Sociology, especially in its classic works, provides analytic perspectives for understanding specific ecclesiastic religious phenomena (i.e., churches and church-oriented religions). But long before the birth of sociology – in its contemporary empirical version – modern philosophy, both Continental and Atlantic, was deeply engaged with the ecclesiological question (Olivetti 1992). This philosophical attention attributed special theoretical relevance to observation of certain socioreligious phenomena. This was particularly true in the classical era of the philosophy of religion – in the specifically modern meaning of the term – especially from Hume and Kant through Hegel. This emerged in the attempt to consider and represent the tension between philosophical ecclesiology and theory of society (a tension that implies themes such as secularization, the relationship between church and state, the relationship between religion and morality, and the process of social differentiation and its limits). Thus the ecclesiological question, as a close relationship between the empirical and the theoretical sphere, plays a crucial role for that aspect of the crisis of onto theological metaphysics known as philosophy of religion, regardless of the various solutions proposed by individual scholars. An exemplary case is Religion as the epilogue to Kant’s transcendental program. Kant deals with the need to think and represent the church, but also with the contradiction of the more general assumptions this line of thought leads to. Another example is the classical (especially romantic and idealistic) theme of the opposition of invisible and visible church.
This theoretical and cultural context was an important part of the terrain where contemporary sociology started to appear in the mid nineteenth century, first as sociology of religion. This implied that the new discipline would pay special attention to the definition of ‘‘church’’ and remain devoted to this specific question. This turned out to be only partly true, and even then only sporadically.
Weber (1963) and Troeltsch (1960) first defined church as a specific kind of religious organization which enforces its decisions by means of psychic coercion realized through managing religious benefits. As opposed to a sect, a church has a more hierarchical and more bureaucratic organizational structure, is larger, offers a way of belonging which is generally universal and therefore exploits territorial boundaries, has a generally lower level of intensity of participation, has a culture, a degree and a form of differentiation which is less radically opposed to those of the social context in which it operates, and suffers from greater inertia and resistance to change and innovation (Wilson 1997; Wuthnow 1988). This comparison shows how the concept of church, as opposed to that of sect, is multidimensional. There is a plurality of roots (theological, sociological, etc.) to that opposition, but also a potential instability, with a risk of explosion when social forces (especially social differentiation) reduce the correlation among these dimensions. This orientation, right from the start, thus conceived of a church in terms of its greater complexity and articulation compared to a sect (Guizzardi & Pace 1987). Careful bibliographical analysis by Beckford (1973, 1984) shows that even today the prevailing sociological conceptions of church can be traced to the positions outlined in the works of Weber and Troeltsch. Even in the past two decades, attempts to define church more carefully in conceptual terms have usually been oriented towards this tradition. This is true for the new paradigm of rational choice theory applied to the analysis of socioreligious phenomena: church and sect are assumed to be theoretically distinct kinds of religious organization. The new theory is used to express the two concepts and their formal and operational opposition (Iannaccone 1988: 242; Stark & Bainbridge 1996: 124).
Over time, the sociological idea of church as a specific kind of religious organization has encountered problems and limits. At the general level, a first critical trend was identified by Kaufmann (1974): empirical studies began to focus on topics related to individual religious experience or behavior, or related to basic and therefore small sized religious groups, but ignored broader religious organizations. Whether this is the cause or effect (or both) of the guiding characteristics of this first analytic perspective is now less important than the growing risk that – on this basis – the sociology of religion will lose its ability to examine more complex religious phenomena.
Among these limits, there were the effects of the various disciplinary contributions in defining the church/sect opposition, or at least its vulgata (Swatos 1975, 1976). In other cases, the difficulties in applying the church/sect conceptual scheme could be attributed to the specific socioreligious context in relation to which that opposition was elaborated. It was much less complex than later socioreligious contexts. In any case, there is no reason to suppose that the church vs. sect scheme was more appealing for its useful simplicity than for any real analytic power at the time of its first and classic elaboration.
Even the best analytic systems cannot predict how social situations will change. This does not mean, however, that eventual conceptual redefinitions forced by social changes cannot refer back to previous analytical systems and start from there (Swatos 1976: 142; Guizzardi & Pace 1987). During the twentieth century, Niebuhr (1975), with his work on the social roots of the process of denominalization of American Christianity, provided one of the best known examples of overcoming and integrating the church/sect scheme as a means of accounting for the dramatic transformations which had taken place in religious organizations and institutions. Niebuhr, in presenting the reasons for his research and in describing its first results, interprets these social transformations in terms of degrees and forms of social differentiation, and in terms of degrees and forms of ‘‘internal’’ religious complexity (Niebuhr 1975: 283). And these are nothing but the exact same questions already noted at the onset of theoretical and cultural debate over the ecclesiological issue.
