step back from blog leadership. We thank him for his initial suggestion to create this blog, his help establishing its Advisory Board, as well as providing the underlying infrastructure and vision. 

To welcome the two new co-conveners, they sat down for a conversation with Jacques Linder, who remains a co-convener, to discuss their ideas of Catholic political theology, what excites them about conversations in Catholic studies and other disciplines, and future directions of the blog. 

Catholic Re-Visions Co-Conveners, from top left, Jacques Linder, Mary Kate Holman, and James Padilioni, Jr.

Jacques Linder

Thank you both for stepping into leadership roles with Catholic Re-Visions. I am excited to be collaborating with you on this project. To give our readers a sense of where we are coming from, I’ve prepared some questions for us. The first is what brings you to a blog about Catholic political theology? And, how do you understand political theology?

Mary Kate Holman

The initial questions that brought me to the study of theology were implicitly political. Growing up during a historical moment when many Catholics in the US allied a particular image of church with the Republican Party, I saw deep contradictions between this narrow political vision and the beauty and richness of the Catholic tradition in which I had been raised.

I wanted to try to understand what was going on with this very particular political theology to which I had been exposed, which ultimately led me to this lifetime of asking theological questions.

My research now focuses on ecclesiology, the theological study of the church. The questions that excite me about the Catholic Re-Visions blog and political theology in general revolve around the fundamental ecclesiological question: who is the Church? I’m convinced that who we say we are fundamentally impacts how we exist in the world, including how we structure our communities, how we engage with the state, and how we interact with the rest of society.

So this question of who we say we are, and how that leads to ethical and political ramifications, is what drew me here.

There’s also, I think, an interesting sort of intra-ecclesial dimension that doesn’t always get mentioned in political theology. But there are all sorts of politics going on in the institutional Catholic Church — who’s in, who’s out, whose theologies receive attention and whose don’t. The figures that I study are people who have had complicated relationships with authority regarding these intra-ecclesial political dynamics, and whose ideas then had an impact on the ecclesia ad extra, the way that the church interacts with the wider world. So political theology, I think, has many manifestations, and my own work intersects with it through the lens of ecclesiology.

What about you, Jacques? 

Jacques Linder

What really excites me about Catholic political theology is that there are people on the ground organizing, doing work to challenge state and church power, as well as fulfill human needs that the State or church necessarily can’t necessarily provide in the forms of mutual aid communities and online communities.

Here, I’m inspired by the thought and action of the Catholic Worker movement and its strands, as well as different ideas from Latin American liberation theology. I’m excited for an upcoming symposium that is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation.

Though sometimes people might understand the work of protest as public theology, where people are doing theology out in the world–or putting their “faith into action.” What is missed is a rich tradition of contemplation, discernment, and identification of the gaps (or lies–such as “development”) of the modern, liberal, State. Such theorizing happens behind the scenes before one hits the streets, in conversations with neighbors, co-workers, or someone on public transit. Such conversations tangle with the disgruntled and unsatisfied feelings and seek a horizontal outlet–connection with another. Thus, what comes into view is a challenge to the security and care that State power and hierarchies promise.

So, while there is a public element, I’m claiming that such conversations whether in an “public” capacity or not, are a form of political theology as well. Political theology as a scholarly tool has been understood to trace and unveil certain religious ideas that have been embedded in the social structures, through a transposition of hierarchy–Schmitt’s famous “all modern political concepts are theological concepts.” Our scholarly forefather was also identifying the gaps in the liberal State, that needed to be filled with a strong sovereign. We know how that ended up. 

However, this political theology that happens in conversations, between the public and the private, is important to name. I see Catholics and many people of faith performing this type of work. I must acknowledge, though, that these conversations discern a myriad of ends that could align between liberatory and fascist political projects. 

James, what brings you to a blog about Catholic political theology?

James Padilioni, Jr. 

