Co-existing through Opposition

Competitive Theologies and Cohesion in a Spanish Village

in Social Analysis
Author:
Josep Almudéver Chanzà Researcher, University of Edinburgh, UK

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Abstract

Beyond ethnographic portrayals of religious competition as conducive to rupture and separation, this article shows forms of intradenominational competitive coexistence that allow for both the social reproduction of the community of faith and religious change and innovation. In a Spanish village, Catholic congregants compete not only to secure worldly resources such as priestly time or church-owned spaces, but also over the legitimacy of differing understandings of human–divine relationships and of the role of religion in a postsecular society. Here, competition involves forms of epistemic posturing, a denial of the priest's power as arbiter, and the appeal to the state as facilitator. Intradenominational competition between iconoclasts and ‘traditional’ Catholics redefines the community as a complex of competing theologies, even as it courts schism and difference.

In a village in eastern Spain, emotions are running high. Anticipation of annual religious festivals gains momentum as people belonging to confraternities sell lottery tickets and local delicacies to fund the festivities. These celebrations exhilarate and pull the community together around the image of Our Lady. But, as has happened before, the local priest is not on board. His personal theology stands against public demonstrations of faith and the display of images as mediators between people and the divine. The priest is not alone in this belief. The Neo-Catechumenal Way, a growing denominational presence within Catholicism, is popular among villagers, and represents a theological agenda very close to the priest's. As these competing visions of religious orthodoxy play out, many feel that their way of life, part of an established local identity that includes Catholic public rituals, is under threat. The ethnography undergirding this article zooms in on a congregation in the Valencian region of Spain. I focus on the interactions between parishioners of these two factions (and the ‘hinge’ members who belong to both), as they compete for resources that they deem essential to their spiritual practice: space, influence over the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and priestly time. The clash results from individualist versus collectivist notions of religion in which members of the community tussle with ideas and projects regarding the value of religion in the public arena and the role of Catholicism in a modern, secular state at large.

Religious competition in a semirural Catholic Spanish community, I contend, is conducive not only to a thriving intradenominational pluralism, but also to the creative reinvention and renovation of religious practices through renewed secular–religious alliances. Fundamentally, intradenominational conflict and competition offers a way of looking at competition in which relatedness and mutual acknowledgment (rather than subordination or domination) are conducive to social coexistence in a religious habitus. Although polarizing, the theologies on the ground ultimately resist schism, following elastic conceptualizations of doctrine and religious practice typical of the Catholic Church (Mayblin 2017, 2019). To analyze the ways in which competition enables social synergies and ritual change beyond expected outcomes, I focus on emic forms of kinship and relatedness among the congregation, alongside ideas of attentiveness and respect, to make sense of religious competition in the community (Olson 2013). I contextualize villagers’ practices of competition and conflict in the recent history of Catholicism in Spain. The role played by the Church during the Civil War (1936–1939) and throughout the dictatorial regime (1939–1975) is very much part of the local collective imaginary even when the past is not discussed openly. This historical memory determines how villagers deal with conflict, particularly when religion is involved.

The article intervenes in discussions about religious competition and social change by showing how competition leads to social (and religious) continuity, affords novel interpretations of the past, and shapes new social forms, rather than simply reproducing prior forms. In the context of postsecular states whose past is shaped by faith-based violence, competing for faith-based resources paradoxically allows for the mediation between secular and religious imaginings of the community, the social group, and the nation, encouraging harmonious coexistence among competitors. A recent surge of sociological interest in religious competition has followed an already established academic re-foregrounding of religion in the public sphere in the twenty-first century (see Beaumont and Baker 2011). Some have substantiated this surge methodologically through the macroeconomics of change (Cantoni, Dittmar, and Yuchtman 2018; Finke 1997), rather than the lived experiences of religious competition. This approach is a legacy of Adam Smith's arguments regarding the emancipation of econom- ics from religion and politics (see Minowitz 1993), as a process that post- Reformation interdenominational competition contributed to. This literature suggests that competition leads inevitably to the separation of the social and the economic, the sacred and the profane, in increasingly secularized states. Scholars of intradenominational competition in Christian contexts have argued that competition is characteristically Protestant (Weber 2009). In their view, competition both eventually causes separation (a proliferation of denominations), but may also trigger a decline in traditional practices and rituals (Tong 2007).

Counter to this argument, I focus the study of competition in Catholicism, one of the largest and longest continuously running institutions in the world, to show how competition allows for change and dissent without breakage. In this vein, I build on core insights in the anthropology of Christianity, where Christian traditions, knowledge, and even selfhood are problematized as the product of claims and counterclaims of truth and authority (Garriott and O'Neill 2008). This dialogical contestation of everyday practices and theologies can lead to schism and rupture. Matthew Engelke (2004) shows how disagreements over the role of the Bible in worshipping sets people and churches in Zimbabwe apart. Courtney Handman (2015) places competitive internal critique and schism at the center of Protestant religious practice in Papua New Guinea. However, I draw from literature on the Catholic habitus that illuminates the continuous tensions and relations between local traditions and universal Church claims. Writing about American-Italian Catholics, Robert Orsi (1985) shows how intradenominational tensions are never resolved, yet internal critique does not result in separation and schism. Work like Orsi's, however, lacks a focus on the ethnographic description of these intradenominational tensions.