Later, the influence of the work of Luck mann (1967) – especially a very simplified interpretation of his ideas, in agreement with the orthodoxy of secularist ideology – may have helped to spread the opinion that the crisis of this approach to the analysis of religious organizations, especially those that were larger and/ or more ecclesiastical, was actually proof of the incompatibility between modern organizational principles and spiritual or religious phenomena and experiences. Beckford himself, although he proposed a moratorium on using the church/ sect conceptual couplet, justified his proposal for very different reasons. Beckford (1984) argued as follows: the growing difficulty in understanding large institutionalized religions such as churches is strongly and primarily related to the challenge in understanding the great transformations (above all, differentiations) inside religious realities, and between these realities and the social context. For example, it is no longer possible to assume, a priori, that churches rather than sects are capable of greater adaptation to today’s social contexts (see Wuthnow 1988: 495).
It appears that Kaufmann’s (1974) appeal had not been sufficiently accepted. Nonetheless, although it is increasingly difficult to understand ecclesiastical realities simply as particular forms of religious organization, important contributions to the sociology of religion can still emerge from organizational studies and from the sophisticated tools of this discipline (Di Maggio 1998). This has been shown particularly in the case of Catholicism (and therefore of a church), where it is increasingly clear that a vast number of organizations are working, both generalist and specialist. In sum, could a church of such internal complexity, operating in such a differentiated context as advanced modern society, still be studied as an organization, and, as if that were not enough, as a single organization?
It is precisely this situation that allows for the possibility of a radically different analytic perspective. This change lies in a sort of break in the requested moratorium. The proposal radicalizes, rather than abandons, the organizational approach to all collective religious phenomena, historical churches included. The possibility is considered by several scholars, using very different conceptual and theoretical means. For the most part, these texts share a double refusal: a refusal to reduce sociology of religion to a sociology of individual religiosity (whether ‘‘diffused,’’ ‘‘implicit,’’ or other) and a refusal to assume large scale religious realities as a starting point for doing research.
These options are shared by many scholars, even when they share little else. They are very clear, for example, in the work by Chaves, who takes the Weberian idea of religious organization as one of his starting points and traces its consequences (which, in many empirical and theoretical works, have been shown to be quite interesting). Thus, the heart of his analysis is the minimum religious organization, the congregation in the American case, as the reality where two structures meet: the religious authority structure and religious agencies. What is important here is that this analytic strategy radically eliminates any concept of church. From this point of view ‘‘church sociology’’ would appear to be nothing but a trap (Chaves 1993).
This conclusion clearly reveals one of the possibilities for managing the difficulties created by the great internal and external complexity inherent in sociological analysis of such religious realities as churches. It is worth under scoring a couple of corollaries to this. First, the sociology of religion could benefit from distancing itself not just from the concept of church, but also from those of religion and secularization. This would allow for a more detailed view of phenomena previously considered to fall into these categories. Second, a corollary which is perhaps an axiom: here once again there is a recognition of the need to concentrate on the phenomena of social differentiation, and above all to ‘‘de Parsonsify its current theory (Chaves 1994).
Right from the start of sociology there has been at least one other way to understand the church conceptually, although it has not been as widespread as the one above. Durkheim (1965) defines church as a community whose fellows are connected to each other through shared representations of the sacred and of its relationships and distinctions with the profane, and resulting in identical practices expressing these shared representations. This means that ‘‘church’’ must cover not only institutional phenomena, but also organizational phenomena. Once again, even if in a different way, there is the necessity of coping with complexity and social differentiation implied by the church question: complexity of social phenomena, organizations and institutions, and beliefs and behaviors, from religion to social environments. Durkheim considered differentiation as a positive phenomenon up to a certain point, after which it becomes dangerous. Further, he assigns religion (more precisely, church) a key role in managing and containing the process through which social differentiation increases social complexity.
Durkheim inspired sociological thought and imagination, while the attempt to operationalize his concepts and formalize his theories has met with difficulty and has not always succeeded. This was also the case for his sociology of religion and his concept of church. However, there are echoes or at least apparent analogies with that sociological concept of church in later sociological research. Talcott Parsons (1951), for example, treats churches as the greatest expression of the institutionalization of beliefs, thereby ensuring them a significant active role within and for the social system (Moberg 1984). It is easy to imagine how the ongoing social differentiation of both social functions and social ‘‘levels’’ (Luhmann 1985b) created problems for trust in the empirical usefulness of such a concept of church.
