Catholicism in Motion: Constructing a Global Church, 1600s–1900s
This panel brings together three papers that examine how Catholicism spread and mutated in the context of European empire building in the Americas and Africa from the early seventeenth through the mid twentieth centuries. Inspired by the AHA conference theme of Global Migrations: Empires, Nations and Neighbors, it unites three scholars who take a global approach to the study of Catholicism in a variety of colonial settings over several centuries. This enterprise necessarily involves some focus on European missionaries, yet none of the papers accepts the premise that Catholicism, as it moved around the world, remained an exclusively European religion. Indeed, all of the presentations stress the agency of indigenous populations in defining and shaping the faith as it moved. As Karin Vélez shows through examples from 17th century Canada, Bolivia, and Baja California, populations of indigenous American Catholics produced a variety of versions of Italy’s famous relic of the Holy House of Loreto. As she puts it, these were not “aberrations” or poor copies of the original model, rather these local variations were innovations that gave the replicas added “potency” in their local contexts. Her paper thus refutes the idea that missionaries retained strict “control” over Catholicism, and suggests, as she puts it, that there was more room for “movement and diversity” in early modern Catholicism than is generally acknowledged. In investigating almsgiving by Catholics in New Spain for the liberation of Catholic captives from North African pirates and the protection of Holy sites in Ottoman hands between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, Karen Melvin shows how early modern Catholics in the Spanish Empire came to see themselves as part of a global Catholic community. Though North African pirates were obviously no threat to indigenous Catholics in the Americas, they came to identify themselves as part of a Catholic world that faced common threats. Finally, Elizabeth Foster’s paper exposes the delicate position of the Catholic Church at the end of French Empire in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950s. She showcases the debates between Vatican officials, French missionaries, and African priests and believers over what it would mean to “decolonize” the church as an institution as well as the practice of the faith itself. She highlights how African Catholic activists were trying to steer the church to embrace adaptation to African languages and cultural practices. By bringing together scholars working on a variety of global locations over several centuries, the panel will provide for fascinating comparisons across time and space, and will showcase the wide relevance of key themes and debates which often remain mired in the panelists’ respective sub-fields.