The lapsed and the laity: discipline and lenience in the study of religion

Maya Mayblin
2017 Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute  
This article cautions against an 'earnest turn' within the anthropology of religion, pointing up the tendency for anthropologists of religion to over-emphasize the role of discipline in the construction of the religious subjecthood over mechanisms of leniency and compromise. Taking the Catholic Church as an example, I show how discipline and lenience have been co-constitutive of Christian subjectivities, as different movements in a gigantic choreography which have spanned and evolved over
more » ... l centuries. By looking at certain technologies of lenience that have emerged over the course of Catholic history, I trace an alternative genealogy of 'the Christian self'; one in which institutional growth, power, and survival depended not only upon the formation of disciplined bodies and interior dispositions but also upon a carefully managed division of labour between clergy and laity, as well as upon a battery of legal commutations and practical avoidances aimed at minimizing the effort and pain of the ascetic approach. Taking the concept of 'lapsedness' as cue, I ask to what extent the 'lapsed Catholic', rather than indexing an ever-increasing tendency towards secularism, might already be contained and accounted for within Catholicism as a living, evolving form. Dona Leeta, 1 a landless fieldworker and a single mother from northeast Brazil, was somewhere in her fifties. She smoked a lot, joked a lot, but had always worked hard to sustain her household of five. In 2012 I walked the long uphill path to visit her again. It had been several years since we had seen one another, and suddenly there she was, barefoot and smiling in the doorway. Dona Leeta's smile was so wide and warm it embraced me in greeting halfway down the hill. As I drew nearer, she came out to see me and immediately I noticed that she was wearing a loose black dress. Having no recollection of her ever having worn black before, my curiosity was sparked. 'Oh this!' she chuckled raspily, grabbing me by the arm and leading me up the slope. 'This . . . ' , Dona Leeta's chuckle turned into rhythmic laughing and then, as she tried to recompose herself, a hacking cough. 'This dress, a promise to Santa Quiteria from when I broke my leg. I have to wear black for a year. My niece prayed on my behalf, as I was a The copyright line for this article was changed on July 14, 2017 after original online publication.
doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12650 fatcat:mlqajauopbht5eeyr23khqlzka