Material History of American Religion Project

The material world of Catholic childhood

Robert Orsi's research into the material world of Catholic childhood challenges both our understanding of American Catholicism and our definition of material history. He discussed his investigations with the project directors.

Material Catholicism

Q: How are the material world of children and adults different?

A: While I'm not prepared to talk more broadly about the psychology of children here, I wouldn't separate the material world of children from the material world of adults. In this project I'm interested in focusing on the ways that children and adults together shaped a common Catholic world in the United States in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Catholicism generally is a materialized faith, a religious culture of many material possibilities—possibilities of the senses—and all of these are offered to Catholic children. Catholic children live in a world of many smells, sounds, and tastes—bodily sensations available to them in the domain of religion. When I was living in Rome ten years ago I regularly used to take my very young daughter to the Vatican—it was the perfect playground because there was so much to touch, see, and crawl over. There were colors to see and candles flickering. It was wonderful sensuous space. It did speak directly to the imagination of this child; it invited her in to play. To that extent, Catholicism is good for the budding imaginations of children because it meets their sensual and tactile approach to reality.

Q: You talk about Catholicism as a materialized faith. What do you mean by that?

A: I'm not limiting my understanding of materiality to the objects of religion, although I am paying attention to how children use rosaries, oils and all the things of Catholicism. For me the material dimension of religion is a much broader category that goes well beyond the things or the stuff of religion. Our project is situated in an intellectual culture that divides the material and the spiritual. The material is understood to be the stuff of the body, of things, and the spiritual is something else. I am more interested in the way religious imaginings or worlds are made material in the experience of people, in particular of children. For instance, I have been looking at how children were taught in a very vivid and physical way the real presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, which is a central defining element of Catholic theology. American Catholics in particular were very aware that their belief that Jesus was literally in the tabernacle distinguished them from other Americans—especially Protestants. But how do you get children to appreciate the elusive reality that Jesus is in this little tabernacle? The issue is not one of material objects as much as rendering vivid and immediate to children's apprehension the doctrine of the real presence. There were lots of ways this was done with children and for children. One was a genre of folktale about children who in a moment of crisis rescued the host from danger because they understood the host to be the presence of Jesus. Children's magazines and Catholic children's lore were filled with such stories. In one I remember, for example, a child in a town that is being evacuated during a flood suddenly realizes that Jesus is being left alone in the tabernacle. He must go back and be with Jesus in the flooded church because Jesus is really there and really alone; a child's own fears of abandonment and loneliness are mobilized to ground the doctrine of the real presence in children's experience. That is one of the ways in which the reality of Jesus' presence was rendered material to children. Another was stories altar boys told. I remember them myself. Stories or war tales were swapped about what you would do if suddenly you were presented with the host in some anomalous circumstance. For example, what if someone vomited the host at the altar rail? This was a perennial topic of conversation among altar boys. What would you do? Obviously the heroic and the necessary thing to do—since this was the body of God—was to eat the host. The repugnance I feel even telling the story is an echo in my body—or a realization in my body—of the reality of that doctrine. I would have to overcome my own personal repugnance and swallow a host that had been vomited up by someone else. For my altar boy peers and myself, this was a heroic possibility in our future. What if the church was burning? Would you have to rush in right away, at the risk of your own life, and get the host? The answer is "Yes!" In these ways doctrine becomes real in the bodies and experiences of children. So, what I'm interested in is the processes of materializing religion in the bodies, experiences, and imaginations of people, children in particular.

Q: What other things helped in that materialization process?

A: There was a series of images that began appearing sometime in the late 1940s in the Junior Catholic Messenger, a very popular periodical written for Catholic children. (The periodical came out in two forms. One was for children who went to Catholic schools; another more insistently catechetical version for was published children who went to public schools.) The series focused on children's behavior in church. Catholic children were really faced with a tremendous challenge in church. The mass was in Latin and could be long; the priest's back was turned away from you, so you didn't really see anything that was going on. If you were sitting in pews, you could be quite a long distance from the altar, so you basically had the prospect of keeping your child's body still for forty-five minutes to an hour with essentially nothing to do.

Q: And if you are small enough you probably can't see anything but the back of the pew in front of you.

