Author:Alanna Cant (University of Reading)
Paper short abstract:
Based on ethnography in a rural Mexican parish, this paper explores the social space between local 'popular' and local 'official' Catholicism, and argues that aesthetics constitutes a medium through which religious authority can be negotiated and different 'scales' of belonging are constructed.
Paper long abstract:
Differences between the aesthetic practices of religious groups often serve to clearly mark the line between 'us' and 'them.' However, such differences in aesthetics also work to constitute finer distinctions and connections within a community of believers. In studies of Latin American Catholicism, 'popular' religiosity is frequently contrasted to that of the institutional Roman Church, often without considering how this distinction is experienced in the everyday life of communities that necessarily include both perspectives. Based on research in a small parish in rural Oaxaca, this paper argues that aesthetics is the medium through which religious authority can be negotiated and different 'scales' of belonging are constructed. Where the priest is generally accepted to be the local authority on questions of scripture and the liturgy, religious aesthetics are much more open to negotiation by different members of the congregation. Examples of such aesthetic practices in Catholic Mexico include devotional care for particular images of saints and the ritual treatment of the dead. As such practices are of a sensuous and experiential nature, they are less amenable to definitive evaluations of correctness or worth, and therefore promote polysemous interpretations of their value and meaning. As the paper describes, this flexibility or ambiguity allows for different modes of authority to emerge locally and for belonging to be delineated in fluctuating ways that at times include, but at other times exclude, the parish priest.
Aesthetics and the making of religious collectivities