I move debates on ‘what competition does’ away from dualistic outcomes such as continuation or schism, win or loss by attending to competition as “practice and process” (Hopkinson and Zidaru, this issue). Like other articles in this special issue, I complicate antagonistic narratives of competition by focusing on the role of particular agents in the face of social (and religious) change (Buitron, this issue) and by contextualizing competition in spiritual terms in the aftermath of momentous national upheavals (Alter, this issue). Thus, I consider the longue durée of religious and secular conflict in Spain, showing how a recent past of violent disputes has, paradoxically, prepared the ground for forms of competition that avoid overt confrontation, explicit rules, and the overt pronouncement of winners or losers. Unlike in other articles in this issue, competition's mediative capacity relies on its being deliberately obfuscated. In this respect, my ethnography may seem fragmented or incomplete at times precisely because I am dealing with dynamics of competition that include the denial of competition itself.

Bruno Latour's (1993) concept of purification illuminates how practices of religious competition and confrontation allow for the logics, practices, and institutions of the sacred and the profane to intertwine, rather than be separated. I choose competition as an analytic to bring into focus the ways that Spain's (post-)civil war context shapes intradenominational tensions in the village, in ways that go beyond dynamics of contestation or conflict broadly understood. In doing so, I intervene in Iberian ethnographies that have posited the singular power of the priest against the plural community-based demands of the people (e.g., Brettell 1990; Brandes 1975). Intradenominational competition thus also allows for a revival of previously marginalized religious sentiments and practices, as well as for new religious–secular alliances (see also Tong 2007; Trejo 2009).

The Long Shadow of Conflict

My argument emerges from ethnographic research conducted in 2017 and 2018 in Benaigua (a pseudonym), a Spanish village near the Valencian coast. The social backdrop to my research is provided by local and global care responses to post-2008 austerity policies, and the increasing demands made by women and LGBT+ people in the Church, an institution that has historically marginalized their spiritual experience. It was precisely by spending time with women over the age of 50 that I came to realize how a gendered memorialization of the past was crucial for the continuation and reinvention of religious traditions. Although seldom referred to explicitly, the Civil War and the subsequent 40-year dictatorship continue to loom large in the collective imaginaries of Spanish people, their memories, and political ideologies.

The Catholic Church supported Francisco Franco, head of the fascist coup, in the war (1936–1939) and throughout the regime, controlling the moral and social lives of Spaniards through the monopoly of areas like education and the media. Yet, after Franco's death, high-ranking pro-democracy priests were key to the transition to the current democratic system, advocating for a separation of church and state and ultimately pushing for the secularization of Spanish society. Since then, there has been little effort from the Catholic hierarchy to address the Church's involvement in the war and the fascist regime, and so legacies of the role of religion have resulted in contemporary imaginaries of the nation that are unstable, ceaselessly disputed, and often unspoken.

The passing of the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) in 2006 by the then socialist government aimed to give voice to those who had suffered during the conflict and under the dictatorship, and to remove statues and names of public spaces connected to it. A local Benaiguan historian compiled a monograph documenting in detail the Civil War in the village. The book caused uproar among those who were angry at having the names of relatives (now dead) mingled in narratives of violent repression, and among others who felt the exposure was long overdue. The historian received death threats and had to leave Benaigua for some time. Old familial feuds reopened. The community was in turmoil. Soon after, the national media followed the case of several people who had chained themselves to a monument—a cross in a town not far from Benaigua—to stop its demolition. Crosses erected during the dictatorship memorialized those fallen during the Civil War, but only those on the fascist side. The town's local government decided in January 2018 to pull the cross down, operating according to the Ley de Memoria Histórica. Its defenders, however, alleged that the cross was a sign of identity, a “religious symbol lacking political connotations” (Sánchez 2018). This also revived old tensions regarding the role of religion in the life of the community. In short, memories of the past, and the Church's role in it, continue to evoke conflicting images of the nation in the present.

My aim in giving such detailed contemporary context is to signal the dialectics of conflict in the region: action, publication, and the enforcement of a restitutive law were all perceived by my interlocutors as contributing to social unrest. Overt conflict was highly problematic where historical, faith-based, and political tensions existed beneath the surface of everyday life, an ethos that profoundly shaped religious competition in Benaigua.

Iconoclastic Dynamics: The Neo-Catechumenal Way versus the Congregation

“Of course we have devotion, and even from before the Civil War!” Tere said, clearly worked up. Tere was a widow in her late fifties actively involved in the congregation,1 one of my closest interlocutors. I had visited her just after a chat with the local priest, who told me quite clearly, and in front of other congregants, that Benaiguans were undevoted. “The problem is that him and his people have destroyed everything.” By “his people,” Tere meant the local members of the Neo-Catechumenal Way, and by “everything,” she referred to local Catholic traditions.

Competition between villagers and their priest, or among the lay members of a congregation, is well documented in classical ethnographies of Iberian rurality (e.g., Behar 1990; Brandes 1975; Pina-Cabral 1986). However, in Benaigua an explicit struggle for religious resources began with the introduction of a community of the Neo-Catechumenal Way by the current local priest in the mid-1990s. The Neo-Catechumenal Way, the Way, or El Camí, as it was known in Benaigua, is an “itinerary for the rediscovery of Baptism and an ongoing education in the faith” (Laicis 2002), an expression of the Catholic Church born in the 1960s out of lay people's catechizing work in the Madrid slums. Although only canonically accepted within the fold of the Catholic Church in 2015, the Way includes more than a million members worldwide. It runs seminaries where priests train in the movement's particular theology and supports more than a thousand lay families who have left their countries of origin to missionize in Eastern Europe or South America. In short, the Way is a global force to be reckoned with.

