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Northwestern University
Robert Orsi
Robert Orsi

Top Scholars in Catholic Studies Fuel Enrollment Increases, Avid Interest

We are all accustomed to the idea of studying religions that are widely practiced elsewhere in the world or in the remote past. Students line up to take Hinduism or Buddhism or medieval Christianity. Now, at Northwestern, professors are breaking new ground and bringing new insights to bear on Catholicism— particularly Catholicism in the Americas—and its unique place in history and culture.

Northwestern has, in fact, become a leading center for the study of American Catholicism, with exciting new courses and expanded enrollments at the undergraduate and graduate level. This blossoming is due in large part to the generosity of two families, the Dudas and the Croghans, and the endowed professorships their gifts have made possible.

Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Professor in Catholic Studies (named for Mary Lee Duda's mother), is an expert on American religion and American Catholicism as well as on the theory and methods of the study of religion itself. He is considered one of the preeminent scholars in his field and his four books have all won major awards. Michelle Molina, the John W. Croghan Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies, focuses on the history of Christianity in early modern Europe and Latin America. According to Cristina Traina, the director of the Catholic Studies minor, "Molina is perhaps the only faculty member who studies the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in a phenomenon that was brand new in the 17th century—globalization."

These two colleagues have joined Northwestern in the past five years. They are building upon a strong foundation of faculty already at home in the Department of Religious Studies. Traina herself teaches popular classes on Catholic social ethics. Richard Kieckhefer is one of the country's most distinguished medievalists, a specialist on saints, hagiography, and, most recently, church architecture. Sarah Taylor is a charismatic teacher whose book, "Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology" won the Catholic Press Association's First Prize for Best Book on Gender Issues. The addition of Orsi and Molina to these nationally and internationally-recognized scholars makes possible a new minor in Catholic Studies.

The growth in Catholic Studies comes at a time when religious studies programs across the country are reporting an upsurge in student interest.

"I think the experience of Catholics in the modern world—the religious experience, the practices, the aesthetics, the iconography, and theology—is an interesting place from which to look at modern culture," says Professor Orsi. "It raises questions that are provocative. At the same time, modern culture raises questions that are provocative about Catholic experience."

Orsi brings a strikingly broad approach to his studies, combining the depth of the historian, the insights of a psychologist, and the on-the-ground approach of the ethnographer with his understanding of religious belief and practice.

Going out in the field and asking questions of Catholics in the '70s and '80s, studying them from an anthropological perspective, struck some Catholics as deeply disrespectful, says Orsi. That is not what scholars of religion did in those days. Yet his research has plowed new territory, raising questions about Catholicism and American religion, and, by extension, broader questions about the study of religion itself.

His book "Thank You, Saint Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes" won an award in social history from the Organization of American Historians. "It was about a shrine in Chicago in particular years among particular populations," says Orsi. "But I used that to open up questions of how people relate to special beings like saints, and what the impact of those relationships is in their everyday lives. Then I asked questions about how we talk about St. Jude or the Buddha or Bodhisattva as a figure in people's lives."

As a teacher, he is known to be forceful, funny, and deeply engaging. His undergraduate students, in written evaluations, say his class "Medicine, Suffering, and the West" can be life-changing.

Orsi explains, "All religions, and Catholicism in particular, have something to say about pain and suffering: either they intensify the experience of pain, or they require the experience of pain, or they help explain experiences of pain, or they help heal pain. It's fundamental to pain studies that people in pain lose their voice, which is both a physical and a political reality. So I tell students we first have to understand what culture is, then we have to understand what pain is. It is only in the last third of the class that we can talk about religion. Because if we go right in, then people will look at a healing service and say, 'Does it work?' but the question is, 'What gets healed?'"

The questions asked by Michelle Molina similarly intrigue students. Professor Molina studies the Society of Jesus in the early modern period (approximately 1500-1800). She looks at the widespread popularity of Jesuit spiritual practices in order to understand how individual Catholics approached and experienced religious transformation. At stake is a better understanding of how Catholic practices of self-formation shape the world as we know it today.

"I like to offer the example of transformations in Catholic penitential practices. Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) had a common problem—making a good confession. They were concerned that they hadn't confessed properly, had forgotten sins, or would sin again too quickly and thus require yet another confession." says Molina. "Their worries—or scruples—about the effectiveness of the sacrament of confession drove them to very different conclusions, however. For Luther, salvation would no longer require the practice of confessing before a priest. Ignatius resolved that better methods were available, methods that would be more consoling to anxiety-wracked early moderns. At the heart of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises is the demand that Catholics understand themselves better. Basically, Jesuit confessors would say, 'Tell me the story of your life and locate that one sin that has plagued you from start to finish.' The penitent was intended to imagine who he or she was, the space he lived in, the people around him, and the one or two things he'd like to change. It's really much more of a psychoanalytic approach."

Molina came to her fascination for the Jesuits through the stories of women in colonial Mexico. One particularly compelling story was that of Catarina de San Juan, who was born into an aristocratic family in India, captured by Portuguese pirates, and twice sold as a slave, first in Manila and later to a family in what is now Mexico. "Her story, written by a Jesuit priest in Puebla de Los Angeles, had everything I am interested in," says Molina. "Her story tied colonial Mexico to the untold story of early modern Catholic globalization. That Alonso Ramos, a 17th century Spaniard had moved to New Spain, had written a voluminous biography of this woman was really unique. Vitas written in those days were about upper class women of Spanish descent, who were on a path to sainthood. Catarina de San Juan's story intersects with so many important themes in early modern global history, especially the transregional movement of ideas, material culture and people—and the reminder that, unfortunately, many people were often moved forcibly as human chattel. And yet this same woman became a much beloved proto-saint in 17th century Puebla. Hers is a fantastic story for teaching about how, in Colonial Mexico, the "local" and the "global" were very much interconnected.

"As I started digging into these stories of women, I saw that a great number were written by Jesuits and wondered why so many women were interested in having a Jesuit confessor. This, in turn, led me to an exploration of the historical importance of Ignatian spirituality and the ideas at the heart of the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises."

Both Molina and Orsi have Catholic backgrounds, which gives them a personal connection with the subjects they study. Molina is of Mexican descent; some of her father's family lived in Arizona at the time it was still Mexico. Orsi was raised in a working class Italian Catholic home in the Bronx. Both stress that they approach Catholic Studies as scholars, however, not as defenders or attackers of the Catholic Church or explainers of doctrine.

"I want students to be able to think critically about religions in history and culture," says Orsi, "and to learn to ask questions about these faiths, respectfully, but with courage."

He compares the goals of Catholic Studies with those of women's studies: to make the story of human history more inclusive. "The first way people thought about women's studies was to find the missing women and put them into history. But then people began thinking, to approach history from women's perspective actually changes the terms of how we see the past. So it's not about putting women into the same old story, it's about using women's experience to change the story, to ask new questions, so that at the end, the story doesn't look the same…. I think that's what Catholic Studies can do."

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