A: Maybe all you can see is the back of the person's head in front of you. The nuns that had to preside over this moment in the experience of Catholic children's lives were preoccupied with what the children were doing with their bodies. The series sought to represent in iconic form a set of bodily movements and behaviors that the Junior Catholic Messenger wanted to both identify and to extirpate. The first thing they did was to evolve a vocabulary, to identify and describe the intolerable behaviors and physical postures of children. There is Timmy the Termite, who chews the pew in front of him. Windmill Willy, who whirls his arms around when making the sign of the cross. Each behavior is given a name. Whispering Willy, who persists in whispering in church, Tommy Twist-Neck, who looks every place but at the altar during Mass. Children's bodies were over-present in the church; the Junior Catholic Messenger was evolving a kinetic vocabulary to describe children's behaviors and then to discipline them. Catholic children were taught with great specificity on how to enter a church, how to genuflect, how to kneel. For example, in 1943 the Junior Catholic Messenger told its readers that when receiving communion "we should keep our eyes cast down. Our hands should be joined, the inside of one hand against the inside of the other, right thumb over the left. The joined hand should point upward. [After receiving communion] we draw back our tongues slowly, and swallow the Sacred Host as soon as we can." In another article it says "hold up your head—but not too high. Put out your tongue—but not too far. Swallow soon—but not too soon." This is an amazing amount of attention being given to the arrangement of children's bodies in the encounter with the sacred. If anything should teach Catholic children that the sacred is real, it is this action upon their bodies in the presence of the sacred. Through these actions upon their bodies, you see the process of materialization and the reality of religion.

Q: It's almost as if the body is the porthole to both the sacred and the profane in the children's experience.

A: Yes. It is only because we live in an intellectual context that has so consistently denied the body that we have to rediscover the truth of that. But it should not come as a surprise to us that our skins are the surface of our encounter with the world. So all this action upon the skin has a profound impact upon the experience of reality and what constitutes the real.

Q: Is this materializing just a result of Catholic doctrine or is there social strategy on the part of the church, particularly an immigrant church, in focusing on these materializing behaviors?

A: That distinction between the religious and the social is a variant of the distinction between the body and the soul, outside and inside the body, that we have to continually work against. At play at these moments are a variety of factors of discipline and power within several overlapping contexts. But nothing I'm saying is distinctive to Catholicism. One of my ambitions in all my work has been to tease out from Catholic case studies responses and possibilities relevant to characteristic problems in the study of religion, and then to offer an alternative way of construing religious reality and studying religion to the constructions that otherwise dominate the contemporary study of religion. For example, if I discover certain things about the materializing process and the centrality of the body in the work of making religious worlds for children and with children, I would like to think that this could open up studies of this kind of behavior in other contexts. The body is not absent in Protestant cultures or contexts. So I don't think this is distinctly Catholic. Catholics certainly had a wide array of idioms for doing this work, but so did other faiths. Some wonderful work has been done on related subjects by scholars of Judaism, for example, like Jenna Weissman Joselit's research on American Jewish domestic culture and Ivan Marcus' recent study of "rituals of childhood" among Jews in medieval Europe.

Sentimentalizing children?

Q: It is very easy and common in our society to sentimentalize children particularly in a religious context . That's clearly something you're trying to challenge. How do you avoid that sentimentalizing push?

A: We are all really heirs to the Victorians—Victorian anthropology, religious studies, and attitudes towards the body among other things. These attitudes and orientations and values are built deep into the fundamental tools of our intellectual work. So in the United States we inhabit a culture in which children are sentimentalized. But "sentimental" is a complicated notion. JonBenet Ramsey comes to mind here, and the phenomenon of children's beauty pageants and the eroticized child. Children are subject to many different kinds of forces in contemporary society. The United States has a substantial portion of children who live below the poverty line, and yet we consider ourselves a child-friendly society. We live with that contradiction, in just the same way the Victorians could manage to cry over little Nell in a Dickens novel and countenance the wholesale transmission of children to Australia and Canada as conscripted child labor. Cultural attitudes towards children are never singular. One of the challenges of the project is to sift through some of the ambivalent, contradictory forces that converge on children in religious settings. Just as it is impossible to give a singular account of the child in a contemporary American society, so it is impossible to give a singular account of the experience of children in religious settings. That's how I would deal with the issue of sentimentalizing—by understanding the ironies and the complexities of the way children are construed in this culture at this moment in the twentieth century. The phenomenology of "sentimental" needs to be explored. What does it mean to be "sentimental" towards some creature? Does this mean to see the child simply as innocent? I want to pay attention to what happens to children and to children's bodies in the religious setting.

