Thursday, January 27, 2005

Churches as Social Organizers: How?

In a review of Katherine A. Lynch's Individuals, Families,and Communities in Europe, 1200–1800: The Urban Foundations of Western Society, Mary Noll Venables points out that Lynch has offered an interesting interpretation of how European social life acquired its "distinctive character," but still leaves open a crucial question.
Lynch suggests that the distinctive character of European social life is to be located not only in the Protestant work ethic or capitalism or democracy but also—and perhaps even primarily—in the interaction between family and society. She argues that small, nuclear, urban families whose members entered into family-like relationships outside their homes formed the backbone of European communal life and the basis of civil society. . .

Having introduced the demographic context of families, Lynch turns to the meat of her study: how families joined civic life—that is, how they created family-like structures outside the home. In particular, she shows how the bonds forged by religious groups and local charities linked family history to the "history of the public world."

As the dominant social force in the premodern era, the church (Catholic and later Protestant as well) dominated European public life. From the 13th through the 15th centuries, most urban Christians belonged to confraternities (societies devoted to religious causes) that functioned as extended families, celebrating holidays and saints' days communally, as well as offering practical assistance and vocational solidarity. Monastic orders and lay societies like the Beguines created Christian communities that were based on volition, not biology. The naming of godparents formed ties of spiritual kinship that often equaled biological bonds . . . The church's encouragement of charity created further public ties, in this case between rich and poor. After the Reformation and the accompanying decline of universal charity, selective charity for those of the same confession reinforced confessional identity and solidarity.

Lynch quite convincingly demonstrates the church's ability to draw people into sustained relationships with each other. She leaves no doubt that Europeans were tied to each other through their confraternities, convents, lay orders, and charities. What is less clear is why the church (Catholic or Protestant) wanted to shape family-like relationships or why people looked for family-like relationships outside the home in the first place. Lynch suggests that churches and governments wanted to reduce the possibility of kinship violence, but that seems a weak account for such widely practiced labor-intensive operations.

The problem with not explaining the church's attention to social ties or, conversely, individuals' interest in the church is that it makes the church appear as only one more actor in the civic arena, one more club to which people could belong. Despite some similarities, belonging to a church is surely different from belonging to the Chamber of Commerce. When the church serves only to build social capital, the transformative nature of the church, its ability to point people to something greater than themselves, gets lost. Lynch depicts communities fostered by the church but casts little light on the love of God that was, one presumes, to have been evidenced in supporting confraternities, joining monastic communities, or giving alms.

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