San Martín de Porres brings me to a blog about Catholic political theology. I say this tongue in cheek, but it’s true. When I first chose San Martín for my dissertation topic ten years ago, I knew that I wanted to be ethical about his life and the archives that contain his life. I never really envisioned myself doing Catholic Studies from the outset, but because his life is contained within Catholic studies (and exceeds it too), I felt like I needed to understand the core of what animated him as a Catholic, in order to understand his ministry to the enslaved of Lima in the seventeenth century. Personally, as a cradle lapsed Catholic who, at the time, was trying out secular agnosticism, my own aversions to spirituality first challenged me with this research. But nonetheless, I thought it was my due diligence as an ethnographer, historian, and cultural theorist to put the Catholic elements of Martín’s story in the center. In the process, I’ve forced myself to have a reckoning with my own cradle Catholicism, “research / me-search” as you sometimes hear people say. 

I came to the seventeenth century archival history of Martín de Porres through a double road. I read the historical scholarship of Celia Cussen while studying Afropessimist theory, which during the early 2010s was au courant among a set of graduate students (and others) studying slavery and racism under the weight of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was in Lima, Peru on August 9, 2014 when Ferguson, MO police murdered Michael Brown on the hot summer pavement. I remember explaining the history of racial policing in the United States in Spanish to my host family, a woman who worked for Hogar San Camilo / St. Camillus House, a ministry of the Camillian Order dedicated to serving families living with HIV/AIDS. This trans-American experience first caused me to think together the dilemmas of ontological death or social death as defined within Afropessimism and connected to broader streams of Black theology with particular histories and liberationist movements of the Catholic Church. 

In short, social death premises that humanity and personhood for enslaved people was foreclosed and mediated by legal structures that did not view Africans as human persons, but rather chattel and property. While Catholic slavery functioned slightly differently due to the fact that enslaved peoples within Catholic colonies had a type of ecclesiastical personhood as technical vassals of the Pope, this only complicated the market logic of African bodies in Catholic colonies as chattel. 

Thinking these historical problems and their concomitant political theologies brought me square to the archival history of San Martín de Porres, as the son of a formerly-enslaved African woman and Spanish colonial administrator father turned canonized saint, his life was encoded within a combined- Catholic Studies and slavery studies archive. 

Mary Kate Holman

So, how would you understand political theology? Given that that’s your work?

James Padilioni, Jr. 

I came to political theology during the same time period I first learned of Afropessimist theory. I was in a critical race theory grad seminar at William and Mary in which we studied Achille Mbembe’s theory of necropolitics, and placed it into conversation with Carl Schmitt’s political theology, and in particular the notion exception: the premise in which sovereignty is not a normative order, but rather the very state of exception. For Mbembe, necropolitics is the power of the sovereign to put people to death, a particular modern Western state technology first instantiated through the site of the colonial plantation, wielded against Black bodies, and this continues into the geographies of ghettos and prisons today. 

As I studied these theories alongside archival readings of 16th and 17th century Catholicism, I saw the immediate ramifications of such medieval Catholic notions as the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of sovereignty that encoded not only the political structure of monarchy, but reflected a metaphysics of patriarchal human supremacy and dominion over other forms of earthly life. I am indebted to the scholarship of Sylvia Wynter, the Jamaican-Canadian scholar of Iberian literature whose close study of the Valladolid Debate of 1550-51 and the Catholic anthropology it revealed greatly informs the way I understand the intersections of Catholic Studies, political theology, and slavery studies. We can see the enduring legacy of these early Catholic political theologies in the fact that Pope Francis just this March repealed and condemned the series of papal bulls collectively known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the legal plunder of indigenous Americans, and created the context for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

But returning to the political theology of sovereignty, as a type of sovereign, slave masters across the Americas enjoyed this state of exception over their chattel property, as their rights as slave masters spanned three legal domains: usus (use), fructus (fruit), and tragically, abusus (abuse). Essentially, a slave master can instrumentalize their property, can gain from any fruit generated by said property, and can even abuse their property, even if it meant murdering them. Political theology refined the way I was able to think about concepts like sovereignty, authority, and hierarchy, and in an antiblack necropolitical order, this infrastructure historically came out of a Catholic theocracy, particularly in the American colonies.