The Way's agenda is one of conversion and spiritual interiorization through demanding regimes of study, which require commitment and frequent meetings. In 2018, encouraged by members of the community and as part of my participant observation, I joined a Neo-Catechumenal introductory catechesis: for three months we met for two hours twice a week and attended a three-day spiritual retreat. The Way offered a Christian lifestyle based on ‘the tripod’: the Word of God, the Eucharist, and communal living (Laicis 2008: 5). Local members existed in two groups (comunitats). Each group (of about 10 members) ‘walked’ together for several years; learning, supporting each other, testifying before each other as to the power of the Spirit, and sharing their most intimate troubles and tribulations. To maintain this sense of community the catechists asked us, neophytes, to keep what we learned, heard, and said during our meetings to ourselves. The settings of our meetings enhanced this aura of exclusivity: we never met in the church, but in adjacent rooms used for teaching and learning. Neo-Catechumenals also meet at home often and regular retreats took place in hotels far from the village. Although we were always told we could leave at any point, leaving the Neo-Catechumenal community would mean no longer being part of your network of spiritual support. As ex-members of the Way explained, they had been cordially invited to attend Mass with their former communities, but they could never attend home or prayer meetings again.

This contrasted with the model of “parish civilization” (Hervieu-Léger 2002: 100–101) that the rest of the congregation, including Tere, exemplified; all villagers were assumed to be part of the community of religious practitioners by default, by the mere fact of belonging to the village. This was most obvious during the organization and celebration of public forms of piety, when the community came together and everyone either held a candle in a procession, sold lottery tickets to fund religious festivities, or simply watched proceedings in the street with family and friends. By being included in Catholicism by default, villagers in Benaigua shared in a particular collective past that encompassed religion necessarily, not by choice: you did not ‘opt in’ as one did by choosing to be part of the Way. This meant that lapses and discontinuations were allowed among the congregation. In fact, they were a significant feature of the congregation's religiosity (and of the Catholic Church at large; see Mayblin 2017): one could choose to avoid communing with one's fellow villagers in religious rituals and acts for some time and then return without much fuss. One's faith was not necessarily judged by a constant and progressive commitment to the Church, as it was for members of the Way. Rather, faith involved a politics of presence and absence that encompassed assiduous churchgoers, creyentes no practicantes (non-practicing Catholics), and even atheists, who were all involved in one way or another in the life of the village, funding and participating in faith-based festivals.

Being a member of the congregation by default and choosing to be a member of the Way characterize two opposing views of faith-based belonging and community-making that were at the root of the competitive tensions in Benaigua. Theological knowledge claims were another source of conflict between the two factions. For members of the Way, knowledge was acquired through listening to catechists, strict reading regimes, and collective Scripture commentary. Knowledge grew in stages: ritualized celebrations marked the passing of tests (escrutinios) that allowed the neophyte to get to the next ‘step.’ ‘Rites’ and ‘exorcisms’ also solemnized one's progression. Inevitably, the growth of one's knowledge was linked to the strength of one's faith. Faith was presented as an individual choice and journey, a direct relationship between God and the believer. “There's God and there's you, and nothing else,” the catechists would say. Interestingly, the importance of spiritual progress and advancement was disconnected from traditional notions of Christian eschatology: the aim was not salvation, according to the Neo-Catechumenals, for you could be saved in your everyday relationship to God and through community-making with your fellow members of the Way.

This optics of faith is, not incidentally, the pillar of a post-Vatican II Church. The Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, passed resolutions that increased the laity's ability to shape their own faith: organizing themselves, praying and celebrating Mass in vernacular languages (rather than the up-to-then obligatory Latin), and addressing God in people's own terms. These changes shifted power and authority away from divine intercessors such as saints, mortal ones such as priests, and material aiders such as images or relics. Priests trained in the aftermath of Vatican II have indeed been studied as “agents of secularisation” (Brandes 1976) who, like the members of the Way, advocate for a rational appraisal of the relationship of the people with God by eliminating intercessors. This much was evident in the Benaiguan priest's comments and attitudes toward public and material expressions of faith favored by the rest of the congregation. During the village summer festival, these took the form of processions, flower tributes, pilgrimages, or street installations, all local and public in nature, unlike most of the Way's rituals.

“In olden times,” the priest explained in relation to traditional celebrations of faith, “people would come and pray to this saint or the other, seeking protection over a crop, or an ill child. So much ignorance.” A member of the Way and key to the establishment of the organization in Benaigua, the local priest was vocally against local expressions of faith. In response to this comment, I referred to a group of women in the congregation who kept the tradition of anointing children with oil on Saint Blaise's Day, in February, in preparation for seasonal colds. They organized a day-long celebration in which children were the protagonists. Dressed in the traditional Valencian garb, children carried the small image of the saint in a short procession and had a communal lunch with their parents in the main square. In this way, the congregation's lived experiences of faith were mediated through material and village-inclusive traditions passed down and reformulated over generations. Saint Blaise's Day was one of many festivities in the village calendar centered around public rituals and ritualistic intermediaries (between humans and the divine) such as oil or flowers. “Oil?!” the priest replied to my comments. “If it was up to me, I'd keep one Christ, one Mary, perhaps the patron saint in the local church, that's it. The rest, out!” Bearing in mind that the village church held 21 statues of saints, Christ, and Mary, as well as many painted venerations on walls and ceilings, this was a radical proposal.