One of my approaches, as you know, is to explore the materializing process that occurs in and through children's experience and the ways this helps adults constitute the meaningfulness of their own religious worlds. Clifford Geertz asked, how is it that people move back and forth between religious worlds of meaning and everyday life? How is the ongoing reality of a religious universe of meaning sustained? Shockingly to me, religious theorists have paid very little attention to the role of children in the process of sustaining and making worlds of meaning in religious contexts. Everybody else seems to worry about the moral and religious life of children. You have all kinds of groups—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim—who are concerned with the education of children, the training of children and so forth. But religious theorists have paid unbelievably little attention.

Q: How do the faith's meanings get sustained?

A: We talk about handing on or passing on religious values or meaning from one generation to another as if these values or orientations to the world were the family silver. But our understanding of this charged cultural process needs to be more complicated; we should rethink it as a generational process fundamentally constitutive of religious meaning. Something very serious is happening when adults speak or interact with a child in a religious setting. I think a lot is in play at that moment and the stakes are very, very high, culturally, psychologically, religiously. This is one of the reasons why in the American culture we swing back and forth between a kind of fear for the child and fear of the child, often at the same time. There is fear today on the religious right for children, but there is a certain fear of children, fear of what an adolescent's desire can do, for instance, or fear of the cultural dangers of religiously undereducated children, or that children are slipping out of control. I think these moments when we pay attention to children in this way are moments in which something about the constitution of culture is at stake.

Sources and methods

Q: How are you doing your research in this area?

A: I'm at the very beginnings of this project. Right now I'm gathering articles—many hundreds of them. I'm knee deep in articles from the Catholic popular press in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries on children. They include devotional articles—how to teach children how to pray or say their rosary, for example—doctrinal articles about what we want to teach children about the faith and the best way of doing this, catechetical articles—what is catechetics, how do we do it, what are the best ways of doing it—pedagogical articles, articles about the nature and special needs of children, articles written to children, articles written for parents about children, and so on. I'm collecting all these articles right now and trying to make my way through them, to see what is being said on the level of written official culture.

Q. What is your source for understanding the children's experience?

A: I can read four hundred articles on what Catholic educators, Catholics responsible for the religious formation of children, say children's experience of the rosary should be in a prescriptive or pedagogical way, but that gives me almost nothing of the experience of children themselves saying the rosary. I don't want to do a study of contemporary Catholic children, because that is not my ambition or my training. It would be a valuable study, but this is not mine. But as with my other work I am trying to integrate archival sources with ethnography. I'm experimenting with what for the lack of a better word I'm calling memory groups. I have asked groups of Catholics of varying ages, everyone over eighteen, to come together to talk about their experience of growing up Catholic. My plan is to bring the written and the oral sources together, and to work the seams or fissures I discover in their intersection. This is a very difficult theoretical problem for me right now. I'm sensitive to the problems of memory, of studying memory, of relying on memory as a historical (as opposed to a psychological) source. The use of memory-sources in cultural study requires a very delicate hermeneutics and I'm trying to evolve a way of doing this. That's two major sets of sources, the printed materials from Catholic periodicals—all the things that are said about, for and to children—and the ethnographies of memory, gathered in conservation with adult Catholics about growing up as Catholics. There are also regional and ethnic issues to be considered, the differences in memory between Catholics who have left the church and those who stayed at least in some relationship with the church. Obviously memory is inflected and constituted in all kinds of ways by one's contemporary attitudes towards the church. This is extremely complicated.

Q: How have the interviews gone so far?