Jacques Linder

I think that gives us an excellent background on the anti-Black and settler-colonial context where we stand and the world that Catholics have contributed to creating. Given this context, Mary Kate, what excites you about conversations in Catholic political theology or Catholic studies right now? 

Mary Kate Holman

I’m really excited about a variety of scholars — theologians, historians, and ethicists — who are making an autobiographical turn in their work. Of course many of us are working on questions that feel pressing because we care about them, and because they have somehow intersected with our lives, but oftentimes our personal connection to our research is implicit. So I’m excited to see folks explicitly engage with their own stories and their families’ stories in a way that narrates a Catholicism that is both broad but also very personal.

Maureen O’Connell is doing this in Undoing the Knots: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blackness, and I’m thrilled that Catholic Re-Visions will be publishing a roundtable on that book. The way that Maureen grapples with the legacy of Catholic racism through the story of her own family sheds light on an important theme but does so in a very personal way.

Bob Orsi’s latest book project, Give Us Boys, is a study of Catholic sexuality, power, and danger, drawing on the archive of his own Catholic all-boys’ high school from the 4 years that he was there. And there’s enough material there to really start unpacking questions of gender, sexuality, abuse, etc. that unfold in the history of American Catholicism. So again, approaching a really important and broad topic with very personal stakes, using personal sources.

I’m not sure if this work is still in its preliminary stages or not, but I’ve also heard Jim Fisher mention in conference papers that he is taking a turn to his own family history to trace stories of immigration, education, and discipline in Catholic history. Again, both very personal and yet very broad.

It seems to me that in an earlier era, scholars avoided more explicitly personal sources in the name of “objectivity” and “scholarly rigor.” But these thinkers use autobiography and auto-ethnography it in a way that is scholarly and rigorous and beautifully enhances conversations about really important topics. I’m excited to see more of this.

James, what excites you about conversations in Catholic political theology or Catholic studies right now?

James Padilioni, Jr.

Currently, I am excited by what I will deem studies of “Jim Crow Catholicism” or “Harlem Renaissance Catholicism” in the United States, reflected through the recent work of scholars like Brenna Moore, Shannen D. Williams, Vaughn Booker. In these works, you see intimate portraits of Black Catholics, both lay and religious life, and the situation of a pre-Vatican II, almost missionary-understanding of Black Catholicism, especially in the South, where segregation of public institutions created a situation in which “Negro” Catholic institutions emerged to meet the need imposed by white supremacy, while in many ways white American Catholics also benefitted from and upheld segregationist policies. I am also a great admirer of Matthew Cressler’s work on the emergence of Black Power Catholicism in the aegis created by Vatican II reforms. 

As Catholic cultural studies, these scholars are asking important questions about the sociogeny of race within American Catholic communities, and the questions with which Black Catholic Americans have wrestled to gain enfranchisement as citizens both in the United States but also as equal subjects of the Church and members of the body of Christ. These recent Black Catholic studies help me situate the tricentennial of Martín de Porres’ death, which occurred in 1939, and which forms a watershed moment in my forthcoming book research focusing on the ways in which Black Catholics in South Florida since the Jim Crow period have re-interpreted the story of Martín de Porres as a critical commentary for their contemporaneous present. Relatedly, Pope John XXIII positioned Martín’s 1962 canonization as the “firstfruits of Vatican II,” and it was in Martín’s hometown of Lima in 1967 that Father Gustavo Gutiérrez formulated the premises and practice of liberation theology. As a fellow Dominican, no doubt Guttiérrez was aware the Peruvian Church had designated Martín the patron saint of social justice as early as 1929, so this pre-history and cultural context of liberation theology is embedded within the charism of Martín de Porres towards poor and oppressed Peruvians of color. Martín was the first Liberationist in the South American Church.

How about you, Jacques? 