The congregation were well aware of the priest's attitudes, which they perceived as practically and theologically hostile—antithetical even—to their own. Even though the priest was originally from the Valencian region and thus well versed in traditionally local ways of performing piety, he was vehemently opposed to these, just as many members of the Way were. They thought that the villagers’ devotion was image- and material-centered, which, for them, was tantamount to spiritual poverty. They referred to it as “natural religiosity.” Artur, a member of the Way in his twenties and a recent law graduate, explained this concept to me: “All humans experience a need to believe in a higher being. One way of appeasing this need is through tradition, relying on images, processions, and customs such as saying novenas, or making promises to saints. But that does not have a deep spiritual content.” Indeed, the catechists of the Way advocated for a detachment from material practices emblematic of the kind of Catholicism that was lived by other villagers. This attitude conforms to a process of ‘purification.’ I follow here Webb Keane's (2007) application of Latour's (1993) concept of ‘purification’ to the study of Protestant conversion. For Latour, purification entails the historical separation of two spheres, the human from the nonhuman, culture from nature; purification entails the reverse of mediation.

Keane picks up this development and writes about the Reformation as concomitant to the dematerialization of religion, a push back to the self and away from rituals, images, and intermediaries such as saints or even priests. My Neo-Catechumenal interlocutors seemed to want to separate materiality and spirituality discursively too, the latter being where agency emanated from. Learning and testifying signaled a process of interiorization, a characteristic of purification, in which intermediaries, again, were unnecessary and unwanted. Purification entailed something further, however. As Artur's and the priest's comments suggested, Neo-Catechumenals felt they had progressed from a rudimentary understanding of Christianity to an increasingly illuminated state, in which freedom was achieved by leaving behind superstition and fetishism (cf. Keane 2007: 5). Overall, Neo-Catechumenals perceived themselves as modern and enlightened, while they felt that the rest of the congregation remained in the past, pining for mediation and intercession.

Paradoxically, the idea of ‘modernizing’ the tradition was also at the center of a recent renewal and reinvention of public Catholic rituals, particularly by women of different generations. “We're doing this because, yes, we have a devotion to la mare de Déu [lit. the mother of God], but we're also doing it per al poble [for the village],” one of my interlocutors, Cristina, said in relation to this religious renewal. Cristina was in her early twenties at the time and part of a group of women rejuvenating festivities around Our Lady of Mount Carmel. One of their central concerns was to update traditions so younger generations would want to take part: “We wanted to show that you [as a young woman] can be modern and religious, go to a procession but also go clubbing!” Cristina concluded. Her comments exemplified the reasons most women cited for the importance of returning Catholicism to public spaces: religion was part of a collective understanding of village identity where devotion and festive traditions went hand in hand (see Boissevain 2013).

This emphasis on public manifestations of faith was linked to a contestation of the practices and theology of the Way. Older interlocutors, who sold lottery tickets and local products to raise money for public devotional festivities, were vocal about this: “The priest would be so happy if we stopped doing this, but I don't think so! Our Lady will have a feast!” one of my interlocutors explained. This contestation manifested as an often ambiguous, sometimes tension-laden relationship with the priest (and his Neo-Catechumenal theology), which were deemed directly responsible for the disappearance of religious traditions in Benaigua. In the next section, I describe the competitive mechanisms deployed by the community, which centered on the instrumentalization of attentiveness and gossip. These practices illuminate how contestation is lived on the ground and, consequently, how competition generates community rather than schism. Despite the tensions these practices of competition manifested, they rarely resulted in open confrontation.

Practicing Competition, Managing Confrontation

In the spring of my stay in Benaigua many women over 50, an important element of the congregation, were up in arms. They volunteered throughout the year to teach children aged six to nine the basics of the Catholic faith in preparation for the Sacrament of Communion. I had helped them impart First Communion catechesis for a few months and their love, patience, pedagogical skills, and breadth of knowledge astounded me. Although it was demanding, they told me that this work was very much part of their life, passing on their faith to a younger generation whom they were often related to. That Spring, this important part of their lived experience of Catholicism had been put in jeopardy. As more than one catechist recounted, the priest had made several decisions that would impact the amount of time they could spend doing this. “He wants classes to be led by just one of us, instead of two that we have now. And,” one interlocutor told me, raising an emphatic finger, “he wants to introduce three new catechists. You can guess where these three women come from!” This rhetorical statement referred to the fact that the new additions were members of the Way. “Easy to see what he wants to do,” she continued in reference to the priest, vehemently slapping her thigh, “he wants to get rid of us!”

In the weeks and months that followed, this new initiative from the priest was mentioned often in the several groups of faith that I worked with, where women were the majority: prayer groups, sororities, and confraternities that organized festivals around different venerations of Mary; volunteers that visited older villagers at the local nursing home fortnightly, providing spiritual care; and local NGOs such as Caritas or the Red Cross who crossed over into secular spaces such as political parties or the local government. In each group, gossip was exchanged regarding the priest's decision and the possible outcomes. Gossip can often be the motor behind positive change and transformative action (see Almudéver Chanzà 2022) and political change (see Besnier 2009). Done in either public or private, gossip can often be a “weapon of competition” (Haviland 1977: 191) that crisscrosses both spheres. But gossip, counter to this literature, can also prevent change.

In March 2020, two years after the priest's decision to reshape the First Communion catechesis and just before COVID-19 interrupted the life of the congregation, the number and dynamics of the catechism remained unchanged, and only one new woman had been introduced to the cohort of teachers. She was indeed a member of the Way. Although I never got to know about the reasons behind this inaction on the part of the priest, women of the congregation told me that they had spoken to key members of the Way about it. In the context of the village, it is fair to assume that through the gossip vine the priest heard of the women's concerns and, perhaps to avoid conflict, did not go through with his plan. Gossip, thus, facilitated forms of back-channel communication that resulted in inaction.

