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An Altar for an Unknown God?

The Changed/Changing Place of Catholicism in a Late Modern Context

Over the past few decades, religion – and in the Western European context, Christianity – has undergone a number of major transformations. Phenomena such as denominational desegregation (‘depillarization’), secularization, deinstitutionalization and individualization have been systematically presented by academics, the media and policy makers as explanations for the supposed disappearance of religion. This is true in particular for Western Christianity in its institutional form. Classical concepts of religion and the church have come under pressure.

Over the last five years, this radical evolution has been studied from various academic theological disciplines (fundamental theology, practical theology, the psychology, sociology and philosophy of religion, pastoral and spiritual care, church history, liturgical studies, religious education studies and biographical studies) in the context of the research program The Late Modern Transformation of Religion: The Case of New Catholicism. The results were presented during the research review of the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology in 2018.

The main outcome was that the usual dichotomy between modernity and religion is untenable. In this classical approach, late modernity is presented as a secular context from which religion has disappeared, but the research program demonstrated that the term ‘disappeared’ is not adequate to describe the transformation that is occurring in Western society, no matter how blithely policy makers and opinion leaders appear to accept that it is the case. The intense focus on the declining institutional form of religion has resulted in a form of tunnel vision. The opposition between modernity and religion, similarly, caused a number of blind spots. In fact, however, it is preferable to study the ‘modernity of religion’. Analysis of the way people deal with existential questions on individual and collective existence, questions of identity, societal developments (in culture, politics, academia, healthcare, education, etc.) reveals that what we are witnessing is not the unequivocal disappearance of religion, or even of Catholicism. The current renewed program builds on this approach to highlight a number of issues.

The Changed/Changing Loci of Catholicism: A Research Framework

The key concept in the previous program was ‘transformation’ as a general term to capture the transition of the religious field from the modern to the late modern context. Given the expertise of the TST, attention was focused primarily on Catholicism as a case to interpret the changes that are occurring. These changes are characterized among other things by fluidity. Case studies have pointed out traces of the Christian tradition in places where they did not exist before or where religious studies scholars and theologians had not looked for them before. The changing place of the religious is evident in everyday life in a wide range of domains, including chaplaincy and psychological counselling, in the expanding world of wellness, in previously non-existent fields such as gaming and social media, in the world of art, in new popular forms of ritual, in projects on interreligious cooperation, in the ever-contested field of religious education in schools, in the growing interest in ecological issues and in the problem of religious radicalization. This observation raises a number of questions. On the one hand, it means that the institutional-ecclesiastical domain as the traditional (and often exclusive) locus of the religious is changing, but on the other, it indicates that new forms and questions are emerging in other loci, forms that are obscured by a modernity-vs.-religion paradigm. This range of phenomena cannot be studied using one single discipline or method, and it requires clear concepts and methodical research.

The current program begins its inquiries with its own emphases. First and foremost, it defines the key concept of transformation in terms of translocation, of changes of place. The focus is less on a temporal approach (from modernity to late modernity) and more on a topological approach. This is consistent with the spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences. The key question will therefore be: what are the changed or changing places (loci) where Christianity, particularly Catholicism, can be found in the late modern context? This change of emphasis can draw on conceptual tools from the theological tradition, and the research program looks specifically to the notion of the loci theologici. This early modern framework is indebted to Melchior Cano’s criteriology, which drew a distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ finding places of Christian revelation. At the time, this way of conceptualizing religious localization helped theologians and philosophers to interpret the societal and religious revolutions of the Renaissance, but it cannot be transposed to the 21st century without recontextualization. The current and hermeneutical possibilities that this model offers are the subject of research for a number of contemporary theologians, albeit not, as for Cano, with regard to substance. The concept of the loci is viewed as a formal framework that can help to renew cooperation between theology and religious studies, and this is the way in which it is used in this program.

This reflection that is underway offers opportunities for an interdisciplinary research program on the changed/changing place of Catholicism to develop an inclusive approach that will result in a critical cross-fertilization between internal, theological studies and external, religious studies. A number of opportunities present themselves:

  • formally speaking, the loci framework is consistent with a focus on the spatial dimension, on the changing topography of the religious field;
  • this approach gives scope for various disciplines and also for cooperation and fruitful confrontation between various methods, both quantitative and qualitative, on the basis of the insight that the study of religion cannot be adequately done by focusing on only one of these;
  • the recontextualization of the loci framework and the previously mentioned distinction between internal and external loci can offer a starting point for a renewed reflection on the frequently evoked dichotomy between an external, religious-studies perspective and an internal, theological perspective on the study of Christianity;
  • by performing case studies in the local Dutch and Western European context, the program contributes to research carried out within the international academic community on the changing societal place of the phenomenon of religion;
  • this research program helps Dutch and Western European society to better understand the presence and functioning of religious individuals, groups and/or organizations, and thus serves the goal of furthering cohesion in society;
  • in line with this, the research may also focus on the role of migrants in the changing place of religion in Europe. Socio-demographic research demonstrates that migrant communities play an important role in transformation processes and this could be investigated further;
  • finally, the research program aims to interpret and clarify the translocation of the religious within a theological framework, so as to be of service to the church community in a wide sense.

Research Questions

The general research question of this program is: what are the changed or changing places where Christianity, and specifically Catholicism, can be found in the late modern context? This question will be broken down into the following subquestions:

  1. To what extent can the classical tradition of the loci theologici, understood as a formal framework, be used to reflect on the changing place of the Christian tradition?
  2. What new loci or forms of manifestation or experience of Catholicism can be identified, and how do these relate to the classical institutional ones? What is the place of the Christian heritage in the contemporary debates in society on individual and collective identity?
  3. What is the impact of the changing place of the religious upon the self-understanding of institutional Christianity and its doctrinal tradition? What theological challenges does this pose and how should we approach traditional ideas and concepts of the church today?
  4. How can the theological tradition speak normatively and in a future-oriented way about secular society, the institutional churches and the self-identification of postmodern people?


Religion is one of those subjects that societal actors (journalists, politicians and policy makers, caregivers, the legal system), whether they like it or not, have to deal with on a daily basis and upon which they are often required to express an opinion. And yet, all too frequently it is evident that the actors involved lack the required experience, knowledge and expertise, and that this frequently results in stereotyping and the application of scientifically unsound approaches to the problem. Our program contributes to remedying this lack of expertise.

Its relevance for society consists on the one hand in the fact that it analyzes, criticizes and counteracts rising religious, spiritual and existential illiteracy, especially among new generations. In addition to this critical function, the research program also aims establish cooperation with institutions in society and in the church by making expertise and new insights available through publications, symposiums and projects, and through its connection with Tilburg University’s impact program.

More specifically, the program is linked to the three impact themes of Creating value from data, Empowering the resilient society, and Enhancing health and wellbeing. With regard to the debate on the ethical implications of ‘big data’, the research program will be able to develop strategies to counteract anthropological reductionism and highlight the delicate equilibrium between the interests of individuals and of communities. With respect to the themes of a resilient society and health and wellbeing, current TST research on mental healthcare focuses specifically on questions concerning the spiritual dimension of the human person.


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