Urs Altermatt, Jan De Maeyer& Franziska Metzger(eds.), Religious Institutes and Catholic Culture in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe, Leuven 2014.

Urs Altermatt, Jan De Maeyer& Franziska Metzger(eds.), Religious Institutes and Catholic Culture in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe, Leuven 2014, 215 p. Series: KADOC-Studies on Religion, Culture and Society. € 49,50. ISBN978-94-6270-000-0

Reviewed by: Dr. Joos van Vugt, Radboud University Nijmegen, April 2014.


This volume is a sequel to an earlier volume entitled Religious Institutes in Western Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries(2004), which was also a product of the RELINS Europe-network (European Forum on the History of Religious Institutes in the 19th and 20th centuries). The earlier volume focused on the historiography of religious orders and congregations and on the legal position of religious institutes in Europe. In contrast, this new volume has a narrower focus. The introductory chapter, although written in a convoluted and jargon-dense style, makes a plausible and interesting point: the Catholic milieu of the nineteenth and twentieth century was to a large extent a ‘community of communication’, in which there was an intensive dissemination of religious, political, social and philosophical ideas. This is an interesting argument because it explains why for many decades there existed a clear-cut Catholic identity in spite of the many divisions between Catholics in wealth, education, class, culture and nationality. It is also an attractive approach to the history of religious orders and congregations since, in my opinion, the key historical question is still why, for a century and a half, these institutions were so relevant to the Catholic subculture in Europe (and why they lost their relevance after the Second World War).

The contributions to Religious Institutes and Catholic Cultureexamine the role of religious institutes in the Catholic ‘communities of communication’ of various European countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Belgium, England, and Scandinavia. The Dutch contribution is written by Marit Monteiro who focuses on the Dutch Dominican friars and their initiatives to create a Catholic lay elite which would be able to promote the Catholic project in the Netherlands. These initiatives raised, by their very success, awkward questions about the relationship between lay and clerical authority. German historian Joachim Schmiedl traces the role of two influential Catholic periodicals, Stimmen der Zeit(edited by Jesuits) andBenediktinische Monatsschrift(edited by Benedictines). His contribution reveals that in the Weimar Republic there was no monolithic Catholic Weltanschauung(world view). Schmiedl successfully argues that these reviews, although influential and intellectually powerful, did not succeed in crossing the borders of their Catholic milieu. Esther Vorburger-Bossart’s contribution is a mainly theoretical essay on the role of Swiss boarding schools for girls run by Sisters. Through their schools the Sisters created and maintained a small Teilmilieu(subculture) within the large Catholic community of communication.

Martina Sochin d’Elia contributes a case study on a domestic science school for girls, the Institut St. Elisabeth,in post-war Liechtenstein. In this tiny country, the influence of this one school on the identity of female youth was considerable. The author emphasizes the overlap between the ideas and values of this school and those of Liechtenstein society as a whole. Jan De Maeyer, director of the KADOC in Leuven, writes about Catholic children’s literature and its cultural and religious impact. Religious orders and congregations and their publishing houses played an important role in the rise of specific Catholic children’s literature. De Maeyer conducts a succinct tour d’horizonalong several European countries and discerns two key periods: 1870 to 1880, when the Catholic Church made attempts to regain its hold on the working classes, and the years after 1920, when the rise of democracy was met by the lay Catholic Action. He concludes that orders and congregations were not against all forms of social and religious modernization. On the contrary, they tried very hard to go with the times – witness their books for children and youngsters.

Katherine Harper’s contribution is about Catholic children’s and youth literature in England. Her protagonists are nineteenth-century writers Sr. Maria Magdalena (Frances) Taylor and Sr. Maria Loyola (Elisabeth) Giles. She analyses the recurring themes in their work, such as sin and punishment and the ‘holy death’ of an innocent child. She also remarks on the gradual introduction of English patriotism in their work, reflecting the integration of English Catholics in the social mainstream of their country in the course of the nineteenth century. The contribution of Yvonne Maria Werner focuses on the role of women religious in the predominantly Protestant Scandinavian countries. More than in other European countries, Sisters in Scandinavia appeared as representatives of a counter-culture. For many Scandinavian women the sisters represented an acceptable middle ground between Protestant family ethics (which reduced women to the domestic environment of Kinder, Küche, and Kirche) and the early feminist movement.

Patrick Bircher (†) describes the different views among nineteenth-century German Catholics on the problem of poverty. In the course of that century poor relief by Catholic charitable organizations, and in particular by Sister congregations, became a defining project for German Catholics: charity in all shapes and forms helped to build and strengthen Catholic identity. Kristien Suenens’ contribution describes the Retreat movement of the Belgian Jesuits in the years from 1890 to 1914. Through their retreats for the working classes the Jesuits were able to promote Catholic notions and to create a Catholic working class elite who, in turn, were able to represent their class in Belgian society. In their concluding chapter, Urs Altermatt and Franziska Metzger argue that research into the history of religious orders and congregations may help scholars to understand post-war developments in the Catholic community in Europe. The book ends with an extensive bibliography and an index on names.

Even though the scope and approach of the contributions diverges, there is no doubt that each chapter was well researched. They all focus on the considerable impact of religious men and women on their respective country’s Catholic ‘community of communication’. In this respect, the publication is a success. Unfortunately, none of the essays offers an easy read. All of them are evidently written with expert colleagues in mind and the jargon of some of the introductions and epilogues is excessive. By choosing a cramped line spacing and layout the publisher has not made things easier. If you want to communicate the importance of your work to a broader public, this is not the way to do it. However, for those who work in the same field of research, this book has many insights to offer.