The Way's dynamics and influence on the priest were also contested verbally. On a cold Spring evening, I visited Tere again. We were in her sitting room, blankets over our legs, sipping milky coffee. The doorbell rang. It was Vivi, a member of the Way who had volunteered recently, with six other women, to revive the summer festival of the Ascension of Mary after a five-year hiatus. Vivi was in her late thirties and, together with her husband, had been a member of the Way for more than a decade by then. Tere bought lottery tickets from Vivi once every month to fund the festivity. They had both belonged to a Marian confraternity for some time in the past. Tere and Manel, Vivi's husband, were good friends on account of having volunteered to tend the sick at Lourdes together for many consecutive years.

Tere got up to make some more coffee and on her return it was obvious she had something to say. “So, what happened on Maundy Thursday?” Vivi was not quite sure what to answer. Tere continued: “We were all in church overnight, praying, keeping company to our Lord before he offered himself for sacrifice. And where were you? Where was the priest?” To me, this sounded like a very confrontational question, even though it was posed in a domestic setting among friends. But Vivi offered a smile in exchange and explained that the priest was with members of the Way, celebrating a different ritual on the same paschal theme. “I think it's shameful,” Tere continued. “You'll have to forgive me, Vivi, but you are like a sect,” she said without reservation. This retort was not to be taken lightly. In the community the word “sect” made reference to organizations, purportedly Christian, that had in the past been accused of “brainwashing” villagers into giving money and inheritances to certain religious leaders, breaking up kinship and social conventions lastingly. Vivi, however, turned her eyes to the ceiling and let a small chuckle: “But we're not a sect. We're official, and the Pope supports our [Neo-Catechumenal] communities very much.” I could tell that Vivi had had this conversation with Tere (and perhaps others) before.

Tere continued with her complaint: “From outside we see that we're all Catholics, right? We're all Christian here. But we don't get to participate in what you do. It's like we're left outside.” Vivi replied that their Eucharists were open to all. “But you do more than Eucharists,” Tere answered, in reference to their frequent meetings. “Yes, but we do things there that you wouldn't understand, that you can't understand if you're not in the Way.” Vivi deployed what I often saw as an epistemic trump card: Neo-Catechumenals possessed knowledge that could only be understood by those initiated in the Way. Tere was not happy with this reply: “But if you don't open up to people, how are we going to know?”

Without letting Vivi reply, Tere bemoaned the situation of the congregation as one of invisibility in the wider provincial and national religious panorama. Members of the Way had made several trips to Rome in recent years, where they had had audiences with the Pope. They had recently been invited to attend an important ceremony with the Valencian archbishop (himself a Cardinal, and therefore closer to Rome than other provincial archbishops). “Of course you're accepted, better known, and more together,” Tere continued, animated and with a smirk on her face, “having met so many of them! The priest never gets us together or takes us to meet anybody. Quite the contrary, he says Mass and then runs to officiate your rituals!” Direct confrontation between the congregation and members of the Way did happen, but in private settings and in the context of established friendships and kinship. Complaints like this were often used as competitive provocations, where the dynamics of competition came to the surface in private, among friends.

Priestly time, as exemplified in Tere's comments, was often the object of competition: the Way were perceived as having a lot of it, and the congregation not enough. The fact that the priest had stopped attending traditional prayer sessions, or his refusal to attend a local pilgrimage that had been added to the festive calendar in recent years, were two examples in a long list of priestly favoritism and absences. Sometimes, venting their frustration, the congregation proposed writing a letter to the bishopric detailing their complaints and demanding a change in the allocation of time. Although the letter never materialized, it was part of a collective threat to the authority of the priest. Not sending it prolonged this threat. Inaction was, again, a form of competing with the Way and of contesting the priest's authority.

The priest's refusal to participate in public acts of faith, and his preference for the private celebrations of the Way, exasperated many. For example, members of the confraternity of the Saint Sepulchre had decided in 2018 to reinstate an Easter procession that had not taken place for decades. The event, a nocturnal silent parade of Our Lady of Sorrows followed by the congregation carrying lit candles, was planned well in advance. Yet a week before it took place the priest was adamant it would not happen. “Let that which is fallen, be fallen” were his words. The confraternity members tried to reason with the priest skillfully, and often with theatrical humility: the money had already been paid to external parties (musical bands, drummers, security officers), and these were people's livelihoods, they said; the event just had to go ahead. The priest would not budge. More subtle tactics were employed, tactics I knew had been employed previously. The priest was invited to dine with prominent members of the Way, Vivi and her husband, who had been briefed about the confraternity's requests and who tried to change the priest's mind. Here, a form of back-channel communication is explicitly requested, unlike the gossip-led previous instance. This strategy blurs the clear distinction between opponents that exists in normative understandings of competition. In this instance, Vivi and her husband were co-conspirators even though Tere, as above, saw them as antagonists and competitors in other ways.

Their intercession worked. The procession did go ahead, and more than 150 people attended, a resounding success. The confraternity members were congratulated, and pictures were taken on the streets and the main square and shared on social media many times. Yet the fact that the event had taken place through the mediation of members of the Way was little known. So, whose win was this?

Competing over the priest's time and influence involved conflict practices and dynamics that never quite erupted, and were never quite arbitrated or resolved. Although relations could sour for a while, the social and kin-like ties in the community made permanent breakdowns undesirable. Tere and Vivi's bond was part of a fabric of social relations woven over time in which kinship, friendship, and neighborly rapport regulated the intensity of competitive behaviors. Elizabeth Olson (2013) documents this type of attentive relations in her work on miramiento in Peru. For Olson (ibid.: 85–86), miramiento entails the power of the gaze, and furthermore of judgment through gossip or looks, which contributes to the continuation of social order. In the context of Peruvian communities in which different Christian denominations coexist, Olson (ibid.: 90) shows how being attentive to the religious other creates several (unstable) boundaries that circumscribe ritualistic spaces and can be used by different groups within the same community. The concept has a Valencian equivalent, mirament, very similar in meaning.

