Two-day Workshop on Religious Deviance

(by Thomas Sojer)

Religious deviance is a term for which everybody might list up various examples. Yet, looking at the history of religious deviance, especially in the 19th and 20th century, a complex genealogy of upspring, control mechanisms, denial, and conviction become apparent. To explore and deepen the understanding of religious deviance scholars from all over Europa and the USA met at the Ruusbroec Institute on April 12th and 13th.


Starting with contemporary phenomena of religious deviance Peter Jan Margry (University of Amsterdam) kicked off the workshop, portraying the development and idiosyncrasies of various Marian apparition sites after WWII. Looking into current events in Lombardy, Amsterdam, and Quebec, these devotional cultures share the belief in dramatic and apocalyptic scenarios which take place against the backdrop of political, social and religious changes of a modernizing world, often using digital media networks to spread their influence.


The next day Kristof Smeyers (Ruusbroec Institute) unveiled the depths of 19th-century England beneath the common narrative of modernity. He focused on two famous stigmatics of the time, namely Mary Ann Girling and Sir William Courtenay alias John Thom. On the basis of these cases, he outlined how the various groups of followers dealt with ecclesial and secular authorities and defended themselves against accusations of superstition, fraud, and deviance, especially in the light of the emerging media coverage in the early 19th century, showing earliest forms of “embedded journalism.”


Back to the future, Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) led us to the battlefields of WWI and reported sightings of ghosts and apparitions.  Although the flourishment of spiritualism in the early 20th century is already well investigated, very often the distinction between occurrences in the context of organized religion on the one hand and those related to the individual self-styled supernatural on the other hand, suffers from confusion. As an example, he portrayed various forms of secular talismans in WWI like the “Fums up” or the “Touch Wud”.


Leonardo Rossi (Ruusbroec Institute) presented the handling of stigmatics by the Roman Inquisition in the 19th and 20th century. Although the Holy Inquisition – also known as the Sant’Uffizio – lost its power from earlier centuries, it still intervened on multiple occasions as a powerful player of church and local politics. This resulted in conflicts between the local (church) authorities and Rome, accompanied by the Inquisition’s claim of power centralization. The cases of several stigmatics paradigmatically depict the conflict of institutional authority while trying to distinguish between a fake affettata santita and a true fama sanctitatis of the victim souls in question.


The Spanish historian María Tausiet discussed the case of the Catholic priest and exorcist Ramón Duarte in 19th-century Aragon, who was accused of feigning thaumaturgical powers and sexually abusing his healing-seeking parishioners. What stands out in the investigation reports of the Inquisition is the unusually detailed description of Duarte exercises around the female genital region, which leads inevitably to the question of sexuality and deviant religious practices, broadly discussed in the 16th and 17th century as the heresy of alumbradismo.


From the mountains of Aragón Agnieszka Halemba (University of Warsaw) transferred us to Dzhublyk, a contemporary  Greek-Catholic Marian sanctuary in Western Ukraine. This shrine shows exemplarily how ecclesial powers use religious deviancies as institutional “guinea pigs”. As young apparition sites are dependent on the church’s approval, they provide the possibility to test new ways of spirituality and ecclesial life – which are thought be too risky to perform within the established church. If the experiment failed, the church hierarchy could easily abandon and denounce these cases.


Andrea Graus (Ruusbroec Institute) outlined the medicalized language of French priests in the Third Republic to remove stigmatics from the religious into a pathological realm, disqualifying them as hysterical and abnormal. This phenomenon echoes the coeval medico-psychological milieu during that time period which had its climax with Jean-Martin Charcot and the Salpêtrière in Paris. The entanglement of religion and medicine led consequently to several theological treatises opposing hysteria and sanctity in order to establish tools to discriminate simulated and authentic religious experiences.


Tiago Pires Marques (University of Coimbra) portrayed the case of Maria da Conceição Mendes Horta, known as the Saint of Ladeira, who, in the aftermath of the Fatima apparitions in 20th -century Portugal, managed to establish her own personality cult despite the fierce resistance of the Catholic Church. She was able to establish a strong group of devotees from the 1960s to the 1990s, although being excommunicated by the Church, arrested by public authorities and interned in a psychiatric institution – demonstrating a unique example of a modern folk-religious movement outside of the established structures of religion.


Tine van Osselaer (Ruusbroec Institute) closed the workshop with an example of civil disobedience within the religious context. As shown in the case of the German stigmatic Maria Göbel in the early 20th century the faithful did not always obey the ecclesial authorities but found creative ways to gain the approval of the Church – i.e., by pitting bishops from different dioceses against each other. Especially in the early stages of the cults the ecclesial authorities tried to monitor and control the behavior of the faithful. This phase often was decisive for the later inclusion or reprobation of a cult and its followers.


Every presentation was accompanied by times of discussion and debate with particularly enriching inputs by the American historian and specialist on the workshop theme William A. Christian.

The busy agenda was complemented by two dinners – in line with the workshop theme – at Cathedral Café and at the Granc Café Horta.



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