Beyond Belief: A Catholic Sensory History of War, 1914–45

Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:50 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Patrick J. Houlihan, University of Oxford
Adding to debates about religious warfare, this paper argues for an identifiably Catholic way of modern war. With global and local scale, this paper theorizes a Catholic sensory history of war that connects the world wars and “interwar” period as a continuum of experience. While histories of warfare address the senses sporadically, surprisingly few works focus on an integrated sensory history that incorporates all 5 senses in sustained, integrated fashion.

This Catholic sensory history offers new perspectives of a family history of Catholicism that includes the everyday lives of women and children, thus counterbalancing standard male-centered narratives of clergy engaged in vitriolic “just-war” theology. The paper offers a sustained “poetics of the senses” for the entire period 1914-1945, thus linking the Great War with events such as the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust. The paper will give a thick description of the everyday experience of total war in religious terms of what war felt like: to see apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fátima, and how these pilgrimages affected 20th century history; to hear church bells ringing in rural villages (and how the sounds of silence affected local communities once the bells were requisitioned by the Army to be melted down for metal); to taste communion wafers made with ersatz grains from dwindling food supplies; to touch rosary beads and devotional statuettes, linking homefront and battlefront in a community of saints; to smell clouds of burning incense among the stench of decaying corpses at battlefield Masses.

This paper combines the latest theoretical literature on war culture and sensory history from global archival material; the paper situates the results in interdisciplinary global historiography beyond Europe. Thus, the paper illuminates belief and unbelief as existential conditions, enhancing notions of lived religion at a focal point of modern history.