The ecclesiological question appears as both a theoretical and an empirical question. It is characterized by the need to account for (and the difficulty of so doing) very high degrees of complexity and for the equally high degrees and multiple forms of differentiation. It entails the double requirement of not ignoring the organizational dimension and not reducing church to that dimension. In addition, the ecclesiological question as addressed from a sociological perspective is made more difficult by the requirement for empirically operative concepts.
As seen by Chaves and others, a solution to such difficulties can be found that excludes, among other things, the usefulness itself of any concept of church. Yet it is also possible to find the opposite approach in the sociological literature: conceptual proposals concerning church elaborated within an analytic paradigm that accounts for the level of complexity and the level and forms of differentiation characteristic of advanced modern societies.
Few proposals satisfy these criteria, and they differ greatly. One, however, stands out: that offered by Luhmann (1977, 1985a, 2000) and already used by other scholars (even if Luhmann’s disciples are not always aware of this). The paradigm proposed by Luhmann on the basis of system theory is noteworthy for the radical way in which it focuses attention on questions of social complexity, contingency, and functional differentiation, especially that phase in which the main characteristic is the differentiation of society by functions (the phase coinciding with advanced modernization). In the domain of social systems, in reciprocal system/ environment relationships with personal systems (both processes independently reducing either internal or external complexity), Luhmannian categories distinguish between three types of social systems: interaction, organization, and society (the last one by means of an increasing functional differentiation tends to become global society: Weltgesellschaft). These social systems consist of communicative events. The very high level of social complexity, as well as the extreme contingency of each communicative event, depends on the degree reached, and on the form taken, by the social differentiation processes. The growth in differentiation between functions leads to a noticeable increase – tendentially radicalizing – of the differentiation between interactions, organizations, and society, with all three in a system/environment relationship with the others. With regard to Chaves’s suggestion, Luhmann does not include a transcendental catalog of social functions or functional societal subsystems; this reveals just how far his theory of social differentiation is from that of Parsons.
The assumptions and solutions offered by Luhmann obviously have to be discussed, but they clearly provide a sociological paradigm that addresses the theoretical background of the ecclesiological question. The fact that Luhmann identifies a possibility for religion in such a social scenario is particularly relevant here. In fact, the process of social constitution of the meaning and the phenomenon of communication implies two problems in particular (Luhmann 1985a). The first is the reduction of indeterminate or indeterminable complexity to determined or determinable complexity. The second and connected problem is that of the deparadoxalization of the social system’s self reference. These problems have hitherto been resolved by social performances ensured by religious traditions. There is no reason to believe, however, that this means that religions are not constantly exposed to competition concerning this social function from potential functional equivalents – competition where the outcome is always unpredictable.
Luhmann’s (1977: 56) analysis of religion elaborates and uses a concept of church. Church is religiously specialized communication. Church is more or less analogous to money in the economic subsystem, law in the political subsystem, scientific truth in the scientific subsystem, etc. In the course of the process of functional social differentiation, each subsystem (politics, economy, religion, science, etc.) manages three types of relations: with other subsystems (Leistungen), with the society system (Funktion), and with itself (Reflexion).
Religious communication, or church, is the Funktion of the religious subsystem. From the religious subsystem, as from any other functionally specialized societal subsystem, one can observe the differentiation of functions within society. ‘‘Secularization’’ is then the religious mode for understanding the phenomenon of functional differentiation: understanding a relative reduction in influence and – simultaneously – a relative increase in the independence of the religious subsystem from other functional sub systems. This mode has an equivalent in each of the other functional subsystems.
The nexus between the ecclesiological question and that of social differentiation is once again apparent; in this case, however, it takes the form of a potentially direct and not inverse correlation. In fact, the more society is functionally differentiated, the better the conditions become for a clear manifestation of religious phenomena with specifically ecclesial traits. Obviously, religious traditions may or may not exploit these social conditions.
The concept of church (or religious communication) also appears to have a characteristic which distinguishes it from some forms of specialized social communication, even as it links it to others. Religious communication is governed by a code (transcendence/immanence), but does not have its own medium (Luhmann 1977: 72; 2000 187). In short, Luhmann’s sociological perspective allows for a concept of church more or less comparable to those of specialized communication through law, money, scientific truth, or other media.