A: I prefer the word conversation. I've already done six months worth of these conversations with several different groups. Bloomington's population comes from all over the United States, so for these first experimental forays I was able to talk with people of varying ages who had grown up in many different places and Catholic contexts. These conversations lasted over six weeks, and we met weekly for two hours. I taped the conversions, but there were checks in place to protect my sources' psychological privacy. People had control over what they said and what they didn't say. It was fascinating. I watched the process of people re-encountering their Catholic past and their experiences of what it meant to be a Catholic at different moments in the history of American Catholicism. I have seen both the possibilities and the limits of this methodology. When I began the research I was under the influence of Elizabeth Loftus' theories of memory. Loftus is a psychologist who studies memory and the processes of memory. She is radically skeptical of the possibilities of using memory for empirical information. I find her radical skepticism bracing, but ultimately I discovered that people were quite sophisticated at assessing the empirical quality of their memories. The tested their own memories for me. They would say, "Let me check with somebody about this," or "Let me think about this," as they struggled to assess the empirical status of a memory. They were also acutely aware of how their current attitudes towards the church were shaping their memories. It was not uncommon for someone to say, "What I remember about those nuns was the way they bossed us and pushed us around. But I realize that I'm saying this from my current perspective and I now as I'm getting older I realize that the nuns were facing a challenge, they were young, they were faced with classrooms of 50 kids, they had their problems." These conversations turned out to entail a complex, self-reflexive process of "remembering," and I am certain now, at the end of this first phase of the research, that I will be able to uncover many dimensions of growing up Catholic without becoming positivist about the nature of memory.

Children and vocations

Q: Did you find any differences between elites and ordinary Catholics? Did elites in religion—very involved lay people and religious professionals—have a different, more religious childhood than others?

A: That's another variation that I have to explore further, but have not so far. I did learn that children who seemed to have a vocation were quickly marked by their teachers, sisters and priests. Some of the people I spoke to remembered having been identified as a future nun or priest and having been both flattered and made uncomfortable by it. One of the things that goes on in the materializing process is the designation of certain children as exemplars of all that is best about Catholicism. Everybody I talked to that grew up in the 1930, 40s 50s, and even into the 60s could remember someone who was recognized as the embodiment of the religious and moral ideal—a lot of attention was focused on these kids. Something of the nature of the faith was made vivid and material in them. The cultural construction of these perfect child exemplars of the faith is one of the ways we have to talk about materializing religion. If, by the way, you didn't feel that you had a vocation, if you imagined yourself in the future as getting married and having children, if you didn't think your destiny lay through the convent or seminary, it was uncomfortable to be singled out as having a religious vocation. This was a common memory of discomfort. Being designated by the culture as the bearer of the culture's faith, to be assigned this responsibility for the future, for many children was experienced as a burden.

Q: Then conversely, not to have that vocation can be a disappointment too.

A: Yes. You can not grid these things along easy lines of disappointment or not, burdens or flattery. It was often simultaneously all of those things. Many people also began their conversation, "I was never the kind of person who nuns thought . . . " or "I was the last person the nuns and priest would have ever thought . . ." That, too, obviously becomes a profoundly shaping thought. Children move through a world of very serious expectations. In Catholic cultures, they are particularly serious because of the requirements of celibacy as well as the high regard that priests were held in. To be marked off as someone who one day would be a priest was really something.

Q: I'm wondering if the pressure is like that on the child of the pastor in a Protestant church.

A: Actually, the person that comes to mind is James Baldwin growing up in a Pentecostal community in Harlem. The incredible pressures he describes in his autobiographical novel to be saved and his sense of "the entire church willing him towards the altar." I think that's part of the process of relating to children. I'm reading from Baldwin: "Around the time of his fourteenth birthday with all the pressures of church and home uniting to drive him to the altar, he strove to appear more serious and therefore less conspicuous." The image of all these forces uniting to bring them to the altar is a powerful comment on children's religious experience.

Q: How do you think what you're working on will change the way we understand the field of American religion in general?

A: I think it can make a contribution within the broader context of this overall project, to understanding the ways in which religion is an ongoing process of materializing, the way in which things unseen constantly are constantly rendered visible in the available idioms of culture. Students like to play with the question, what is religion? In exploring this, I remind them of a common trope of Saturday morning cartoons—the character who becomes invisible. He runs around unseen, working mischief, until he bumps into a ladder on which there is a paint can; the paint falls down on him and covered in paint, he becomes visible again. Religion makes visible and material the invisible dimensions of space and time, it covers our movement through space and time in such a way that the unseen and so disquieting dimensions of our experience become manifest to us. If I can make a contribution to this process of understanding the ways in which religion renders visible the meanings and the possibility of meanings in space and time, that will be a good thing. I also want to raise questions about how to study children in religious settings.

Robert Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the author of The Madonna of 115th Street (Yale University Press, 1985) and Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale University Press, 1996). He was interviewed by Project director James Hudnut-Beumler and associate director Daniel Sack.

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