In Benaigua, mirament abated highly agonistic, competitive relationships, allowing for the coexistence of differing religious landscapes. Thus, while the congregation avoided open confrontation with members of the Way out of mirament, members of the Way reluctantly participated in traditional processions to show that they were also members of the community and to maintain long-standing relationships. While schismatic theologies were at play, the resulting critiques were “fundamental to producing moral Christian worlds” (Handman 2015: 3). Transposing Handman's work on schismatic Protestant politics and practices to the Catholic context, “acts of schism and denominational division” may end up co-constituting the shared realm of the social and the sacred through “practices of Christian critique and collectivity” (ibid.:14).

Accounting for the histories of conflict in Benaigua, and Spain more broadly, adds to our understanding of why such competitive practices, unlike in Handman's context, do not necessarily lead to schism, social breakdown, or violence. Benaiguans’ competitive attitudes and practices existed in a historical context where the Church was embroiled in bloody conflict and its repressive aftermath. Mirament as a culturally patterned way of relating and acting helps us account for how, for example, Tere and Vivi managed confrontation by delimiting it within the bounds of friendship and conviviality, rather than allowing it to erupt in the public arena. Histories of past violence between the civil war factions also signaled the potential for renewed violence in the present—as became clear in the threats the local historian received after publishing his book—highlighting the fragility of social harmony, hard won over the last few decades.

Given this context, the few ‘hinge’ members of the Way, like Vivi, who were involved in both an iconoclastic movement and in materially rich traditions, were key to unlocking conflict-ridden impasses between the priest and the congregation. They also interceded to avoid further conflict between the congregation and the priest. Members of the Way knew well that their existence was due to the priest's own theological agenda. In conversation with other priests in nearby villages, I learned that they had not allowed communities of the Way to be established in their parishes due to rumors of secrecy, conflict, and schism in villages where the Way was present. Here, again, we see the power of gossip. In a sense, the Neo-Catechumenals courted the priest: much as they appeared to function independently from the priestly hierarchy, they needed his influence to advance their theological and practical agenda. When I openly asked the priest whom he preferred spending time with, out of the whole congregation, he replied: “I spend most time with those who ask for my time most.” “The Neo-Catechumenals?” I asked. He nodded.

The Neo-Catechumenals gained more than just priestly time through this close relationship. Despite their purificatory theology, their interest in material resources was evident. For example, by the end of my fieldwork there was much gossip around a church-owned building about to be renovated to accommodate the Way's prayer and study meetings. The congregation were unhappy and frustrated because confraternities used the space for meetings and practices. “They will banish us eventually!” I heard a member of a con- fraternity say. By the following year, the priest had authorized works to begin, unilaterally, and the congregation witnessed how the Way seemed to have won another battle. In the next and concluding section, I document the congregation's recourse to the secular sphere as one last conflict-avoiding strategy, showing how intradenominational competition is changing the place of religion in contemporary Spanish society.

Public Religion, Secular Catholicism: Coexistence through Opposition

The Spanish Constitution guarantees the separation of State and Church, which many Spanish people see as imperative to national stability, given the Church's involvement in Spain's violent past. Yet the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, are unstable and contested. In late modernity, faith (and its expressions) becomes part of a repertoire of experiences, beliefs, and attitudes that the individual may choose from in order to make sense of her own place in the world (Davie 2007). Catholicism is constitutive of a modern Spain that justifies its existence in the present by appealing to its continuation from the past (see Hervieu-Léger 2000), and so Spanish people continue to draw from a repertoire of faith-based traditions, heritage, and socialities when seeking to (re)define their identities. So, when my interlocutors exchange tips on the upkeep of an image or plan the return of a forgotten procession, they know (and indeed they verbalize) that their fellow congregants who are members of the Way deny this history and, with it, the village's Catholic heritage. In response to the demands of the present the villagers reinvent, reinterpret, and reconstitute traditions, thus establishing a sense of continuity. Midway between action and statement (see Bloch 1986), traditions, as flexible forms, facilitate and afford such readaptation and continuity.

While the priest in Benaigua (indeed, in a postsecular Catholic Church) has become a true “agent of secularization” (Brandes 1976), the villagers try to keep public religiosity alive by reframing religion as formative of local identity and cultural heritage (Astor et al. 2017). Importantly, the local, secular municipality was complicit in this reframing. Part of the yearly local budget was dedicated to religious festivals. Even though different political parties had different opinions about the role of the Church in public affairs, Catholic traditions and festivities were seen as part of a social and cultural heritage that must be continued. Benaigua's mayoress, at the time a member of the socialist party and a self-confessed agnostic, told me: “Benaigua has always been a religious village, beyond this, a village with traditions (costums) . . . and most of our festivities are religious . . . We don't support the Church [economically], but we do [support] the confraternities and other [faith-based] groups that organize festivities.” The municipal corporation not only funded part of the religious festivities but also provided the logistics necessary for public expressions of faith through the deployment of local police and paid laborers.