We have to consider two objections to Luhmann’s idea of church, in order to clarify some aspects of the question. Especially in a global society, and with religion as its equally global specialized subsystem, the use of the term ‘‘church,’’ derived from a particular religious tradition, can raise suspicions that such a general phenomenon (religious communication) is not encompassed by the term (church). This objection obviously cannot be addressed with extra sociological responses, such as those offered by a certain Christian theology through demonstration of ecclesiology with an important ecumenical and interreligious dimension, or by historical research stressing the decisive role played by the Christian tradition in the development of a global religious system (Beyer 1998). On the contrary, it may be useful to turn back to an empirically useful distinction, such as that between money and currencies, according to which it is possible therefore to use the term ‘‘church’’ in this case as both analogy and in more precise terms. This leads us to address a second group of critics.
If the process of functional differentiation tends to radicalize the differentiation between social ‘‘levels’’ or types of social systems (inter action, organization, society), it is also clear how church (societal religious communication) is not a type of religious organization (a great difference appears between this concept of church and that of religion at a societal level used by authors like Karel Dobbelaere, who adopt completely different paradigms such as those distinguishing between micro, meso and macrosocial levels). Nonetheless, once the con tents of the concept of church are delimited, it would be a serious cognitive oversight not to prepare conceptual instruments that allow us to identify and distinguish ecclesiastical and non ecclesiastical religious organizations, as well as individual ‘‘church oriented religiosity’’ and other kinds of religiosity.
Luhmann’s proposal is particularly useful because it allows for the rather analytical consideration of the relationship between organizations and society. The more society and its subsystems become unorganizable through advanced modernization, the more organizations have achieved a previously unthinkable importance. Organizations, in fact, can influence societal communication (and vice versa). This naturally holds true for religion (Luhmann 1977: 272; 2000: 226), starting with the phenomenon of governance of communicative codes – through ‘‘religious dogmatics’’ (Luhmann 1977: 72). This is the ground for distinguishing between organization as more or less able to influence the governing of religious communication, and therefore between church (Kirche) and ecclesiastical organization (Amtskirche) with such an ability.
Returning to the first objection (why call societal religious communication ‘‘church’’?), the way in which the term ‘‘church’’ is used can be appreciated, both to give a name to the concept of specialized religious communication in general (according to an analogy) and a name to those phenomena of religious communication where the main influence in codification is that of organizations active within the Christian religious tradition (where ‘‘church’’ is a religious currency or just a kind of money). One can also imagine a religious communication regulated according to Christian schemas which influence (or fail to influence) religious organizations, religious interactions, and forms of religiosity, inside or outside Christian religious tradition. For example, the study of Christian liturgy lends itself to a delineation of the advantages of such a set of distinctions and concepts. The study of Christian theology and the scope of its influence can also be mentioned in this regard.
Luhmann’s concept of church (or religious communication) has begun to be used implicitly and explicitly and produced results. First of all, this understanding of the degrees of differentiation between functions and between types of social systems provides the basis for that concept of church, and can help to reduce the occasionally paralyzing emphasis placed on intuitions such as the well known ‘‘believing without belonging’’ (Beckford 1984; Davie 1990). In broader Luhmannian sociological theory, this (like the unorganizability of the church) is one of the effects of the religious variant of the differentiation between organizations and society, and therefore between religious organizations and societal religion (as well as between religion and religiosity). This does not exclude and actually stresses the current potentialities of ecclesiastical organizations in terms of recruitment and participation. The realization of participative potentialities related to ecclesiastical (and non ecclesiastical) religious organizations in an advanced modern society cannot be measured and assessed through a comparison with situations marked by lower degrees of social differentiation. A similar benefit in utilizing the Luhmannian approach to church and religion is its answer to the proposal to abandon the concept of secularization (Chaves 1994) because of the presumed lack of analogy between religion and other sub systems in terms of managing and representing functional differentiation. Beyer (1994) has fully demonstrated the advantages of using this conceptual approach for the recognition and the study of the process of religious globalization and the formation of the global religious system.
It has also been shown how in this perspective it is possible to find analytic indications useful for overcoming the ‘‘puzzle’’ emerging in the debate between the new and the old paradigm, such as that in the Italian case (Diotallevi 2001, 2002). If, as the new paradigm suggests, there are insufficient reasons to assume a necessary correlation between social modernization and decline of organized religion, it is difficult to explain the case of Italy, an apparently efficient religious monopoly (and yet a ‘‘church religion’’ monopoly working within a social context of advanced modernization, and therefore contrary also to the old paradigm’s predictions). Yet, thanks to the use of Luhmann’s perspective, it is possible to capture the degree of internal diversification of religious supply that certain church polities and policies have allowed to develop. This understanding, however, is possible once it is clear that within a single ecclesiastic religious tradition many religious firms may operate: once it is clear that a church is not necessarily a religious organization, through the recognition that this church may ‘‘have’’ many religious organizations.
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