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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Catholic Afterlives: What Identities and Practices Persist When Catholics Leave the Church?

luncheon colloquium

girl in church

Mara Willard
University of Oklahoma

Date: Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Time: 12-1:15pm
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road

RSVP required. Click here to register.


Abstract: According to a recent survey by PEW, almost ten percent of Americans identify as “ex-Catholic.” Sociological studies published by major Catholic universities identify similar numbers, often using the metric of “decline in regular mass attendance.”

But these studies have the effect of effacing “Catholic afterlives.” Institutional loss becomes the only legible perception of the growing body of Catholics that no longer claim a connection to the Church. Dr. Willard’s talk opens up the study of “Catholic afterlives” as a site for positive inquiry into changes in the practice and identity of those that had been formed as Catholics. A scholar of religion, Willard brings tools from cultural studies that unsettle the doctrinal paradigm of the “lapsed” Catholic. She shows how these methods allow us to perceive other ways of being Catholic beyond those recognized by Church doctrine.

By rendering “Catholic afterlives” perceptible, Dr. Willard also encourages scholars of religion and theologians to attend to thick descriptive accounts of the experience. In her talk, she will pose productive lines of inquiry. What does it mean for people to “leave” the Catholic Church? In what variety of ways do Catholic formations continue to make claims upon a person’s life? What practices of social affiliation, aesthetic preference, social service, and/or criticism and protest bind Catholic afterlives to their formative relationship with the institutional church? Alternately, in what ways do those who no longer affiliate with the institutional Church seek to displace habits inculcated by Catholic formation?

Dr. Willard will also raise some ethical imperatives for work in this area. For instance, how can scholars be accountable to those for whom explicit renunciation of Catholic identity is a statement for existential and even physical survival? Are the stories of those that were subject to abuse by Catholic clerics different in category or in degree from other Catholic afterlives? When and how do we mark differences between, say, Catholic afterlives of, say, post-war European Catholics (whose presence may be felt particularly in Boston), and the many other ways in which Catholicism is practiced and inheres in other populations, in other times and places?

mara willard

Mara Willard is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, where she also is affiliated with Jewish Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. A board-appointed member of the American Academy of Religion's Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion, her research focuses on the intersection of religion, ethics, and politics in the twentieth century. Her first book, Politics after the Death of God (currently under review by Oxford University Press), presents a fresh reading of Hannah Arendt, demonstrating that Arendt's diagnoses and proposed cures for modern state violence made creative use of intra-and post-Christian theological debates. 

While at Boston College, Willard will also advance her research on the so-called "Crisis in the Church" of 2002. This book project considers how lay and clerical initiatives for ecclesial reform in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal were conditioned by Catholic practices and priorities as well as class and cultural shifts of post-war Catholicism.

Willard received a B.A. with distinction from Swarthmore College, holds an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School and Ph.D. from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and has vivid childhood memories of sitting in traffic on Boston College game days. She is living for the year in the town of Arlington, with her spouse Chris Railey and their two boys, ages 9 and 6.

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In the News

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In a 2017 interview with Crux Catholic Media, Father Damián Astigueta, Professor of Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, provided insight on one population of Catholics who leave the church: "laicization,” or the removal of priests from clerical duties. He described the grounds for dismissal from the clerical state, as well as recent modifications to such criteria under Pope Francis. On March 13, Mara Willard will visit the Boisi Center for a luncheon colloquium on the practices and identities of Catholics who have left the church.