Public expressions of religion have become part of the secular landscape of the village, questioning the separation not only of the public and the private but, perhaps more importantly given Spain's historical context, the separation between the state and the church (with a small ‘c’—the church as a body of faithful). The cultural and heritage practices that result from Catholicism have been seen as proof of a “secular Catholicism” that, far from detracting from Catholicism's central tenets, takes the lived experience of faith as a “privileged focus for Catholics doing practical theology” (Beaudoin 2011: 23). As congregants compete with one another, they push for state–church alliances to be acceptable once more. Members of confraternities often strategically garnered permission and economic and logistical assistance from the local government before going to the priest to seek his approval. Although the priest's consent was necessary for liturgical aspects of festivities, the rest was planned fairly independently, knowing it was probable he would not attend. Thus, although the presence of the priest was often sought and celebrated, his oft-bemoaned absence was paradoxically advantageous too: it meant that villagers could plan and carry out certain public expressions of faith without having to wait for the priest's acquiescence. In this way, anticlericalism was expressed in covert forms; through internal gossip, backhand plans that never materialized, and secular alliances, without ever erupting publicly.

The religious habitus in Benaigua was one characterized by secular alliances that allowed the congregation to organize themselves away from both the priest's authority and the Neo-Catechumenals’ critical gaze. As Valentine and Waite (2012) note, civic coexistence in the face of ideological disagreements within denominations is often harmonized by both equality laws and social commitments that encourage peaceful cohabitation (friendship, kinship). Similarly, Benaiguans prioritize their lived experience of faith within relationships that cross denominational boundaries “over theological or institutional perspectives of ‘what ought to be’” (ibid.: 474). Simultaneously, a secular Constitution ends up guaranteeing new forms of association between the state (here the local municipality) and the church (understood as the body of the faithful) that result in religious and social coexistence. Thus, both socialties and judicial institutions shape social cohesion in the context of intradenominational competition and conflict.

Conclusion

While Joe Alter (this issue), through an ethnography of individual gurus who profit from competitive yoga, focuses on Max Weber's argument regarding the accumulation of wealth as a sign of salvation, I engage with Weber's theory of religious change, which presented intradenominational competition as a key feature of Protestantism's schismatic history, thus juxtaposing it (implicitly) to a homogeneous, doctrine-bound, competition-free Catholic Church. I have shown, however,that intradenominational competition is essential to understanding Catholicism, as competition allows for a Catholicism of Catholicisms in which iconoclasts and traditionalists push ritual reinvention forward. At the same time, I have argued for a reconsideration of Adam Smith's proposed emancipation of religion from the spheres of politics or economy. Everyday religious ritual contests dichotomies between private and public (see Engelke 2012). Building on this insight, I have shown that even when ideological purification or separation may be a theological (the Way) or apolitical (the Spanish Constitution) aim, religious–secular alliances are revived on the ground as people seek to navigate the complex intertwinement of these social realms.

As the congregation in Benaigua witness the Neo-Catechumenals’ increasing numbers and influence, they take matters of representation into their own hands. A re-exteriorization of religion, resacralization of public space even, is under way. By documenting how gossip, the (ir)resolution of conflict through ‘hinge’ members, and appeals to the statework as evaluative practices, I account for the instability of competitive actors, who can form fluid alliances with different factions determined by relatedness and mutual acknowledgment (mirament) and beyond theologically informed competitive agendas. As other articles in this collection show, competition does more than impose conformity through defined rules, evaluative processes, and by pronouncing clear winners and losers. Competitors become at times cooperators in a context created by a competition for resources. More specifically, intradenominational competition does not result in schism or purification. Rather, competing creates continuities in a divided community, without totally resolving divisions. It also affords a deeply nonnormative opportunity in the Spanish context: by entangling secular and religious social orders and institutions in a country that sees itself as bifurcating religion and the state. Competition thus creates (religious) continuity on new terms.

As members of the congregation and the Way compete for resources, prominence, and theological authenticity, they draw on both religious and secular ways of thinking about and enacting community and nation. This becomes most apparent when they appeal to the secular state in order to make religious festivals happen. Intradenominational competition thus emerges as a process of mediation (Hopkinson and Zidaru, this issue) between divergent visions of Catholicism, and more broadly between different visions of Spanish society as cohering around either secular or religious terms. The residents of Benaigua forge a sense of community through competition without resolution, rather than using competition to institute one vision (whether of Catholicism or Spanish society at large) over another. Ultimately, it is because competing involves mediating these distinct ways of imagining community and nation that it allows a continuous reinvention of both, and thus paradoxically facilitates a sense of continuity and stability for Catholics in Benaigua.

Acknowledgments

I wish to thank the ‘Benaiguan’ congregation for their time and generosity, which they continue to offer me. I also wish to thank the special issue editors, Leo and Teo, for their continuous support and insight throughout.

Note

1

Henceforth ‘the congregation’ will stand for the majority of the flock in Benaigua, who were not Neo-Catechumenals, and whose religiosity was more aligned with traditional ways of being Catholic.

References

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  • Pina-Cabral, João de. 1986. Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve: The Peasant Worldview of the Alto Minho. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Tong, Chee Kiong. 2007. Rationalizing Religion: Religious Conversion, Revivalism, and Competition in Singapore Society. Leiden: Brill.

  • Trejo, Guillermo. 2009. “Religious Competition and Ethnic Mobilization in Latin America: Why the Catholic Church Promotes Indigenous Movements in Mexico.” American Political Science Review 103 (3): 323342.

    • Search Google Scholar
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Contributor Notes

Josep Almudéver Chanzà gained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2021 with a thesis entitled “(Re)Inventions and (Dis)Continuations of the Catholic Tradition: Community-Making in a Spanish Village,” in which he explores the contemporary return of religious traditions to the public arena against the background of the long austerity policies after the 2008 financial crisis, changing perceptions of care, and new faith-based demands made by women and gay and transgender men. He has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Gender, Place and Culture, and has jointly published Moving Words: Poetry In/As Method (2021). ORCID: 0000-0002-0511-1282

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The International Journal of Anthropology

  • Almudéver Chanzà, Josep. 2022. “Gossip and Godly Work: Devotional Labour and Cartographies of Care in Spain.” Gender, Place and Culture 29 (5): 649669.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Astor, Avi, Marian Burchardt, and Mar Griera. 2017. “The Politics of Religious Heritage: Framing Claims to Religion as Culture in Spain.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 56 (1): 126142.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beaudoin, Tom. 2011. “Secular Catholicism and Practical Theology.” International Journal of Practical Theology 15 (1): 2237.