Jacques Linder

Though my dissertation research has me investigating some conversations on nuclear weapons in the 1980s, my excitement right now emerges from the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary nature of the direction that scholars are pushing the field. There are more tools and disciplines and methods that people are sort of plugging into now and not limiting themselves to Catholic studies, but also with Christian ethics and systematic theology, such as Andrew Prevot’s new work on mysticism. 

These new emergent methods attempt to grapple with the hidden, and suppressed, histories of Catholics. From anti-Black racism to settler colonialism, these conversations are re-orienting and revising how people might understand or view Catholics, Catholic history, and Catholic political thought at large. Similar to James, I have Shannen Dee Williams’ Subversive Habits on my mind, as well as the work that Kathleen Holscher and Jack Downey have put together to map the sexual abuse that took place on indigenous reservations and boarding schools. 

Given this excitement we all seem to have for the scholarly conversations going on right now, what directions do you see (or en-vision) for Catholic Re-Visions? 

Mary Kate Holman

I think blogs are a unique space where ideas can be democratized, which feels important in our current moment. I have heard a lot of people lament the massive disconnect between academic theology and the theology that people get in the pews, and I hope that our blog can be a space where ideas can reach people who are not subscribing to scholarly journals.

At its best, I’m hopeful that this blog could function as a bridge between scholars and activists and believers who might not be what I’ve heard Heidi Schlumpf call “professional Catholics,” so as we move forward we can put those different demographics into conversation with one another. I hope we continue to facilitate exciting conversations about theology and ethics and aesthetics, the questions that animate all of our lives, and make these conversations accessible to people who are curious and interested and care about these issues but might not be in scholarly spaces.

Obviously there will always be sort of a scholarly component to this blog, and I’d be excited to have activists reflect on their work here, and people involved in a variety of ministries. Political theology manifests in protests, in churches, in prisons, on the border, in classrooms, in elections, in parish halls, and I hope that this blog can serve as a bridge between the conversations happening in all of those spaces.

Jacques Linder

I am thinking not about the content, but maybe the form that could take place on the blog. Similar to what you mention excited you, Mary Kate, the autobiography or autoethnography could be a background for a form of creative expression that manifests itself on the blog. This could be done through standalone essays, where people are grappling with whatever sort of Catholic forms might be around or in their life experience or that they’re noticing in the world. It would be an interesting way for people to name the contours of Catholic political theology or Catholic political thought and apply it to current conversations. 

I also see the blog as a place to try out ideas for the first time as well. So, people, not necessarily scholars, who want to try to express their ideas in potentially an international and/ or intergenerational conversation. It is exciting to think about new directions and forms this could take. 

Mary Kate Holman

James, what directions do you see, or envision, for Catholic Re-Visions?

James Padilioni, Jr. 

There are so many different visions I can imagine a blog like this might take, but one I’m interested in curating is a discussion on the political theology of Catholic art and aesthetics as manifested in pop culture. I’ve been tracking these types of intersections since the 2018 Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination Met Gala and Exhibition. 

Mary Kate Holman

Cardi B pregnant as the Virgin Mary.

James Padilioni, Jr.

Yes, exactly that. Since then, I have seen many more examples of Catholic iconography and theology in popular media, and I am curious about the implications of all this. The 2020 HBO Max series Veneno, based upon the life of 1990s Spanish transgender sex worker and television star Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz. Because of the Spanish setting of Ortiz’s biography, Catholicism was baked into the imagery and storytelling elements of this series. I don’t want to spoil the series, but the theology of the Eucharist appears as a recurring motif, interwoven between scenes of children taking their first communion as well as a community of transgender sex workers who love and care for one another. The theme of the series, in some way, implicitly feels like a refrain blessed are the meek in which the transgender community embodies the figure of Christ. There are certain Catholic depictions in the story you assume might be traumatic based upon the queer coming-of-age storyline of Ortiz’s character, but instead, the Catholic imagery of the Eucharist is used to amplify the innocence of a trans child’s queer expression of fidelity to the Virgin. It totally inverts the expectation of viewers since Catholic theology is not necessarily the antagonist, even if Catholic authorities are. 

This series is a true Catholic re-vision.

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