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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

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


Mara Willard, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, delivered a luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center on the topic of “Catholic Afterlives.” Dr. Willard is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Boisi Center, where she has been advancing her research on the so-called “Crisis in the Church” of 2002. The latter is a book project that considers how initiatives for ecclesial reform in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal were conditioned by the practices and cultural shifts of post-war Catholicism. Her March 23 lecture, which served as a forum for scholars to deliberate the paradigmatic prospects and challenges of her scholarly enterprise, addressed one principal query: What cultural identities, social affiliations, and aesthetic preferences persist among Catholics who leave the Church?  

Willard began by foregrounding the theological origins of her study as well as defining terminologies related to her project. One such origin is the outdated framework in the study of religion. Sociologists and anthropologists have customarily evaluated the growing body of Catholics that no longer claim a connection to the Roman Catholic Church through a lens of “institutional loss.” This understanding, Willard stressed, neglects post-affiliative roles (e.g., “alumni” and “veteran”) and effaces “Catholic afterlives.” Another origin is the post-Vatican II biblical encyclicals on birth control. However, Dr. Willard dates her personal interest to the outbreak of the Boston clerical sex abuse crisis of 2012.  

Dr. Willard then outlined her research methodologies for her book project on “Catholic afterlives.” She intends to explore not just the reasons for disaffiliation, but also what she calls “gifts and sorrows of Catholic afterlives.” These include pilgrimage, the arts, community service, and academic scholarship––all practices and identities of those who had been formed as Catholics. Exploring Catholic “after-lifers,” however, is made difficult because “external typologies can conflict with “self-ascription” of “after-lifer” status. More broadly, Willard discerns a “new anti-Catholicism” (see: Ron Duthat and George Weigel), as well as an “intra-Catholic agonism” (see: Bruce Springsteen).

During the question-and-answer session, participants raised some issues for Dr. Willard to consider in her book project. Some referred to the “stickiness” of the Catholic faith. Others highlighted that departure from the Catholic faith does not necessarily indicate hostility, but could also reflect a lack of spiritual nourishment. Others urged Dr. Willard to consider the behavior of “after-lifers” as transformed versus persistently Catholic activities, while yet others stressed the salience of gender, class and sexuality as confounding variables for after-lifer aesthetics.