  • Beaumont, Justin, and Christopher Baker, eds. 2011. Postsecular Cities: Space, Theory and Practice. London: Continuum.

  • Behar, Ruth. 1990. “The Struggle for the Church: Popular Anticlericalism and Religiosity in Post-Franco Spain.” In Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society, ed. Ellen Badone, 76112. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Besnier, Niko. 2009. Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

  • Bloch, Maurice. 1986. From Blessing to Violence: History and Ideology in the Circumcision Ritual of the Merina of Madagascar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boissevain, Jeremy. 2013. Factions, Friends and Feasts: Anthropological Perspectives on the Mediterranean. New York: Berghahn.

  • Brandes, Stanley H. 1975. Migration, Kinship, and Community: Tradition and Transition in a Spanish Village. New York: Academic Press.

  • Brandes, Stanley H. 1976. “The Priest as Agent of Secularization in Rural Spain.” In Economic Transformations and Steady-State Values: Essays in the Ethnography of Spain, ed. Joseph B. Aceves, Edward C. Hansen, and Gloria Levitas, 2229. Flushing, NY: Queens College Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brettell, Caroline B. 1990. “The Priest and His People: The Contractual Basis for Religious Practice in Rural Portugal.” In Religious Orthodoxy and Popular Faith in European Society, ed. Ellen Badone, 5575. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cantoni, Davide, Jeremiah Dittmar, and Noam Yuchtman. 2018. “Religious Competition and Reallocation: The Political Economy of Secularization in the Protestant Reformation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 133 (4): 20372096.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Davie, Grace. 2007. “Vicarious Religion: A Methodological Challenge.” In Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, ed. Nancy T. Ammerman, 2137. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Engelke, Matthew. 2004. “Text and Performance in an African Church: The Book, ‘Live and Direct.’American Ethnologist 31 (1): 7691.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Engelke, Matthew. 2012. “Angels in Swindon: Public Religion and Ambient Faith in England.” American Ethnologist 39 (1): 155170.

  • Finke, Roger. 1997. “The Consequences of Religious Competition: Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change.” In Rational Choice Theory and Religion: Summary and Assessment, ed. Lawrence A. Young, 4564. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garriott, William, and Kevin Lewis O'Neill. 2008. “Who is a Christian? Toward a Dialogic Approach in the Anthropology of Christianity.” Anthropological Theory 8 (4): 381398.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Handman, Courtney. 2015. Critical Christianity: Translation and Denominational Conflict in Papua New Guinea. Oakland: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haviland, John Beard. 1977. “Gossip as Competition in Zinacantan.” Journal of Communication 27 (1): 186191.

  • Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Hervieu-Léger, Danièle. 2002. “Space and Religion: New Approaches to Religious Spatiality in Modernity.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26 (1): 99105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keane, Webb. 2007. Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Laicis, PontificiumConsolium Pro. 2002. “Decree of the Pontifical Council for the Laity: Approval of the Statutes of Neocatechumenal Way ‘Ad Experimentum.’” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/laity/documents/rc_pc_laity_doc_20020701_cammino-neocatecumenale_en.html (accessed 1 May 2020).

  • Laicis, Pontificium Consolium Pro. 2008. Neocatechumenale Iter Statuta: Aprobación Definitiva. Madrid: http://www.camino-neocatecumenal.org/aprobacionestatutos.html

  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Mayblin, Maya. 2017. “The Lapsed and the Laity: Discipline and Lenience in the Study of Religion.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23 (3): 503522.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mayblin, Maya. 2019. “The Ultimate Return: Dissent, Apostolic Succession, and the Renewed Ministry of Roman Catholic Women Priests.” History and Anthropology 30 (2): 133148.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Minowitz, Peter. 1993. Profits, Priests and Princes: Adam Smith's Emancipation of Economics from Politics and Religion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Olson, Elizabeth. 2013. “Myth, Miramiento, and the Making of Religious Landscapes.” In Religion and Place: Landscape, Politics and Piety, ed. Peter Hopkins, Lily Kong, and Elizabeth Olson, 7593. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Orsi, Robert. 1985. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pina-Cabral, João de. 1986. Sons of Adam, Daughters of Eve: The Peasant Worldview of the Alto Minho. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Ruiz Andrés, Rafael. 2017. “The Process of Secularization of Spanish Society (1960–2010): Between History and Memory.” Pasado y Memoria 16: 207232.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sánchez, Manrique. 2018. “Dos Detenidos Por Resistirse a La Retirada de Una ‘Cruz de Los Caídos’ Franquista.” El País, January 29.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tong, Chee Kiong. 2007. Rationalizing Religion: Religious Conversion, Revivalism, and Competition in Singapore Society. Leiden: Brill.

  • Trejo, Guillermo. 2009. “Religious Competition and Ethnic Mobilization in Latin America: Why the Catholic Church Promotes Indigenous Movements in Mexico.” American Political Science Review 103 (3): 323342.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Valentine, Gill, and Louise Waite. 2012. “Negotiating Difference through Everyday Encounters: The Case of Sexual Orientation and Religion and Belief.” Antipode 44 (2): 474492.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Weber, Max. (1930) 2009. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: W.W. Norton.

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